Although this isn’t a concept that we have explored in the IB Theory of Knowledge class, there is a subject that has been dancing through my mind recently which I feel is quite relative to the fundamental concept of the course: the ways in which we internalize and express knowledge. I’ve always been the person who wishes to thoroughly articulate complex and wondrous ideas into words yet I often fall short of doing so because words are (essentially) futile devices*.
I have engulfed myself recently into a lot of literature which encapsulates the Transcendentalist ideas of spirituality, natural sublimity, and mysticism from a human perspective. Through exploring these higher-level ideas, I became in touch with the spiritual part of myself and the introspective outlook on the world that I have always possessed but never been able to fully recognize- until reading the works of Whitman and Dillard, who explore concepts that aren’t so founded in the physical state. I have found, especially after reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in our IB World Literature class, that it is extremely difficult to write about themes such as these because our language is limited and it doesn’t allow us to authentically express the complexities of the human psyche.
The “Metaphors We Live By” activity that we did last semester demonstrates how many of our terms and linguistics are rooted in physical actions; words that are emblematic of wisdom, such as “insight” and “enlightenment”, pertain to physical vision and we are raised to think within the constraints of that terminology. Metaphors in language are not bad per se but once they are used to substitute for explaining larger concepts, it limits us from thinking in a realm other than the corporeal.
For me, trying to find the exact words to express the transcendent quality of Annie Dillard’s writing is akin to chasing after butterflies with a net full of holes. I am trying to grasp the words with which I can portray the ethereal nature that Dillard, Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau often flirt with in their writing, yet words fail and leave me frustrated with my thoughts, thoughts that are unable to be accurately expressed. Is it because I’m too young to understand this nuanced style of literature? Am I overthinking these things? Or perhaps I just need some sleep.
It is moments like these that make me appreciate poetry more than prose. In poetry, the words don’t always make sense but the reader still understands and can even have a better understanding of it. Poets utilize the auras and the connotations of words to communicate a new language of their own invention; they defy the limits of language and, in the process, create a work of art. Nikki Giovanni, for example, includes in her poems irrational phrases like “lyric you in lilacs” and still conveys her message but with a type of mystical beauty. Even with Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poems like “Jabberwocky”, which we read in class, the listener can somewhat comprehend his absurd lexicons through the nature of the sounds and inflections.
What I still question, however, with any form of literature is if there are words that are more fruitful than others or better in the context of the work- which leads back to these fundamental questions: how do we conceptualize and define things that are unable to be defined through certain mediums? What are the limitations and mental models that come with language as a way of knowing? To what extent is language subjective? I have been asking myself this over and over the previous couple of months and I accept that I may never find the solution that I’m looking for, if there even is one. Perhaps I should instead spend more time on appreciating the beauty of the “butterflies” instead of trying to perfect how they are translated into a medium that is already inherently flawed.
*reference to my favorite modern musician and love of my life aka Sufjan Stevens