A Book of Silence, by Sara Maitland
The BBC sound archive has a range of different silences: ‘night silence in an urban street’; ‘morning silence, dawn, the South Downs’; ‘morning silence, winter moor’; ‘silence, sitting room’; ‘silence, garage’; ‘silence, cement bunker;’ ‘silence, beach’. You only have to read those phrases to know, viscerally, that their differences are true and real, and that you could add any number of others. Silence, kitchen, with fridge; silence, theatre; silence, restaurant, across the table; silence, restaurant, rural, general; silence, car, after argument; silence, bath; silence, bed, 3am; silence, at the Cenotaph; silence, friendly and silence, not. When Tess and Angel Clare were approaching Stonehenge, ‘the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day.’ But where did those qualities come from: the doomed lovers, Hardy, the chalk, the silence of the dawn? Or from the relationship of all of them? As Sara Maitland says, silence is ‘a mind event’.
It is always there, as attentive as a butler, waiting for us to shut up before offering its different versions of threat or balm. In Maitland’s hands, silence turns out to be another entire, psycho-geographical world laid alongside the one we know and hear and yack about so much. ‘I learned to tell when it had been snowing in the night by the quality of the silence.’ Of course that is true — the muffled quiet of a snowy morning — and her book is full of such moments, articulating the common but usually ignored and unexpressed experiences in our lives.
She is a passionate advocate for silence, for the revelatory role it can play. After a noisy, chat-filled life (argumentative siblings, time at Oxford sharing a house with Bill Clinton, marriage to an Anglo-Catholic priest, feminism, children, story-writing) she felt an urge to descend into silence, to know it both intellectually and through living it. This book is a record of that exploration, mostly in a remote cottage on Weardale in County Durham, in another equally hidden house in Skye and in expeditions to other unnoisy places (Muckle Flugga, Sinai, Galloway). A friend of hers had told her that silence was the enemy, that it was a mere absence and that freedom and fulfilment consisted of expression and engagement, of breaking the silence. People had always longed to escape silence, the friend said, because silence was a lack of life. Space, death and nothingness were silent.
Maitland set herself doggedly against that idea. Silence, as she plunged deep into it, became astonishingly full, much fuller than the rather empty forms of explicit communication. That fullness can be both good and bad. Silence can be terrifyingly erosive of certainties and self-possession. It can drive you mad, and the very quality of boundarylessness which it seems to encourage in the human mind — a disinhibiting, disorientating, de-socialising force — can be either a source of ecstatic identification with the universe or a sink of dissolution or despair.
Silence may be a prison if imposed, but if chosen turns out not to be an absence but the final presence. In the desert she experiences the sound of silence itself, ‘very low volume, continuous, and (usually) two or more toned’. She doesn’t know what this sound is, nor does anyone else.
It is the voice of God. It is minute particles caught in the inner ear. It is the consequence of there being so many people in the world making so much noise that there is nowhere to escape the last dying reverberations of human sounds. It is the spinning of the universe, or the slow crawl of the tectonic plates deep underground.
Whatever it is, a life lived without it, or even without a conscious cultivation of it, comes to seem incomplete.
Maitland is a Christian and she has a great deal to say about prayer but this is not a conventional religious book. There are more entries in the index for Northamptonshire than for God. And, as a plea to accommodate the universal carrying capacities of silence, she quotes Simone Weil: ‘I do not ask you to believe in God, I only ask you not to believe in every thing that is not God.’ Silence, at least, delivers a vivid miniaturist reality, one in which you notice the texture of sand grains on the tips of your fingers, or the ‘wind like a cellist’s bow’ drawing sounds out of the grass. At best, it is the source of a drugless ecstasy, ‘a soaring into a new lighter atmosphere’. It makes the self ‘permeable’, Sara Maitland says, and in an era of mass insulation of lofts, lives and selves, that might be risky but also has the chance of being good.