Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

Shaped by Dialogue

Quote

We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.

Charles Taylor
Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition

A Musical Initiation

Only one band ever visited the small, remote East Asian country I called home for the first fourteen years of my life. Why Boney M chose to play in Brunei I’ve never been able to discover. That summer Ma Baker, loosely based on the story of a legendary 1930s outlaw, drifted vaguely out of every shop front. We had really good seats for the concert, at the sides, not far back from the stage. There was some sort of a light show. I don’t really remember. Years later, someone told me that band member Bobby Farrell died in St. Petersburg, so in the same city and on the same day as Rasputin’s death. Boney M had a hit with a song called Ra-Ra-Rasputin-rhymed with love machine-about the friend and advisor of Tsar Nicholas II.

That was also the summer that Saturday Night Fever materialised. Birthday party games were set aside and, out of nowhere, all the other teenagers suddenly knew the moves to Night Fever. Awkward co-ordination and adolescent diffidence sidelined me to observing intently from the edges of the room. The strong beats and uncomplicated song structures had some charm, but what changed everything, looking out at that room full of dancing teenagers was spotting my first punk, not that it was called that at first. I don’t remember his name, or if I ever knew it. He wore a plain white cotton shirt customised with splashed paint, torn black jeans held together with safety pins and loosely spiked hair, dyed orange-blonde. I spent the rest of that summer annoying older boys with questions about this new wave.

Punk quickly became my playground, obsessive in the way things can only become when you live in a remote country, over seven thousand miles away from the heat of a phenomenon. For once going back to boarding school at the end of the summer felt like a release from flatness towards the furious energy of London. The NME became my sutra, reciting gig listings as though part of a solemn ceremony: Generation X at Brunel Rooms, The Adverts at the Nashville, Shame 69 and Menace at The Roxy Club. By the end of that year, school had effectively lost control as I repeatedly bunked out after lights-out to head up to The Nashville, West Kensington, the Electric Ballroom, The Greyhound at Croydon, and various student union gigs. On the nights when jailbreaking was impossible John Peel’s radio show was taped and listened to obsessively.

Punk ended for me as unremittingly as it began. I walked out of the Lyceum after a staggering night with Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Human League and The Fall, and knew that, for me, something was over. I moved on. By the time I discovered punk, it was mostly over. I’m a child of post-punk: Joy Division, Two Tone and PiLThe Cure.

To Speak and Yet Say Nothing

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These things I say, and shall say, if I can, are no longer, or are not yet, or never were, or never will be, or if they were, if they are, if they will be, were not here, are not here, will not be here, but elsewhere. But I am here. So I am obliged to add this. I who am here, who cannot speak, cannot think, and who must speak, and therefore perhaps think a little….  And the simplest therefore is to say that what I say, if I can, relates to the place where I am, to me who am there, in spite of my inability to think of these, or to speak of them, because of the compulsion I am under to speak of them, and therefore perhaps to think of them a little.

Beckett
The Unnamable

Comradeship and Silence

Words exist but the pump to bring those words from the bottom of the well to the surface is malfunctioning. Buried in the sand at the bottom of the well is a torrent of words, but if by chance the pump stirs up some sand, by the time it reaches the surface, the words within convey nothing. As Johnson describes the adjective silent: mute, still, quiet, not speaking.

I love, (swoops and loops of love), Ellman’s description: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” It is such a precise description, that distinction so clear in the writing of both men.

In a timely intervention, my friend @EstherHawdon mentions the Japanese obsession with silence, and quotes Basho’s poem:

Old pond

frogs jumped in

sound of water

And goes on to say,

We usually use the word “ma (間)” meaning blank or emptiness, so when there is silence in conversation, we call this silence “ma” – “ma 間” is also used to mean blank space – e.g. there is a space between a stone and another in a garden, we call this blank “ma”

This returns me to a book that I’ve returned to again and again this summer, Federico Campagna’s The Last Night: Anti-work, Atheism, Adventure in which I found so much wisdom, particularly on his conception of comradeship (a few unlinked passages):

Comradeship among egoists allows them to further modify the reality in which they exist, thus shaping the landscape of their adventure and taming at least in part the influence that the environment in which they exist has on them.

