Language, Emotions, and The Desire to Exist
Language often gets in the way when I want to tell someone how I feel about them. I struggle with my immigrant soul, steeped in the depths of six languages (seven if you count music), when I try to articulate the different hues of my longing for a beloved who perceives only one colour of love, safely couched in the comfort of emotional monolingualism. I find myself opting for silence.
Despite language getting in the way of my own emotional expression, I argued in a recent public lecture—standing on the shoulders of a twelfth century Persian poet, Nizami of Ganjeh— that language itself makes the experience of our emotions possible.
Language, or to use Nizami’s infinitely baffling word, sukhan, I proposed, is the epistemological tool, a distinct mode of cognition, that makes emotion knowable.I persisted in suggesting that language bridges the gap between the ineffable feeling and our constantly thwarted desire to name it properly, to know it.
But there were questions. How does epistemology, poetic or otherwise open our mind to the nature of being? Doesn’t language veil our emotion rather than revealing it? Don’t we constantly use language to distance ourselves from the murky reality that is the self?
For Nizami, the primacy of language in mapping the contours of our being as it experiences emotions is non-negotiable. In fact, he goes as far as to insist that our existence and the cognition of love unfold only within the structures of language. He writes in his first long-narrative poem, Makhzan al asrar (Treasury of Mysteries):
In the discourse of love, language is our lifeblood We are language, we inhabit the palatial ruins that are words.
It is interesting to note that with all his capital invested in the container of logos, Nizami refers to words as ‘ruins,’ which we inhabit as our ‘palaces.’ Through his signature motion of using ambiguity as speaking to and speaking away the phenomenon simultaneously, Nizami’s couplet is at once the description of humanity’s fall into language and the persistent longing to expand its limits to strengthen the house of being. But above all, what is crucial to Nizami’s strangely paradoxical play in this couplet is his curious pairing of love with language.
In the discourse of love, words are our “lifeblood.” The Persian word Nizami uses for this is “jān,” which can mean “soul,” “life,” but can also be interpreted as the “heart of the matter.” The lover, whether in existential or cosmic sense, lives and dies in and by means of the ability to express what he/she feels. That is probably why most mediaeval love poetry, whether in the Persian Sufi tradition, or secular romance, is deeply invested in the virtues of les mots juste, a kind of poetry where the word and the world are inextricably bound together.
It is words that make us name (hence know) the emotion. This friendship between language and emotion, their stubborn interdependence is the eros that drives all philological insight into our pasts as well as our presents. In Nizami’s worldview, desire and discourse are tied together, such that one without the other would not provide the proper accommodation for us to inhabit. Words have been understood as a vital source of inner knowledge in much of the classical world in the Perso-Indic contexts.
As Maria Heim in her fascinating new book, Words of the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions From Classical India argues, the descriptive as well as constitutive capacity of language has been a dominant preoccupation of classical Indian thinkers. Whether the words deliver universalities or particularities remains one of the core questions in much of Sanskritic, Pali, and Prakrit thought that Heim engages in the form of a kosha, a treasury of emotion-words based on various religious, philosophical, and literary texts of classical Indian repertoire of over three-thousand years of thinking about emotions. The primacy of language in addressing, determining, and even knowing the reality of emotion in human experience is at the heart of much of classical thought and of course this is exactly where all philological desire gets ignited to the fullest possible form of engagement with various depths of our global pasts.
Language is so fundamental to our experience of being in the world, that too often we forget that language inherently carries a robust resistance to any and all drive to universalization. No language has all words for every possible emotion that we can feel. And here we are exactly where Ludwig Wittgenstein finds himself when he feels the limits of his world-perception inherently coming out of the limits of his language.
By the very virtue of being language – a variedly developed organism in different cultural ecosystems – languages not only reflect but shape the very phenomena they purport to express. Heim asks two pointed questions in her struggle of making sense of this wording of the heart that must be understood in its distinctive character: is it that the terrain of human experience is demarcated and described variously across different languages and cultures, but basically remains the same terrain? Or, is it that the language used for experience itself shapes what humans can experience, so that culture inflects or even determines what is possible for people to feel?
Those of us who swim in the seas of multiple languages often feel that we possess a different self in each one of them and have a different perception of reality. I find myself much more ambitious and determined in English, deeply melancholic and nostalgic in Urdu, infinitely curious in Persian, poetically bold in Punjabi, and strangely exilic in French.
Brilliant cognitive scientist, Julie Sedivy in her beautiful book on the subject, entitled Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self compares this dense population of languages in the multilingual brain with having multiple siblings living in one house and constantly fighting with each other to be at the centre of attention. This centring of attention for a multilingual individual is like focusing the kaleidoscope to a particular point of view through which one’s experience and perception of the world is heavily influenced by the intricate patterns and colours that cast their shadow on how reality presents itself to us.
