Justin Li

Effing the Ineffable


I think it’s interesting that language, despite it being a powerful way of communication, cannot express a lot of things.

To use a cliched example, language cannot express what love is. People resort to saying, “No one needs to tell you you are in love, you just know it, through and through.” Same with art, which people can only know it when they see it (or obscenity).

That’s not the same as saying that language cannot lead to such things. We may not be able to describe love, but we can tell stories about it, and depend on our shared neuron structure for the reader to get in the character’s shoes. More indirectly, language can express instructions that leads to the reader to have unexpressable feelings. We may not be able to tell someone how to be effortless or be spontaneous, but we can tell them to do things that will eventually lead them to be effortless or spontaneous.

Buddhist koans are, in theory, exactly this, another level down. Language cannot express what enlightenment is. It can’t even describe the process of attaining enlightenment in any useful way. Instead, koans try to make you think differently by denying its normal way of thinking. The reader is supposed to then think on the koan and, eventually, adopt the requisite state of mind. In a sense, a koan describes the shape of unexpressable directions that lead to unexpressable states of mind.

All in all, it’s amazing that we can induce patterns of thought in other people, even for things that language fail to describe. Maybe, this is why sometimes a passage appears vague and unclear to us; maybe it’s not that the author is doing a bad job, but that language itself is incapable of expressing what the author wants to say.

PS. The title of this post is, of course, paraphrased from Douglas Adams.