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  • Varieties and Valences of Unsayability
  • William Franke

Bottom the Weaver in Midsummer Night's Dream, Act IV, Scene Isputters: I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about [t'] expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but [a patch'd fool], if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.1

As is typical of those who speak about what cannot be said, Bottom cannot keep it short. He stammers on. He says over and over again . . . what he cannot say. Since he cannot really say what he feels compelled to try and say, he keeps on trying. And in so doing, he reflects indirectly on what amazes him by reflecting directly on his own incapacities and foolishness as brought out by the experience of being checked in his attempt to express what he cannot. There is endlessly much to say about this experience of inadequacy vis-à-vis the unsayable and miraculous, and precisely this verbiage constitutes its only possible expression.

Bottom speaks from the bottom end of what can also be the most elevated of all discursive modes. This may be illustrated by contrasting his ludicrous noises in a comic voice with Paul Valéry's superb, perhaps even supercilious tone in his pronouncement: "That which is not ineffable has no importance" ("Ce qui n'est pas ineffable n'a aucune importance," Mon Faust). Nevertheless, Bottom's words are indicative of [End Page 489] an important direction in the drift of discourse across the centuries on what cannot be said. This drifting is precisely what severe moralists, like Augustine and Wittgenstein, have wished to put a stop to by enjoining silence. While in principle the Unsayable would seem to demand silence as the only appropriate response, in practice endless discourses are engendered by this ostensibly most forbidding and elusive of topics.

This predicament of prolix speechlessness is found over and over again in literature of all kinds, especially at its dramatic climaxes of revelatory disclosure or "epiphany." Another especially poignant instance in familiar literature, where precisely the issue of the unsayable or inexpressible emerges eloquently as the secret key to all meaning and mystery, is Ishmael's consternation vis-à-vis the whiteness of the White Whale in Moby Dick. This color, or rather "visible absence of color," speaks by its very unspeakability: it is "a dumb blankness, full of meaning," says Ishmael, "and yet so mystical and well-nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught."2

The terror of the Unnameable expressed in these lines suggests another register, besides those of Bottom and Valéry, of the limitless range of tones that are apt to be resorted to by speakers face to face with what cannot be said. Another instance in some ways like it is familiar also from Kurtz's last words—the exclamation "The horror! The horror!"—as narrated by Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Conrad's novel is a further example of a fiction hovering obsessively around something unsayable as its generating source, something that the narrator despairs of being able to retell:

"It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams . . ."

Although such experience is so unique as to be ineffable, it is nevertheless rather...


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