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Words fail

December 7, 2010

Since it snowed here yesterday, and is generally starting to feel Christmas-y and wintery, I decided to read something that fit that mood. What did I settle on? Why, At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft. Comfort, joy, and Cthulhu. What more could I ask for?

There was, however, one line that leaped off the page at me, in which one scientist refers to the Antarctic setting as  “Like land of mystery in a dream or gateway to forbidden world of untrodden wonder.”

The last phrase in particular -a forbidden world of untrodden wonder- sparked something within me. It seems to me that’s precisely what Lovecraft is presenting to us with his mythos. There is a sense of something greater than the text, something that lurks in the shadowy, subconscious mist between our rational, everyday world and… something else. Maybe it’s archetype and myth: a shortcut to Jung’s collective unconscious.

Music and painting bypass words completely to evoke a visceral response or insight. While I’ve heard it said that they are “purer” forms of communication for this reason, I think words have a vital role to play. They too can evoke the same gut reaction- just like I found when I read Lovecraft’s words. Ironically, I think words do their work best when they take us to that point at which they fail. The phrase “My God, it’s full of stars!” from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the novel, I actually have yet to see the film) is seared into my mind, for that is the moment when Clarke takes us to the plane beyond, both within the plot of the novel itself, and in the reader’s engagement with it.

And this is the magic of fiction: that its ultimate (inevitable?) failure is its greatest triumph. For in that moment when words and logic fail, that’s when we get our glimpse, our subconscious flash into something greater than the page before us.

As a writer, I’m not there yet. Definitely not. It is entirely possible that I never will be. But I can strive to reach that point, as we all can.

Words can carry us to the edge, but it is because they can go no further that we are obliged to look into the Rift ourselves.

-Arvik

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5 comments

  1. Beautiful post.

    Words, while limiting, also offer up opportunities to share what our eyes cannot see . . . but our hearts can feel.


  2. Love the pic and the imagery of that phrase. It lingers in the mind in a most delicious way. Here’s to all of us, may we find the beauty in language and use it well!


  3. The visual arts are fine, even beautiful, but for me painting and sculpting are staid in comparison to prose. Pictures and statues are like single thoughts frozen in time — in the instant of imagining.

    Prose seeps into the brain. It flows and pushes, leaks and runs, guiding the reader moment by moment in a pattern imagined wholly in one human’s mind to be passed into another. I don’t find that in the other arts, though music and theater and movies come close. Still, not one of them can show me fully what a character is thinking or how the ice floes on the frozen moon of Keros V slink sinuously along a lapis river every five hundred year spring.

    — david j.


  4. […] all, are their own unique art form. They are not essays. Fiction succeeds when it brings us to that very point at which it fails. But to be taken to that point requires some work on the part of the reader. Not the work of […]


  5. […] all, are their own unique art form. They are not essays. Fiction succeeds when it brings us to that very point at which it fails. But to be taken to that point requires some work on the part of the reader. Not the work of […]



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