Silence is not the non-existence of sound; it is rather both its absence and potential. That’s the logic underpinning the sense of a “pregnant pause” and the absurdity of the “silence of outer space.” Sound cannot exist in a vacuum, so it is meaningless to call outer space silent in a way that it is not meaningless to call it dark. Pauses can be pregnant only because they could ultimately bear sounds.
Music seems to depend on sound. Even when we imagine music silently, the mind’s attention may turn to a fantasy of sound that, as it were, verges on sounding and only happens to remain silent. Yet the silences within sounding music — those pregnant pauses framed by sound, like the one after the oboe solo has trailed off in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the grand pause before the shocking C-minor tutti in the first movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony — hint to us that music might exist without sound. “The music is in the silences,” runs a familiar platitude. But if this is true, then it must imply that there can be music made of neither sound nor silence: an ineffable music of “pure” meaning.
The artist channels inspiration’s force,
Makes it heave the heavy rocks aside
That would bind its fluid motion
To secret, silent pools. And once that
Rivulet-rift is cut, the roaring voice
Of the artist echoes long and wide through
The canyons, who ever hence know its noise by name.
“Because the human being is able to speak, the ability to be silent is an art, and a great art precisely because this advantage of his so easily tempts him.” – Søren Kierkegaard
Wind howls incessantly. Birds chirp and crow in dialogue. Trees continuously creak. Slowly the camera advances, gazing upward toward a small white protestant church. This is how Paul Schrader opens his latest film First Reformed.
A story of unrelenting despair, First Reformed was among the most chilling and challenging films I saw last year. The themes of the movie span hope and depression, the sacred and the mundane. Shrader’s film indicts the condition of the modern church, its corporate structures, its political affiliations, and its disregard for the natural environment. But at its heart First Reformed is about one person struggling to see God in a valley of darkness.
“Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large—and, preferably, illustrated—edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen…” – C. S. Lewis
An existential irony exists today, in which we have been insulated from our world by noise. Because our senses are constantly bombarded, we must tune down our sensitivity to the world in order to cope with it all. The loudest, most urgent noises make it through, and we process them, often according to priority of urgency. The net effect is to silence our ears to the rest of the world and its subtleties.
I needn’t delve into the many well-documented repercussions of this chronic clamor on our psyches. We know most of them only too well. But I will mention one lesser-known one, and that is the effect on our relationship to art.
If art were a car, it would run on attention—deep, high-octane attention.
In an upcoming article titled “On Two Challenges to Art and Poetry,” Graham Shea describes the experience of poetry as one of moving from attentive silence to the thrilled discovery of sound. Whether reading or writing, this discovery is always fresh and exciting:
Malcolm Guite, a poet I admire very much, once described his writing process with a sheepish grin. He said he gets some words he likes down on paper, then leans over the page and whispers to them, “Have you got any friends?” and waits to see who comes. — Graham Shea, “On Two Challenges to Art and Poetry” (coming soon)
This February, a theme of “Sound and Silence” will guide contributions of poetry and visual art, and articles on topics from religious art to transcendental film.
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