For centuries, the belief in magic went hand-in-hand with the belief in magic words.  If one knew the magic words everything was possible.  If we can change the universe by changing our description of it, then, in fact, everything is possible.  (This is the mistake made by poorly educated social constructivists, many of whom come out of graduate programs in education theory; but more on this another time…)

Although we would like to believe in magic, it seems to me that the alternate path is potentially more fruitful.  That is, we should begin to recognize that the world is not just what we say it is.  There are aspects of life that we can not describe – they can only be known by one who has experienced them. Physical sensations make up a large number of the cases which could be cited.  Carol Burnett is quoted as saying that giving birth is like having your lower lip stretched over the top of your head – but, I’m sure that this is just a metaphor.

We communicate reality to one another through metaphor.  But the person receiving the communication must have had a similar experience in order to understand the message. 

When I studied the play Hamlet in high school, there was no way that I would have been able to understand the emotions that the main character was feeling.  Most teenage boys think that everything is straightforward and obvious, and that they themselves are immortal.  Therefore, being a typical teenage boy, I could not understand what all of the whining and head pounding was about. When I saw the play years later, I was able to empathize with Hamlet.  I had grown sufficiently mature to realize that people do suffer from inner conflicts sometimes. Though I may wish to convey a message to you as a poet, philosopher, novelist or playwright – you will not receive it if you are not prepared to receive it. It’s like a first year French student reading Sartre in the original French – the student can read the words, but is not prepared to accept the message – and it is therefore lost on him.

If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.

Louis Armstrong

Whether it’s giving birth, stories of inner conflict, or jazz, trying to communicate the incommunicable is exactly the fundamental problem of mysticism. We can’t even describe in words the smell of coffee brewing — how can we explain the experience of communicating with God?

IMAGE SOURCE:,Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Apr._1947)(LOC)_(4843734010).jpg
 The Library of Congress [Public domain]