Book Review - Silence and its significance: A wide-ranging investigation

September 14 2017

Title: Silence; Author: John Biguenet; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 152; Price: Rs 250


We are taught in proverbs to regard it as golden, asked to practice it most of the time in our home and school life, and may use it to evade uncomfortable situations -- and resent it when used against us. Or is it what should come when we reach the limits of speech, as a German philosopher contended?


Is this all the significance of silence in our lives?


Not at all, for it may also be considered a "servant of power, as a lie, as a punishment, as the voice of God, as a terrorist's final weapon, as a luxury good, as the reason for torture" among many other aspects, contends American academician, novelist and playwright John Biguenet.


In an another of Bloomsbury's intriguing, informative and incisive "Object Lessons" series focussing the "hidden lives" of ordinary things, ranging from dust to golf balls, he begins by delving into what silence is not -- and this may be counter-intuitive to our perceptions.


"We may conjecture that somewhere in the cosmos, beyond the borders of all human trace, a zone of silence awaits (always receding, of course, before the advance of future explorers), a great sea of stillness unperturbed by the inanimate, an utterly quiet virgin territory. But our imagination misleads us if we conceive of silence as a destination at which we might arrive.


"Similarly, in a less poetic vein, if we assume that silence is merely the absence of sound waves, or more precisely, the absence of a medium capable of transmitting sound waves, though we are correct, we miss a larger point: Silence is a measure of human limitation. Beyond the boundaries of the upper and lower ranges of the ear's capacity to sense sound lies the subject of this book," he says.


Biguenet then goes to draw on a wide range of human experiences, spanning the poetry of John Keats and W.B. Yeats to the unsettling stories of Poe, Kafka and the TV show "The Twilight Zone", from Freud to political scandals and cover-ups down to Snowden, and from experiments in sensory deprivation to his experience of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, to show the various aspects of silence in our lives and our world.


And there are surprising facets galore. 


While he cites Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous dictum, "... and about that of which we cannot speak, we must remain silent", Biguenet then goes on to explore silence as a commodity where it is "bought and sold at prices rivalling our most sought-after consumer goods" as can be seen in cellphone-free retreats, as well as exquisite watches, airport lounges and high-end cars which promise it. 


He looks at our attempts to seek silence in our crowded, noisy urban environs where most humans live and work, and how too absolute a silence can be a daunting experience as he cites the case of the quietest place on earth -- "an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota" which no one can stay in for even an hour.


The author then draws a distinction between silence and solitude, the role of silence in religion (and his own experience as a novitiate monk), and considerable other uses of silence in classical music, poetry and art, and literature. The last is crucial, for here he shows that "silent reading", as most of us practice, may not be entirely that for research by neuro-scientists has shown that "reading spontaneously elicits auditory processing in the absence of any auditory stimulation".


Biguenet goes on to deal with our responses to tragedy, terror and crime, the relationship of children with toys and pets, Freud's views on the uncanny, gender roles in asking of questions and giving of advice, especially on directions -- where men rule supreme to the dismay of feminists -- and many other facets as he shows how silence is an integral part of our lives, even in ways we could have never imagined.


And as he brings his wide-ranging discourse to end, profound questions remain: Should we seek or fear silence -- or is it even for us to choose?


(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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