“The Ineffable” by Lian-Hee Wee


back-to-basics“Back to Basics” by Tim Kranz

You know, it’s like …,

but the blanks never get filled, even if the response were Yes, absolutely, I know it’s really, you know?

When I was growing up, I didn’t know what was ineffable, nothing was. I said anything I damned pleased except when I can’t find the words for it. Such incidents are common, but I rarely remember them, except the one time when I recalled a pleasant daydream near a side window at the landing of the stairs. The soft sun rays bounced off the green leaves rustling in the breeze and fell on the ceramic floor on which I sat, daydreaming. I was interrupted and called away as little children are sometimes obliged to by others in the house. When I was done, I went back to the same spot, but the window has become dim at dusk. I couldn’t make my mother understand that I needed to get back to that spot, not just in space, but in time. Then again, it was because I had no concept of time at that time, I don’t even remember how old I might have been then. I remembered that I can read the clock, but that was always a pointless exercise of just pleasing the adults who want me to read it. Half past two, if you please, so that I can get back to the sunlight and back to my day dream.

But how does one explain to another what time meant other than a bunch of meaningless numbers, like 7 August 1941, or was that 8 August 1941 because it depends on where you are on the dateline. And with changes in the calendar, correction for leap years and all, it isn’t really as easy as simply setting the date on the dial of your time machine. That’s just obvious, although many would say why bother with the specifics as long as you know what I mean. You know, it’s like …

Nothing much was ineffable, but the list grew with age. Things that are offensive must not be said, and must be said cleverly (or cunningly, if you will). Traditions, meaningless in the first place or have become meaningless, cannot be critiqued because it is taboo to hurt the feelings of others. I cannot give you examples, it is dangerous, but think of any tradition you hold dear, then ask yourself why that is not stupid. No cheating by saying you know, it’s like … or the like. State explicitly the evaluation matrix behind your judgment that the particular tradition is valuable. Here’s a strawman for an example: Lighting of fire crackers is a Chinese tradition in celebration of important holidays and it symbolically wards off evil.

firecrackersFire crackers are now illegal in Hong Kong, but of course people in the New Territories continue the practice, arguing passionately for their efforts in preserving tradition. Now, explain why this is a tradition that has any meaning and needs to be perpetuated. Like I said, this is a strawman, so it’s easy to defeat. Oh, what about stand and face the flag for the national anthem? Wearing fur and eating meat is a personal choice on a way of life? The blocks on our cognition are worse in every aspect of our way of lives, but no, they are to be ineffable; I cannot speak it because I must not speak it. I must not speak of the cruelty of our food, clothes, accessories, religions, education, … Oh no, I have said too much, because now I must be sure to be perfect and flawless. Exploring the ills of humanity is not allowed unless one is already transcended. If I critiqued proponents of hardcopies of books, then I must, by some invisible binary moral law, disprefer hardcopies myself. Really? Can’t one love extant ones without calling for the production of new ones? Can’t one miss the days of fire-crackers while realizing that we should stop all fireworks? Can’t I smile at my childhood memories of the fantasy in the zoo while realizing that animals belong in a natural habitat and we need to stop eating into their living spaces? Can’t I love the sweetness of honey while realizing that we should stop stealing their food and that they are in danger? Can’t I continue to have fear for snakes, while realizing that we are the problem, not them?

Ineffability didn’t use to mean things one is not allowed or is afraid to say. It used to mean things one cannot express with language. Increasingly however, I find ineffability being a better term for my cowardice so that I can avoid dialogue, and more fearfully, confrontation. I also find ineffability a better term for my laziness to find the right words or metaphor, citing inability rather than inanity. I also find ineffability to be a better way to make friends, who then nod knowingly and sympathetically assuming that what I wish to convey is what they wish to understand. Ineffable is a better adjective than taboo, coward, vain, … I can’t express myself, but I know what you mean, and I’m sure you and I agree 100%. As to the evil that one would have F-ed, they too therefore become in-F-able. So, here we have it, a Machiavellian strategy to resonance, sympathy and peace.

Nota Bene: Tenses in this piece may fail grammatically because of time.

Editor’s note:
“The Ineffable” was first published
in the newsletter of
Effulgence – HKBU English Language and Literature Society 1516.


Lian-HeeLian-Hee Wee is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by or about Lian-Hee.]

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