Beyond words Print E-mail
News - Final Word
Tuesday, 22 May 2018 10:02
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The things we have no words for we pass over in silence.

Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that. About a hundred years later herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner gives probably the best explanation of this idea I’ve ever heard – puppies.

Voicing-the-invisible, he describes a little puppy walking across the floor. You know the way puppies always walk with their back legs kind of faster than their front legs? This puppy is smelling the floor, totally caught up in wonder. Then you call out: “Here, boy.” And the puppy looks up and goes: “It’s you! I’ve been waiting my whole life to find you!”

And you feel this burst of energy coming out of the puppy and this burst of energy leaves you and goes towards the puppy. This thing between the two of you – it’s one of the most important things in life, says Stephen. But we don’t have a word for it. So, we can’t talk about it.

Stephen says that he has spent much of his life seeking words; searching for ways to talk about experiences that we all have every day, but that we pass over in silence because we’ve learned no words for them.

In Nina George’s novel, ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’, Jean Perdu tries to give words to emotions we all have by writing the ‘Great Encyclopaedia of Small Emotions: A Guide for Booksellers, Lovers and Other Literary Pharmacists’.

The encyclopaedia goes from A for “Anxiety about picking up hitchhikers” to E for “Early risers’ smugness” through to Z for “Zealous toe concealment or the fear that the sight of your feet might destroy someone’s love for you”.

The entry under K is “Kitchen solace – the feeling that a delicious meal is simmering on the kitchen stove, misting up the windows, and that at any moment your lover will sit down to dinner with you . . .”

Trying to pin-point these emotions is not the only thing Parisian bookseller Jean Perdu does. In his barge moored on the Seine, a floating bookstore named the ‘Literary Apothecary’, he sells novels as medicine to cure life’s ills.

“A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books,” says Jean.

In this novel, Nina George uses Emil Erich Kästner’s idea of books as remedies. He was a German author, poet and screenwriter who published a ‘Lyrical Medicine Chest’ in 1936. In the foreword he wrote: “This volume is dedicated to the therapy of private life. It addresses – mainly in homoeopathic doses – the minor and major ailments of existence and helps with the treatment of the average inner life.”

The character Jean Perdu treats feelings, which are not recognised as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors, with books. “All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in because they are apparently too minor and intangible: When you realise that you don’t have your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood or the birthday morning blues.”

It is to “relieve such inexplicable yet real suffering” that Jean sells some words as first-aid kits, but also compiles courses of treatment. “Read this. Three pages every morning before breakfast, lying down. It has to be the first thing you take in. In a few weeks you won’t feel quite so sore  . . .”

At the end of the novel there is a list of books described as fast-acting medicines for minds and hearts affected by minor or moderate emotional turmoil, starting with ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams: Effective in large doses for treating pathological optimism.

Muriel Barbery’s book, ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’, is prescribed as an effective cure for if-such-and-such-happens-ism. Herman Hesse’s poem ‘Stages’ is prescribed for grief and is said to inspire you to trust.

Franz Kafka’s short story, ‘Investigations of a Dog’, is a remedy for the odd sensation of being generally misunderstood. Its side effects are: pessimism and a longing to stroke a cat.

Those of us who’ve been brought up by books know that fictional characters help us to find words for inexpressible emotions that silently have been making our lives worthwhile. You know, girlfriend, maybe it’s not we who whittle words, but the words we use that whittle us.

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