Expressing the Inexpressible

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.


2 comments on “Expressing the Inexpressible

  1. K D Kragen says:

    Bravo! Brother Brian, this short piece bears “unpacking.” One view of the distinction between poetry and prose: poetry, at its best, requires of the reader (and often the poet) re-reading and pondering, like a very large and tightly packed suitcase, it requires unpacking; poetry is dense, succinct, compact, abbreviated. Prose comes unpacked and laid out as if one had a butler or chamber maid traveling with them. There is always the blurred literary situation, not uncommon with good writing, where great prose can read like poetry, and great poetry can read, at certain points, like a good piece of prose. That said (i.e. vis-a-vis the caveat): your prose in this short prose blog is bloody-well poetic! And I’m happy to spend some time with the suitcase of your blog-post doing some unpacking; will get back to you on my thoughts after I’ve laid out the contents of this delightful valise and pondered its content. As always, shalom, aloha, arrivederci & salute, dave kragen (

  2. David Elpern says:

    I was going to read the Twain autobiography until I read Keilor’s damning-with-faint-praise review. Now, I am not that sure. Keillor is almost always annoying to me. He seems too self-assured. There is so much in Twain that is worth mining — I wonder if the autobiography is necessary or should one spend one’s time instead rereading Huck Finn and other works. Re: grief, “A Helping Hand” edited by Richard Russo deals with a parent’s grief in a helpful manner.
    Best, DJE

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