Our Lady of the Well

Language is originally and essentially nothing but a system of signs or symbols, which denote real occurrences, or their echo in the human soul.” Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious

In the midst of reading Jung’s Red Book, the idea of words and language and their relationship to the underlying wordless reality has begun to haunt me. I understand that trying to use language to discuss language presents the same problem as does seeing the eye with your own eye, but if that’s the case, where does that leave us? Can we trust language, can we not trust it?

What is the difference between the world we create through the understanding and choice of our words and the unspoken essence that cannot seem to be put into words? When we cannot articulate the pure essence of the ineffable, assuming that there is one, how can we know it when and if we do? I know the world goes on, but all the searches for truth seem to be suspect if we cannot locate the bridge between language and what it tries to convey. Even if this problem is only sensed, maybe it can partially account for why there is mistrust between people with differing opinions?

“Words are the physicians of the mind diseased.” Aeschylus (525 BC – 456 BC), Prometheus Bound

How close does language come to articulating all that the world is, or as some might say reality? Can language only approximate reality? How do we know? So much, it seems can be taken for granted in the natural ease of our speech and use of language.

But if there is, and I believe there is, a world apart from language, can we prove that? And if not with language than with what? I wouldn’t say math because it too is a language, a representation, yes?

 “Touches are better than words, but words are better than nothing.” Dick Summer

Who hasn’t sensed that there is an underlying-ness that language approximates by putting the ineffable into words? A metaphor that works for me in describing the ineffable is the image of a well, a very deep well and that when we have immediate, non-verbal experiences in which we sense that there’s something beyond, we’ve fallen in the well. Resurfacing allows us to live in both worlds by using a bucket to visit the depths by dipping down into the well. But as much as I like this metaphor and sense it pointing to a truth, maybe it doesn’t. Or does it?

Is it consensus then? If enough people sense and agree that a metaphor approximates reality, do we then know the truth?

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” Benjamin Lee Whorf

We might think that animals don’t have language or certainly trees, plants, stones and the elements don’t have language, but maybe they do. Jung often noted that psyche and soma are inseparable, and if that’s the case, some form of language could be said to exist for every and anything. Then language ceases to be merely representational and has its own underlying ineffability.

When the starlings go quiet and suddenly fly away in formation is that language?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” Is that what John 1:1 is trying to tell us ?

I’m sure better minds than mine have already figured this stuff out and that there is a way out of what seems like a strange loop, even if it means to accept that language and reality are one and our best bet is to work at using language. But then reality truly remains at least a partial fantasy of sorts, but even that is saying too much as it implies that we can make a distinction between the two.

“Here we stand and without speaking  Draw the water from the well  And stare beyond the plains  To where the mountains lie so still ” Jackson Browne

29 thoughts on “Our Lady of the Well

  1. Well done, Debra.

    “If you look for me, Maria
    You will find me in the shade
    Wide awake or in a dream
    It’s hard to tell-
    If you come to me, Maria
    I will show you what I’ve made
    It’s a picture for our lady of the well”
    – J. Browne


  2. Wonderful post to contemplate on. Earlier in the summer I was finding my thoughts pulled in the same direction:


    Some of the most powerful exchanges that I have had being M, have all had no words spoken while in the middle of them. There is something deeply telling in silence for me.

    Hope you are enjoying the DC area. I was just at IAD the other night and had a wonderful sleep near Dulles :), but no time to enjoy the Potomac (Some years ago I used to live a few blocks from it in Old Towne Alexandria) . -x.M


    1. DC, from what I am seeing of on this trip is lovely. No time for sight seeing, but I have been here before for that reason alone. Alexandria is quite lovely too. Such storehouses of memories are those old homes and buildings. It must have been a delight to live there?
      Yes, sometimes silence says it best, and I certainly seek out times and places where I can get me some of that!
      Thanks for the link M!


  3. Don

    Just a few random thoughts, Debra. I’ve always been fascinated by the link between language and memory. All the thoughts and voices of a people live in their language and so language also has within it the very essence of belonging. Perhaps that’s why throughout history’s conquests the language of the conqueror was so often imposed.Language has this incredible power to wipe clean and to control, especially, as you say, in the case of those of differing opinion and disposition.

    I think when language, in whatever form, begins to lose touch with it’s struggle with the ineffable it becomes small, tight and narrow and extremely divisive. Strange how the different forms of religious language that confess a dealing with the ineffable often become the most dogmatic and narrow of languages. Wonderful post – thank you.


    1. Great points Don! Language drives culture perhaps? That is an important angle, I think. I wish I was fluent in several languages as I suspect there’s more of an understanding of how language, by it’s grammatical conventions alone imposes a point of view (noun and predicate rules, etc.).
      Perhaps some of our multi-linguists here can speak more to that.
      I don’t know if you read Henry Jekyll’s recent post but there is a discussion over there comparing mind to software and the need for changing the software, so to speak.
      Thanks for the note Don!


      1. No, of course not. What I mean is that the things that are truly important, love, compassion, gratitude, respect don’t need words. They are communicated much more eloquently without words. The things that can’t be communicated without words are manmade. Without love, compassion and respect there is no real communication. With it few words are necessary.


