Can our thinking grasp our experience? Can our language adequately describe it?
A poem I came across recently by Laura Riding made me wonder. It's titled, appropriately, "Beyond." Check it out:
Pain is impossible to describe
Pain is the impossibility of describing
Describing what is impossible to describe
Which must be a thing beyond description
Beyond description not to be known
Beyond knowing but not mystery
Not mystery but pain not plain but pain
But pain beyond but here beyond
What fascinates me about this rather Steinian poem is that it shows pain to be doubly painful. Pain hurts because that's what it does. But pain is also painful because words can't describe or express it -- it's beyond our ability to grasp rationally.
Riding is not alone in coming up empty, when faced with describing pain. Elaine Scarry, the author of The Body in Pain, a modern classic examining pain and culture, tells us that when it comes to physical pain, at least, the number of literary texts devoted to it, when compared to other experiential and emotional states, is "actually tiny."
And puzzlement about pain isn't just literary. "Philosophers of Mind", such as David Chalmers, write that though pain is usually associated with a part of the anatomy, it's "difficult to map directly onto any structure in the world or in the body." At the same time, though, Chalmers (and other philosophers and scientists) consider pain a "paradigm example of conscious experience."
In short, as Chalmers might put it, there's "something it's like" to be in pain, but this something is experiential and technical/scientific (or, perhaps even metaphoric/artistic) descriptions can't really get to it. It's got to be felt to be known.
This is why Riding's account of pain seems so apt. As common as it is, pain is neither something just ordinary and "plain", nor is it a mystery. Pain is just pain, and, as such, beyond rational cognition, but overwhelmingly present, i.e., it's near but far, a "here" that is also "beyond."
Or is it?
A book I've been reading lately, Discognition, by Steven Shaviro, made me aware that whether our words can communicate "what it's like" to experience pain, or, for that matter, other common sensations, is a question hotly debated among philosophers and scientists.
In fact, as Shaviro tells us, this issue gave rise to a famous thought experiment involving a hypothetical person named "Mary" and the experience of color.
In this experiment, we are asked to imagine that "Mary" is a person who, for all her life, has lived in a black and white room. She has never perceived color at all. At the same time, though, Mary knows everything there is to know about color. This includes "all the physical information", as well as whatever other "material" or "scientific fact" that color involves.
The question the experiment asks us to consider is whether, when "Mary" one day leaves the black and white room, and actually experiences color, does she learn anything new?
According to Shaviro, for some philosophers who study cognition, the answer is no. The information Mary already knows should be enough to grasp what color is.
For thinkers like Chalmers, and, I'm proposing, the Riding of this poem, the answer is yes. Color, like pain, is a qualitative state that must be experienced to be known.
Riding's meditation on the failure of our language to describe pain made me wonder if the poem might not offer a good example of one of the goals she once described for her poetics: the achievement of what she termed a spiritual realism.
In her Introduction to her collected poems, Riding contrasts this sort of spirituality with that of religion. Where the latter offered the promise of a transcendent future to the believer, she hoped (at one time in her career) that poetry could offer a glimpse of ultimate truth grounded in the here and now, and arising from commonplace realities and experiences.
Perhaps a poem like "Beyond" shows us what what this sort of immanent transcendence looks like. It's common to characterize extraordinary mystical states as beyond concepts. Such moments, the story goes, can only be approximated later, and in halting, paradoxical language.
In my reading, "Beyond" insists, via its own paradoxical rhetoric, that many common experiences, such as pain, transcend our concepts as well. Such realities make us aware of the gap, a void, between our words and our lives.
And the fact that "Beyond" acknowledges this void may be the most "realistic" thing about it. As contemporary "speculative realist" Graham Harman puts it, "realism does not mean that we are able to state correct propositions about the real world. Instead, it means that reality is too real to be translated without remainder into any sentence..."
Or as Riding writes, "there is a sense of life so real that it becomes the sense of something more real than life...It is the meaning at work in what has no meaning; it is, at its clearest, poetry."