Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Silence

There is a beauty but also violence to silence. Is this the unrest that produced Emily Dickinson’s turbulent poetry? Do people listen to music in order to calm the violence that emerges from solitude? There are stages of silence, just like there is a process of dying that culminates in the death rattle. Georgia O’Keeffe knew about silence, and John Cage wrote a famous piece of music, 4’33”, which can never be truly performed (though it’s been presented), employing silence as its music. Silence is a commodity that is increasingly hard to come by; not because the world is a noisier place, but because of the density of information that surrounds us. Offices, for example, are quieter since computers replaced typewriters and phones were replaced by instant and text messaging. True silence proposes a certain vacancy, an emptying out. Is that what meditation seeks to do? Our silence is threatened because our solitude is fractured. Whether we have anything to do with actual people or not, we live with the illusion of community. Arrivistes used to be part of a social landscape described by words like nouveau riche. But today, the new aspiration is informational, and while we might loathe our crowded screens, we lie in perpetual terror of being left behind.  True silence used to be a bare motel room in a plains state with a Gideon Bible in the drawer of the nightstand. But today such a condition can only be found in “the hole,” the solitary confinement section of a maximum-security prison. And what is silence when it is not chosen? Self imposed confinement, of the kind practiced by monks, leads to silence, which can in turn lead to transcendence of the petty desires that constitute our suffering. Yet, isolation can also produce insanity. We become haunted by voices when we can no longer tolerate being alone. The terror of Bergman’s Silence derives from the absence of god.


  1. Great Streets of silence led away /
    To Neighborhoods of Pause - /
    Here was no Notice - no Dissent /
    No Universe - no Laws - //
    By Clocks, 'twas Morning, and for Night /
    The Bells at Distance called -
    But Epoch had no basis here /
    For Period exhaled.

    --Emily Dickinson

    Thanks, Francis, for putting your finger squarely upon one of the key sources of power in Emily Dickinson's poetry. But silence harbors something far greater than violence: silence is the container of the Infinite & the Void, which in turn enclose the twin powers of Creation & Destruction, like entwined seeds of light & darkness. On the scale of these powers, violence is a negligible & passing disturbance, no more significant than the impulse to build an empire -- & just as ephemeral.

  2. What about silent communion? Wordless understanding? The glance full of meaning? The pregnant pause? Silence isn't always so solitary. Some of our moments of greatest intimacy are silent. And if you're into yoga or Beaudelaire, there's communing with the infinite -- or trying to. Entends ma chere, entends la douce nuit qui marche.

  3. doing a frequency distribution analysis of the above post I note the word "infinite" appears twice. I feel chastened,but curiously disburdened by this insinsuation of the infinite. I know my dear friend Almoni, but Mahler, who are you?SP


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