Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.
But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive.
It seems little short of madness that any novelist, especially one of the greatest, should ever claim that something is indescribable when a novel itself is essentially nothing but a very long description. Why would anyone undertake to write one of these lengthy descriptions and then fill it with apologies for why she cannot describe? Shelley is by no means the sole writer to invoke wordlessness as a descriptor. Many of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century claimed they were incapable of describing: Charlotte Brontë uses indescribable three times in Jane Eyre. In Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, written in 1838, indescribable appears four times. This is from Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “It would be impossible to describe the expression of hate and baffled malignity, of anger and hellish rage, which came over the Count’s face.” And this is from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “that look indescribable, hopeless, unmistakable, that says to thee that thy beloved is no longer thine.” H. G. Wells uses indescribable once in The Invisible Man, twice in The War of the Worlds, and three times in The Time Machine. But my favorite of all is Herman Melville’s solitary entreaty to the indescribable in all of Moby Dick: “What had been incidentally revealed to me of Captain Ahab, filled me with a certain wild vagueness of painfulness concerning him … And yet I also felt a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was.” Ever subtle, Melville has Ismael fail to describe his feelings, not in the presence of Captain Ahab, but after listening to a description of him provided by Peleg and Bildad. Why did so many great writers find it necessary to preface their descriptions with disclaimers about the impossibility of description? What does the indescribable do in a novel? More importantly, why do we find the indescribable in some of the English language’s greatest novels? If literary lights like Brontë and Melville can admit to descriptive incompetence, may we not as well?
According to our friend the Oxford English Dictionary, indescribable was still a very new word in English when in 1818 Shelley anonymously published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (so new, in fact, that the word indescribable does not appear in her novel). Indescribable as a word, and indescribability as a concept, has its origins in the late eighteenth century, and is first attributed to, of all people, Thomas Jefferson, who used it in his 1784 Notes on the State of Virginia (the same book in which he also coined the word belittle.) In “Query V,” subsection “Cascades,” sub-subsection, “Natural Bridge,” Jefferson describes in painstaking detail “the most sublime of Nature’s works,” and offers, with ultra-fine precision, a description of the characteristics of a natural bridge found in his home state. The bridge is forty-five feet wide at the bottom, ninety feet wide at the top, semi-elliptical in form. He even refers to the effect produced by looking straight down into the 270-foot-deep gorge, which, he tells us, “gave me a violent head ach [sic].” In perhaps the most inspired passage of the entire work, he goes on to describe the emotional effects of the geological phenomenon: “It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indiscribable! [sic].” Jefferson is at his most poetic when describing either the beauty of nature or the institution of slavery, and here we find one of the only six exclamation points to appear in the book. Just like Shelley, Jefferson claims that it is impossible to describe that which he has just described in great detail—how he feels standing on top of the natural bridge. He claims not only that he has he failed to account for his feelings, but that he will always fail to do so, despite his evocation of the image of springing to heaven, the rapture of “the Spectator’s” ascension to a more celestial sphere, a member of the elect chosen in a Second Coming brought about by Reason and Natural Philosophy.
Since the moment Jefferson coined it, indescribable has referred to the emotional state of the describer. But that emotional state itself reflects a moment in time, a radical change in how people understood the very nature of language, its shortcomings in particular. The late eighteenth-century invention of the inability to describe is evidence of a larger revolutionary change in the point of view of English speakers (and probably not them alone), a change in their very notion of nothing less than the workings of the universe. The development of Newton’s calculus created a wordless language capable of describing the motions of the heavens with far greater precision than prose ever could, which began to discredit words altogether as vehicles of truth. George Steiner argued as much in his 1961 eulogy for the English language, The Retreat from the Word, when he said that it is starting with these mathematical breakthroughs that “significant areas of truth, reality, and action recede from the sphere of verbal statement.” It is a serious problem. We know well the Book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But if everything started with the word, and that word is the fount of creation, how can anything be beyond verbal description, the application of the word to the world?
It would seem that on the heels of the Enlightenment and at the birth of Romanticism both language and God came up short. But the failure—this sublime, ecstatic, revolutionary failure that Jefferson describes with pleasure and Shelley with horror—is the incapacity to communicate with words the inner life of one’s own feelings. Obviously, words can describe the shape of a natural bridge; they can describe the shape of a monster. But they cannot describe the shape of the soul, changeable yet persistent, overwhelming but subtle. Feelings, Shelley and Jefferson agree, render words puny and inadequate. So yes, Shelley can tell you about feelings and their physiological manifestations, as can Jefferson, but neither can tell you the feeling itself. At the turn of the nineteenth century, English speakers discovered that the word, the work of humanity, the fashioning of significance to sound, could not be conflated with reality. The name of the soul was not the soul, despite John and his Gospel. The discovery of the psyche coincided with the discovery of humanity’s powerlessness to control the universe by naming it, as Adam did in the Garden of Eden, or for people to understand their feelings by naming them. Mary Shelley could describe neither Frankenstein nor his monster, and the failure was magnificent.
Despite Mrs. Chesser’s insistence, when we write indescribable it need not be an evasion. Far from it, the word is a specific statement about the powerlessness of language in the face of an essentially unknowable universe. Indescribable is evidence of a revolution that took place in the world of feeling; it is a fossil of that revolution. Perhaps we have discarded the word because we now believe ourselves more capable of describing our emotions, whether with the humane reasoning offered by psychology, or the less intimate explanations provided by neuroscience. But by using it, by unearthing it and brushing off the dust, we can look back in time and gain a pinhole vista onto a lost world of ideas and feelings. By invoking it we acknowledge a mode of thought and a way of seeing that might not be ours, but which still has value. When we describe something as indescribable we avow our cosmic ignorance, and we celebrate what makes us magnificent: our own indescribable amazement at ourselves.
Jason Z. Resnikoff formerly investigated police misconduct for the City of New York. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in American history at Columbia University.