• Mags Webster

What is the connection between politics, poetry, John Ruskin’s theory of the grotesque, and apophasis, a form of rhetoric that is hundreds of years old? The perhaps surprising answer is the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump. Since the days of his presidential campaign trail, media commentators have been linking Trump’s various pronouncements to ‘apophasis’ (or saying away), a form of rhetoric which poets, theologians and philosophers have used since Platonic times as a means of dealing with what lies beyond language. Yet is Trump actually following in this tradition? As a poet who is researching the relevance and advantages of apophasis to contemporary poetic practice, I suggest not. This essay draws on my research and on Ruskin’s definitions of the grotesque to argue that the media’s linkage of apophasis with Trump’s declarative style is in fact a misinterpretation of the term, and that both this misinterpretation and what Trump is actually doing with his speeches and tweets undermines what is of most value in apophasis.


On 20 January 2017, the US presidential inauguration of Donald John Trump took place. His ascendancy to this office ushered in a new style of global and domestic political leadership, appearing to invert the old saw ‘actions speak louder than words’. For as electorates, observers, and media have realised, Trump’s words do indeed speak just as loud as actions, and sometimes, way louder.

Trump set the precedent in his June 2015 presidential candidacy announcement speech, where he employed the showmanship and braggadocio of a patent medicine salesman: ‘I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. I tell you that’ (Trump 2015).

Like a modern-day Caesar, he refers to himself in the third person: ‘Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. Nobody’. He reveals his total net worth, in the tens of millions of dollars, and adds: ‘I’m not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don’t have to brag. I don’t have to, believe it or not’ (Trump 2015). Yet we somehow all get the message that by denying that he is bragging, and by seeming to downplay his financial insuperability, Trump could not be emphasising his wealth (and therefore, in his value system, his superiority) more effectively. Thus, with this ploy of mentioning by not mentioning, Trump adds to his tactical and rhetorical repertoire something that commentators will henceforward state is ‘apophasis’.

During the election campaign trail in 2016, a New York Times opinion piece mentions Mr Trump’s ‘favourite rhetorical devices, apophasis’ (Roller 2016). In the same month, a headline from The Revealer, an online publication from the Center of Religion and Media at New York University, reads: ‘Trumpophasis: On What Cannot be Said’ (Blanchfield 2016).

In September 2016, a blog post entitled ‘Apophasis and Trump’ written by Dr Conrad Brunstrom from the National University of Ireland dubs Trump’s rhetorical tactics during the first of his televised debates with Hillary Clinton as ‘Cowardly School Bully Apophasis’ (Brunstrom 2016). The moment Brunstrom is highlighting, an exchange between moderator Lester Holt and Trump, is reproduced here from The Washington Post transcript of the debate:

TRUMP: But you want to know the truth? I was going to say something ...

HOLT: Please very quickly.

TRUMP: ... extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice’. (Blake 2016)

According to Brunstrom, the apophasis happens with Trump admitting first that he was going to say something derogatory, and then second, by declaring he is withdrawing that intention. There is clearly a rhetorical process at work here. But is it apophasis?

In this essay, I argue that it is not. In order to build my argument, I offer first an examination of the provenance and development of apophasis as a literary means of dealing with the ineffable, referencing religious, mystical, philosophical and artistic writers. Then, drawing on Ruskin’s theory of the grotesque, occasioned by the ‘confusion of the imagination by the presence of truths it cannot wholly grasp’ (Ruskin 2015: 102) in order to convey ‘truths which nothing else could convey’ (Ruskin 2015: 105), I survey examples of Trump’s so-called ‘apophasis’ to determine exactly the type of rhetorical device he is harnessing.

I suggest that the media’s linking of apophasis with Trump’s declarative style is in fact misleading, and that what Trump is actually doing with his speeches and tweets, far from using this form of rhetoric, actually undermines what is of most value in apophasis. Referencing my research with regard to the relationship between poetry, apophasis and the ineffable, I explain how, in its productive rendering, apophasis can enrich and extend our creative, emotional, philosophical and poetic relationship to what language can and cannot say.


Apophasis: rendering ‘The Missing All’ (Dickinson 1975: 459)

He is none of the things that has no being, none of the things that have being. None of the things that are known know him for what he is. (Dionysius, in Wolters 1978: 217)

The passage quoted above refers not to Donald Trump but to God; it is taken from an influential apophatic text called The Mystical Theology (ca. 400–500 ce / 1978).

