There is of course the irony in the title of this Café, so we began by experiencing a minute and a half of silence, just to focus our minds on the topic (before we paid lip service to it?).
I introduced the subject by making a link to the previous café – which was on art. I recounted an art lesson at school, in which the teacher piled a lot of bar-type stools and chairs on top of each other. She asked us to focus on the spaces in between legs, seats and cross members of the stools and chairs and try as hard as we could to really see those spaces, and draw those spaces, instead of the chairs and stools. The spaces became the subject rather than the objects which divided them. I was surprised and intrigued – because it made me aware of how much I am influenced by the idea of a thing, rather than the experience of the thing itself. So too, it seems with silence.
What are we talking about when we refer to silence? Does it actually exist? If this seems more a question for the Café Philosophique, I’d probably agree with you. We talked a lot about whether silence as absence of noise, or silence as tranquillity, exists at all. In anechoic chambers, for example, the attention to external noise is simply replaced by a growing awareness of the noise produced simply by being alive, the sound of the heart, coursing blood and even the firing of neural networks. For some the introductory experience of silence was awkward, even difficult or anxiety provoking; for others it was an invitation to stop doing and simply be, to ignore for once the urge to respond either to our own impulses to ‘do something useful’ or to our imagined demands of politeness.
We acknowledged that there were deafening silences, threatening silences and pregnant silences. And this last engaged us continually as the evening progressed. What is it that makes us uncomfortable (or comfortable) in the silence that we witness when others are present. Monks in silent orders, one café-goer said, have to cope with this day in, day out and probably develop an eloquent repertoire of gestures. It seems that the further we try to escape the external distraction, the more in touch we are with the internal and the greater the urge to distract our minds.
In 1952, the American composer John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 seconds was given its first performance by pianist David Tudor at the Woodstock Artists Association, which prided itself on supporting contemporary and avant garde artists. But 4’ 33” – later mistitled the ‘silent piece’ – was too much even for them and some stormed out angrily when they realised that apart from closing and opening the lid of the piano three times, David Tudor wasn’t going to ‘play’ anything – not a note was struck.
Cage had his ears opened to question of whether there is even such a thing as silence by Gita Sarabhai, a great Indian singer and musician, when she told him that the purpose of music was to sober and quiet the mind so that it is susceptible to divine influences. Though he may not have intended it, another way of looking at 4’ 33” is that it draws attention to the spaces between tones which, when you think of rhythm, is critically important in music. Silence – and the duration of silences, is what animates and gives meaning to musical phrase and expression. So too, perhaps – if we allow ourselves to listen long enough – does silence give meaning to thought and speech. Years later, Cage remarked that no day went by when he did not draw inspiration from 4’ 33” and he certainly thought of it as he began each new composition.
A religious writer, David Steindl-Rast, said that “Silence is not characterized by absence but by presence, a presence too great for words. When we have some little joy or pain we are apt to talk about it. When joy or pain grows strong we rejoice or cry. But when bliss or suffering become overpowering, we are silent.”
There’s the idea of silence as the ultimate escape. Sylvia Plath wrote: “All I want is blackness. Blackness and silence.” We are aware of silence only so far as our attempts to hear it reveal the busyness and noise of our lives. Café-goers talked about the special silence afforded by a walk in the countryside, companionable silences that serve to enrich conversation when we walk with friends.
The idea for silence as a café topic came from reading a series of essays called The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths by John Gray. Here are three quotes from his book that informed the rest of the conversation:
‘If silence is no longer cultivated, it is because admitting the need for it means accepting that you are inwardly restless – a condition, in other times recognized as one of misery, that is now prized as a virtue. “I have often said”, writes Pascal, “that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room”. If you admit your need for silence, you accept that much of your life has been an exercise in distraction. “Men who are naturally conscious of what they are shun nothing as much as rest; they would do anything to be disturbed”’.
Philosophers will say that humans can never be silent because the mind is made of words. For these half-witted logicians, silence is no more than a word. To overcome language by means of language is obviously impossible. Turning within, you will find only words and images that are parts of yourself. But if you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.
Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.