Blessed, golden silence

Stephen Vicchio

September 04, 1991|By Stephen Vicchio

BETHANY BEACH, DEL. — All my days I have grown up among sages and I have found nothing better for a person than silence.

-- Pirke Aboth, the Talmud

People go to take sun baths; why have so few had the idea of taking baths of silence?

=- -- Paul Claudel, "Lord, Teach Us to Pray"

Bethany Beach, Del.

SILENCE: It is a difficult thing to find these days.

Susan Sontag, in a thoughtful book called "Styles of Radical Will," suggests that the real art of our time consists primarily in making more noise than people of any age before us. Already in 1952, Max Picard, in "The World of Silence" -- the best book ever written about the subject -- made the same point.

If you live anywhere close to what we call civilization, you know Sontag and Picard are surely correct. Jackhammers, boom boxes, the incessant whining of lawn mowers, motorists honking like demented geese, and beneath it all, at a much more pernicious level, is the ubiquitous sound of television sets selling something just in earshot of those who, like Diogenes, roam the world, or perhaps just the house, for one example of real silence. John Cage sums up our present predicament in a book ironically called "Silence": "There is no longer such a thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound."

The omnipresence of noise, noise of almost infinite variety, is borne out by the language we use, or rather, that we choose no longer to use. When was the last time you heard the expression "Silence is golden"? How about "Children should be seen and not heard"? "Mum's the word"?

The expression "the silence of the grave" is one that appears in ancient Hebrew, in classical Greek and in all the contemporary Romance languages. But the spate of recent suggestions that we exhume Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln and William Casey have left me wondering if that turn of phrase is not long for this world, or the next one either.

In an old edition of the British "Who's Who," Edith Sitwell once listed her hobbies as "reading, listening to music and silence." Sitwell understood that silence, the real kind, is needed for people to be whole. Like air or water, it is a requirement for the soul's survival.

I am reminded of one reason I enjoy the symphony. It is not simply the music. It is also that time between movements, those small parcels of silence only sporadically interrupted by a cough or a whisper. They are as valuable as the notes themselves.

I have come to this understanding as I sit on a deserted late-afternoon beach. The sun worshipers are gone. The blazing golden ball turns a fading pink as it dips below the wooden buildings at the dune line behind me. In its final act of the day, the sun casts long shadows on wet sand filled with the shells of dead horseshoe crabs.

Just beyond, the sea gathers itself in, and then rolls into a thundering crash. Today it is the gathering-in that has captivated me. For that brief moment, the great sea is silent. It is as if the ocean sighs before once again making the great roar.

I sit in those parcels of silence. In this small world without 'N speech, I begin thinking that silence is one of the remaining phenomena that have yet to be noisily exploited, for clearly silence is seen by most people as useless.

A moment later, in the next silence, I begin to understand that it must have been this way before creation. This exercise gives new meaning to the aphorism that the real wonder is that there is something rather than nothing.

Why would God create? It must have been terribly painful tearing open the silence.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published earlier this summer by Wakefield Editions.

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