(Language of) Memory of Feeling

July 23, 2007 | 22 comments
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Memory is a poor substitute for feeling, and language is a poor substitute for memory; yet it is through those dual prisms that we translate the ephemeral raw material of emotion into something more permanent. And it is only that language of memory of feeling — awful, inadequate substitute that it is — that can be preserved and recounted and ultimately woven into narratives about life.

We start with feelings. Peace, overwhelming, a soothing river. Awe, reverent silence as we contemplate the divine. Love, a bond that aches sometimes. Fear, or loss, or sadness. Emotions are the raw material that we eventually turn into decisions. Simply put: We follow actions that make us feel better.

The gospel reinforces this idea. We are told that certain emotions, certain feelings come from God. Our emotions are our connection to the Divine.

But intense feelings are relatively few and far between. We may feel overwhelming testimony one day, overwhelming peace, love, connection to God — but then no similar feelings for months after, or years.

And thus, many of our actions in the church and with respect to God, like our actions in so many other parts of our lives, are governed by memory of feelings. I may not feel the intense connection today. But I can remember that at one time I felt such a connection.

Thus, life becomes guided by a series of mental notes (not unlike P.G.’s field notes) about emotion. Remember, that today I felt good. I loved life. I loved my job, my family, my music. At crucial junctures in Memento, we see Guy Pearce struggling to make notes that will last, desperately telling himself, “I need to remember this.” We do the same. This one is important; I should remember it.

But even memory runs into gaps. Memory of feeling can be fleeting, and hard to define. How exactly did I feel on that day? And even if we can remember it well, memory of feeling is difficult to convey to others. Memory of feeling is intensely personal — it does not translate into shared experience or understanding.

And so, in a further step, we find language of memory of feeling. Language, unlike pure memory, can be written on a page. We can talk with others about it, reinforce it, try to make sense of it. But what language can really capture the feelings of connection to God?

Our attempts tend toward the weird and exotic. We talk about things like “burning in the bosom.” Does this really, accurately describe what happens when we feel the Spirit, when we feel peace? No. Not at all. It’s not a burning in the bosom; it’s the presence of the Divine.

Our use of specialized terms is not unlike the exotic language used to describe wine. For a long time (like many church members, I suspect), I mocked the language of wine. Wine descriptions seemed weird and overwrought, with critics finding notes of gooseberry and gunsmoke and asphalt and autumn leaves and pickled pig’s feet. How silly.

And then, I read a critic discuss that language in Slate. And he wrote, “we use this language because it’s the best we’ve got.” Wine doesn’t really taste like asphalt or autumn leaves. But language is an imperfect medium for expressing taste, which is ultimately a feeling. And critics can only use the tools they have. “It is impossible,” notes the critic, “to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image.” And so, unable to convey taste directly, critics fall back on descriptions that seem strange to the uninitiated.

Our language of memory of feeling is the same. It is a hollow shell of the real thing, a pressed flower in a journal. And it’s the best we’ve got. Our terms — burning in the bosom, still small voice — allow us to place some of our memories of feeling into a narrative about God and about our connection to the Divine. We reinforce that idea when we talk to others about our feelings; and these language placeholders become a way to translate — imperfectly — our different memories of feeling.

The description simplifies and distorts. No linguistic depiction really captures the emotional state of connection to God. Our description will never really be enough, for the uninitiated. And for the initiated, it will be enough. They too will understand the difficulty of really capturing such feelings in our imperfect language. It will recall their own inexpressible moments of connection. And thus, because of its inability to really describe, such language gives us the best description possible.

Perhaps one day, we will leave behind these chains, and learn to connect with each other in a way that allows us to express feelings and connections more deeply. Until then, our imperfect language of memory of feeling will have to suffice.

22 Responses to (Language of) Memory of Feeling

  1. Jonathan Green on July 23, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Kaimi, this is really, really…yeah. A long, rich build-up with a full-bodied aroma of late-summer woodsmoke and ginseng highlights, and a satisfying finish with a light hint of sugar maple, or something like that.

