The Knock of Silence: Hearing the Things That Matter and Knowing When to Let Them In


“All the unhappiness of men arises from the one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” Blaise Pascal

Story Break

Silence is the knock that tells me something important is waiting to be let in. A thought, an understanding, a cry from some inner landscape long-ignored.

Silence is that moment right before sleep, when my mind self-negotiates release. I need total silence, about ten minutes. For, as Faulkner wrote in As I Lay Dying,

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.”

It isn’t about sleep. It’s about shifting out of consciousness and, ultimately, abandoning self. I don’t cognitively fear Faulkner’s “never were,” but the part of me that wants to shift into it and the part that holds fast to being are in contention. Silence makes me feel safe in nothingness. In emptiness. In sleep.

Silence comes to my assistance in moments that require we turn profound stress into profound empathy. The world is changing. I don’t change fast enough. If I encounter something that challenges me to expand my consciousness—about privilege, race, gender, poverty—and I simply haven’t stretched that consciousness properly, I feel a jolt. A feeling of change, a threat, even…

So I turn off the feed—nay, the feed, the Internet, my computer, the noise of my own home. I walk, observe. The steady footfall rhythm relaxes my ego, stretches my consciousness, and allows in empathy. William James reminds us, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose on thought over another.” It is in silence that we choose the right thought.

Silence is a comfort for the living when we must confront dead – or rather stand and be confronted by the dead. For in that moment, we face our own eternal silence, and deeper still, our own propensity for evil.

Many of London’s war memorials are clustered around the Apsley House (Duke of Wellington’s reward for defeating Napoleon), as if to anchor the tableau in the heroic narrative that Duke provides. This is common, war must be presented gloriously to the uninitiated, otherwise, the horror would be overwhelming.

Each memorial stands as a symbol of death and glory, sacrifice and honor. It is compulsory to be still and silent for reasons captured by British poet and consummate writer/wanderer Laurie Lee, in his essay “Lying in State.” In this short elegy about a funeral in Westminster Abbey, Lee notes:

“Every resounding event seems to be followed by silence as history catches its breath.”

Standing here, we breathe in silence, we breathe out awareness: How many people died and for what? Could it happen again and to whom? Could it happen to me? Because of me? These thoughts must be welcomed into our consciousness, fully, gracefully, without interruption.

Silence is the viewpoint that allows us to see ourselves in the context of the world around us and, sometimes, apart from that world. Almost one hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf wrote eloquently about a woman’s need for a room of her own in order to write fiction. Her bold assertion had different meaning in those days: a woman had to exist outside society’s confines to function as a thinking, feeling, creative being.

Although the parameters for what a woman can be may have relaxed officially, society’s expectations still rule us, externally and internally. Only in carved-out spaces can we exist as we are, not relative to what we should be.

As Woolf noted, the entering of one’s mind into a calm state is critical to the creative process. It allows us to hear the knock of insight. It is why most artists work alone or apart. Travel writer Pico Iyer noted; “Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.” We are still, but not idle. It recalls the tale of Jack Kerouac: when seeking his “kickwriting”—a constant flow of work in which he believed he’d find his voice—he taped together twelve foo-long sheets of drawing paper to avoid the noise of changing the paper in the typewriter. He cultivated his own form of silence and stillness, free from interruption.

Interruption is the enemy of silence and all its benefits.

One thing I love about London is it feels easy to exist without interruption. In my native America, people often push their extroverted egos into the space, fulfilling a natural sense of frontierism (ideological and physical expansion into the empty, the unknown), which we Americans think we’re owed, somehow. The British, for the most part, seem to retract rather than expand. Less available space, natural nation-state boundaries—a less individualistic pathos, perhaps? When they do expand, it comes out theatrically. Writer and critic James Wood, in his book How Fiction Works, notes a recurring character born of this British milieu:

“From Shakespeare descends a self-theatricalizing, somewhat solipsistic, flamboyant, but also perhaps essentially shy type who can be found in Fielding, Austen, Dickens … Wells … Muriel Spark … Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, and on into the superb pantomimic embarrassments of Monty Python and Ricky Gervais’s David Brent.”

Silence might be probable in London, but it isn’t always possible. One must search. A thoughtful friend gifted me a book oriented to seekers of silence called Quiet London by Siobhan Wall. Its featured art museums, libraries, even shops boast a culture of quiet. Sometimes a forceful one. Upon visiting the places mentioned, I’ve seen many people being hushed. (Might have taken part myself. Well, you must. Too many tourists without quiet sensibilities.)

When we consider silence—and I realize this rereading my own words—we consider it in terms of space, place, time, interaction, interruption… Silence seems to lack definition. What is “silence”?

Gordon Hempton, who might know more about silence than anyone alive, loosely defines silence as the absence of man-made noise. Hempton, author and self-termed “acoustic ecologist,” has been studying and recording “silence” for the past thirty years (listen to some of his best catches here). He argues (gently, quietly) that our world is polluted with man-made noise and dominated by the visual. He recommends we pull ourselves away, not for silence but in order to listen. And what a treat when we do.

The fundamental definition of silence is not “absence of noise” but, rather, “space to listen.”

To the world, to humanity, to our deep, forgotten, ill-nurtured selves.

Silence creates the space where the important things find us, from within and without. And we know to let them in.


Story Break

Stillness, a welcome companion to silence, also enables us to welcome those things we cannot hear knocking. Read more in Pico Iyer’s short, poignant piece The Art of Stillness. To me, “silence” is actually an intersection of space, silence and self, thus my preferred book on silence, isn’t even about silence, it’s about space (and the inherent silence in the space); Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways. Conversely, I also explore the limits of silence when it breaks down human connection in What it Means to be Seen, To Have a Name and the short fiction The Cold of the Year.

  • rogertbaker

    Beautiful essay, Ellen.

    If I remember correctly there is a marvelous passage on waking from sleep in the first pages of “The Sheltering Sky”, maybe the finest in literature. (I don’t know if anyone else has said that.)

    Silence is lovely, precious, like beauty. Still, like beauty one can only enjoy so much before he requires something else. Someone said no man has ever looked at a sunset for more than ten minutes. That may not be literally true, but I take the point.

    Pascal’s point was not that man’s inability to be still is a deficiency in him but that it is a necessary consequence of his finitude:

    “We seek rest in a struggle against some obstacles. And when we have overcome these, rest proves unbearable because of the boredom it produces…Only an infinite and immutable object—that is, God himself—can fill this infinite abyss.”

    Paul Tillich said, quite beautifully, “The infinite is where the finite seeks to rest”.

    It sounds like I’m preaching, but I’m not.



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