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The Power of Silence

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This book demonstrates that silence is eloquent, powerful, beautiful and even dangerous. It surrounds and permeates our daily lives.Drawing on a wide range of cross-cultural, literary and historical sources, the author explores the uses and abuses of silence. He explains how silence is not associated with solitude alone but has a much broader value within society.The main themes of The Power of Silence are positive and negative uses of silence, and the various ways in which silence has been understood culturally, socially and spiritually. The book's objectives are to equip people with a better appreciation of the value of silence and to enable them to explore its benefits and uses more easily for themselves.

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CHAPTER ONE: Silent types

ePub

Not everyone thinks highly of silence. Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice (Act I, sc. 1, lines 111–112), has Gratiano declare that,

Silence is only commendable
In a neat's [cow's] tongue dried and a maid not vendible
[marketable].

Yet it remains true that many people believe silence to be “commendable” in more cases than Gratiano was willing to admit—or sometimes so, at least. Asking “Is it good in general to practise silence?”, Basil of Caesarea (c329–379) answered that question as follows: “The good of silence is dependent on the time and the person, as we are taught by the God-inspired Scripture” (Silvas, p. 387). Some people practise reticence or silence so habitually that they become known as “the silent type”. They are, to use an unusual and even archaic word, “silentious”. Various types of silence will be considered here, although not all are mutually exclusive. More than one may be manifest in a particular person at the same or different times. Nor is this classification necessarily exhaustive. It is, however, sufficient to illustrate the truth of a statement made in the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:7) that there is “a time to keep silence”.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Busy silence

ePub

When we are busy at work, or trying to get something done at home, we may not notice silence. But it does not go away, and it seeps into our communications with one another in ways that can be significant. Our ability to misunderstand each other is frequently evident, even within personal and family relationships where the listener knows the speaker relatively well. How much greater, then, are the opportunities for getting it wrong when it comes to encountering work colleagues or strangers, especially those whose background or culture is quite different from ours? In this context, silence is one aspect of communications that may easily be overlooked or misconstrued. This can have unfortunate consequences for those engaged in business or other dealings, especially in cross-cultural or international contexts.

Pausing during speech may mean one thing to a European and another to an Asian. Remaining silent upon encountering strangers does not necessarily signify for the descendant of an American immigrant what it signifies for those descended from native American peoples. Waiting for some seconds before responding to what has just been said by another person can simply be a sign of good manners or courtesy in some places; it may be alienating in others. “Taking turns” within conversation is not a fixed or natural technique but is culturally and socially determined.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Theories of silence

ePub

When they are asked, “What is silence?”, some people answer that it is “nothing”, that it is merely the absence of sound. But in a quiet location, waking in the depth of a silent night, silence sometimes assumes the qualities of a presence, either pleasant or alarming. We may welcome relief from noise or we may project our fears and needs into the quiet void. There are those who prefer to whistle past the graveyard, not to dwell on how fleeting or insignificant are the sounds that we make during our lives. Others enjoy silence as a creative and nourishing space, or even a sign from God. The relationship between silence and sound is so subtle that observers differ on the question of which is most fundamental. In her “Cartographies of Silence”, Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) has observed a fundamental tension between what is said and what cannot be or is not said:

A conversation begins
with a lie. And each

speaker of the so-called common language feels
the ice-floe split, the drift apart

as if powerless, as if up against
a force of nature

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Silence and the arts

ePub

Artists and other creative people have long made use of silence in their work, finding silence conducive to their Muse or incorporating it into the very fabric of their art. Artists may also, as we have seen, decide that it is appropriate to fall silent publicly in respect of their work or even of art in general. For James Joyce, who left Dublin and who for years lived in Trieste, silence was a means of avoiding close engagement with others who might have suffocated him creatively. He has the semi-autobiographical Stephen Dedalus say, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that was first published in serial form in 1914–1915,

I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning (p. 191).

Silence on the stage or during a film, in music or poetry or literature, is a powerful and moving force. Its presence, or references to it, can increase our enjoyment and understanding. Artists and architects can even evoke silence through the visual or spatial dimensions of their creations. Silence may be manifest in many different forms and techniques, enhancing the beauty and meaning of a creative work. It may be an object of contemplation or praise, or the theme of a narrative, or an intrinsic part of a work's structure. When considering types of silence in the first chapter above, various literary and poetic creations were mined for illustration. Literature and poetry are now revisited, along with drama, dance, film, television, and music, in order to underline the importance of silence in the arts.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Film, TV, and music

ePub

Our first inclination may be to regard film and broadcasting and music as entirely noisy media, but beneath their surfaces and surrounding them are silences with which their creators can consciously play.

Film, by necessity, first emerged as a silent medium. The technology did not exist to create a soundtrack to accompany early moving images, and spectacle was more important than plot. A few words could be written on a card and cut into a movie but, more often than not, any narrative depended primarily upon the coherence of sequences of images. Exhibitors enhanced the medium by means of various strategies. Pianists and other musicians were frequently employed by cinema owners to provide a dramatic or romantic aural backdrop for audiences. Sometimes, narrators sat next to the screen and provided commentary or dialogue. However, until the production of “talkies” began to change film forever, directors depended largely on images to speak for themselves. This presented particular challenges for D. W. Griffith and his contemporaries when it came to framing adaptations of plays and literary works in a manner that audiences could follow without hearing words spoken by the actors (Gunning, pp. 92–95).

