Naming the nameless


Poems, stories, songs. In each, we sometimes talk around things which are difficult to name because they are difficult to see. Strong but unclear ideas or feelings. A glimpse of something in a mist.

Once, I was astounded – by miles of greens and yellows, from the top of the Sidlaw hills. Vast shadows – skimming across fields and paths, as great clouds high above me were driven across an infinite blue sky. Too bright to look at for long.

Perhaps a mile away, disappearing around the corner of a dazzling white farm house, tiny due to distance, was a human figure. I thought that’s someone I know!  But how could that be? Isn’t it much too far to tell who it is? And, it couldn’t have been him anyway. He died years ago.

So, I got back on my mountain-bike and freewheeled down the long, steep path. Soft air waves cooling my face, and the sun is warm and bright, even when I close my eyes for a moment. I feel that every sparkling second is trying to tell me something: something more than I will ever be able to say.

Words enable us to say a million things, but they cannot name a feeling which will not reveal itself clearly. Or, perhaps, it cannot appear until we name it.

T.S.Eliot came closest to naming a few of the nameless things which are forever disappearing around some corner of my own consciousness.  Often, these glimpses have something to do with seeing a moment pass and, at the same time, feeling that somehow it will always be. So, when Eliot speaks of such a moment in the poem Burnt Norton, I instantly feel he has named something that was nameless.

    The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

I read this and immediately think: that’s exactly it. Yet, if I then ask: ‘Exactly what?’, it’s gone again. Like the tiny, impossible figure disappearing around the corner of the distant farm house. Or, like that moment on my bike, freewheeling down the long summer path and thinking that the day is trying to tell me something. And the words I use aren’t really helping me to get closer to what I mean. I’m relieved when I notice that Eliot too was aware of the difficulties of trying to say some things in words. Later, in the same poem, he wrote:

                                                                               …      Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision…

In Eliot’s sequence of poems: Four Quartets, the poem Burnt Norton is the first part. All are inspired by his search for meaning in the world, which he found in Christianity. It is entirely possible to respect the poet and his poetry without swallowing his beliefs. I feel able to do this because I recognise his honest search and struggle to name things which often seem beyond our reach. Poetry is one way of striving to do this. Other ways include – stories; music; and whenever an artist or sculptor tries to give form to indistinct apparitions.

It’s not easy to write clearly about a lot of things but there’s special difficulties involved when your subject keeps disappearing like a ghost. The only reason I don’t give up trying to name the nameless is – I sense a kind of treasure, just out of the reach of my imagination.

We live in stressful times. Our minds battered every day with meteor showers of hard facts. Wars, starvation, rotting urban oceans of poverty. Puppets masquerading as real people and calling themselves politicians.  Brexit, redundancies, millions of people pouring alcohol, drugs, and all kinds of noise into our minds, trying to numb the impact of hearing about things no one wants to hear about. Yet, all these things have names, and we know their names too well.

Only in quiet moments between the meteor showers can we sense or think about inklings of nameless things. Like one time recently when I heard a few notes of Claire de Lune (French for ‘light of the moon’), a haunting piece of piano music composed by Claude Debussy. My mum used to play it when I was young. Each pure note and another and another… sparks a different memory. The blur  of her small hands gliding over the keyboard, sunlight coming in long shafts in the window and tiny dust stars, and remembering that it was summer outside and I wanted to go out on my bike and cycle along to the beach, but I also did not want to move and I just wanted to listen and drink in a taste of something I knew tasted wonderful but I had no words to name it.

I don’t believe in spooky ghosts, or God, or magic. Well, maybe some magic – like the magic of old books. And I enjoy spooky films. And I’ve always had a fascination for kinds of creativity which could be described as – a person on a spiritual path. Vincent Van Gogh. Charlie Brown. Yet, I expect that any naming of nameless things I try to do will be done as rationally as plants can be grown and nurtured in a garden. That possibility is full of wonder to me.

Harvey Duke





1 thought on “Naming the nameless

  1. Hamish Drummond April 16, 2019 — 6:37 am

    “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence” – it may be very slightly garbled by the passage of time, but it is hopefully close to something from Wittgenstein – language can restrict us unless we work on it…


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