In Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint Exupery writes about the idea of describing a traumatic event after the event itself has taken place. He says,
“The cyclone of which I am about to speak was, physically, much the most brutal and overwhelming experience I ever underwent; and yet beyond a certain point I do not know how to convey its violence except by piling one adjective upon another, so that in the end I should convey no impression at all – unless perhaps that of an embarrassing taste for exaggeration.
It took me some time to grasp the fundamental reason for this powerlessness, which is simply that I should be trying to describe a catastrophe that never took place. The reason why writers fail when they attempt to evoke horror is that horror is something invented after the fact, when one is re-creating the experience over again in the memory. Horror does not manifest itself in the world of reality. And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.”
I take his point to be mostly true. It’s difficult for me not to, as I adore Saint-Exupery. If you haven’t had a chance to read him before, or if you’ve only read The Little Prince, then I highly recommend that you check him out.
For me, another angle of his position is of equal importance….it is only when you are mired in the situation itself that you are able to describe what is really happening, in a form and intensity that closely approximates how you are experiencing it at the time. Every story told after the event, while perhaps enriched with the meaning and context that time provides (due to reflection, contemplation, imagination, etc) is also tinted by that same mental processing. That is, in retrospect, you might be able to provide a better story for the experience, but the actual details of the experience, as you experienced them, can only be told from a time within (or just adjacent to) the event itself.
I mention this because in the last few days I’ve been meaning to capture the insanity of my life by writing about it from the inside; scribbles on the asylum cell wall. I could have written about my 15 hour days (including the day I had 12 clients in those 15 hours), the fact that I haven’t had heat at home, or that I have constant construction going on, or that I basically live in a 5 foot by 5 foot section of my living room (which is otherwise full of kitchen appliances, an 8 foot tall stack of kitchen cabinets, as well as all of the normal living room items). I could have written about the stream of checks I’ve been writing out to workers, or that I’ve been sleeping on my loveseat (which is not as long as I am tall), or how my downstairs tenant now has a nice little skylight…with a complimentary view of the bottom of my kitchen floor.
But something happened. Two things, in fact. First of all, as things slowed down slightly, all of that energy that had been pulsing through me, fueled by the craziness, ran out and precipitated in to fatigue, dissipating my original desire to write. And secondly, all of the words I had been trying to capture along the way to relate the experiences got crushed under the time of more experiences, until finally there were no longer any words left to convey. It’s like running in to an old friend, who asks you “So what’s new in your life?” If only a few weeks have passed since you’ve last seen them you can probably recall many of the details of those past weeks. But if a year or more has passed, especially if the time has been particularly eventful, you no longer know what to say, and you are reduced to replying with something vague. There is too much. And there are no longer words to describe what you could have easily described at the time of the experience without any difficulty.
That’s what this moment feels like to me. It’s less a fear of “piling one adjective upon another” (and thereby watering down the experience), and more a lack of being able to summon forth the words to begin with. Or the energy to do so.
Lucky for you. :)
Some people believe that the things that happen to us in our lives are often preparing us for other things later on. It’s an interesting belief. And there is some sense to it, I suppose, if one believes that there is some guiding principle in the Universe. Although knowing the human tendency to find meaning in everything makes me suspicious of thoughts like this, even though I do, in some manner, believe in such a guiding principle.
Still, if such a thing exists, I have to think that many of the stressful and unsettled experiences of my past are what now enable me to function in the craziness of my current life.
In some demented way, it’s almost humorous. :)
It's been said that the best asset a climber should have is "a short memory," presumably because if they were to remember all the details from the adventure, they would probably never repeat it again.
You make some good points.
Once I was sitting around "the proverbial campfire" exchanging stories with people, and I found myself trying to convey to those around me the essence of a very rich experience I once had, rich because I essentially had escaped death trying to help save someone else. Whilst talking and struggling to find the right "adjectives," a wise friend of mine whispered in my ear and said, "don't dilute the experience by trying to convey it with words." It took me a long time to fully understand that, but as I get older it makes more sense to me now. There are certain experiences that I will never try to convey, because I know that "words truly do no justice." I believe there are some experiences that are meant only for us. Somehow, I imagine that despite Exupery's prolific writing, he probably had many crazy experiences that we will never know about.
Nice post, btw.
I love the line... 'so that in the end I should convey no impression at all - unless perhaps that of an embarrassing taste for exaggeration.'
I liken his expression of the 'cyclone' to my personal view of my own life.
I am in a storm.
My life has always been a storm.
It is only in those quiet peaceful moments, I realize... I am simply in the eye of that storm. It braces me. Quantifies me. Teaches me.
But to express that to anyone, I agree, would seem an embarrassing exaggeration...
I've never had the opportunity to read him. But will do so once I am complete with my goals... Hmmmmmmmmm, 2008 did we say? ;-)
RE: Capturing the insanity...
I wish I could relate, though you know on so many levels I do... but I mean in regard to memory when trying to convey recent experiences or accomplishments. Even when asked next week by my closest friends of what I have accomplished... my mind will be blank.
I also no longer know what to say when the answer is always just... 'Renovating'. = )
ALL of the stressful and unsettled experiences of your past, as well as the amazing, unexpected, incredible moments beyond your tended guiding principles are what enables you to rise above, not merely function, in your current CRA-ZY Days!
You Inspire... Action
You Instill... Thought
You Accomplish... So Much
You Encompass Strength
Ok. You got me.
I've been pondering this entry for a couple of days. Thanks. No, really ... thanks.
Being a word person, I so love the combination of a few well chosen words. They can transport.
Yet sometimes it's just futile. And isn't that a great thing? It tells me to let go. To put words to something is like carrying it around with you ... whatever it is ... requiring you to be somewhere else other than the here and now.
I think that's why there is music. Music can recreate a feeling in the here and now when words fail.
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