Speaking of Silence

By David E. CooperJuly 31, 2018

Speaking of Silence

A History of Silence by Alain Corbin

UNTIL ABOUT 10 years ago, Max Picard’s work The World of Silence (1952), neglected for decades, was almost the only serious examination of silence available. Times have changed, and silence is in fashion. Recent books on the topic include Sara Maitland’s best-selling A Book of Silence (2008), ones by Thích Nhất Hạnh and Erling Kagge, as well as studies aimed at a more academic readership. To this list can now be added Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day, here translated by Jean Birrell.

Owing a clear debt to the Annales school of French historiography, with its focus on the byways of social life, Corbin’s writings have been especially inspired by practitioners of l’histoire des mentalités. He has been described as a master, in particular, of l’histoire du sensible — the history, we might say, of the senses and sensibility. Now in his 80s, Corbin has written books and papers on topics that most of us do not think of as having histories at all — for example, on smell or rain. Silence can now be added to the list of histories he has tackled.

Or can it? Despite its title and subtitle, Corbin’s book is not a historical narrative of silence and of people’s attitudes and uses of it from the Renaissance (which is barely touched upon) to the present. The division of the book is not chronological but thematic, with chapters on, say, silence in nature and silence and love. Within individual chapters we do find minihistories of a few topics, running for three or four pages, such as the changing methods employed for training people to be silent. These are not, however, woven into a single, prolonged narrative. But then perhaps it is rather old-fashioned — and something the Annalistes challenged — to expect historical studies to have beginnings, middles, and ends.

There is, though, another reason for questioning whether Corbin’s is a history book — namely, that it is more like a treasury of quotations. In the notes, there are around 350 references to predominantly French-language authors — in a text of only 120 pages. On some pages, lines from as many as six or seven authors are crammed together. Some of the quotations, of course, are very good, like Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s description of the “gloomy mutism” of the bleak, foggy moor he crosses, or Marcel Proust’s recollection of “the fine bouquet of silence” that saturated his aunt’s bedroom. But the piling up of quotations can become repetitive and irritating. We don’t, surely, need a dozen testimonies — from Blaise Pascal to Maurice Maeterlinck and Albert Camus — to realize that silence is important to lovers.

Corbin justifies his indulgence in quotations by saying that these “alone can enable the reader to understand how people experienced silence in the past.” “What better way could there be,” he asks, to share this experience “than to immerse ourselves in quotations […] ?” The answer to this rhetorically intended question is that a better way still is to organize, clarify, or elaborate on the quotations, wherever this is called for. In many cases where this is so, Corbin leaves himself no space to do it. Sometimes a quotation simply dangles, its purpose unclear. The pronouncements of some authors, moreover, are too pretentious or opaque to be included without comment — ones like, “To remain silent is what we all want […] when we write,” and “Silence is speech transfigured.”

Between the quotations, what is it that Corbin himself has to say about silence? He makes, to be sure, several perceptive points. He brings out nicely, for example, the dialectic of sounds and silences, as when the alternation of music and silence in a church service renders each of them more effective. Or think of how jazz musicians skillfully use pauses to accentuate rhythm and create anticipation of the next phrase. Helpful, too, is Corbin’s reflection that the power of Edward Hopper’s paintings to evoke loneliness and estrangement owes as much to the air of silence of the scenes he depicts as to their motionlessness and harsh lighting.

Individual aperçus there are, then, but it is difficult to identify a general organizing theme or ambition in the book. This is despite the announcement of just such a theme in the prelude. We are told that people in the West have come to “fear” and “dread” silence, to the point virtually of forgetting what it is. By reminding us of an earlier sensibility to silence — one recognizing its value and preciousness — Corbin’s book may, he hopes, “help us to relearn how to be silent” and to “savour” it. This same ambition, incidentally, drives all the books on silence mentioned at the beginning of this review.

But the theme announced in Corbin’s prelude largely disappears in the rest of the book and would anyway have to be adjusted in the light of remarks he goes on to make. For a start, many of the kinds of silence discussed hardly sound like ones to savor and admire: menacing, charged, and awkward silences, for example. The “silent chill” and “cold silence” experienced by the Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach, in the dark streets of Bruges, is something he’d happily exchange, one suspects, for the warmth and noise of a tavern. Second, several passages from older writers, including John Milton and Pascal, indicate what should anyway be obvious: that many people have always dreaded silence. This dread is not a peculiarity of our times. Anyway, Corbin’s own examples show that contemporary attitudes to silence are a motley, and not all of them are forms of fear. On the one hand, people these days may no longer want to talk to strangers on trains or in hotel lobbies. But these same people go clubbing to venues where they tolerate “levels of noise previously unknown in human history.”

It is anyway hard to see how a discussion that ranges over a large number of diverse phenomena under the heading of silence could have a single theme or central argument. Corbin’s topics range from the silence of deserts to Trappist discipline, from the taciturnity of peasants to the “silent speech” of paintings, from “keeping mum” to silences in music, from God’s silence to postcoital exhaustion, and from the “interior” silence of meditation to that of city streets on winter nights. Ranging over such a variety of phenomena is not as such a problem, though in a short book there won’t be much that can be said about any of them. But there are two dangers that Corbin does little to avert.

The first is that of sudden, unannounced leaps, confusing to the reader, from one silence to another. In just one page of a discussion on silence and paintings, for instance, three very different forms of silence are mentioned, but without being distinguished: the silence of the painted images themselves, their inducement of silence on the part of the viewer, and the silence of the figures or scenes they depict. Second, and relatedly, the seemingly chaotic variety of the silences Corbin and his quoted authors mention leaves an appetite for order and an illuminating taxonomy. Corbin does speak of “kinds of silence,” and sometimes provides lists, but these are not, for the most part, general categories into which the silences can be helpfully distributed.

