Brain Pickings

The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence

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“Sound imposes a narrative on you, and it’s always someone else’s narrative.”

A recent New York Times Magazine piece on the extinction of silence prompted me to revisit George Prochnik’s excellent In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. As a lover of marginalia, I went straight for my notes on the book, which included this highlighted passage on the origin and cultural appropriation of silence:

The roots of our English term ‘silence’ sink down through the language in multiple directions. Among the word’s antecedents is the Gothic verb anasilan, a word that denotes the wind dying down, and the Latin desinere, a word meaning ‘stop.’ Both of these etymologies suggest the way that silence is bound up with the idea of interrupted action. The pursuit of silence, likewise, is dissimilar from most other pursuits in that it generally begins with a surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. Not only is it about standing still; with rare exceptions, the pursuit of silence seems initially to involve a step backward from the tussle of life… [I]t’s as though, as a culture, we’ve learned to ‘mind the gaps’ so well that they’ve all but disappeared. We live in an age of incessancy, under the banner of the already heard and forgotten.

But rather than exploring silence solely as subtraction, Prochnik captures its additive potential with a beautiful anecdote:

A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now. When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months. His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative. Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known. The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts. ‘Sound imposes a narrative on you,’ he said, ‘and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.’

This idea — the notion of finding creative expression in negative space — resonates with many artists, literally or metaphorically. Rodin famously claimed that his sculpting process was all about removing the stone that wasn’t part of the sculpture, and Louis Armstrong maintained that the important notes were the ones he didn’t play.

But no one captures the profound and paradoxical nature of silence better than silent Buddhist retreat leader Gene Lushtak. Prochnik recounts a story Lushtak told him about Ajahn Chah, the most prominent leader of 20th-century Buddhism:

A young monk came to live in the monastery where Ajahn Chah was practicing. The people who lived in the town outside the monastery were holding a series of festivals in which they sang and danced all night long. When the monks would rise at three thirty in the morning to begin their meditation, the parties from the night before would still be going strong. At last, one morning the young monk cried out to Ajahn Chah, ‘Venerable One, the noise is interrupting my practice — I can’t meditate with all this noise!; ‘The noise isn’t bothering you, ‘ Ajahn responded. ‘You are bothering the noise.’ As Lushtak put it to me, ‘Silence is not a function of what we think of as silence. It’s when my reaction is quiet. What’s silent is my protest against the way things are.’

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