      2. While I whole-heartedly agree that love. compassion, gratitude, respect are immaterial, meaning having no substance; we can’t touch them directly, or contain them, bottle them, etc., I wouldn’t take that to mean that language has no place and is not important. Language does display, yes? And it brings nuance to our ideas and feelings.
        I guess I can’t imagine humanity without words, do you think we’d be better off?
        Another thought – why would other things such as language be manmade while things like love are not?
        Not disagreeing, just trying to understand your perspective.


  4. Pingback: Lived by the Powers | An Elegant Mystery

  5. Lot’s of questions here. Two thoughts jumped right to mind.

    Once I was over at the wolf enclosure of a small local zoo, talking to the head zookeeper who is an expert on wolves. The alpha female and a subordinate female wolf were trotting around the enclosure in opposite directions, so they passed each other twice per circuit. “Watch their ears,” said the keeper.

    As they approached each other, the alpha female raised one ear. Her subordinate dropped both ears. They didn’t pause or break stride but that little gesture reinforced the pack order that is central to the life of wolves. So extremely complex language can happen without words or even sounds.

    The second thing that struck me was this quote: “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” Benjamin Lee Whorf

    I remember hearing that a century ago, the average vocabulary of an American high school graduate was 50,000 words. As of about 10 years ago, the average vocabulary of an American high school grad was 10,000 words.

    Maybe that’s why Andy Warhol said, “Someday everyone will be thinking exactly what they want to, and it will be the same thing…”


    1. Thanks Morgan! I so wish that I had the education that was standard 100 years ago! The older I get the more it I appreciate the gift of words for gaining a nuance in understanding.
      Andy Warhol was very perceptive. I’m trading in my 15 minutes of fame for another dip in the well. 🙂


  6. Language is a means of communication, though not the only means. Language and words also contain their own energy (Umoto’s water experiments showing the energy of words) so there’s more to words than just their symbols and sounds (another type of energy!) 🙂 It all comes down to vibrations which everything is, hence “In the beginning was the word (vibration, but also the Greek: logos which has much deeper meaning than just a word)” This could be book loads of conversation! 🙂


    1. Thank you Julianne Victoria for contributing those insights here! It’s great to hear other perspectives on language.
      I often feel that we continue to circle around the essence, and maybe that is how it should be because of the multi-faceted nature of reality?


  7. These are such hard questions that have many layers – not only the question of whether or not language adequately represents reality, but also does such a thing as a shared reality exist.

    This discussion reminds me of Socrates and his insistence that we all agree on the definitions of terms before we proceed with utilizing them in philosophy. This is a painstaking process, realistically impractical if not impossible.

    I do believe that there is a world beyond language – hence my current obsession with symbols, but even they are limited, or, perhaps not limited but difficult to use in interpersonal communication for the variety of often conflicting / paradoxical meanings they inspire.

    In the end, to me, this is the point where I defer to silence when seeking to peer into the greater truths.To me, silence is not the absence of noise, or the absence of speech, silence exists beneath all of that and is unbroken.

    The trouble is when two people attempt to compare the truths they discovered in silence! Language must be utilized – and we begin the strange dance once again!

    Great post!


    1. I am with Socrates on the importance of defining terms. I often sense that disagreement can happen because of the lack of shared language even when we use the same words.
      In that sense, it may be true that symbols and metaphor offer an opportunity revise our understanding and find harmony, maybe like musicians agreeing to play in the same key?
      Thank you for sharing some great insights. Silence may be the necessary background that allows us to interrupt or erupt into words?


  8. I wonder if your answer(s) are already apparent in the questions you are asking. This reminds me of David Abram and his exploration into the nature of language. I wonder if the clues to the solution might be found in a Zen Koan or a Haiku, or perhaps a dance or a song you sing or a hike or a photograph you take, if you build something, craft something, romp around with a dog or play with a child. Jung built his house to discover the myth of his life or so says Joseph Campbell. Does language exist in all these things to echo back through the well you refer to?


  9. Wow, I keep hearing about the Read Book. I recently saw a copy at a bookstore but it was wrapped up so you could not look at it 😦

    You raise many important questions and I have few answers here. What did occur to me is some clarity about my love of using metaphor. I believe that I use them so often in part because I feel frustrated by the limits of language. I trust that the metaphors will create an image that will ” do the job “. Perhaps it is my natal Mercury retrograde but I have a complicated relationship with words. I enjoy wordplay and examining etymology and the rhythms of sequencing several words together with the same amount of syllables or roots,etc

    Yet when it comes to profoundly sacred or intimately emotional experiences, language often fails me ….

    Plus I live with a very verbal cat that is constantly chatting and I have no idea what he is saying. not meows or howls or squeals, more like feline utterances that are as powerful as anything I have ever said.


    1. Yes, ditto to all you say Linda. After I went to bed last night, I thought maybe people would think I had taken a dive off the deep end, but however it happens, my instincts tell me that we all struggle with language.
      Thanks for sharing your insights here, I do sense a similarity between us in our relationship to language and enjoy meeting you here a little deeper down in the well.


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