Relieving Psychedelic Speech Paralysis – Four Strategies for Dealing With Ineffability

If you’re ever struck by ineffability, try these approaches, as summarized from the work of Robert J. Branham, “Ineffability, Creativity and Communication Competence.”

by Eric M. Fortier, BA | Feb. 19, 2021

“Philosophers, writers, painters and ordinary citizens have been living for a long time now with the knowledge that a good deal of life is inexpressible,” Branham begins, citing Walker Gibson; yet, he goes on, “people often regard these life-experiences as vitally important for themselves and others.”

Why does ineffability arise? Branham believes the condition comes from a combination of the extraordinary uniqueness and significance of the experience, as well as the significance of communicating it.

One response is to remain in silence. “It is not the case that a man who is silent says nothing,” so goes an Apache saying. In some cases, silence is preferable; speaking of such experiences may be seen as vulgar, presumptuous, or even blasphemy–as cutting the world down to size. Silence, or ‘absence of sound,’ can signify sincerity, and some consider it a prerequisite for spiritual advancement. Rumi said famously that “silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.”

Partial silence, ritualized/shared experience, and keeping private artistic representations, are some variations on silence. In American and Canadian Indigenous tribes, “older sages may hint of their visions through a well-chosen and ambiguous movement in dance, but their exact nature remains undisclosed;” the unspoken may be explicitly left out only to be represented purely by using narrative context; and through ritual, “the mask of symbolic representation and its wearer become fully identified with the mythical being or force they represent,” allowing a sacred recreation rather than explicit expression of the experience.

Forms of silence, however, are also open to misinterpretation, Branham explains: while some see claims of ineffability “as profound comments on the human condition,” as sincerity, as depth of feeling, others might see “arrogant and obscurantist attempts to withhold propositional knowledge from public scrutiny, as evidence of personal incompetence in judgment or expression.”

He outlines several alternative types of approaches to dealing with ineffability, including explicitly qualified expression, poetic evocation, and self-destructive anti-expression.

The most common application of qualified expression for ineffability in the West, he explains, involves explicitly qualified expression, with verbal prompts expressing ineffability or a kind of futility with words. In crude cases, this may be interpreted as communication incompetence, yet skilled qualified expression “remains obtrusive without destroying our interest.”

A careful “cultivated tension between vision and expression,” can manifest in forms of expression that “preserve the delicate balance of visionary insight and recognition of cognitive and linguistic inaccuracy.”

By raising awareness of the limits of ordinary expression, such as with the interspersed qualifiers in the non-fiction works of philosopher and novelist Olaf Stapledon, we can sustain the reader’s interest “through the grandeur of the image fragments… and through a developed intrigue with the expressive situation.” He cites an example in Star Maker, which invokes such qualifications at virtually every descriptive passage:

Of all that I experienced on my travels, only a fraction was clearly intelligible to me even at the time; and then, as I shall tell, my native powers were aided by beings of superhuman development. Now that I am once more on my native planet, and this aid is no longer available, I cannot recapture even so much of the insight as I formerly attained. And so my record, which tells of the most far-reaching of all human explorations, turns out to be after all no more reliable than the rigamarole of any mind unhinged by the impact of experience beyond its comprehension.

As a result of such articulation in recurring qualifiers, the narrator’s “cosmic stammering” is forgiven for the enormity of their vision and “the hopelessness of more satisfactory articulation.”

But what is commonly seen as the most viable visionary and communicative talents, he argues, are the arts.

Citing Paul Godman, poets “understand, more than most people, what cannot be said, what is not being said though it ought to be, what is verbalized experience and what is mere words.”

Poetic evocation, rather than explaining or alluding to reality, sometimes succeed at recreating it.

Poetry can be used to ‘purify’ language by stripping away familiar expectations and associations. Branham compares this approach to the French Impressionists “restoring the vivacity of color and form and the significance of immediate sense-experience,” to Rimbaud and the Illuminists through “celebrations of perpetual amazement at the brightness of things,” and to the spontaneous prose of Woolf, Joyce, and Kerouac, which avoids “diminishing the power of raw vision.”

Poetry, when successful and achieving interactive aims, is “the supreme accomplishment of verbal competence.”

Metaphor, “the basic operation of symbolism… is an unconventional fusion of images which, if successful, may inexplicably produce a new image, attitude, or experience,” where pitch and hue, space and ocean “are one, for an instant,” in a vivid juxtaposition–until, overused, it dies, and stops astonishing; the living metaphor of myth “dwindles to comfortable mythology.”

Successful poetic recreation both reveals the limits and potentials of language, presenting approximate expression we recognize as “valid but transitory… vivid but disposable,” used and discarded.

Finally, antiexpression, a rhetoric of liberation, offers both formal and rhetorical subversion, which Branham also considers “sophisticated and effective responses to perceived and rhetorical constraints.”

The point of formal subversion, or “antiart,” is an “assault on the contexts and standards of expression… shocking our standards and sensibilities,” such as Duchamp’s urinal and DADAism. You might opt, though, for something closer to surrealism, which is about creating contextual conflict through the juxtaposition of subject matter, wherein “the image is not an expression of the ineffable; it creates the ineffable.”

On the other hand, we have rhetorical subversion, which purposefully thwarts the audience’s attempts to interpret the message, using “stylistic figures that tempt but frustrate,” like irony, paradox, and sustained negation.

Zen koans, discarded after use like a kind of poetic evocation (“when you can do nothing, what can you do?”); negative descriptions’ of insightful visions by mystics that assert nothing explicitly, yet, which exemplify “not of the failure of language but of its effective application;” the work of Samuel Beckett, featuring “characters who protest that they are trapped by words and forced to participate in the absurd dialogue and events of the works,” are some examples of rhetorical subversion.

In many ways, ineffability illuminates the constraints of language and leads us to question our very assumptions about communication itself.

It’s important to be aware of the appropriateness, aesthetics, ethics, and probable success of a message in the design and execution of our communicative attempts. Creatively deviating from expressive norms is risky, warns Branham; responses vary “from outrage to awe, confusion to comprehension, and from rejection to inspiration.” And “visionaries have been burned as witches, revered as prophets, locked up as lunatics, feted as artists, and canonized as saints.”

Great communication, Branham explains, involves a balance between the conventional and the novel. Coping with ineffability involves “perceptiveness, situational assessment, assessment of communication alternatives, creative design of new approaches where necessary,” and creatively adapting ‘ideas to people and people to ideas.’

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Branham, R. J. (1980). Ineffability, creativity, and communication competence. Communication Quarterly, 28(3), 11-21. doi:10.1080/01463378009369371