  2. Ray on July 23, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    There have been many instances where I was sure someone understood what I was saying, but about the only times when I knew – with absolute certainty – that someone understood exactly what I felt were when I didn’t say anything. The very first time I kissed my girlfriend – and when she handed me our first son nearly six years later; when our second son’s appendix burst and our eyes met as they wheeled him into the operating room; when my greenie companion bore his testimony in English as I translated into Japanese, and the 2-year-long investigator burst into tears as the Spirit throbbed palpably; when one of my Primary students hugged me before church; etc. I agree that only those who have experienced such moments will understand my limited ability to translate those feelings, due to their own, similar “inexpressible moments of connection”.

    Thanks, Kaimi, for the chance to remember them – and then to try to share them in my own stumbling way – to share a connection despite my linguistic limitations.

  3. Adam Greenwood on July 23, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    An excellent exegesis of D&C 50:22

    “He that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth . . . Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”

  4. Julie M. Smith on July 23, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    “O Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were total darkness of paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language” — Joseph Smith

  5. Jim F. on July 23, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Kaimi, well-written and thoughtful, so I hesitate to disagree. But I am less inclined to believe that there is an alternative to memory and feeling–or to hope there is. (Remembrance)

  6. Bob on July 23, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    Thank you Kaimi. I will read Jim’s work when I can give it more honor. My ‘Stargate’ to Memory is old music. It will take me back to wherever I want to be. How many times does the BoM or OT story of falling away start with “he/they forgot…”

  7. Bob on July 23, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    “Perhaps one day, we will leave behind these chains, and learn to connect with each other in a way that allows us to express feelings and connections more deeply” I love working with old Family photos now that I can layer a song on it. I look at G/Grandmother photo and try to match just the right song to it. For my Mom, it was easy..”The Tennessee Waltz”.

  8. Robert C. on July 23, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    Kaimi, great post.

    Jim #5, thanks for posting a link to your “Remembrance” address, this nicely addresses many topics I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

  9. Kyle R on July 24, 2007 at 3:48 am

    What a beautiful and beautifully expressed post Kaimi,

    “In some strange way we devalue things as soon as we give utterance to them. We believe we have dived to the uttermost depths of the abyss, and yet when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pallid finger-tips no longer resembles the sea from which it came. We think we have discovered a hoard of wonderful treasure-trove, yet when we emerge again into the light of day we see that all we have brought back with us is false stones and chips of glass. But for all this, the treasure goes on glimmering in the darkness, unchanged.”

    – Maeterlinck

  10. Nehringk on July 24, 2007 at 8:36 am

    Kaimi:

    Sorry, but I got thrown off by your first sentence, which seemed as though it could have been cleverly constructed to illustrate your point about the imprecision of language. Or perhaps it is simply that I am not used to trying to translate with a prism. :-)

    Still, I did appreciate the apparent intent of your post, to stimulate thought about feeling, language, and memory. It led me to contemplate the thought that where religious feelings are the most intense — in the temple — the language is precisely specified, memorized, and recorded. You have shown that language can be inadequate to capture feeling. Is feeling adequate to capture language? Do our feelings about the temple (and sacramental, and baptismal, etc.) truly reflect the language used therein?

    Although my first sentence may have given the impression that I was out to bust your chops, I really do want to thank you for posting something so thought-provoking. I much prefer this kind of thread to the endless wrangling over the social and cultural implications of this, that, and the other. Bravo!

  11. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 24, 2007 at 11:46 am

    I like pieces about language. Like Nehringk, I appreciate such discussions. But I think language is more alive than you’re giving it credit for being. http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=274

    “Perhaps one day, we will leave behind these chains, and learn to connect with each other in a way that allows us to express feelings and connections more deeply. Until then, our imperfect language of memory of feeling will have to suffice.”

    Why settle? I think that often our main holdup in ascending to such relation is our too narrow concepts of how they should be. Fix the language, gain the ground.

    All this hunter-gatherer talk about language “capturing” experience! How ’bout let’s move forward to modern times and try out a new metaphor, like maybe that language is a vehicle for experience. Vroom!

  12. Robert C. on July 24, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    P. G. #11, thanks for this thought and the link to your very interesting post—I think you’re right that language has genuine creative potential. That seems very consonant with what we read in scripture about creation and the Word in John 1 and D&C 93 etc., and priesthood power binding what’s recorded on earth in the book in heaven (cf. D&C 128 6ff esp.). Lots to think about here. If this thread’s not already dead and forgotten (…), I’d be esp. interested in hearing a response from Kaimi, Jim F., or anyone else who’s more apt to relegate language to a notion of remembrance. I guess I’m inclined to try and reconcile the views: we create something new in the way that we remember the past—or something in that vein….

