Our century has made a religion of communication, enshrining the idea that we ought to be constantly on tap, endlessly engaged in some or other form of exchanging information and perpetually contributing our due quotient to the sum of nonstop chatter – as if communicating with each other were a moral good, and not merely so much white noise. Our phones have become our oracles. Instant messaging is our hotline to higher communion.
In silence we can find an assured retreat from the intolerable din, but it would be a mistake to think that the allure of silence is primarily that of passive withdrawal, like a child sulking because they don’t want to play with all the other kids. Silence is not what is left once the chatter has died away: it is not a residue, or vacated space. Instead, like the darkness of night, it is a gateway into richness and depth, mystery and resonance. In the coinage of Frauds Bacon, “silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom”.
In thinking about the virtues of silence, I am reminded of the writer Sarah Maidand’s lived experiment, in which she embarked on a quest to rediscover those qualities of silence that have become impossible to access amid the crashing cacophony of modern urban life. What I love about her memoir is that it makes no bones about the difficulty of this journey into silence, which she documents in A Book of Silence. Maitland missed friends and frivolity, the fertilising properties of conversation, not least the refined palliative that is BBC Radio 4, and yet, over the long seasons of her voluntary exile from society, she gradually came to learn the value of truly listening: to her inner voice, her doubts and intuitions, the workings of pre-rational thought. And she learned to attend anew to the world around her, finding real joy, for example, in engaging more viscerally with nature (everything from gardening, to noticing that so many of the forces that our lives depend on are silent: gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unheard spinning of the Earth on its axis). The biggest surprise, writes Maitland, was discovering “the energy of silence”.