The word ‘silence’ often seems to be riddled with bi-polar afflictions. ‘A silence fell upon the room’ either means a great emptiness, disgust and sadness, or a near-holy state which words can never hope to be able to match up to. Silence is a holy fool. Extreme suffering brings silence; so does extreme happiness. In museums and at funerals, weddings, and christenings, everyone is supposed to be silent. Silence is loaded with either nothing or everything.
Silence is something that it is hard to be really funny about- you can be uncomfortable in a giggly way about silence, but not really funny.
Social silence is a different being as well. At social gatherings, silence is to be avoided at any cost. When people talk about silence in daily life, they often do not mean actual, full-on silence, but speechlessness that comes from ingrained awkwardness.
Some people believe that working towards deafness in meditative practice brings one closer to spiritual truth. It is supposed to put one in an emotional and cerebral stillness. Auditory silence seems to act as representative of all these types of stillness to many. The silence that plays a central role in the religious gatherings of the Quakers is sometimes termed ‘the pool of silence’, as in Friends for 350 Years: The History and Beliefs of the Society of Friends Since George Fox Started the Quaker Movement (Brinton, 1993). This term implies something that can easily be broken and, once disturbed, is difficult to still once again. It also implies a silence that is a material presence rather than an absence. Breaking the Quaker pool of silence with noise can be considered an almost violent act, a wish to mark something. Perhaps this is why silence appeals to spirituality- because sound as a violent marking has the potential to never enter the picture. Silence tends to be thought of as non-language, non-mark; as Heidegger said in Being and Time (Heidegger, 1953), “Being calls us, in the uncanny mode of keeping silent”.
In Compass Points: How I Lived (Hoagland, 2001: 147), the writer Edward Hoagland says of his stutter: “I… realiz[ed] that the pain and frustration of a stutter can engender sadism”[i] Hoagland talks about being drawn to place himself in uncomfortable and dangerous situations.
Interestingly enough, the deaf themselves have not often embraced the idea of silence in daily life. Rarely do the deaf talk about silence. It means nothing because it is a constant. Yet, publications of the culturally deaf community and books about deafness often have ‘Silence’ in the title. It has been adopted as a type of blackface minstrel routine; a ridiculously horrid symbol that has nevertheless been integrated into the culture, because it seems like it has to be.
People who stutter experience a certain type of silence as well. Antonin Artaud, whose writings Derrida responds to in his essay La Parole Souffle’e (Derrida, 1965), which is about the limitations of language, had a stutter. Artaud rages in writings collected in the Artaud Anthology (Artaud, 1965: 157) against language and against constrictions in such words, as “For if there was neither spirit Nor thought, there was the fulminate of a ripe volcano, of a trance-stone, of patience, of tumours, and cooked tumours, and of the bed-sores of a skinned man.” The stutter perhaps affects the way Artaud thinks about words, in addition to trapping his words vocally. You know the stone better if you trip over it, and stuttering is tripping over words.
But the silence of Artaud lives only in the gaps between his actions, between the fluttering start-and-stops of his stutter. It is, finally, not a solid presence. It comes and goes; it is not constant. It is not something that can be marked. It is not the pool of silence that the Quakers idealised. Instead, it is the gravel thrown into the pool of noise. It is something that is crumbly and scattered in a distorted way, like gravel. Rousseau says that you can control sight by opening or shutting your eyes; there is nothing in experience of sound to parallel this. You can cover your ears, of course. But this does not happen ritually throughout the day as closing your eyes does. Like an eye shutting, which forces you to cut your sight off for a few seconds, a stutter forces you to stop vocalizing for a few seconds. It makes you realise the boundaries of the voice. In spite of the differences, people who stutter are familiar with an odd cousin of the glamorous sort of silence that lives in churches.