Apophasis is a Greek word with a complex, and, from its earliest appearance in Platonic times, constantly evolving meaning. At its most rudimentary level, it can be understood as the practice of defining things in terms of what they are not; yet from this relatively simple origin, apophasis has progressed to become integral to poetic, theological and philosophical approaches to the ineffable, in both Eastern and Western traditions.

Ever since humankind started using language as the primary method of communication and expression, we have been experiencing not only language’s richness—through the multiplicity of the ways in which things may be said and understood—but also language’s limitations. We use words, written and spoken, in our endeavour to articulate (to ourselves and to others) the myriad ways we interact with the world around us. Much of what we want to say (or write) lies within the grasp of language; yet when we want to articulate moments of intense experience or emotion, language frequently appears to fall short of our needs, and we confess to being ‘lost for words’, or perhaps more accurately, lost, ‘for want’ of words. Apophasis has, to a large degree, helped us find a way of negotiating language at its point of breakdown, and drawing closer to expressing the ineffable. 

For centuries the issue of ineffability has pervaded philosophical, poetic, and theological discourse, testing our powers of articulacy as well as intellect. Writers and thinkers in both Eastern and Western traditions have grappled with ineffability in an attempt to engage spiritually, creatively or theoretically with inexpressible or even unknowable concepts, such as the nature of being, or the nature of God. Though they may not have succeeded—the ineffable is, after all, ineffable—their struggles to articulate what lies beyond words have given rise to profound and poetic writing spanning epochs, continents, and cultures: from the dialogues of Plato (429?–347 bce), and the Tao Te Ching (ca. 400 bce) to the treatises of Neoplatonists such as Plotinus (205–270 ce), Porphyry (ca. 232–304 ce), Proclus (ca. 412–485 ce) and Damascius (ca 462–538 ce); from the screeds of the early Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish mystics and grammarians[1] to the passionate soul-hymns of penitents and laity such as  Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), Marguerite Porete (d.1310) and John of the Cross (1542–1591); and from the intellectual manoeuvres and neologisms of philosophers like Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003), Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), and Jean-Luc Marion (1946–) to the enigmatic and lyrical word-tourney of countless poets dating from antiquity to modern times: Jelaluddin Balkhi, otherwise known as Rumi (1207–1273), Dante (1265–1321), John Donne (1572–1631), Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), TS Eliot (1888–1965), Edmond Jabès (1912–1991), Paul Celan (1920–1970), and Charles Wright (1935–). For the purposes of this essay, however, I will focus on the evolution of apophasis principally in the Western tradition.

According to poet and scholar Reginald Gibbons, apophasis combines ‘a verb for “to say” (phanai) and a prefix (apo) which in this use means “away from, down from, far, from”’ (Gibbons 2007). While the Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning ‘to “speak off”, deny’ (OED 2015), scholar of Islamic history and literature Michael A Sells interprets apophasis as ‘un-saying or speaking-away’ (Sells 1994: 2). Etymologically, and as originally used by Plato and refined by his student Aristotle (384–322 bce),[2]2 the word apophasis ‘simply meant “negation” … used … to mean a negative proposition, a denial’ (Franke 2007a: 1).

Neoplatonists took cues from Plato’s writings, particularly his Parmenides (370 bce / 1894) and the Seventh Letter (360 bce /1932), to add to the discourse around the ineffable, and elaborate on the difficulties inherent in reflecting on what is not sayable. In his text Doubts and Solutions Concerning First Principles (ca. 500 ce / 2010) Damascius, whom scholar William Franke considers to have ‘conclude[d] the genealogy of ancient pagan Neoplatonist philosophers’ (Franke 2004: 21), explicitly acknowledges the aporia at the heart of ‘talking about’ ineffability, asking how it can be possible for the ineffable to be described as:

completely unknowable; for if this is true, how can we write all these things, dilating upon it … Moreover, even its being unknowable is an unknowability that we either know or ignore. But if we ignore it, how do we say that it is wholly unknowable? And if we know it, it is to that extent already knowable, inasmuch as, being unknowable, it is recognized as unknowable. (Damascius, in Franke 2004: 30) 

