The fickle nature of words

Writing is a regular part of my daily life. As curator, I do a lot of writing on behalf of the Museum, whether I'm composing exhibit texts, newspaper articles, or academic papers for conferences. I also occasionally craft lengthy letters and emails to friends and relatives, and of course there's this blog, which has been running for over three years now. As ubiquitous a part of my life as writing may be, however, it's generally not the easiest thing for me to do. Considering how many thousands of words comprise the English language, I'm always amazed at how difficult it can be to articulate yourself effectively through them. To me, no matter how esoteric or specialized, words can only approximate what you're feeling or thinking; exact translations are impossible.

Whenever I find myself reflecting on the limitations of language I recollect a translation of Dante's Inferno that I read in college several years ago. It was an excellent version, very scholarly and replete with extensive footnotes, but what I remember most about the book was its own declaration of its limitations.

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Domenico Michelino, Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem, ca. 1465, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. Image courtesy of

You see, when Dante used his vernacular Italian to describe the descending circles of hell, he exploited the actual sounds of his words to evoke damnation. At the beginning of the epic, every person Dante encounters speaks eloquently, underscoring the beauty of the Italian language that the poet espoused through his work. The further into Hell he and Virgil descend, however, the less elegant the speech becomes from the damned, deteriorating into a cacophony of guttural sounds and grunts that strip the speakers of their humanity. In an English translation you miss that dimension because you're essentially working in another medium. I was able to get a sufficient description of hell and its rather creative torments, but the raw, primal side of the text was lost in the process. Such is how I feel whenever I write about art. I can describe every last paint stroke, every fragment of pigment on that page, but I'll never fully evoke the full power of the work.

So why am I ruminating about all of this to you? Because I made a picture about it, of course!

Various recent experiences in my life have urged me to think about the challenges of verbal and written communication, and as often happens when I mulling over a certain feeling or thought, I decided to express it visually. I'd recently received a gift of some excellent pencils, and was eager to try them out on a new still life. I soon pulled out my faithful skulls and began arranging them into various compositions, when I discovered that the jaw had become separated from my bobcat head:

I'm holding his head together right now. 

This doesn't surprise me in the least. These little guys have been traveling around with me for the better part of a decade, and have slowly begun falling apart, losing their teeth, jaws, and other parts. The sight of the bobcat staring at its own severed jaw, however, struck me as a perfect metaphor for the paralysis of communication, and the ongoing struggle to effectively say what you're thinking without falling back on hackneyed platitudes or cliches that no longer carry any significance.

I finished the drawing three night later:

Completing this little project does not solve my word conundrum, of course. That's an ongoing struggle that I doubt will get any easier with time. Yet the ongoing striving to take one medium, whether its visual, aural, or emotional, and transform it into written form, is what keeps writing such a compelling endeavor. It never lets me get bored.