The performance artist Aaron Williamson says in Hearing Things (Williamson, 2001: 10), “Silence is what we say when we mean what we don’t have to say it with. Silence is what we say we mean when we say that we don’t have it. Silence is a saying which means very little.” The words that mean very little in themselves are often the words that become strangely monumental catchalls, and silence sometimes seems to be the biggest catchall of them all. It is a drawer filled with rubbish and odds and ends that do not belong anywhere else but that maybe becomes something in the end, simply because of the weirdness of the accumulation that is allowed to form in this drawer with ‘silence’ on it. Sometimes it gives comfort because it speaks to everyone. Charlie Chaplin refused to make the transition to talkies because he wanted his Tramp to be able to talk to everyone. In the time of silent film, many deaf people worked in film; one, Granville Redmond, who was also a successful Californian painter, was a close friend and colleague of Chaplin. With the talkies, the deaf people faded from the scene.
In the drawer labelled ‘silence’ there are also shiny and sparkly bits of glass, tacky but undeniably with a certain magical charm, attractive to magpies. Silence can also be prissy, beribboned and old-maidish. What is etiquette based on if not silence? The length and shape of the silences in conversations and introductions define what is proper. Whether to allow the other to speak first, whether to pause for many minutes between exchanges or not at all, whether to fill in the silence or leave it be- this forms many notions about character and personality, and cultural mores. Asians are supposed to be inscrutable and so are the silent red Indians; the Marlboro Man is the strong and silent type, at one with nature; you must not speak to royalty first, but allow them to determine when they want to speak to you.
An actual physical model of silence as all encompassing, a pod with sound as a seed in the centre, operating in silence and always returning to silence, seems to be repeated across disciplines. The earliest instance was the eighteenth-century scientist Peter van Musschenbrock. He had a theory about the way sound was distributed; it was supposed to exist as particles of ‘sound-matter’ within objects, which from time to time released sound. The theory was quickly discredited, but still interesting in its physical model.
Later, Marcel Duchamp made a work that mirrored almost exactly van Musschenbrock’s model, although probably not deliberately. A bruit secret (With Hidden Noise) (1916) was a ball of twine between two brass plates joined by four long screws. Inside the ball of twine Duchamp’s friend and patron Walter Arensberg added secretly a small object that makes a noise when you shake it; to this day nobody knows what this object is. The significance is sound as potential rather than actual. This can be directly equated with the van Musschenbrock; the ball of twine can be thought of as silence and the small object as sound. In the Quaker pool of silence, if you think of sound as a rock thrown in the pool, it is again the centre of it, always returned to silence. Again, the van Musschenbrock model: sound as the centre, within the pool.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rilke, 1910: 101):
“Only the silent senses might carry the world into him, soundless, an expectant, waiting world, unfinished, before the creation of love. For whom will now fetch you out again from ears that are covetous? Who will drive them from the concert halls, the venal ones with their sterile hearing that fornicates and never conceives? The seed radiates, and they stand under it like sluts and play with it.”
The suggestion, to me, is that silence is the fertile sphere that can nurture and radiate. Sounds dart around and meet momentarily, but, as befits nasty promiscuous beings, they do not connect into anything. What is interesting is the same physical model of sound as the seed that radiates within silence; here, the idea that silence is holy and feminine and constant is even more explicit. Not only is sound a mark on the purity of silence, but it is a slutty mark, a real ho.
Freud’s case study of a Russian nobleman who continually fantasizes about wolves is cited by the contemporary writer Tom McCarthy; the childhood memories that were at the root of these fantasies is theorised to be unobtainable because they are buried away within this crypt. Codes from this crypt only resonate within the actions they secretly produce. Again, it is the same van Musschenbrock model; a silent crypt encompassing active ‘noises’ or signals, which occasionally emit and create havoc only to be subdued again in the soft womb.
Have your say or be silent.
Louise Stern grew up in Fremont, California, the fourth generation deaf in her family. Her art, which is based around ideas of isolation, communication and language, has been exhibited in Geneva, London, Port Eliot, New York City, Paris, Madrid, and other places. Her book of short stories, “Chattering”, was published by Granta in 2011 and her body of work also includes performances and a contemporary art magazine for children. She has a novel, “Ismael and His Sisters,” coming out with Granta in 2015.