Words without language, language without words. It is the main thought that has stayed with me from the annual Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm yesterday. Watching a man, debilitated by disease and the passing of time, sweeping the stakes and making the most important statement of the night was an experience that went amiss on no one. Tomas Tranströmer embodied the meaning of his poem, even without reading it himself. His wife of a half a century read it for the gathered dignitaries, but all of the time, Tranströmer, there in his wheel chair, barely able to conjure a facial expression as a result of stroke, was the living expression of his meaning. He had become language without words.
For anyone who is a writer or artist, the recognition of this moment happening for another writer or artist is a moment of unbridled joy and bottomless tragedy. It is like watching someone pass into air and become a part of an ethereal light of all voices that have found language and risen above words. One longs to journey with them, to escape barriers and constraining forms, and simply to be in a state in which thought is unimpeded by grammar, spelling and punctuation.
This writer’s dilemma is, in some ways, the very same challenge that everyone faces in life. Each of us longs for a seamlessness and a flow, where nothing is forced and a meaning that speaks to each of us is ever-present. When meaning, that is, language leaves and there is only form, or words, we become dissatisfied and wander in circles asking why we are here. Many of us do that these days, if not every day then certainly from time to time. Living in the flow of language and experience is where we want to be, need to be, but that requires a great deal of courage in our society, where our ears are filled with words that can become stifling in their number and impede free and productive thought that means something.
The truth is, my heart ached when I listened to Tranströmer last night, mainly because he confirmed my thoughts and I knew that I wasn’t mad. His poem summarized the feelings that came to me when I moved from a small, isolated island where I had lived for almost a decade back closer to the city. The beautiful silence in which I had found so much richness and harmony suddenly was filled with words in quantity, rather than language in quality.
One shouldn’t be too critical. Meetings between people are important and can give rise to forces that can energize and change the world. Where Tranströmer can help us, however, is to improve the quality of those meetings by expressing what we actually mean and seeking to set free the personal language of those we encounter. It may well be in language, not words, that we find the peace that we seek.
Tranströmer’s poem from March ‘79 in translation:
Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
l went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread out on all sides!
I come upon the tracks of roe deer in the snow.
Language but no words.
Wondering what to give a friend or loved one for Christmas? Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Order it now from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk , Author House, authorhouse.co.uk and many other online bookstores. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.
Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.