It is, perhaps, fitting that after the brassy clamour of Christmas with its flashy lights and shiny baubles, its carols and jangly Christmas songs and the inevitable dearth of (frankly dreadful) perfume adverts, that my first book of the New Year was the meditative A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. It is a book which has been sitting on my bedside table for, oh, probably around three years waiting for me to get around to reading it. It is a shame it has taken me so long to get to it.
Part meditation, part journey of discovery, part love affair, A Book of Silence follows Sara Maitland’s long and, sometimes, difficult journey into a more hermetic kind of life. The book begins where the story ends, on completion of her new home in the wilds of Scotland where her life of (semi) silence is to begin. Here Maitland describes her new home:
“It is early morning. It is a morning of extraordinary radiance – and unusually up here there is practically no wind. It is almost perfectly silent: some small birds are chirping occasionally and a little while ago a pair of crows flapped past making their raucous cough noises. It is the first day of October so the curlew and the oystercatchers have gone down to the seashore. In a little while one particular noise will happen – the two-carriage Glasgow-to-Stranraer train will bump by on the other side of the valley; and a second one may happen – Neil may rumble past on his quad bike after seeing to his sheep on the hill above the house; if he does he will wave and I will wave back. That is more or less it.”
Through the book Maitland describes her boisterous background; coming from a large family in which silence was discouraged, to boarding school, to a marriage and family life spent in noisy vicarages. It was only following the end of her marriage that Maitland began to explore the pull of a quieter kind of life. Not surprisingly, she met with some resistance from family and friends, and the words of one friend in particular pivot through the book. She refers to a letter from Janet Batsleer received at the beginning of her journey which reads:
“Silence is the place of death, of nothingness. In fact there is no silence without speech. There is no silence without the act of silencing, someone having been shut up, put bang to rights, gagged, told to hold their tongue, had their tongue cut out, had the cat get their tongue, lost their voice. Silence is oppression and speech, language, spoken or written is freedom.[...]
[...] That silence is a place of non-being, a place of control, from which all our yearning is to escape. All the social movements of repressed people in the second part of the twentieth century have claimed ‘coming to language’ and ‘coming to voice’ as necessary to their politics...In the beginning was the Word...Silence is oppression. It is ‘the word’ that is the beginning of freedom.
All silence is waiting to be broken.”
There is truth in those words, and yet Maitland felt there was something missing from the story. Why is it in Western culture that the idea of silence is considered such a negative, an absence, an abnegation whereas there are so many stories from history, particularly those from explorers or adventurers, those living hermetical lives, or the more meditative approach of Buddhists, or even the ‘art in the silence of nature’ views of the Romantic movement which suggest otherwise. Through reading, through experimentation, through making changes to her own life, Maitland comes to explore the uncharted domain which is silence. What she discovers is that there are many forms of silence, that it is true that silence, when imposed, is a form of torture or control but when freely chosen can be a source of great joy. There is the silence of the desert which is vast and open and self-dissolving. There is the silence of the solitary walker which is strengthening, and the silence of the solitary adventurer which has the power to transform or to destroy.
It is a fascinating book, full of curiosity and honesty and reverence. I think it is the reverence that comes over the most strongly. Maitland is a confirmed Catholic, and this pervades the book without overwhelming it. I think she is able to balance her personal faith against a more (if not entirely) scientific examination of the experience and scope of silence.
What has surprised me the most is how reading this relatively short and slightly meandering book has given me cause for a great deal of thought. It has also led me to conduct my own experiment in silence, one in which I will try to live more quietly. I have observed, on more than one occasion, that those evenings spent in companionable silence are some of the most restorative and enjoyable though I rarely create the space to exploit them in my ever-so-busy life. I expect it will not be easy, but I do think it will be enriching. I cannot retreat to a hermit’s hut on the Scottish moors, but I don’t think (however desirable it may seem) that such extreme measures are necessary. However, I intend to try to speak less, to listen more, to be in the world more. I am only hoping I can keep hold of this feeling long enough to make it a habit. It has already given me a sense of considerable peace.
What the book has also helped me to uncover is some thoughts I’ve been having, generally, about speaking and language (though the two are not the same thing, I know. Bear with me). Too often, I think, people speak because what they are really seeking is to be listened to. I know I have done this (and will do this) myself, I know many people do. I would not, and do not, criticise people for doing so. How else are we to reach out to others if not through speech? At the same time the very act of speaking negates the idea of listening, of receiving. It is an outward reaching activity. Rarely, too, do people say what they mean. Too often conversation involves sharing of insignificant facts: what someone had for dinner, what they watched on TV. What they really mean is listen to me, care about me. In this long, lonely existence in which we are trapped inside our own minds, there is a kind of desperation for connection, for validation. Sometimes I think I speak because of a terrible fear that unless I speak, unless I make that momentary connection with somebody, I don’t exist. But at the same time the act of speaking interferes with my experience of being in the world. In the act of speaking, I cease to be.
A large part of this, I think, is down to the fact that language is an inadequate vehicle for expressing the experience of our existence, of the world. I think that language is a cage with which we try to imprison our experience, define it, set it down in measurable and repeatable formulas. It is a means of control. But it is also a lie. It is not a cage made of steel but of smoke. I say to someone I have a black cat and in the saying there is an intellectual leap, that the other person will understand what is meant by I and cat and have and black and yet there is nothing to say that my perception of what constitutes a cat is the same as the next person’s or the next. I say I love you and I already know even whilst saying it that love comes in many forms and shades, yet the same simple phrase, somehow, covers them all. It is an illusion. It is also the best we have, but then I think of all the experiences for which there are no words, for which the words that are available to me are mere shadows of what I think or feel or experience. I think of all those times of meaningful silence, moments of unspoken (but felt) love, or awe or confusion. I think this is part of why people turn to poetry, because poetry is language stretched to its limits, stretched beyond the mere meaning of the words into something closer to the intangible truth of what we feel or experience. Similarly music occupies this space; music is beyond words and yet somehow can come closest to expressing the breadth of what words cannot express.