  13. Jim F. on July 24, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Robert C, I don’t see any tension between my view and Patty’s. Part of the point of thinking about remembrance as something different than capturing or holding onto the past is to see it as creative, as that in and be means of which our experience happens.

  14. Robert C. on July 24, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    Jim F., thanks, makes sense—I think you make this pretty clear in your address, I was just conflating some ideas from the the discussion here….

  15. Kaimi Wenger on July 24, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    P.G.,

    I agree that better language allows us to express ourselves better, and that better language comes closer to depicting emotion and feeling.

    And, with you and Jim, I recognize that language and remembrance creates its own good. Remembering and writing down our experiences with the Divine turns them into something different. That different thing can be beautiful.

    Monet’s Waterlilies is a thing of beauty in its own right. Our attempts to depict and paint our experiences with God can themselves be beautiful. And recollection of sacred memory can itself be a sacred experience.

    But no matter how beautiful we find the Monet, it is not really a water lily. And I don’t think it demeans the Monet (which is a thing of beauty itself) to say this.

    We live in a world where the Monet depictions — the memories of feeling, as painted through language — are relatively easily accessible. But the actual water lilies tend to be few and far between. That’s part of what makes them especially precious.

  16. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 24, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    “I agree that better language allows us to express ourselves better, and that better language comes closer to depicting emotion and feeling.”

    Except this isn’t what I was saying. I’m saying that better language changes us and that questions about self-expression and depiction might be the wrong questions, or at any rate, the wrong place to direct our focus. Language does things to us and for us, individually and as a group (I would say species, but people around the bloggernacle sometimes chafe at the word, thinking it somehow de-deifies them and God). Language does things to our brains. Good language, and then better language, changes our brains for the better, energizes our agency; bad language channels us downward, toward less and less prospects, including prospects for relationships with other people and with God. Ultimately, life isn’t about language, it’s about relation; language enables us to turn boundaries into frontiers.

    This idea that we can pick up language to achieve certains tasks, like using a hammer to drive home a nail (“depicting,” “expressing ourselves”), and then put it down again when the task is complete, is unfortunate.

    “But the actual water lilies tend to be few and far between. That’s part of what makes them especially precious.”

    I’m coming at this from another direction: There are lilies all around, but we can’t see them because our definition of “lily” is too narrow. Language could see us through.

  17. Robert C. on July 24, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    What I find surprising is that I can get caught up in a novel and feel like I’m having a new experience through the characters in the novel. But many language theorists would say that language cannot have meaning except by drawing on my own past experiences, so perhaps what I experience in reading is only a reconfiguration of my past memories, but a new reconfiguration. And perhaps this reconfiguring process is so dramatic that it helps me see things that I didn’t see before, as P. G. seems to be saying. After all, Monet’s masterpieces are just reconfigured colors, right?

  18. Kaimi Wenger on July 24, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    P.G.,

    Sure. Language changes us, makes us better, makes us think differently. Good language (or bad language, for that matter) can be transformative. That I don’t deny.

    It’s also peripheral to my point. Even if language is transformative, it can also be an imperfect, even a poor, way of conveying some of our feelings.

    So while we can be transformed by expressing our experiences with God in our language, that action also limits in certain ways (in part, because it is transformative) our ability to convey our experiences.

    In this sense, it’s a little like an acclaimed movie that wasn’t particularly faithful to the book. Kubrick’s The Shining, for instance, or A Clockwork Orange.

    The act of translating A Clockwork Orange to the screen allows for broader and different interpretations. These can be good things. The movie version is viewed as a good piece of filmmaking.

    But we can also read Burgess’ book version, and see and appreciate the differences.

    A world where the only way to convey or express our memories is through language — even though these exist, as different things, prior to that translation — is like a world where we all have copies of Burgess, but can only discuss Kubrick with others. No matter how meritorious the translation may be on its own terms, the fact that we can only discuss the translation (not the original) limits our discussion in important ways.