As it always happens with the creation of a bond, unions of egoists necessarily result in something that exceeds a friendship based on shared interests or the simple joint-venture of cooperating forces.

And I make no apology for quoting again I passage I quoted a few weeks ago:

There was always something that allowed me to distinguish between the long list of unmemorable relationships and the few who were to remain. In all my strongest friendships, in all the best relationships I have ever had, an element seemed to constantly recur. It was the feeling of a movement together with the other person, a tension towards something or somewhere, a common action, a sense of solidarity within the frame of a shared intent. The people I have ever felt closest to have been something more than friends: they have been comrades.

Of course, I accept the political connotations of the word. But with a difference. Like political comrades, we were bound by a common desire and a common tension. Differently from them, however, our desires and tensions could not be limited by the dogma of some abstract ideals, let alone pre-existing ideologies. Between us, there was something that originated from us alone.

Silence as Esther describes so beautifully is neither a vacuüm to be feared, nor pure emptiness. As in Beckett’s Unnamable, referring to language and silence as distinct entities ends up conveying nothing as both merge into one. The Unnamable is silence.

Resisting Translation

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”

Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1

Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

A Quiet Revolution Triptych

For a long time I was genuinely puzzled as to how so many suburban American teenagers could be entranced, for instance, by Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life — a book, after all, written in Paris almost forty years ago. In the end I decided it must be because Vaneigem’s book was, in its own way, the highest theoretical expression of the feelings of rage, boredom, and revulsion that almost any adolescent at some point feels when confronted with the middle class existence. The sense of a life broken into fragments, with no ultimate meaning or integrity; of a cynical market system selling its victims commodities and spectacles that themselves represent tiny false images of the very sense of totality and pleasure and community the market has in fact destroyed; the tendency to turn every relation into a form of exchange, to sacrifice life for “survival”, pleasure for renunciation, creativity for hollow homogenous units of power or “dead time” — on some level all this clearly still rings true.

David Graeber, Revolution in Reverse

We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

Raoul Vaneigem, Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut people off the past.

Hannah Arendt, Home to Roost

The Epic of Words

Time and again in my afternoons on the plateau, I applauded the epic of words. And I laughed as well, not the laughter of ridicule, but the laughter of recognition and complicity. Yes, there is a word for the bright spot in a cloudy sky, a word for the way an ox runs back and forth on a hot day when he’s stung by a horsefly, for flame suddenly bursting from a stove, for the juice of stewed pears, for the star on a bull’s forehead, for a man on all fours extracting himself from the snow, for a woman’s stocking up on summer clothes, for the sloshing of liquid in a half-empty bucket, for the trickling of seeds out of seedpods, for the skipping of a flat stone over the surface of a pond, for icicles hanging from a tree, for the raw spot in a boiled potato, for a puddle in clayey ground. Yes, that’s the word.

In trying to select a favourite passage to reveal the languid beauty of Peter Handke’s Repetition I could have selected from so many pieces. I have a notebook filled with passages from Repetition. It is an extraordinary book, which I urge you to read. WG Sebald has written a wonderful essay [PDF] about Repetition.

Acts of Unlearning

The pathways of thought we will sketch have need of poetry, which in its nakedness and directness invades analytical language and allows it to open up; Arendt rejects instruments of comprehension that have proved dull or irrelevant. She allows them to go missing, unlearns them. Many things must be freed from entanglements so that we can argue about and conquer then anew. Such acts of “unlearning,” born of shock and distress, are intellectual awakenings.

From the Preface to Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott (trans. David Dollenmayer).

A Vanishing Breed of Writer

I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.

William Gaddis — from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976