A short Festival on Silence

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence’. Hah! Max Ehrmann couldn’t have been wider off the mark back in the 1920’s when he penned Desiderata. Put on a festival on silence and your audience will be anything but placid by the end. Oh, no. They will be agitated, anxious and soul sick, living, in the shadow between the thought and the action, as T S Eliot put it.
It’s no accident that two of the most unsettling images from the past 100 years are Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the 1972 photograph of Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl escaping a napalm raid on her village. In both, a wraith-like figure, mouth contorted in fear, comes towards us from out of a burning sky. Paradoxically, while the images themselves are silenced by their respective artistic media – canvas and print – so potent are they that they illicit imagined screams from us.
Simon and Garfunkel, writing in the late 1960’s, played with other paradoxes of silence. In 7 O’Clock News (Silent Night), the usual banal recitation of a shopping list of personal and civil violence and abuse that is the staple of evening news – in this instance ending with Nixon’s announcement on stepping up the US action in Vietnam – is counter-pointed with a melancholy version of the Christmas carol. The song invites the reflection that for the victims of abuse, nights are anything but silent.
Another of their songs recalls a dream from which the singer has woken, but which ‘still remains within the Sounds of Silence’. Silence is malevolent and ‘like a cancer grows’, stopping people from voicing their opposition to injustice. The singer tries to wake us, but he too falls victim, and his words ‘like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence’. Silence is both the oppressor and the result of oppression.
Marlene Gorris’s explored this dual power of silence in her film A Question of Silence. Here, however, the victims reclaim silence and turn it against their oppressors. In a boutique a woman who is shoplifting is confronted by the owner. Two other women come to her defence. The situation escalates and they kill him. When they are brought to trial, the women refuse to offer any justification for their actions. What explanation, the film asks, can they give? Patriarchy and its systems are accused of creating silence around the oppression of women. Women’s recourse is not to engage with those systems.
We are moving optimistically now, so let’s keep going that way. Munch said the inspiration for his painting came to him suddenly while walking at sunset. ‘I felt a breath of melancholy……I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature’. In Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring nature cannot even scream as it falls victim to our love affair with pesticides. In the polluted world she describes, the voices of spring’s voices – birdsong, the screek of cicadas – are stilled by death. But unlike for Simon and Garfunkel, Carlson’s words are not drowned in the wells of silence. Her work is acknowledged as foundational in the emergence of the environmental movement which grows more vocal every day.
Other activisms of the latter part of the 20th century continued to draw attention to the possibility of combating the cancer of silence. In the mid 1990’s, the AIDS treatment activist group ACT UP sloganeered SILENCE = DEATH, ACTION = LIFE. The tag team of silence and death now enters the festival’s ring. It’s ironic that Hamlet, that most loquacious and procrastinating of Shakespeare’s characters, is silenced by death just as he finally acts. No time for soliloquies; just time to give instructions about succession and to die knowing ‘The rest is silence’.
This is where the festival plunges headlong over the metaphysical precipice. Our mortal coil has come finally to face the Big Kahuna of silence, god. And who better to hold our hand at this time of gathering gloom than Ingmar Bergman. In The Seventh Seal, a Knight returns from the Crusades, his experience of war and pestilence having left him with the greatest of soul sicknesses – indifference. ‘I live in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of dreams. I want God to put out his hand, show his face, speak to me. I cry out to him in the dark but there is no one there’, he cries. What, Bergman asks here are we to do in the face of this seemingly perverse silence?
It isn’t until The Silence, that Bergman offers an answer. When asked why she invests every moment of her life with importance, Ester, also dying, abandoned by her father/god, answers ‘How else will we live?’.

Copyright (C) 2003 Paul van Reyk

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© Paul van Reyk 2019.