A failure of words

We have a stake in our words, and our words can nail us down, for good or ill. And then there are times when we wish our stake in the world could be carried by our reservoir of words and our skill in drawing them up, or conjuring them, or finding them flowing on the tip of our tongue. A bit ago I was reading Sebald on catastrophe and reflecting on the failure of words to rise from the wells or answer our dumb summons — where we can neither summon the deep nor hope for an answer but find ourselves nailed into and by silence, aghast.

I am no longer high above forest fires in Colorado but walking ancient cobbles in Yafo, the place where Jonah was spit from a whale and Napoleon paused to rest among victims of a city-wide plague, having conquered Egypt and aiming for Syria. I find the grand narrative of the place flowing from the well of language easily enough. But I want to say — try to say — keep trying to say — what it is that stymies speech, stymies language, in this swirl of foods and stones and sea and Arabic and Hebrew on pastel walls and iron gates baring passage to hidden alleyways all crying out with an immediacy that is wonderful and utterly beyond narrative or snapshot.

Not at all Sebald’s horrific-unutterable, but what? The colorful chaos of the carnivalesque? That’s too close to cute. But what? How is it that instant upon instant of world-striking-home can transfix the mind, not exactly in unintelligibility, but in . . . what? To say ‘wonder’ feels as useless as “Have a nice day.” This world has an utterly painless but paralyzing stake in me. And I love it.


One comment on “A failure of words

  1. dmf says:

    “W.G. Sebald, stifled by the culture of silence in post-war Germany, by ‘people’s ability to forget what they do not want to know’, settled in 1960s England and wrote groundbreaking literary works to great acclaim. Ten years after Sebald’s untimely death, Uwe Schütte, a former student, reflects on his life”

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