Apart from those possessed of blind faith who go along with the view that only God can know the truth about the truth, most people assume that what we don’t know could be known by somebody looking hard and skilfully enough at the problem. I’m not sure if in the 21st century there is quantitively more in the world that isn’t known, but certainly we know that there is more we don’t know. The problem of knowing has been shifted from the house of God to the relevant departments of the academy. Those of us not in the right department or in the academy at all expect and even pay the experts to know on our behalf and pass the information on in such a way that we can absorb it. Well, it’s a nice idea. But reports on the wandering womb, the dangers of masturbation, relative racial brain size, cold fusion, food safety, weapons of mass destruction, the death of the author, suggest that it’s a hit and miss sort of strategy for getting an accurate handle on the world. In truth, most of us manage a practical existence knowing very little and trusting a lot. It’s not necessary for the passengers on a plane heading to Australia to know that the planet is roughly spherical, so long as the designers of the plane’s navigation system do.

But the ineffable is another kind of unknown altogether. It’s not simply something that isn’t known. It is that which is personally experienced but for which no words can be found. Something of the senses which can never be translated into language. You can see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, smell it, but you can’t say exactly what it is, not the essence of it. It escapes definition even though it is inescapably present. Love and hate at first sight, attraction, repulsion, something desired, a shape or a texture, a taste underlying the obvious one, a hint or a ghost of something that you can never put your finger on. Knowledge, we can take or leave to others, but the ineffable is a more personal affront to our individuality. It refuses to be known – quite. At least in the way we like to know things, which is by naming them. I don’t know why I love you but I do … What is this thing called love … That old black magic has me in its spell … Because he’s just my Bill … The effects are there. We know but we can’t say. It’s on the tip of our tongue. It produces emotional disarray and yet we can’t define it. The ineffable rocks the world, says Pascal: ‘Whoever wishes to know fully the vanity of humankind has only to consider the causes and effects of love. Its cause is a je ne sais quoi … And its effects are appalling.’

It was in London in the early 1960s when I was 15 or 16 that I first came across the phrase ‘je ne sais quoi’ used in everyday speech. It could refer to the good, the bad or the mysterious. Any of the three, according to the context and the way in which it was articulated. It was a public phrase for the mannered. A distasteful quality in people and things, an indefinable won’t-do-ness, was a certain je ne sais quoi – the phrase spoken with lips faintly curled, fingers fluttering to rid themselves of something horrible that was sticking to them. A spectacular daube at a dinner party, recipe by Elizabeth David but with a freehand addition by the cook, had it – lips this time pursed, thumb and forefinger connected to indicate perfection. A work of art, of course, had a je ne sais quoi, spoken with wide eyes and lips apart to perform a look of wonder, and one open hand describing small circles in an attempt to catch the uncatchable. But most of all in my memory there were certain women who had uncommon success with men (which meant at that time, and I suppose in all times, they had lots of lovers, rather than contentment in their relationships) whose triumphs were to be put down to their possessing, I was told by my knowing elders in the way of vital education, ‘a certain je ne sais quoi’. It was the settled description for charisma of the sexual kind. Eager to learn the important mysteries of life, I scrutinised these women carefully (men did not seem to have je ne sais quoi) to try and discover where this quality might be observed. Sometimes they were described as having ‘come-to-bed’ eyes, or a particular way of walking, but there were others who apparently dripped with je ne sais quoi and had neither. Cleverness didn’t seem to have much to do with it, nor even wit. Beauty wasn’t required; prettiness optional. Dress sense hardly mattered, though I was convinced for a while that it was impossible to have je ne sais quoi without owning a pair of Anello & Davide boots. I gave it a lot of thought and finally boiled it down to two options: either it was just a mystery that I would never fathom (and therefore a quality I could never possess), or it meant that they were good in bed (and therefore a quality I might acquire with diligent study).

I am not – you probably don’t need me to tell you – in my natural element in the academic world, but I try to keep an eye on the university press ads because occasionally great delights and surprises turn up. Who (if you are me) would have guessed that je ne sais quoi should have its personal cubby-hole in the academy, with a life of its own and a history, a prehistory even, to be studied? It turns out that the je ne sais quoi is not just a fading phrase that worried my youthful years, but an actual subject of study. The intangible being always with us, and being the definition-hungry creatures that we are, it was inevitable that the mist in our minds would get translated into a neat phrase. Better yet, while it works fine in English (‘I know not what’) it had a certain something extra, a je ne sais quoi if you will, if kept in French. Having found a definition for the indefinable it naturally became a topic to be analysed: not the what of what is not known (far too much) but how we found an expression for the inexpressible and finally skirted the difficulty of the unknown by wrapping it up in a single phrase so that we wouldn’t have to give it our full attention. The history of the je ne sais quoi tells us a good deal about how human beings inhabit the world.

