Silence

John Gray's latest book is Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings (Allen Lane).

Let minds drift into mute pause

"Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or by both. It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sin of language." So writes T.S. Eliot, an unreliable and at times a perverse critic, but also, as in this case, arrestingly perceptive. What Eliot says of simplicity is certainly true of writing; nothing is more difficult to achieve than a simple text, in which nothing is redundant or unclear without reason. Paring away all that is irrelevant or merely decorous, the aim is to uncover the thought in itself. It is a daunting enterprise, since in the end there may be nothing left.

How much more difficult is silence, a condition that for humans is approached only by means of the most arduous struggles. The laborious pursuit of silence is a peculiarly human activity, and usually self-defeating. Humans do not normally seek silence in order to escape a clamorous environment. They do so in the hope of blocking out the clamour within themselves – the anxious thoughts that stand in the way of an imagined tranquillity. The silence that is actively sought is a dream composed from inner disturbance. It is not then silence that is the object of the quest, but another kind of noise.

Human institutions that are set up to contain silence generate this special kind of noise. It is only when they are deserted that churches are silent – and often, not even then. The multitudes deafened by their droning prayers leave their noise behind them. Still, the contemplative life is not without meaning: it expresses a deep-seated human disjunction. A world without these institutions would be immeasurably poorer. The flight from internal noise – whether it takes people to churches and monasteries, deserts or other wild places – is proof that silence is not a natural human condition. Silencing themselves and others comes naturally to humans, but not silence. Yet for that very reason, they seem impelled to want to be silent.

In The World of Silence, the Swiss Catholic theologian Max Picard writes, "The silence of animals is different from the silence of men. The silence of men is transparent and bright because it confronts the word, releasing the word in every moment and receiving it back into itself again. It is a relaxed silence... Animals have a heavy silence. Like a block of stone. Animals stride over the blocks of silence, trying to tear themselves away but always chained to them." It is true that the quality of silence is different in other animals. However, the difference is the opposite of that of which Picard writes. Whereas silence is for other animals a natural truancy, a recurring sate of rest in the struggle for life, silence for humans is a rock to which they seek to chain themselves. By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from itself, while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright.

Picard's inversion of the qualities of human and animal silence is reminiscent of Heidegger's claim that other animals are "world-poor". In this view, rats and tigers, gorillas and hyenas merely exist, adjusting passively to the changes around them. They are not agents but objects, lacking any perception of the mysterious "Being" from whence they came. Humans, on the other hand, are not things in the world. They actively shape the worlds in which they live. Or so they like to think.

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