the imaginative conservative logo

I am weary of words and wonder why. It is perhaps because I want to ascend to that silence that echoes the innocence of the sub-linguistic bliss. I want to attain what the hymn writer called “the silence of eternity, interpreted by Love”…

t.s. eliot longeneckerFor twenty years I have been writing, writing, writing. It began after I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Suddenly I had something to say, and being Catholic provided the structure and foundation on which to say it.

So the words spilled out. Twenty books or booklets, hundreds of essays for magazines, newspapers, journals, and newsletters. From the tapping fingers came film scripts, a bad novel, a book of poems, hymns, children’s stories, sermons, and plays.

The internet became my friend. It was a many-mouthed monster hungry for copy, and editors seemed to want what my mind and fingers conspired to produce. I churned out three, four, five, or more essays a week. People asked whence I got my ideas, and I replied that my mind was always picking over something like a scavenging beast looking for a scrap on which to feast.

But now I am weary. I am not weary of ideas or the need to communicate. Some complain of world-weariness. I have realized that I am weary not of the world, but of words.

My heart echoes the feelings of my hero (that fragile, tough contemplative, T.S. Eliot) who wrote, “Words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip slide, perish, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.”

It may be worse than word weariness. I read on in his Four Quartets and his sentiments startled me further:

“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a whole new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission has already been discovered

Once or twice or several times by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate…

And I realize not only the inadequacy of words and worry at the waste, but also realize, with some hope that the word weariness may be a pointer to something better. It is a reminder and a pointer to the status of the soul which is at first sub-linguistic and later super-linguistic.

What I mean, is that the human mind and heart is formed first in the nine months of wordless wonder in the womb. Then for another nine months the human child is weaned in a world without words. There in that foundational period the experience of the soul is sub-linguistic. It exists in an amorphous ambiguity of emotion. It exists in the inchoate ocean of emotion. It squirms in the clashing instincts of the animal and the aspirations of the angel.

Then we enter the linguistic realm. We learn to listen and speak. We learn to read and write. We learn to filter our existence through the matrix and magic of language.

Our world becomes words and our words become our world. The literature and liturgy of language become our means of existence and our means of making sense of the confusion that reigns around us. We philosophize with words. We theologize with words. We joke and jest and argue and debate with words. We murmur words of love and tenderness and scream imprecations and curses to our mortal enemies. Our tongues are flames that set off wild fires. Our words instruct and deceive, and with our words we sing praises like seraphim and howl curses like fiends.

But I am weary of words and wonder why. It is perhaps because I want to ascend to that silence that echoes the innocence of the sub-linguistic bliss. I want to attain what the hymn writer called “the silence of eternity, interpreted by Love.” In other words I want to move from the literalness of the linguistic to the Love of the super linguistic.

The master also spoke of this mystery in Ash Wednesday,

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken

Word is unspoken, unheard:

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,

The Word without a word, the Word within

The world and for the World:

And the light shone in the darkness and

Against the Word the instilled world still whirled

About the center of the silent Word.

We are speaking of contemplation.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless

Neither from nor toward; at the still point the dance is.”

And beyond the contemplation is the action. The task is therefore to move, before it is too late, from the word to the silence, and from the silence to the action in the world.

And the action is the incarnation.

For in the fullness of time, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, And we beheld his glory.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
4 replies to this post
  1. What T.S. Eliot Taught Me about the Inadequacy of Words by Dwight Longenecker , 12/26/2016.

    Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s comments on T.S. Eliot and on the Inadequacy of Words reminded me of two Spanish authors whose writings indicate a similar attitude toward their own written words. One in the Sixteenth century, and the other in the Nineteenth, like Eliot, St. John of the Cross (+1591) and Jose Zorrilla (+1893) were prolific writers whose voluminous works would suggest satisfaction with the adequacy of their language, and not the contrary.
    “I want to attain what the hymn writer called ‘the silence of eternity, interpreted by Love.’ In other words, I want to move from the literalness of the linguistic to the Love of the superlinguistic.” I do not think I am stretching the meaning of Father Longenecker’s text by comparing it to “All this the Lord works in the soul by means of a pure and dark contemplation, as the soul explains in the first stanza.” (Book II, Chapter 3). In the first stanza, Saint John of the Cross has explained that the souls traverse the spiritual road so that “they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.”
    For the sake of brevity, I will quote only eight lines from Zorrilla’s poem “El Capitan Montoya” in which he seems to complain about the inadequacy of words, even in trivial matters (a wedding celebration):
    “Impossible to picture it
    And in its verses to amass
    With one voice, motion and life
    Easy, sensible, and voluptuous!
    How to tell the tumult
    In one moment created
    Among dancers in a salon
    By a lance that interrupts it?
    (Canto V: “Insuficiencia del Poeta”).
    Again, thanks to Fr. Longenecker for his insights into the inadequacy of words to express the reality behind the silence of Love’s Word. Gonzalo T. Palacios, PhD.

  2. Contemplation, meditation and recognition of the inadequacy of words is one of the many reasons I have gravitated to the Traditional Latin Mass.

  3. Words must have an ultimate purpose. May it be that words are like the wrapping of beauty inside a cocoon? The invitation inward to plumb deeper into the mystery may very well be a call to contemplation. It is interesting each time a new insight is gained. When St. Paul finally admitted that it was not he that lived, was that an admission it was not him at all who had lived, but Christ who had lived through him and spoken through him. The words, if they be true, belong to Him, meant to fuel the spirit of those who hear. Thank you, F. Longenecker, many of your, His, words are beautiful.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: