I first encountered the word ineffable when I was thirteen or fourteen in a dusty old novel from the library in Heber, Utah. I remember nothing of the novel, not even the title, nothing except the image of moonlight shining through the high window of some castle, its beauty ineffable. I found the word in the dictionary and learned it refers to something beyond description, something that defies the power of language. I liked the word, the way it slipped over my tongue when I spoke it to myself. I remembered it. But after I began writing fiction, I recognized ineffable for what it is – a kind of copout, an admission of failure.
To write the truth about anything, a writer uses language to build a transparent cage around that which defies description, holding it captive and magically alive. Look at the difference between a bit of exposition like “When my brother played the piano, I was overwhelmed by a tide of ineffable emotion” to this passage from James Baldwin’s great short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” where the narrator listens to his brother play.
Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burninghe had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.
There is more, and I could quote pages, but Baldwin’s lyricism would overwhelm my simple message. “Sonny’s Blues” expresses ineffable emotion, and that is its power. I can only dream of writing something half as fine. But I’ll never get there by waving that flag of surrender, ineffable.