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Raids on the Inarticulate

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Those beautiful, melancholy lines from the Book of Common Prayer—“in the midst of life, we are in death”—have become a kind of leitmotif for me during this month of July. Two weeks ago, in my last posting, I wrote of worrying about “a colleague’s recent serious medical diagnosis.”  He died unexpectedly the next day, and his funeral was last week. Last night, I learned of the suicide of one of my former professors–with whom I had stayed in touch over the years. Tonight, I received news that after many long months of carrying for her, a friend’s mother-in-law had succumbed to her long bout with cancer.  And the month is only halfway over. 

As a person who deals with language for a living, I am always humbled by situations of loss (or lament, as Jessica Bratt’s Monday blog laid out so strikingly). Over the years, I have tried to keep the claims I make in my classroom about the power of language in some sort of check, but even so, theoretical inadequacy doesn’t feel quite as gutting as the actual faltering experience. 

 T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets defines the problem like this:

So here I am…

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly 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 

Of course, we know this is true: we rarely have the right words at the right moment, even at the best of times. The “shabby equipment” of expression, the “undisciplined squads of emotion” fail us. 

Partly, we have other means of communication to supplement this failure.  The comfort and support of sitting in a funeral next to one’s best friend, for example.  We realize that words are not always necessary or even desired.  Ideally, we know our lives need to be a coordinated vocabulary of what we say and what we do.

Still, what I love about the Four Quartets is Eliot’s deeply Christian assertion that the effort is worth it:

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

These two simply stated sentences have all sorts of freeing implications: Trying, not achieving, is the goal.  Perfection or full expression is not the goal, either.  We don’t need to worry about the result. 

For Eliot, the effort of expression is vital. Knowing that we can’t control the outcome, we are nevertheless to try and speak a word of comfort, sing a song of lament, raise a cry against injustice—even if, in the moment, that language fails to truly capture all that we feel or transform all that we wish could be different or changed or healed. 

“The rest is not our business” because we know whose business it is: Christ’s.  The Word made flesh, the model of perfectly embodied language.    

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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