Taxonomy might begin with setting aside or, at any rate, setting apart what can be described as silences only in extended or figurative senses — for example, the silences of images, décor, and the dead. Since none of these can speak or indeed make noises at all, they cannot, in any informative sense, be silent either. Setting such talk of silence aside, of course, does not mean that it is uninteresting. Finding holes in someone’s argument might be more interesting than finding them in his socks, but they are not holes in the literal sense that the ones in the socks are.

A second taxonomic move is to distinguish between the very general categories of what I’ll label “acoustic” and “kept” silences. An acoustic silence is one identified in contrast to sounds. Corbin is right to assert that silence “is not simply the absence of noise.” He doesn’t, however, give one of the main reasons for this — namely, that acoustic silence is perfectly compatible with the presence of some sounds. The silence of the seashore in Tipasa, wrote Camus, was “made up” of birdsong, the rustling of plants, the slitherings of lizards, and other sounds. What was missing — what allowed the place to be silent — was, so to speak, the “wrong kind” of noise, that of machinery, say. Franz Kafka’s silent hotel room was not decibel-less; there was the sound of his pen scratching, his sometimes labored breathing, but not that of people laughing or of church bells. The familiar insistence that there is really no such thing as silence, since the environment always contains some sounds, however slight, is misguided. For we do not, in describing the silence of places, intend to exclude all sounds, only those that, broadly speaking, would intrude or don’t belong.

Acoustic silences, though Corbin does discuss and assemble quotes on it, is not his main interest. This, instead, is what I am calling “kept” silences. These are not to be understood in terms of the absence of sounds. The man who maintains his silence under torture may be screaming loudly, but what he is not doing is to give information to his tormenters. There are many silences that people intentionally, if not always willingly, keep or maintain. In some cases — on Armistice Day, at Quaker meetings, when the coffin is brought into the church, and so on — people are expected to remain still and hushed. In some cases, the silence is specifically that of not speaking — as with Trappist monks, say, or good Victorian (or Third Empire) children in front of their elders, or an old Norwegian who, allegedly, was taken by his relatives to be mute until he one day asked for a drink. In other cases, the silence is not that of nonspeaking tout court, but of not saying certain things. Someone pleading the Fifth Amendment doesn’t stop talking, but does withhold from saying anything that might incriminate him. Someone who remains discreetly silent about her friend’s peccadillos may be otherwise garrulous.

As these few examples suggest, Corbin is right to state that in social life “the interaction of silence and speech [is] highly complex.” Right, too, to draw attention to the many reasons why people keep silent — as an exercise in self-discipline, perhaps, or because they are commanded to, or because it is a useful tactic in some social relationships. The kept silence, however, that he draws most attention to — one “fundamental to a history of silence” and of “special relevance to us” — is not a social requirement or strategy. It is what he calls the silence of “interiority” — an “inner” silence that has often been associated with contemplation. What he has in mind, at least some of the time, is not simply or mainly keeping still, calm, and quiet and abstaining from speech. Interior silence is, more radically, a refusal to engage in propositional thought and the exercise of concepts. The “silence of the spirit,” for John of the Cross, “cancels all rational and discursive activity.”

In many religious traditions interior silence is an explicit goal — in Catholic and Orthodox mysticism, certainly, but also in Asian religions, which Corbin does not discuss. One thinks of the Taoist call for a “fasting of the mind,” or of Zen Buddhist koans designed to induce abdication from thought. The motives for such silence vary. The idea might be to refrain from “gassing,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein called it, about what is ineffable — perhaps in preparation for a direct perception of, or insight into, an ineffable godhead, tao, or suchness. “[W]ords,” wrote the hermit and martyr Charles de Foucauld in 1901, “put out the inner fire” kindled within us by God. Or the idea can be that, in interior silence, a person emulates the silence of what is mysterious and unsayable — or that he or she is somehow dissolved into the ineffable “One,” “dying to self” as the Sūfis put it, by discarding what individualizes people. Less ambitiously, the aim might simply be that of displaying humility and self-control in the face of God by renouncing our feeble human efforts to comprehend “Him.”

Corbin recognizes, however, that it “would be highly reductive to restrict the range of quests for [interior] silence” to those that reflect religious aspirations. Instead, the quest might be to recapture a more primordial way of experiencing the world. “[L]anguage,” one author remarks, “is not our native land,” which is, instead, the “great mute land” that Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to. Or the quest might be that of two lovers who, as Maeterlinck observes, understand that words “can never express the real, special relationship that exists between two beings.” Or the hope might be to stem “the flow of the purposeful,” as Max Picard named it — to block out, at moments at least, the siren calls of our inveterate and all-consuming urge to achieve and to get. Interior silence is deaf as well as mute.

It is not difficult to understand why, of the many silences Corbin touches on, that of interiority most engages his attention. For here, arguably, is indeed a form of silence toward which few people today feel the attraction or even compulsion that their ancestors once did. Not every silence is the object of the “fear, even dread” that Corbin announced in his prelude. But the silence of the “black void,” as Joris-Karl Huysmans called it, that we may find inside us when chatter and thought are suppressed would indeed be a reason, in Corbin’s words, to flee from the absence of noise and from interiority. Some readers will finish this book regretting that Corbin did not speak in his own voice sufficiently to develop his thoughts on this flight.


David E. Cooper is professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Durham University.

LARB Contributor

David E. Cooper is professor of philosophy emeritus at Durham University, England. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malta, and Sri Lanka. He has also been the chair or president of several learned societies, including the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Some of his most recent books are Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life (2017) and Animals and Misanthropy (2018). Cooper is also the author of several novels and short stories. He lives with his wife in Northumberland, England.


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