Limits of Language OR Re-Writing Life Redux

“But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story–and there are so many, and so many–stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death,and so on; and none of them are true.

-Virginia Woolf, The Waves

little shane

I was a clumsy kid. I’d be willing to bet that we all hit an awkward phase at some point. Mine started sometime around birth and ended sometime around grad school. I was doofy-looking with Problem Child red hair, and I often dressed as Godzilla. I fell down a lot and was easily tripped.

I spent my childhood falling down.


As I spent the night reflecting on yesterday’s post (using my memory, of course), my understanding of the deficiencies of memory started evolving. This evolution is due, in part, to excellent comments from Miranda Stone and Jess West regarding their vivid memories of first grade teachers and first kiss recipients (deliverers?).

And they’re right. They are 100% right. I remember my first grade teacher. She was an awful woman, and I remember her face and how she wore thick-rimmed glasses before MSNBC made it a requirement of the liberal uniform. I remember her constant snarl–you may call it a case of the bitch face.

I also remember the first girl I kissed, but I won’t go into it.

The memories are there. My brain has the ability to call them up. All of them (unless I’m repressing something which is a conversation for a very different day).

So our revision of life and lived experience is something else for at least some of us. It’s not just a faulty memory.


It was some church function I think. I don’t quite remember (see?) what it was. It could have even been a family reunion, but that is way out of character for my family.

I was running around. I must have been in the neighborhood of three-years-old. I was running and I slipped and I fell into a gigantic mud hole. I was covered from head to toe in the thick mud. And I was embarrassed, looking for my family–my mom–so we could come up with a plan to replace my drippy, brown clothes with fresh and clean ones.


In the first grade, I was the picture of a nerd, and not the kind that is popular now. I was the kind of nerd that will always be unpopular. I wore hardcore denim shorts and little Batman t-shirts. There was this new kid in my class–Leo (not a pseudonym). Leo challenged me to a foot-race on the playground, and when we took off, Leo stuck his foot out and tripped me. I fell hard, and I didn’t know how to feel. It was my first encounter with a bully.

Leo continued to find excuses to trip me on the playground. I dreaded recess and started to dread school. One afternoon, Leo tried to trip me and two magical things happened: 1) a teacher saw him, and 2) I jumped over his outstretched foot. It was like a Matrix movie. I swear I experienced the moment in slow motion, and I felt proud.

Leo never tried to trip me again.


limits of languageMy memory is fine. I’m full of those stupid little kid stories from my childhood. And yes, most of them involve falling down. But, as the great philosophers of our time once said, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down” (Chumbawumba).

And as for the stories I told yesterday about ex-girlfriends. I remember them just fine too…if I make myself think about them for long enough.

But there is a line between the expressible and objective reality and the experienced and subjective perceptions of the person experiencing the reality. I define what I experience, and you define what you experience. And in the event that you’re there, you’ll also define what I experience, but you’ll define it for yourself.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a linguistic determinist, posits that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” which is to say that our ability to make meaning out of experience is limited by our ability to use words to describe it. We are, in other world, held prisoner by our very finite linguistic system.

Furthermore, my ability to convey an experience to you depends directly on both shared/common experience and shared/common language. I can tell you that I was embarrassed and proud, but you only know the feelings that you experience when you have been your version of embarrassed or proud. The language doesn’t exist to convey those things accurately–to transmit my experience to you.

We lean upon the conventions of literature to get as close as possible. Figurative language is a huge help in this. It takes concrete and objective items and compares them to subjective experience. It isn’t perfect, but it’s almost all we have.

So maybe we don’t re-write our lives because we don’t remember them (necessarily). Maybe we re-write our lives because we don’t possess the language to tell our stories as they were lived.


Once, when I was WAY young, I fell in a fire ant bed. I don’t remember it. I only know that story about myself because other people told me.

Maybe our tendency to re-write is a little of both? A little “limits of language” and a little “limits of memory?”





7 thoughts on “Limits of Language OR Re-Writing Life Redux

  1. You bring up some great points here, Shane. I like that quote by Wittgenstein. As much as we depend upon language to convey what we think and feel to others, it makes me wonder why many of us still aren’t very good at making ourselves clear through verbal communication. Heck, even the most articulate among us can easily recall a time when the meaning of our words was misinterpreted by someone else. What is it–like 90% of our communication is actually nonverbal? And memories really are tricky things. Your anecdote about falling in a fire ant bed (ouch!), and the fact that you don’t remember it but believe it’s true because trustworthy people in your life said that it happened is interesting. It makes me think of that study that revealed just how easy it is to implant false memories into people’s brains. (Not that I’m saying this is a false memory implanted in your brain.) But researchers did an experiment where they managed to convince people that they were lost in a shopping mall as a child, and it was a very traumatic experience for them. Family members of the test subject swore that it was true and described the event in great detail, to the point where the person was certain it had happened, and they were beginning to recall the experience, when it actually never occurred. Memories are malleable and therefore have the potential to be dangerous. (It really sucks that you had a horrible first grade teacher, too. And for what it’s worth, I’m STILL in my awkward phase and most likely will be until death.)

    • I really appreciate this comment AND the one from yesterday. Your bit about the test where subjects had their memories altered through stories is really interesting. Now I feel like I need to go confront my parents about the ant bed!

      I’m accused at times of being too word-picky…and that’s probably true. I DO know what people mean most of the time when I ask for clarity. It’s just a habit at this point to want to get at the exactness of an utterance.

      Thanks for stopping by! And for always having awesome comments!

  2. “But there is a line between the expressible and objective reality and the experienced and subjective perceptions of the person experiencing the reality. I define what I experience, and you define what you experience. And in the event that you’re there, you’ll also define what I experience, but you’ll define it for yourself.”

    That’s kinda brilliant, man. Thanks for the Shout!

  3. Interesting thoughts about those stories we heard about ourselves … I have a couple, though in both cases, I can verify parts of the tales from my own memory and from subsequent events. For example, I have a scar on my chin, which is actually smaller than it was 60 years ago, because my parents arranged somehow to take me to a plastic surgeon to have it reduced in size. There are photographs of me before the surgery. Anyway, I don’t remember much of the incident that caused the scar, but heard the story so often that it “feels like a movie” if that makes sense —- it seems I ignored warnings to not touch anything on the table, grabbed my new glass, and ran to show it to my Daddy, tripping over an uneven door-sill. The local doctor was partially blind, and I kicked & screamed so much that the stitches were pulled too tight. I must have been about 2 & 1/2 when that happened. The plastic surgery came when I was in the first grade. THAT I do remember clearly. It never occurred to me to question the veracity of the initial event, and everyone else who was there is now dead. Oh, well, it has always made for a good story!

    • It IS a good story! All of this is a little bit “big fish” right? The people who tell the stories might make them bigger. We might make them bigger than that since we have no real way of measuring our understanding of the story against the actual event if we don’t remember the event for ourselves. Crazy stuff.

      Thanks for stopping by, Linda!

  4. Well done on jumping over Leo’s foot! You’re the portrait of “improvise, adapt, overcome”!

    Figures of speech are a great way to jump over linguistic boundaries — I’m a big fan of metaphor and I lean on simile too much — or you can just borrow from other languages.

  5. Pingback: Molecular Love | Virtual Napkins

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