Writers are communicators, words are our tools and language our medium. Yet whilst we issue forth in story or poetry, essays or long form, we work alone, sometimes in silence, particularly if we’re the kind of writers who don’t get into flow to the accompaniment of music. And, whilst the words are essential, it might very well be that without the silences, the spaces around the speech, these words become meaningless babble.
So many silences
There are different ways to view silence, not all of them positive.
Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must be silent
Wittgenstein concluded at a period of his life when he felt there was nothing more to say on the subject of the world, thought and language. These issues, he thought at that point, had reached a solution. The world comprises of facts. Thoughts are pictures that represent objects and language is a matter of logicl propositions. The rest, ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics, for example, are things we cannot speak about.
Wittgenstein’s later work re-opened this debate and most writers would want a fuller picture of the scope of language and the many areas it can wander into. But whilst language is our currency, there are fruitful silences in which we can root our words.
The poet and novelist Paul Goodman, Writing in Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry, identified nine types of silence, amongst them:
the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
Goodman went on to talk about the positive silences of perception, music and listening and also the negative silences of bewilderment or sulking resentment. We all know that some silences hang on us heavily, full of recrimination and loud with what is not being said. Yet other silences are companionable or deeply ruminative.
Silence can be a cessation, one of the roots of the word in Latin is desinere: to desist. It suggests a hiatus, yet silence isn’t only about absence or something ceasing, it can also have its own energy, something unique to communicate.
There’s a story about the ascetic and sometime hermit, St Anthony the Great, that on one occasion important visitors travelled to the desert to hear his wisdom. St Anthony refused to leave his cell or to speak to the high ranking guests, despite the pleading of other monks that he ought to oblige. When the visitors finally left without a word from St Anthony, the monks asked him to explain why he’d behaved like this. The story goes that Anthony replied: ‘If they failed to understand my silence, how could they hope to understand my words?’
Silence, it seems, is much more than the etymology of simply desisting. It is much more than simply not speaking about certain things. Silence can comfort or it can judge, it can set us at peace or leave us ill at ease. But most profoundly, silence is more about what’s inside than what’s outside.
Silence amidst the noise
Sound imposes a narrative, as George Prochnik points out in In Pursuit of Silence, yet so does silence. I recently read an article about ashrams in Mumbai, one of the world’s noisiest cities. The noise level is so high that during festivals it rivals the sound of a jet taking off, around 140 decibels, sufficient to permanently damage hearing. Yet this is regular and levels equalling rock concerts are routine.
Despite this, religious communities flourish, meditating and spending long periods in silence against a background of traffic, commotion, and building work, not to mention the constant human hubbub.
Silence can certainly be an external condition that we long for at times, even if it’s never absolute. Apparently, we need at least seven quiet hours to recover from the daily assault of noise. Living in high levels of noise can raise stress hormones and have detrimental health effects from raised blood pressure to mental health problems, as well as hearing loss. In short, noise can make us sick.
But it’s not only the world outside our bodies that can be a noisy place clamouring for attention. Several years ago a friend told me about going on a silent retreat held at a convent deep in a quiet rural environment. She immediately felt at peace. During the opening session to acclimatise those entering the retreat she told the Mother Superior how wonderful it was to have escaped the noise of the world. The nun smiled and replied, ‘If you think it’s noisy out there, wait till you get inside your own head.’
When we shut off all the distractions and have the courage to be alone with our thoughts, then sometimes we find that there is plenty of cacophony that comes from nowhere but our own souls.
The bravery to sit with the internal noise till we reach the silence within might be a dying art for anyone who is not permanently engaged in religious vocation. But it’s an art that writers can draw huge inspiration from.
Silence to listen
The proponent par excellence of facing the silence within is Thoreau.
I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.
He wrote in his journal. This desire clearly relates to Thoreau’s wish to dive deeply into his thoughts as a way of connecting with with the world. Similarly he valued silences within conversation, noting how the it allows thoughts time to develop. And he went even further in Walden, suggesting that we need some physical distance from those we are talking to in order to be truly heard.
In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear, — we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations.
The best conversations have pauses. The best discourse is not about piling in with hundreds of ‘comments’ and ‘likes’ (or dislikes!)
Another advocate of silence, John Cage, used it not only his music but also in daily life, taking a stance of saying nothing in the face of negative comments and noticing how those shouting loudly would gradually back away from their negativity when faced with someone else’s silence.
Similarly the writer and musician Pauline Oliveros advocates a practice of deep listening that allows us to radically expand what we notice and connect to in the world. In Section 26 of ‘Song of Myself’ Walt Whitman puts it like this:
Now I will do nothing but listen, To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals, I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice, I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following, Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
The spirituality of silence
Sometimes we can find silence in communal settings like a a retreat or with someone we are deeply comfortable with who will share our silence, but often silence requires some measure of solitude. The writer Sara Maitland, who has written extensively about silence and solitude puts it like this:
We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.
Maitland notes that, paradoxically, we live in a climate with a high value on autonomy and a growing cult of individualism, yet are often afraid of being alone. Yet knowing ourselves and being comfortable with the work in progress that each of is, is actually essential to having deep relationships. In contrast, those never able to face themselves, to spend time with their thoughts, their shadow side as well as their dreams and quests, are unlikely to develop deep resources of empathy and connection.
In silence, at least a portion of it in solitude writers can face themselves and develop deep wells of
- self-understanding and radical kindness to ourselves always makes us less judgemental of others
- space in which the numinous can appear and epiphanies emerge
- creativity and imagination
- inspiration that in turn gives us something worth communicating and writing
- connection to the natural environment
The spirituality of silence is also something that Susan Sontag discusses in The Aesthetics of Silence, in which she views different degrees of silence as mediators for art, which takes on spiritual significance within secular societies. Such silence is never absolute, but, as with Thoreau’s view of silence in conversation, it is part of the relationship of communication.
“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence…
A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. […] Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech … and an element in a dialogue.
Silence, she also contends can be a way of ‘focusing attention’
Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered.
The silence to write
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.
wrote Marina Abramović in her manifesto for the life of an artist in Walk Through Walls. The second set of principles are about an artist’s relation to silence, and the third to solitude:
- An artist has to understand silence
- An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work
- Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean
- An artist must make time for the long periods of solitud
- Solitude is extremely important Away from home, Away from the studio, Away from family, Away from friends
- An artist should stay for long periods of time at waterfalls
- An artist should stay for long periods of time at exploding volcanoes
- An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at fast-running rivers
- An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the horizon where the ocean and sky meet
- An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky
We need huge internal resources to write and no one expresses this so well as Adrienne Rich in Arts of the Possible:
But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.
The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way … the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?
Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world…
Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group.
Silence, positive silence or breaking through negative silences, is at the heart of connection, which brings us full circle back to the writer as communicator. We need to go into the silence so that we can emerge with the resources to write:
- radical kindness
- a sense of the numinous
- connection to nature
- something worth writing
Becoming a different story
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