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Enjoy the Silence

by Jo Page on March 23, 2011

If there is anything missing in the vitriolic debates about the relative worth/worthlessness of religion, it’s the question of the ineffable.

Thomas Aquinas, after a life in spent crafting his Summa Theologica in which he aimed to answer the question of God’s purpose for creation and in what ways we are to exist in it, died having declared his philosophical works useless compared to a beatific vision he had later in his short life.

Kierkegaard, that melancholy Dane, spilled more ink than tears as he tried to explain why the ultimate is inexpressible and that the meaning of life is to surrender to that which cannot be described with words.

Schopenhauer, too, devoted roughly 500,000 words to describe the Will, this thing that no words can capture. But he further claimed the sacred writing of the Upanishads to have been the solace in his life as well as in his death.

There is a lot of ink spilled trying to describe the ineffable.

Writer, philosopher and composer Roger Scruton describes the experience of reading a book, Music and the Ineffable, by Vladimir Jankélévitch. It’s a book he describes as “mercifully short.” But not short enough, actually:

Jankelevitch’s “argument is stated on the first page—namely, that since music works through melodies, rhythms and harmonies and not through concepts, it contains no messages that can be translated into words. There follows 50,000 words devoted to the messages of music—often suggestive, poetic and atmospheric words, but words nevertheless, devoted to a subject that no words can capture.”

Music does seem to be a chrysalis for disclosing the ineffable. Driving home the other night I heard the Kronos Quartet’s version of “The Fly-Freer,” a haunting tone poem written by Sigur Rose for an Icelandic avant-garde rock group, arranged for strings by Stephen Prutsman.

Driving through the darkness, hearing the strings swirl and spiral, and shriek and whisper—and of course, they weren’t doing any such things; there were no shapes to see, no voices to hear—I had one of those moments. You know those moments. Something is being told to you. You don’t know what it is. You don’t know the teller. You don’t need to know either.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the experience is all.

And maybe that’s how musical chestnuts become just that. So many people experience those moments with the same piece of music that, even as they become over-played and familiar, the music still transports the hearer. Think the choral movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Think the Brahms Violin Concerto. Think Miles Davis on “Blue in Green.” Hell, think the Allman Brothers and “Jessica” or Passion Pit and “Sleepyhead.”

You know you’ve had those moments. Those wordless moments.

Poets, those runesmiths of words, do seem to fare better putting the unspeakable into language. Rilke could do it. Shakespeare could do it. The French surrealists did it, making color virtually visible in their words. Somehow.

Roger Scruton describes it this way: “These moments are precious to us. When they occur it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world—a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter.”

So why, amidst all the shouting and barking—pro and con–about religious faith do we find so little reference to and appreciation of, the experience of the ineffable? Neither those demanding religion be respected nor those who demand, equally, that it be discarded seem to notice what their arguments are leaving out: those moments, the ones that defy language, but which we feel when we experience them.

Scruton goes on:

“Like my philosophical predecessors, I want to describe that world beyond the window, even though I know that it cannot be described but only revealed. I am not alone in thinking that world to be real and important. But there are many who dismiss it as an unscientific fiction. And people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me. Their nerdish conviction that facts alone can signify, and that the “transcendental” and the eternal are nothing but words, mark them out as incomplete. There is an aspect of the human condition that is denied to them.”

And what of these wondrous moments that, if we are truly alive, we truly feel? Do they settle the question, do they stem the arguing, do they reason us into the understanding of meaning?

No, they don’t. It’s futile to think they will. Or that we will, by any other means, reduce the authentic richness of human experiences to a set of precepts, a systematic coding. Better, possibly, to trade in arrogance for wonder, supposition for ignorance, certainty for curiosity.

Better, perhaps, to listen to the brief advice of Aquinas: “that whereof we cannot speak, we must consign ourselves to silence.”