This questioning indicates how, from a conceptual standpoint, apophasis was beginning rapidly to outgrow its original meaning of ‘denial’ to develop a more metaphysical and nuanced resonance. As Franke explains, ‘Neoplatonists, followed by monotheistic writers, extend the term to mean the negation of speech vis-à-vis what exceeds all possibilities of expression altogether’ (Franke 2007a: 2). Gibbons (2007) concurs: ‘the apophatic is not simply negation’. It is thus much more than a system of rhetoric used purely to oppose or cancel out an assertion. Speaking ‘away’ from a subject does not necessarily enact the opposite of speaking ‘about’ it. Apophasis ‘can imply something that is in fact present despite the absence or inadequacy of a name for it … or present as an absence’ (Gibbons 2007; emphasis in original). It draws attention to what might be said, if only there were words to say it.

Accordingly, as its meaning and the possibilities for its conceptual use and interpretation developed, apophasis was adopted by early Western theologians and clerics as part of negative theology or via negativa, a mode of thinking and writing that could accommodate references to God, or at least deal with the impossibility of describing God.

By the time Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500)[3]—a figure about whom little is known—produces one of the seminal apophatic[4] and mystical texts, De Mystica Theologica or The Mystical Theology in the sixth century, apophasis has moved beyond the basics of negative phraseology to encompass ‘what is beyond words—and indeed beyond the limits of language altogether’ (Franke 2007a: 2). The Mystical Theology and Dionysius’ other texts were translated from Greek into Latin in the ninth century by Irishman John Scotus Eriugena, and then into English by an anonymous fourteenth-century cleric. The translator, thought to be a priest from the East Midlands in the UK,[5] may also have been responsible for the second seminal apophatic (and mystical) text in Christian theology, the fourteenth-century The Cloud of Unknowing (ca. late 1300s/1978), a book that draws heavily on and endorses Dionysius’ earlier writings.[6]

The Mystical Theology and The Cloud of Unknowing [The Cloud] are important not only because they are perhaps the best-known examples of apophatic religious texts, but also because they use the vernacular—the language of the common populace—to address spiritual matters, rather than the traditional ecclesiastical languages of Latin or Greek. ‘For it is through this passing beyond yourself and every other thing … that you will be caught up in love beyond the range of intellect to the super-essential ray of divine darkness’ promises the first chapter of The Mystical Theology (Dionysius, in Wolters 1978: 209), while The Cloud gives similar counsel: ‘When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God’ (anon, in Wolters 1978: 61).

At the same time, across medieval Europe, mystics such as the French beguine Marguerite Porete,[7] and the Dominican friar Meister Eckhart,[8] are also producing important apophatic manuscripts in the vernacular. Later proponents include Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464),[9] who develops Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of ‘learned ignorance’ in a range of works examining the nature of God, the universe and humankind’s relationship to both, Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)[10] and St John of the Cross, who is best known for his long poem Noche obscura del alma or ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ (1991); and Jakob Böhme (1575–1624).[11]

By the twentieth century, apophasis has again shifted meaning and emphasis, and has become embedded once again within philosophical discourse. While the religious paradigm of negation is not entirely abandoned by modern philosophers, the discourse around ineffability has gravitated towards issues of an epistemological and semiotic nature: language and being, and language’s relationship to being. For example, Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) is considering the origin of negation in Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1991 [1958]): ‘The permanent possibility of non-being, outside us and within, conditions our questions about being’ (Sartre 1991 [1958]: 5) he writes. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), having produced the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922/2010), which concludes with the famous phrase: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (Wittgenstein 2010: 90), seems to revise this position in Philosophical Investigations (1953/2009).[12] In On The Way to Language (1971), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) observes that ‘everything spoken stems in a variety of ways from the unspoken, whether this be something not yet spoken, or whether it be what must remain unspoken in the sense that it is beyond the reach of speaking’ (Heidegger 1971: 120). More recently, in ‘Literature and the Right to Death’ from The Work of Fire (1995), Maurice Blanchot is writing:

Language can only begin with the void; no fullness, no certainty can ever speak … Negation is tied to language … a nothing demands to speak, nothing speaks, nothing finds its being in speech, and the being of speech is nothing. (Blanchot 1995: 324) 

William Franke, one of the most insightful contemporary scholars of apophasis, contends that ‘apophasis has become—and is still becoming—a major topic in all the disciplines of the humanities’ (Franke 2007a: 3), explaining ‘there is increasingly a tendency today to recognize the implicit presence of the unuttered and even the unutterable as a necessary presupposition underlying every utterance’ (Franke 2007a: 9).

