In his review of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, American humorist Garrison Keillor charges that Samuel Clemens’s belated musings are “a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers.”
While Keillor is somewhat less than kind to Sam Clemens for baiting the public for a century with the promise of his last hurrah, he recognizes some gems in this massive volume (the first of three).
“What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words!” Twain writes. “His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself…. The mass of him is hidden — it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. . . . Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written.”
Keillor concludes his review with these words: “The death of the beloved daughter far beyond her father’s love and care is a disaster from which there is no recovery. Boyishness cannot prevail, nor irreverence. The story can’t be written. The man buttons up his clothes and resigns himself to the inexpressible.”
I distinctly recall my high school physics teacher brooding over how to define a problem. “If you can’t express it in a mathematical statement,” he said, “it simply can’t be understood.”
Some things border on the inexpressible. While it is difficult to come to grips with grief, making the attempt sometimes pays off. Our muddled emotions stir about inside our heads. We define them by turning them into words, fleshing them out, even if in their final form they fall short.
A friend from the other side of the globe writes that she is wrestling with two recent tragedies, one national, one personal. “Why do these things happen?” she asks. “I cry deep in my heart.”
Six words that express the inexpressible.