 

CHAPTER SIX: Constraints of silence

ePub

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), chancellor of England, observed that, “All kinds of constraints are unhappy—that of silence is the most miserable of all” (Spedding, Ellis &Heath, vol. 4, p. 485). The constraint of silence may be self-imposed, as a result of shyness or of a sense of personal inadequacy. However, directly or indirectly, it is frequently imposed by others. A most obvious form of silencing is the denial of freedom of speech through censorship or other legal mechanism, but it certainly does not require action by the state to deter citizens from articulating their views. Powerful personal, cultural, or social factors may act to silence people as effectively as any law. Those most affected include women, members of ethic minorities, students, and employees.

Moments of silence between two people in a relationship may be a sign of that couple's deep understanding of one another, and of their wonder at the experience of love and of their shared perceptions of reality. Such “visible silence” finds expression in poetry. Thus, in his beautiful sonnet entitled “Silent Noon”, which was later set to music by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) recalled being with his lover on one especially warm day:

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Silence in therapy

ePub

Those who encounter silence during therapy have much to teach us about its power in our daily lives. Psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, and other health service professionals meet clients who fall silent in ways that can be frustrating and even threatening to those around them. Silence on the part of the client or patient may be associated with feelings of pleasure or joy or even peace, but it may also be for them a means of expressing anger, apathy, resentment, and other emotions (see, for example, Zeligs and Liegner), or else be a sign of denial. Sometimes, silence stems from a disability. Whatever its base, it is a phenomenon that merits attention. As Sigmund Freud observed in 1905, in the case of Dora,

He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore (pp. 77–78).

A number of authors have studied ways in which we fall silent in order to defend ourselves against instinctual urges that threaten us, urges with which we have not come to terms developmentally. In 1961, for example, Zeligs discussed the function of silence in some cases as a type of displacement from the original erotogenic zones to the organs and functions of speech. And according to Sabbadini, a silence that displays such anal connotations is characterized by an ambivalent if not openly aggressive attitude. Fliess further differentiated all silences into oral, anal, or urethral, while Sabbadini postulates the existence of a “phallic silence”. The latter writes that,

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Sacred silence

ePub

There is a special if seldom used word for someone who observes or recommends silence, especially from religious motives, or for an official whose duty is to command silence. That word is “silentiary”. Whether official or unofficial silentiaries, there have always been those who bid silence or who practised silence for broadly spiritual purposes.

Priestly documents from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia are said to have “frequently” contained prescriptions of silence (McEvilley, p. 285). The Egyptian god Horus was depicted in statuettes as a somewhat cherubic child with a finger in, or to, his mouth. The Greeks came to regard him as the god of silence, naming him Harpocrates, whence it appears that the silent clown of the Marx Brothers comedy team was named Harpo. However, Plutarch writes,

Nor are we to understand Harpocrates to be either some imperfect or infant God, or a God of pulse (as some will have him), but to be the governor and reducer of the tender, imperfect, and inarticulate discourse which men have about the Gods. For which reason, he hath always his finger upon his mouth, as a symbol of talking little and keeping silence. Likewise, upon the month of Mesore, they present him with certain pulse, and pronounce these words: “The tongue is Fortune, the tongue is God” (W. Goodwin, vol. 4, p. 125).

 

CHAPTER NINE: The silence of God

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Three centuries before Christ, the Greek playwright Menander (c342–290) reflected on the fact that divine beings, if they act at all, act in mysterious and inscrutable ways. “In silence, God brings all to pass,” he wrote (Allinson, p. 533).

Divine silence has frequently frustrated or even terrified the faithful, who continue to pray notwithstanding what appears to be divine indifference in the face of adversity and cruelty. At the same time, that very silence confirms for atheists their belief in the absence of any God. Yet, even for atheists, there are aspects of reality that elude or transcend everyday language. These aspects cannot simply be dismissed as insignificant. The silence that surrounds us and permeates our world seems to be challenging us.

Was there silence before anything? Can we say in any meaningful sense that there was silence before “The Big Bang”, or before phenomena became manifest in this universe?

And if one believes that there is a God, and if communications are part of his Creation, then why is he apparently silent on so many occasions when he might be expected to speak up? Where was God's voice at Auschwitz, or during recent Asian tsunamis? Where was he when a friend's son died young, or when so many children were being abused? Does God's failure to be heard mean that he does not care or does not exist? Are silence and absence the same thing in this case? Might an existing God conceivably answer our prayers in obscure and seemingly perverse ways, or even refuse to listen to our pleas, as implied by some passages in the Old Testament? These include a complaint to God in the Book of Lamentations that, “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through” (Lamentations 3:43. See also Ezekiel 20:3). Perhaps the only logical conclusion is that his silence does indeed signify his absence. The sort of blind faith that simply avows that there is a God and then goes looking for reasons to back up that avowal is not for everyone. As one young doctor wrote, “I do not wish to talk with myself and to imagine to myself that it is God who is talking to me. God does not talk. There is the silence of God” (Dewailly, p. 294). Yet many believers claim to have had deep experiences of his love that contradict such a conclusion. They hear his words in their hearts, discern his word in Creation.

 

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