This necessary presupposition, moreover, has always been foundational to poetry. For in pushing language to the extremes of what is ‘sayable’, poetry has a natural affinity with apophasis. Dickinson, Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), Eliot, Jabès, Celan, A.R. Ammons (1926–2001), Mark Strand (1934–2014), Charles Wright, Charles Simic (1938–), Robert Adamson (1943–), and Don Paterson (1963–) are among the many notable poets who, intentionally or not, have responded apophatically to the desire to write into ‘the unseen bulking in from the edges of things, / Changing the frame with its nothingness’ (Wright, in Costello and Wright 2001: 327).

Whether the writing carries a theological, mystical, poetic or philosophical purpose, apophasis facilitates the destabilisation and dissolution of language. Importantly for poetry, I believe, apophasis also enables the poet to ask more of both poetic language’s elasticity and torsion, as well as its formal constraints: to curve, unsettle and realign the tensions and pliancy of poetry, ‘in order to let what is other to language break out or break free’ (Franke 2007b: 44; emphasis added). For the ‘other’ to language, haunting and modulating everything that language can do or say, is everything language cannot say. 

Which is why John Ruskin saw fit to include poetry in his definition of the fine grotesque as ‘that which arises out of the use or fancy of tangible signs to set for an otherwise less expressible truth’ (Ruskin 2015: 103).


Ruskin, the grotesque, and Trump 

In Volume III of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin, the leading art critic of the Victorian era, develops the theory that he first started earlier in the same decade with his discussion of the gothic in The Stones of Venice (2008), and elaborates on his analysis of the three types of the grotesque. The first type, he asserts, is ‘art arising from healthful but irrational play of the imagination in times of rest’ (Ruskin 2015: 102). The second, less benign form, is ‘art arising from irregular and accidental contemplation of terrible things; or evil in general’ (Ruskin 2015: 102). These first two types of the grotesque, Ruskin claims, are inferior, arising from ‘idleness’ and ‘malice’. The third, however, he says is the noblest. This is a subtle and humorous art that arises from the ‘confusion of the imagination by the presence of truths it cannot wholly grasp’ (2015: 102) in order to convey ‘truths which nothing else could convey’ (2015: 105). A form of the grotesque that is allusive and indirect, this third form includes most symbolic and allegorical art, Ruskin suggests, and significantly, poetry. It invites the beholder or reader to work out what these ‘truths which nothing else could convey’ might be, and opens up the possibilities of meaning: it is respectful of its audience’s intelligence.

Ruskin’s so-called noble grotesque, with its suggestive qualities, its usefulness in pointing towards the inexpressible, and the skill required of the practitioner in making it do so, has similarities to apophasis, in which, as Franke offers: ‘language shows itself … as the gateway to the mystery of the unsayable beyond language’ (Franke 2014: 64).

Ruskin cautions however that the inferior versions of the grotesque are easily mistaken for the real thing. Likewise apophasis. For, as I hope this essay is demonstrating, far from being an anachronism, apophasis is now being brought to popular consciousness in the twenty-first century, in part thanks to Trump. Yet by being misleadingly described as the apparently disingenuous way in which someone can draw attention to a subject simply by stating that he or she is not going to mention, praise or disparage that subject, apophasis is being misinterpreted. An LA Times article about Trump entitled ‘Talking about not talking about Bill Clinton’s infidelities’ opens with this statement: ‘Apophasis, as students of rhetoric know, is the speechmaker’s trick of raising a nasty subject by saying you’re not going to talk about it’ (McManus 2016). On 11 November 2017, a tweet from @realDonaldTrump reads: ‘Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old”, when I would NEVER call him “short and fat”?’ (Trump 2017; capitals in original). Word for word, Trump spells out the insult that he says he is not going to deliver.

This tweet is subsequently analysed by journalist Stefan Kostarelis, who asserts that Trump is falling back on one of his favourite rhetorical devices and states that ‘this isn’t the first time Trump has weaponised apophasis’ (Kostarelis 2017).

