There’s a quote I come back to again and again:
How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.
It comes from the novel The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.(1) I no longer remember which character says this or under which circumstances, because it’s come to mean to much more to me than whatever else initially came with it.
It doesn’t matter who I am, what I believe in, what I value, love, hate. Which things drive me a little nuts and which give me a severe case of the howlers. How much time I spend reading or texting or just lying in bed with Ashley. None of it really matters outside of my self because I cannot convey those things and what they mean to anyone without using words.
Any time I try to tell Ashley I love her, all I have are words. All she has is her understanding of those words. The same is true for everything else. I can remember quite a bit of the Blizzard of ’78, though I was only three. But I don’t remember how scared my parents were. We had no heat or electricity, and they had two very young boys. Hell, my parents were still pretty young, still in their early 20s. That what they remember of the blizzard is fear and anxiety is wholly understandable. But I can’t get it; I can’t really feel it. I remember it being kinda fun, because their words don’t weigh more heavily than my memory. And because jumping off the roof into huge snowbanks is awesome!
While I very much believe that there is always a one precise word for any given situation, I also believe that perfect communication depends upon knowing what the other person would consider the precise word for the situation and then using that word rather than your own. Since that’s impossible, everything I have inside is me is just words to you, because you have no conversion table:
My words –> my meanings = my meanings –> your words.
And so all of our talk, all of our conversation and pronouncements – every single one of them – falls short of perfectly transmitting what the speaker/writer meant to signify. To us, they’re just words, despite all he or she might have inside her.
And for as long as I’ve thought about this – and it’s been literally(2) every day for a little more than two years – I cannot make up my mind as to whether this is terribly sad or radically freeing. It’s sad because I can never perfectly describe myself to anyone; it’s freeing because I can be wholly who I am. Perhaps it’s both: I can be wholly who I am but I will always be just words to anyone else.
- And perhaps also at least partially by his editor, Michael Pietsch, since it was published posthumously and by all accounts was little more than a very loose collection of pages, notebooks and ideas when Wallace died.
- And I mean literally literally.