Ah, words—they are powerful tools but not always up to the task. Some concepts are too big or too slippery to be captured within their net, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot be moved still by our authors’ noble efforts to hunt such elusive prey nevertheless. No, one cannot describe the indescribable—but how else are you going to end all those H.P. Lovecraft stories?
What is perhaps not so noble as wrestling with big concepts is, instead, constantly putting up signposts announcing, Get a load of these big concepts I’m wrestling! One could understand how a writer, groping towards the ineffable, might sometimes employ a qualifier—“a sort of hushed and naked searching” or “a kind of furious inertness”—trying to convey a sense that the ideas in question could only be half-captured, or that a rough semblance was the best that words could sketch of an obscure subject.
Of course, one’s understanding of this might begin to flag if the writer employed this locution over and over and over.
Absalom, Absalom! is chock full of sort ofs and kind ofs, and not of the sullen-teenager variety, although even that attitude might be a welcome antidote to the “Dude, I can’t even explain it to you” vibe given off by these phrases and their implication that the book’s every action is swollen with such not-for-mere-mortals profundity as to exceed the capacity of any more precise description. Their most common usage comes in adverbial phrases—a man getting out of a sickbed moves “with a sort of diffident and tentative amazement,” a sheltered boy lives “in a kind of silken prison,” and so on.
Arranged for neatness’ sake, below are some of Absalom!’s various net-castings in its attempts to ensnare the sublime. (For whatever reason, with and in are the most popular prepositional weapons employed in this pursuit.) I’ve removed all but the verb/adverb material, but the complete excerpts can be found here.
(Verb/adverb combos that presumably didn’t get the with-or-in preposition memo include “surrounded by a sort of Scythian glitter”—must be Disco Night at the Classics Department—and “drink[ing] himself insensible, to a sort of dreamy and destinationless locomotion.” There are also such noun phrases as “a kind of entailed birthright” and “a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger,” which, filled, doesn’t exactly jibe with my own understanding of how a vacuum works, but never mind.)