Except that this is not apophasis. What is happening in this tweet, and in all of the other instances where Trump draws attention to something by saying he will not talk about it, is paralipsis. Paralipsis, or preterition, as it is sometimes known, is defined in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics as ‘the device by which a speaker draws attention to a topic by claiming not to speak of that topic … [and] a narrower term than apophasis’ (Greene et al. 2012: 997). While there is no doubt that Trump is supremely skilled at paralipsis, he is not achieving anything like the nuance or expansiveness afforded by apophasis.

The crucial difference between paralipsis and apophasis—terms which seem to be taken erroneously to be synonymous by many commentators—is that paralipsis depends upon the specific naming of the issue, action or item that the speaker says cannot be named (or must not happen, perhaps because it involves the utterance of a taboo), thus undoing the negation that conditions it. It is like delivering the punchline before the joke. The negation invoked by apophasis, on the other hand, as Raoul Mortley explains, ‘is understood as making a statement of difference only, and there is no sense in which the negative contradicts or opposes. A negation is therefore very much an open statement: a non-specific affirmation. Not-Y means everything but Y’ (Mortley 1986: 137). This ‘open statement’ is important. Apophasis opens up a space resonant with everything that has not been and maybe cannot be said; it offers multiple possibilities, multiple interpretations, for what things might be. By defining things in terms of what they are not, apophasis is not closing things down but opening them up. Paralipsis does the opposite, because it both articulates and makes explicit the statements that must not be said, thus cutting off further conversation or dialogue.

Yet in signifying what cannot be said, apophasis in fact shows that much more might be said, if only it were sayable. The effect of apophasis is to gesture towards an openness and possibility of meaning, intimations that seem beyond the limits of language. Apophasis plays on the relational nature of language, as an open, communicative exchange, or ‘a creative, on-going process of joint action between people’ (Penman & Turnbull, in Penman 2012: 55). What Trump does, through paralipsis, and in many of his declarations, is treat language purely as transactional, as ‘simply an instrument to bring about an effect’ (Penman 2012: 52).

Trump’s world, moreover—on the evidence of his semantics at least—is binary. For example, President Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines is either to be congratulated for doing ‘an unbelievable job’ (Trump, in Calamur 2018) or he is ‘terrible’ (Trump, in Lee & Quealy 2018). Kim Jong-un is either ‘obviously a madman’ (Trump, in Lee & Quealy 2018), or a ‘great personality and very smart’ (Trump, in Financial Times 2018). Trump applies the finger-pointing hyperbole and snap judgement of The Apprentice (NBC 2004–2015) catchphrases ‘you’re fired’ or ‘you’re hired’ to his (essentially commercially motivated) transactions with ideologies, countries and individuals.

Trump may think he is being clever and subtle with these statements, or maybe he feels powerful enough not even to care. Either way, the effects are a coarsening of rhetoric and an erasure of any ethical or meaningful nuance, and with more than a hint of misogyny: ‘the only thing [Hillary Clinton’s] got going is the woman’s card’ (Trump, in Gearan & Zezima 2016) or racism: ‘why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?’ (Trump, in Dawsey 2018).

It is apparent that nobody, in living memory, at least, makes such a virtue of inarticulacy and innuendo for political impact in quite the way ‘The Donald; does. He is ripping up the rhetorical rulebook for would-be politicians. No one could accuse him of being mealy-mouthed, yet even his most avid supporters could not describe him as deft or subtle with language. With Trump, soap opera meets soapbox, diplomacy defers to deal-speak, where ‘reality’ is trumped by the contrivance more familiar in the set pieces of so-called reality TV.

But for many people, Trump’s undoubtedly direct and unvarnished rhetoric is precisely the manner in which they want to hear a leader speak. Trump’s apparent lack of nuance and his inability or refusal to make a point with elegance is considered straight-talking by a large proportion of the population who may never have felt that anyone in authority spoke directly to and for them, unless to put them down. Trump’s words may be blunt, but for many, that bluntness is their strength. Some may deplore his style as un-presidential (at best), however, others may consider that a leader who is most comfortable in the language of the marketplace—‘a really bad deal’ (Trump, in Schwartz 2018)—or the street superlative: ‘it’s going to be a big, fat, beautiful wall’ (Trump, in Finnegan 2016) is a leader who will not allow complicated words to stand in for direct actions. As linguist Dennis Baron observes: ‘The Age of fake news, Fox News, and Trump™ is causing us to rethink everything we know about how language works’ (Baron 2017).

