“When I pronounce the word Silence / I destroy it”, wrote Wisława Szymborska in a poem I quoted in the previous part of my paradoxical investigations into silence.
When I pronounce the word silence, I think about several things simultaneously.
First of all, I simply imagine a quiet place; some space where no noises can reach me, especially no civilized noises. A quiet room with a view. A house with a garden. A cabin in the woods. But it is not only sounds, or a lack thereof, that I think of when I think about silence. I also think about being free from politics and advertising, from messages that demand a reaction, controversies that must urgently be solved, current affairs on which one should form an opinion – immediately, if possible. From the desire, awakened by the sighting of a pair of perfect red stilettos, to have them, now.
When I think about silence, I think about freedom.
It is easy to imagine all the things that deprive me of my freedom. Easy to believe that all would be different, if I could only find the right place to be. Isn’t that the essence of the pastoral fantasy, as old as our Western civilization? “Ditch it all and head for the woods” – how is that desire different from wanting new stilettos? Actually, the ones with animal print are okay too… (“When I pronounce the word Silence / I destroy it.”)
Let’s assume I have found the quiet place (a room with a view, a house with a garden, a cabin in the woods), then what? All external noises cease, which of course is not without consequences for physical and mental health, but what about inside my mind (wherever that is) – does it automatically quieten too? Anyone who has ever tried meditation knows that the opposite is true. Charlotte Joko Beck, an outstanding teacher of meditation, whose talks were collected in several books (including Nothing Special: Living Zen) compares this first moment to what happens to the passengers of a speeding bus when the driver suddenly brakes. Only then, as they lose balance and fall, do the passengers realize how fast they had been travelling. The mind works in the same way: only when it stops for a moment is it possible to see and hear what is going on inside. Not many people enjoy what they encounter at such times.
Is every noise opposed to silence? Is every thought and emotion – every word – a disruption of stillness? Here is Jane Hirschfield’s take on this question:
Everything has two endings-
a horse, a piece of string, a phone call.
Before a life, air.
As silence is not silence, but a limit of hearing.
John Cage – the poet, composer, experimenter – emphasized on a number of occasions that absolute silence does not exist. There is a well-known anecdote about what Cage heard in an anechoic chamber – it was the sound of his own blood circulating and the higher sound of his nervous system operating. Cage placed silence on the spectrum of sound. In one interview, he put it this way: “The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. The silence experience almost everywhere in the world now is traffic.”
In the summer, I had the pleasure of conducting a workshop in “not speaking” as part of a Festival of Abstract Thought in Jazdów, Warsaw. The venue was not a cabin in the woods but something a bit like it – a wooden Finnish house surrounded by a beautiful autumn parkland; an urban version of pastoralism. It was very warm – yes, the climate is changing – so we opened the windows. The noises of a busy thoroughfare were heard; the sound of our modern silence.
I was tempted to copy Cage’s idea from his famous composition 4’3” and subject the participants of the workshop to a full 90 minutes of not speaking. But refraining from speaking is hard for human beings so we talked a little, trying to use words as scaffolding for silence. And when we didn’t talk, we sat quietly, listening to the traffic and whatever each of us had inside his or her mind. Not talking is hard, but once we overcome resistance, it becomes a wonderful means to be with other people in ways not often practiced in our culture.
Contemporary capitalism deprives us of silence and of freedom: there is no questioning of that basic fact. In place of a whole rich spectrum of human existential possibilities, it offers a choice between this or that product, service or lifestyle. It commodifies absolutely everything, including wild nature and rebellion. But this would not be possible if it wasn’t for our strong inclination to become enslaved. Recognizing that inclination (and resisting it) – isn’t that one of the most beautiful tasks of human life?
When I think about freedom I think about silence.
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