Silence and the limits of language

“That for which we find words in something already dead in our hearts. There always is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

Some popular sayings about education and mastery reflect a intuition that what is remembered is not always the full truth, or even the essential. There is the saw that “education is what remains when you have forgotten what you learned in school”, one of those quotes ascribed to multiple authors from Einstein to Lord Halifax. There is near-taunt that, on topic X, “I have forgotten more than you will ever know”.

The Nietzsche aphorism above is the epigraph of Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare the Invention of the Human”. In another translation, the full paragraph is as follows:

We no longer have sufficiently high esteem for ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not at all garrulous. They could not communicate themselves even if they tried: they lack the right words. We have already gone beyond whatever we have words for. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for what is average, medium, communicable. By speaking the speaker immediately vulgarizes himself. — Out of a morality for deaf-mutes and other philosophers.

Over the years, I have often essayed (in the sense of attempt) a philosophy of silence:

A few years ago I realised that silence is a thing in itself. It is not just the absence of sound, or the absence of noise.

There are anthropological texts on silence in different cultures , social history texts on the invention of silence and the constructed nature of concepts such as silence, sound and noise, there are audiological and acoustic texts on sound and how it is created in our brains.

All seem beside the point. Silence is.

Silence is a force, a power. A philosophy of silence will, after all, always be expressed in language, and always trap itself in language.

We are told that absolute silence is unattainable, and in our modern world even relative silence is close to impossible to find. Still, silence is free, and silence is everywhere, in the gaps.

Silence is the punchline of every unspoken joke, the conclusion of every unformulated argument, the summation of all unspeeched thoughts. In the beginning was the word and in the end there is silence.

Through various crooked paths, I have tried to explore through various quotes and passages. Much of this has related to nature, to religion, to mysticism, to reflection.

Perhaps a common thread through all this is this sense of silence surrounding and pervading all our noise. The idea that forgetting can be a marker of the richness of original knowledge, as hinted at in the pseudo-Einstein quote and the forgot-more-than-you’ll-ever-know rhetoric, also implies the vastness of what we do not know. Another near-cliché is that the more one knows, the more one knows what one doesn’t know.

Perhaps my thoughts on silence from nthposition some years ago could be better expressed as silence is not merely an absence, but the positive presence of all that we do not know, do not perceive, cannot find words for.

Nietzsche is a powerful thinker, though I have always found it necessary to “divide through” his rhetoric a little. In the passage from the Twilight of the Idols one can see why Bloom felt he was among the greatest of psychologists, a precursor of Freud, as he expresses the vast domain of the inexpressible that underlies our motivations and actions, and for which we often devise plausible reasons after the fact.

At the An Enduring Romantic blog, we find other Nietzsche thoughts on this, and the contrasting thought of Auden. As An Enduring Romantic concludes:

To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”

The media landscape so many of us inhabit (and of which this blog is a tiny part of, but a part of nevertheless) is one militates against reflection and the silence and space necessary for reflection. Silence has become a countercultural force, possibly the one true countercultural force in a culture in which rebellion and self-conscious individuality co-opted by corporate interests. Both of the kinds of imagination described by Auden are under threat by this radical undermining of any space for reflection and silence.

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