Whether we are impressed or bemused, beguiled or horrified by Trump’s rhetoric, we cannot ignore what a leader like Trump says, nor how he says it. Thus an apparently insignificant error over the identification of a seemingly obscure rhetorical practice such as apophasis may seem inconsequential, yet I suggest it should send warning signals to anyone who values language, not only as a means of forging social connection but also as an expressive and artistic medium; to anyone who respects words as one of the most powerful ways in which humans make sense and meaning of ourselves, each other, and the world.


Apophasis and poetry: words in search of the ineffable

As stated at the beginning of this essay, I am researching apophasis and the relationship between poetry and the ineffable. As such, it matters to me that apophasis is not misinterpreted and, crucially, not misunderstood. I also believe, however, there is an argument that the proper appreciation and understanding of apophasis matters beyond a purely scholarly interest, and that this has relevance for us all.  

Poetically, apophasis is discernible in denial, feint, equivocation, and subversion. Negativity ‘constantly lures absence into presence. While continually subverting that presence, negativity … changes it into a carrier of absence of which we would not otherwise know anything’ (Budick & Iser 1996: xiii). Silence is also a carrier of that absence. As Gudrun Grabher and Ulrike Jessner attest, ‘the unsaid is as much part of the poem as are the words, thematically and technically’ (Grabher & Jessner 1996: xiv), and the poem’s silence ‘speaks’ in the interstices of punctuation and words, and their interplay with the space of the page.

Shaped by apophasis, poetic language is most powerful when it directs our attentiveness to the non-verbal, the better to apprehend—even if we do not fully understand—what further dimensions of meaning, or further dimensions of ourselves, poems may reveal. Reveal but not say. Out of all the literary arts, this capacity to use the strengths and inadequacies of words to point beyond words is how and why and where poetry can excel; and apophasis, entwined with poetic language and structure, helps the poem gesture—not through explanation but through intimation—towards the inarticulable.

The poet Octavio Paz (1914–1988) wrote that poetry ‘is at once the destruction and the creation of language, the destruction of words and meanings, the realm of silence, but at the same time, words in search of the Word’ (Paz, in Alazraki 1976: 41). ‘If a poem is to be pure … the poet’s voice must be stilled’, said nineteenth-century French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (Mallarmé, in Bruns 2001 [1974]: 105). The great Sufi mystic Rumi ended his poem ‘A Thirsty Fish’ thus:


This is how it always is

when I finish a poem.


A great silence overcomes me,

and I wonder why I ever thought

to use language. (Rumi 2004: 20)


The irony (of course) in attempting to speak of what cannot be spoken is that any form of words, negative or affirmative, that purports to express the inexpressible has already ruptured any possibility of drawing closer to ‘expressing’ true ineffability. William Franke observes that ‘only linguistically is this “beyond” of language discernible at all. Language must unsay or annul itself in order to let this unsayable something, which is nothing, no thing at any rate, somehow register in its very evasion of all attempts to say it’ (Franke 2007a: 2). Yet if apophasis cannot help us overcome ineffability, it does nevertheless expand the possibilities of interpretation and meaning by gesturing towards the unsayable, and this gesturing brings us closer to the limits of language. It is, however, a subtle art. Contemporary poets who wish to follow the example of Emily Dickinson’s ‘world-opening celebration of limits’ (Gardner 2006: 6) must somehow, suggests scholar Thomas Gardner, ‘explore ways of awakening language to what it is unable to master’ (Gardner 2006: 178).

Poetry has the power to stretch our senses and perplex our comprehension to their extremes, to the point where language disappears. Poems, these patterns of words and spaces, are emissaries of humanness in all its mystery, or of being human as far as we know, which includes offering us the means to acknowledge, verbally or implicitly, that there is much more we do not know. We use poems to articulate what does not make sense; what we fear may be true but cannot prove; what we hope might exist, even if ‘its’ existence is predicated on whatever ‘The Missing All’ (Dickinson 1975: 459) might be.