In his riveting book, The Je Ne Sais Quoi in Early Modern Europe: Encounters with a Certain Something*, Richard Scholar (a name that could only lead to a life in libraries and the production of volumes of academic volumes) traces the phrase from its early use by Montaigne, before it became a word of its own, to describe the friendship between him and La Boétie: ‘Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union.’ It was fully established by the time Pascal used it: ‘This je ne sais quoi, so slight a thing that it cannot be recognised, shakes all the earth, princes, armies, the whole world. Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the entire face of the earth would have changed.’ And then it died the death of fashionability, when, in the salons of polite society under Louis XIV, the inexplicable became the meaningless, and the je ne sais quoi turned into a fabricated sign of quality among the Quality: ‘That gallant je ne sais quoi which is diffused throughout the whole of those who possess it – in their minds, their speech and their actions – is the thing that completes the honnêtes gens, makes them lovable, and causes them to be loved’ (Madeleine de Scudéry, 1684). Whereafter it becomes moribund, a verbal affectation that manages a prolonged but ghostly, mannered, Noël Cowardish existence.

My teenage dilemma about those enticing women and the nature of their allure (sheer mystery or hard-won mastery) turns out to echo the history of the je ne sais quoi as Scholar describes it. The traditional philosophers, Aristotelians, the Schoolmen, were content with mystery. In 1638 an anonymous speaker at the Bureau d’Adresse offers this version in a debate on the causes of tidal motion:

Just as it would be fruitless to wonder what the cause of a horse’s motion is, given that even the most ignorant people recognise that it comes from the horse’s soul, which is its form; so it seems more obvious to attribute the movement to its form than to anything else … It is an intelligent enabling form of the sea which was given to it by God from the very beginning to set it into motion.

In 1671 Dominique Bouhours is still of this opinion and includes ‘Le Je Ne Sçay Quoy’ as one of his conversations on literary and philosophical topics in Les Entretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugène. He makes the je ne sais quoi equate with all occult knowledge. The unknown is to be wondered at and left at that: ‘Are these orderly bouts of illness, these shivering fits of hot and cold, and intermissions during a long illness anything other than so many je ne sais quoi? And is the same not true of the ebb and flow of the tides, the magnet’s virtue, and all the occult qualities of the philosophers?’

But in the same year, Rohault published his Traité de physique. In their review of it, the Royal Society commended his dismissal of the je ne sais quoi as a satisfactory explanation for the inexplicable: ‘Matter … is, according to them [the Aristotelians] a something I know not what, and Form … such another I know not what; as if giving a meer Name to a thing not known, were enough to make it known.’ To the natural philosophers the je ne sais quoi is a refuge for the ignorant, a place to run for those who will not look hard enough at the world to find the answer to what is not known. Bacon, Galileo and Descartes rejected the preternatural je ne sais quoi in favour of a scientific examination of nature. The conscientious study of nature or of sexual technique may or may not provide the answer to the tides or the allure of particular women, but the assumption is that God-given won’t do and that an answer to the question does exist even if it cannot be found yet, or by me. At any rate, the mystery of the tides got sorted. My investigation is still in progress.

Of course, there is the possibility that some things don’t have answers. It may be that in certain areas it is only the questions that matter. We still lack an answer to sudden emotional attachment. There are those who suggest that Montaigne’s inexpressible and mysterious friendship with La Boétie was inexpressible precisely because his je ne sais quoi was an evasion for that other evasion: the love that dare not speak its name. But it hardly matters, because friendship or love, the mystery of recognition of the essential other remains. There’s a feeling that we might get somewhere if we perceive friendship as a subset of sexuality because we have a notion these days that the answer may lie in biochemistry. Montaigne and La Boétie were pheromonally compatible. And as soon as someone works out the precise equation for endocrinal attraction, the je ne sais quoi of Montaigne and of those women with a certain something, and of I don’t know what else, will be available in aerosol cans from Waitrose. It’s entirely possible that, apart from a little niggle at the back of our minds – a scent or a sound we can’t quite place – the ineffable will be a thing of the past and we will be able to rub out all those old je ne sais quoi and replace them with nouns and adjectives. At which point mystery itself will be the only mystery and we’ll all feel a lot better.

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