  19. Jim F. on July 25, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Kaimi, you have a different theory of language than I have. That’s the difference here, not the question of whether sometimes we find it difficult to say what we mean and, consequently, say something else. Your theory of language is that of translation: language translates our feelings and experience into the world so that others can see what we already see–what we see “originally.” My theory of language, perhaps also PKG’s, though she is far better able than I to speak to that question, is that our access (not our only access, but a significant part of our access) to the world occurs in and through language. Expression (not limited to verbal expression) is how we get hold of things, not merely how we translate them to others.

    I don’t like the metaphor of “access” because it sets things up in advance as a problem: I am inside a box and the world is outside and the problem is how to cross the barrier of the box to the outside. That is a deeply problematic way of talking about myself and the world, but how to deal with that is another problem for another time, but I am use the metaphor implicit in your analogy to keep the problem to one problem.

  20. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on July 25, 2007 at 11:34 am

    “No matter how meritorious the translation may be on its own terms, the fact that we can only discuss the translation (not the original) limits our discussion in important ways.”

    Like how the Four Gospels limit our discussion of Jesus’s actual teachings? Like how the ten books of the Republic limit our discussion of Socrates’ actual words?

    Yeah. Bummer.

    Kaimi, have it your way. You expressed disappointment with language and also resignation that the problems you see will be resolved only at some future point. I suggested hope for language and relation in the here and now. Don’t you ever wonder if there’s more going on than maybe you expect? Not less than you expect–more. I do, all the time. I look forward to finding not language’s limits, but my limits, as language reveals them to me. I look forward daily to finding language that gets me beyond whatever my current limitations are. I’m constantly surprised at the way language opens up the world–and relationships with others, because it almost never does it the way I expect or even at times insist upon. Really, there’s only one obstacle where language is concerned, and that’s how much responsibility I’m willing to take for my language.

    I appreciate your taking this subject up with me–we’ll call it the “Monet’s lily” problem. I’m out of time for more today, but this much has been fun. Keep that cheese rolling.

    Oh, Robert C.: The experience with the lily is a real experience, the experience with Monet’s lily is a real experience. They’re both experiences with “real” lilies in that they’re real experiences. IMO. Reconfiguration? I hope not. That suggests a limited palette. I say, grow more colors.

  21. Robert C. on July 25, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    P. G., I know very, very little about philosophy of language, but I seem to recall someone (perhaps Saussure, or maybe Derrida taking up Saussure), talking about language in terms of shared experience and interrelations(differences) of shared experience. The reason I used the word “reconfiguration” is that I think there is ultimately an unbridgeable gap, at least in some sense however small, between first-hand experience (esp. physical experience) and secondary experience.

    I think this is actually importantly tied up with the importance of coming to earth and gaining a body, because there are some things we can’t know without firsthand physical experience.

    If I have never tasted cinnamon, it’s very hard to describe to me what cinnamon tastes like. Perhaps you can use other, related flavors that I have had experience with to sort of triangulate a description of the taste for me, but a gap will remain in my understanding of what cinnamon tastes like until I taste cinnamon for myself. I don’t deny that we can have new, “real” experiences through others’ words, but it’s hard for me to think of these new experiences as created ex nihilo so-to-speak, without somehow depending on my own past experience. It’s hard for me to think of any communication taking place without somehow relying on past experience (perhaps I’m taking your claim on this too literally/pedantically, so sorry if that’s the case…).

    One reason I like the Monet/color analogy is that all colors can be formed out of the three primary colors. And since there have been masterful and extremely diverse paintings created by simply re/configuring these primary colors, I think this emphasizes the truly amazing and infinite potential of words, even if there are a finite number of words to draw upon (though I sort of like neologisims, so I don’t even really believe there are a finite number of words to draw upon!).

  22. Robert C. on July 25, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    I also think that words can have a very important effect on the experiences we have in the world, so I don’t mean to draw this distinction as implying strong independence (between words and first-hand experience). Surely our own personal experience affects how we read and listen, and how we read and listen affects how we experience the world (and, similarly, reading and listening are themselves real experiences…)—I’m just saying I don’t think we can have one without the other. But, again, perhaps I’m just trying to make too technical a point out of these comments (or perhaps I haven’t thought about this carefully enough and am simply wrong or am speaking nonsense…).