In conclusion, I look to the words of a respected contemporary American poet. Since 2017, Tracy . Smith has served as the Poet Laureate of the United States. During her first year, she travelled to rural communities as a bit of a thought experiment as well as to ‘share her love of poetry and listen to how others experience it’ (Smith 2018). She went to places like addiction clinics and air force bases in rural South Carolina, Kentucky and New Mexico, states that are Republican heartlands, supporters of Trump. Smith then shared her findings in an address to the Library of Congress:

It’s been a privilege to share … the work of … contemporary poets with strangers that crowdsourcing algorithms tell me I ought to have nothing in common with, and to hear people say things like, I’m white, you’re black; I’m from this place, you’re from another, and yet, when you talk about your father you restore my own father to me. (Smith 2018; emphasis in original)

In the way in which poets of her calibre seem singularly equipped to do, she offers a lucid, sane and passionate defence of well-chosen and deeply considered language—‘our chief vehicle for meaning’ (Smith 2018)—as an antidote to the digital age of the grab, the tweet, the ‘like’, the sound-bite, the crude comment and the throwaway line:   

As a writer, [she writes] I’m convinced that one of the only defences against the degradations of our market-driven culture is to cleave to language that fosters humility, awareness of complexity, commitment to the lives of others and a resistance to the overly easy and the patently false. Poetry is one vehicle for this humanizing, reanimating version of language, because the features of a poem insist upon a different value system. (Smith 2018)

This value system, she argues, ‘puts us in touch with something bigger than language’ (Smith 2018). One of the things that could be bigger than language is something as simple, and as hard, as learning to listen deeply and compassionately to each other.

This is why it is important to resist inaccuracy, crassness, and being misled, and why the literary arts, especially poetry, which seek to sharpen language rather than diminish it have traditionally been so important to so many cultures, and remain so important today. We may not all be poets, but language’s virtuosity and versatility—the way it enables us to reach out to another and be understood—need not, and indeed should not, be compromised in everyday exchange. Whether we are world leaders or private individuals, a respect for language allows us to communicate with humour, empathy, dignity and meaning; in other words, to respect those with whom we are speaking, even if what we are saying provokes controversy or dissent.

I applaud the analysis and discussion of rhetorical devices in mainstream media, and Donald Trump’s presidency has gifted us this opportunity. Yet let us be clear about what is being discussed. Apophasis offers us more, and extends language’s interpretive possibilities. Paralipsis, as practised by Trump, offers us less. And that is important, because in today’s 24/7 twittersphere we need to rethink not only how language works, but also how we resist its debasement in order, not only to practise, but also to revel in the power of, interacting ethically and meaningfully with each other and the world. 


[1] Christians include Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–ca. 213 ce), Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–395), Augustine (354–430); Islamic writers include Ibn’ al-Arabi (1165–1240); Bhartrihari (d. 651?) was a well-known Hindu poet-grammarian; Buddhist writers include Lao Tzu (ca. 4 bce); early Jewish mysticism is contained in teachings collected in the Kabbalah (ca. 12th and 13th centuries).

[2] In De Interpretations: ‘An affirmation is a statement affirming of something, a negation is a statement denying of something’ (Aristotle 1963: 47; emphasis in original).

[3] Also known as Pseudo-Dionysius or St Denys, this mystic was ‘probably a Syrian monk of the late fifth or early sixth century’ (Wolters 1978: 201) or ‘an Athenian companion of St Paul’ (Sells 1994: 34).

[4] Timothy D Knepper has recently disputed in some detail the apophatic credentials of the Dionysian corpus. See Negating Negation: Against the Apophatic Abandonment of the Dionysian Corpus (2014).

[5] See Clifton Wolters’ discussion of authorship in his introduction to the Penguin Classics 1978 edition of The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works.

[6] Sells offers a comprehensive outline of the development of Western and Eastern apophatic traditions in the introduction to his book Mystical Languages of Unsaying, noting that ‘the 150-year period from the mid-twelfth to the beginning of the fourteenth century constitutes the flowering of apophatic mysticism. Almost simultaneously, the apophatic masterpieces of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions appeared’ (Sells 1994: 5).

[7] See The Mirror of Simple Souls (1999).

[8] See Meister Eckhart: Selected Sermons and Treatises (1958).

[9] See Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings (1997).

[10] See Writings of Teresa of Avila (2017).

[11] See The Signature of All Things and Other Writings (1969).

[12] Though some dispute how much of a revision this is: see B Kawin in Peter S Hawkins and A Howland Schotter (eds), p. 200.

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