What's up with the muteness that impedes the personalities we create and project?
May 15, 2011 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Film, fiction, philosophy, or poetry dealing with inarticulateness; being unformed, conflicted; or imperfect personalities?

I know not how it is that we need an interpreter; but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun, and stars, earth, and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction, or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick, and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet.)
I've known some poets like this, and I admire them so much that I sometimes feel like an existential disaster, a waste of education, a dull consumer, like my life is just premature ejaculation and l'esprit d'escalier. Art aestheticizes a lot of difficulties, but this one isn't so popular: fictional characters expressly must have flawless & interesting personalities, and besides, artists are just the kind of people who don't suffer much from this. (Aren't they?) But I would like to know that it's not just me, and that I'm not irredeemable.

There's something like it in many of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies (Magnolia, Hard Eight, Punch Drunk Love), in the BBC drama The Song of Lunch, and I have found it in Buddhist teaching (like Ajahn Sumedho here).

Help me! I want to grasp intuitively that this is something other people have too, that it's a perfect part of human life, and to know what others have thought about it.
posted by mbrock to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding your question, but the first thing that came to mind was Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
posted by hot soup girl at 7:02 AM on May 15, 2011

I think Billy Budd by Herman Melville has some of what you're looking for.
posted by Handstand Devil at 7:31 AM on May 15, 2011

No Exit. Nearly everything by Kafka. Waiting for Godot. In fact, most of the Existentialist corpus.

And artists do have those problems. Boy, do they have them.
posted by curuinor at 7:38 AM on May 15, 2011

And if that stuff isn't reassuring for you, try Existentialism is a Humanism, by Sartre.
posted by curuinor at 7:39 AM on May 15, 2011

Infinite Jest opens with a terrifying scene about being inarticulate. Even if you don't read the whole book, that first section seems like it would be of interest to you.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:47 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Love of Nature and the End of the World has a few sections on inarticulateness. It focuses on the natural world and environmental degradation. It quotes many literary and poetic sources, so it might be a good jumping off point.
posted by salvia at 9:57 AM on May 15, 2011

Bartleby the Scrivener, also by Melville.
posted by Bron at 4:56 PM on May 15, 2011

"Can't Explain" and "My Generation" by The Who are songs about amped-up* Mods who have trouble talking about their emotions.

*(as in amphetamines)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:50 PM on May 15, 2011

Come to think of it, The Who's rock opera "Tommy" is about a "deaf, dumb and blind boy," as well.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:52 PM on May 15, 2011

Best answer: Late Wittgenstein
Deleuze and Guattari on poet Gherasim Luca
Donald Barthelme (esp. "Me and Miss Mandible")
Julio Cortazar (Cronopios and Famas?)
The Scratch Orchestra
John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:53 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Emerson's essay is defining and praising the role in society of the poet or artist, and in this passage he is contrasting the poet with the mob--the "great majority" who do not make use of their potential to be intellectually curious.

But I don't think he means to suggest that all people have to remain artistically feckless. Besides, fictional characters are certainly not flawless, artists describe (and somehow tend to experience) suffering in life more than the average person, and your desire to believe that self-doubt and suffering are "perfect" parts of life is paradoxical--but perhaps wonderfully so:

Things are messy, and artists embrace that mess and try to illuminate it, but they don't usually try to clean it up.

I think it's good to feel "like an existential disaster, a waste of education, a dull consumer, like my life is just premature ejaculation and l'esprit d'escalier." You should feel that way some of the time, but it doesn't mean you can't grow, change, and learn. The alternative is to assume you either already have all the answers or to be content with what you have.

Most artistic or intellectual pursuits won't end up in a book or museum, but that doesn't mean they have no purpose or value. Hell, even the best poets probably write 50 mediocre poems for every one that ends up in a book. And speaking of staircase wit, poets rarely blast out a great poem all at once. Writing (poetry especially) is about taking time to observe, think, ruminate, and revise and revise and revise.

* * *

Anyway, I know you didn't ask for this long speech, but I thought it was necessary to clarify my perspective in order to provide context for my artistic suggestions.

If you haven't already, check out (American) transcendentalism and Thoreau to shed some light on Emerson, of course.

For other books on the poet's role (and anyone's ability to be poetic), I suggest The Uncertain Certainty by Charles Simic and You Must Revise Your Life and Writing the Australian Crawl by William Stafford.

For individual poems about feeling worthless but still capable of being enlightened, gradually, I suggest "Radio Waves" by Raymond Carver, "Hearing the Song" by William Stafford, "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand, and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" by James Wright.

For poems about the imperfection of human beings and the corresponding reflection of that in art, I suggest Stephen Dunn's "Flaws," Stephen Crane's poem begininng "In the desert," and David Ignatow's untitled piece about "the poem of perfect form."

Also, regarding the human condition, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is an intelligent and somewhat darkly comic novel.

Julian Barnes' A History of the Word in 10 1/2 Chapters is also good, especially the last chapter when he ends up in Heaven and describes perfection.

Also, I know this poet is often either over-rated or under-rated, but if you want someone who embraces human flaw but is both insightful and humorous about it, Charles Bukowski is great.

Finally, I would suggest Sam Shepard's play, True West, which was also made into a great film with Gary Sinise and John Malcovich. And the fairly well-known movies Harold and Maude, Leaving Las Vegas, and American Beauty all have a lot to do with love and curiosity vs. the horror and/or banality of life.

In his poem, "The Second Coming," Yeats wrote that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." I think the former is indicative of Emerson's open-minded and wide-eyed poet, and the latter are those who respond to feeling meager by shutting down and pretending it isn't so--by embracing simple surity with a passion (and see political discussions for good examples of that).
posted by ottimo at 10:01 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can't help thinking Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot may prove of use...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:37 AM on May 17, 2011

Typo: Julian Barnes' book is a history of the world, not word.
posted by ottimo at 3:39 AM on May 23, 2011

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