Past the wit of man to say
In 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Bottom awakening from the incredible memory of an amorous encounter with a faery queen, says, 'I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.' Words fail him. Or perhaps they don't? Much though the human condition demands that we describe, explain, define and communicate, sometimes thought is enough and to go beyond it risks reducing the experience.
At the moment, we are awash with language. Everyone is trying to describe and define what we are experiencing, yet that very thing does not visibly write itself onto the surfaces we touch or the air we breathe. It is an irony that the very word 'virus' which we adopted for modern day technology, now becomes the analogy we refer back to for the illness - our systems broken, our cells collapsing, our normal programmes crashing, our streets like screens going blank and silent. It is past our wit to find a new language. Listening to a re-run version of 'In our time' on Radio 4 - a discussion of Wuthering Heights - I was struck by one contributor's observation that Cathy and Heathcliff seem unable to find the words to describe the intense co-existence which characterises their relationship. Cathy reaches out for analogies, describing Heathcliff as 'the eternal rocks beneath (the woods)', but none of the metaphors are as strong as when she cries 'I am Heathcliff.' In the grip of emotions that are so profound, the elemental - and the existential - rise to the surface in an almost animal defiance of Fate, Fortune or God.
So it is that our vocabulary now seems so small. The same nouns crop up: 'lock-down', 'isolation', 'distance', and so on. Not only do they describe the experience, but also the crabbed spaces of language. No doubt lexicographers and linguists will one day publish studies into such terms and the data sets behind them. It is therefore no surprise when we turn away from the limited semantic field of the disease to language which is not directly connected; a poem about nature written in the mid-19th century, dramatic monologues from Renaissance plays, songs of love from the time before Covid - texts spoken or written without knowledge of this modern plague. News programmes now end with a ballet dancer on a balcony or a choir made up of health-workers banging out soul classics.
And for those of us with time, money and space, there is the turn towards the tactile - the knitting, baking, painting, sculpting, dancing, strumming. All the things that shift us away from the invisible letters in the air we breathe, the ones that are always there hovering in the ether, the unspoken fear that we will never get back our ordinary language. That the most common expressions ('I'll just pop out for some milk', or 'Fancy a drink?') have become heavy with meaning, potent and powerful in all the ways we'd rather they weren't. Small talk is now big talk.
Yet is this agony of inexpression really so new? Perhaps it is just new to us. When our screens take us into war zones, the families crammed into basement rooms with sagging concrete, often the most articulate expression of the suffering comes not from the words spoken but from the images of the wide-eyed children silently sitting on a parent's lap, pinched by hunger or fear, or both. And when the parents or aid-workers do speak it is not that they are limited by the second language of the reporters but by the incapacity of language itself to truly convey the horror of their experience. It is often the most elemental phrases which resonate: 'This is not living.'
For most of us, we do not inhabit the same sphere of suffering, at least not yet. But the strange dislocation of the current time forces us to reflect on our capacity to articulate feeling. Of course, language itself is the greatest survivor of all, a virus that reforms and rebuilds inexorably, and in time may well prove to be its own cure. But for now, we may have to settle for the most basic of assertions to remind ourselves that we matter: I am.