All of these languages enable me to experience the world in several different perspectives, which, as Fernando Pessoa would say, dissolve the one single self and build a multitudinous one that is expansive and conditioned by the multiplicity of these distinct language-worlds. The self in English is driven, ambitious, and as Sedivy says, speaks the language of success. The self in Urdu or Persian, on the other hand, inhabits the void between the loss of the world that was home, and the gain of the world that is my self-exile. The experience is both exciting and exhausting, given the fact that it makes me see widely, feel deeply, name closely but also endure the multilingual whirlpool of possibilities that is dazzling and often baffling. Where language provides a structure of cognition, it also dissolves the foundations of the single self into ruins. Do these languages really shape my experience or my experience of being in the world itself moulds them?
For Heim, the answer lies in the in-between space of these opposing epistemic poles: she contends that “perhaps there is a basic human endowment or range of possibilities shared by all of us, but culture and language do shape what can be described and thus felt, at least to some extent.” While she does not offer any definitive answers to resolve this quandary once and for all, she provides a distinct approach in addressing the question of emotion she calls the ecological approach. In her formulation of this approach, which she developed with Chakravrthi Ram-Prasad, she proposes that emotions or areas of emotional experience should not be taken as “pregiven, or self-containing fixtures of the world that show up here and there in our experience, but rather as constituted through the texts and environments in which we as humans constantly find ourselves.” She suggests that just as ecology is the study of organisms within their environments, where, in a nontrivial sense, organisms are products of their environments and vice versa, the study of emotions involves attention to the process and interrelatedness of noticed features of experience and their contexts. In other words, she considers the texts with emotion-talk as a prima materia of our knowledge of emotions themselves.
While Heim’s analogy with ecological aspects of human inquiry in all its peculiarity is spot on, it seems that her case for the in-between space is more inclined toward the constitutive dimension of language wherein these so-called texts of philosophy, dramaturgy, scriptures, and poetry play a remarkably important role in shaping and even producing what we as humans are capable of feeling. In this case, it is not only words and their mysterious etymologies that reveal to us our most obscure desires, joys, and sorrows, it is the genres with their distinct knowledge-claims as well that expand and limit perceptual fields of emotional experience simultaneously.
In his review of Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, Thomas Harrison notes that assigning the right word to feelings is the first productive step in mapping the inner landscape; the second is finding the right definition, which as C.S Lewis notes in his brilliant book, Four Loves, is the hardest task for the human mind. We, with our impoverished lexicons, are generally far more eager to praise and dispraise than define and describe what goes on in the murky underworld of the self. As Harrison aptly points out, the precision and thought we invest in packing our Amazon boxes is rarely something that finds its way to how we map our inner lives. This is probably why our heavily medicated depressions today do not yield beautiful texts such as William Styron’s Invisible Darkness, André Breton’s The Verb to Be, or W.H Auden’s The More Loving One, which at one point in the Western cultural history made English language reverberate with the precision and tactility of darkness.
Be that as it may, in this mapping of the inner world, naming and defining with the right words constitute only half the battle; the rest of it is navigating the genres, that daunting dimension of language, in which words become our palaces and we are forced to expand our vision based on the genres, which we allocate to an emotion. Harrison notes that there is a third step that we must take in mapping the deeply entangled world of emotions. It consists in entering that great storehouse of words which is literature:
“Poems and novels illustrate nuances of feeling more completely than expository prose. . .The vastness of the human sea of feelings is what first inspires this literary journey, revealing that every place on the atlas is both utterly different and yet surprisingly close to home, and that all emotions are complex and mutually affecting.”
Heim’s Treasury in this sense is not a dictionary in which one can find the meaning of a word and its corresponding associations such as we do in our modern dictionaries and move on without feeling any evocative desire. Hers is a poetic homage, a pensive montage built from the mind-blowing parallels and multiplicity of various classical texts in Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit languages that reveal to us the diversity of emotional experience through our culturally and linguistically unique maps of meaning. Her vignettes are cartographic in which the scientific route is as important to the understanding of the infinitely vast spectrum of emotional life as is poetry in navigating its almost invisible and constantly unfolding nuances.
As someone who has spent most of her adult life wrestling with the mysterious worlds words create for us, I have always been fascinated with the constantly thwarted courtship between language and feeling. I find Nizami's couplet to be a reminder that the ability to name, define, and describe an emotion is inextricably linked to its experience and this experience in return can be much more enriched if we deepen our relationship with language not only through multilingualism, but also through reaching the symbolic, metaphoric, and imagistic depths that informs the larger sense of the self.
It is a disturbing realisation that I feel more than I can name, and sometimes I don’t feel until something is named for me. It's as though language is a conjurer, like Nizami’s famous character Shapur, who in one of the most beloved love poems of Persian culture, evokes sentiments that were once slumbering, waiting for the magic of words to rouse them from their reverie. This paradox of feeling – both elusive and demanding of expression – weaves the narrative of our inner landscapes and makes us aware of this unending mystery that language is.
There are as many modes of expression as there are languages, or what Nizami calls sukhan, but finding a form for expressing our personal experience is, perhaps, the most immediate need that asserts itself on us when we come face to face with the apparent ineffability of our inner lives.
Aqsa Ijaz is an Assistant Professor of Persian and Urdu at the University of Toronto Mississauga and co-manages the Connaught-funded international project, the Global Past Research Initiative. As a scholar, she specialises in the literary reception of classical Persian poetry in medieval, early modern, and colonial India.