Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Language of Rapture, the Rapture of Language

People usually associate “rapture” less with ascension into heaven than the experience of heaven here on earth. This often relates to romantic rather than spiritual passion. According to A.E. Housman, “If truth in hearts that perish/Could move the powers on high/I think the love I bear you/Should make you not to die.” That’s a whole lot of emotion in not very many mostly one-syllable words.

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte is less understated. But the expression of Catherine’s love for Heathcliff could make anyone yearn to reject the fiancé and instead become a ghost inhabiting the beloved for eternity: “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

Words might seem less rapturous than other art forms, because language affects daily life in ways that sculpture or sonatas don’t. But as Diane Setterfield puts it in The Thirteenth Tale, “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

And while poets possess many crafty devices not entirely available to prose writers, novelists possess a very large bag of rapturous tricks. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is about love between friends, between humans and animals, and between spouses: “I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin. I lie motionless, savoring the feeling of her body against mine. I’m afraid to breathe in case I break the spell.” 

But rapture in language is neither mainly about love nor exclusively from poetry. Any genre can capture rapture, whether romance, passion, spirituality, philosophy, or morality. Here’s a beginning by Neil Gaiman from Anansi Boys: “The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.”

Tip: To find the words to express rapture, you must first visualize rapture in your novel’s world.

That’s what novels can do to readers—for decades, for centuries. However weightless, words originate magic. As Shakespeare observed, “If this be error, and upon me prov’d/I never writ nor no man ever loved.”

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