“The deepest passions are nurtured in silent ways and depths.”
AMERICAN ECOPHILOSOPHER, speaker and author John Zerzan (born 10th August 1943), graduate of Stanford University, is an eminent commentator on critiques of civilization and technology. Author of numerous books and scholarly articles, his most renowned work, Future Primitive, was published in 1994; his latest book, When We Are Human, written as an antidote to the darkness of the pandemic, was released in 2021.
Considering the spiritual as a vitally important aspect of the green anarchy/anarcho-primitivist milieu in this time of deepening crisis, John has given motivational talks all over the world and continues to deliver his weekly broadcasts, courtesy of Anarchy Radio, which are all archived at johnzerzan.net.
In this month’s guest post for The Culturium, John draws upon his extensive research of Western philosophy, psychology and literature, investigating the most elusive subject matter of all—silence.
Silence used to be, to varying degrees, a means of isolation. Now it is the absence of silence that works to render today’s world empty and isolating. Its reserves have been invaded and depleted. The Machine marches globally forward and silence is the dwindling place where noise has not yet penetrated.
Civilization is a conspiracy of noise, designed to cover up the uncomfortable silences. The silence-honouring Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the loss of our relationship with it. The unsilent present is a time of evaporating attention spans, erosion of critical thinking and a lessened capacity for deeply felt experiences. Silence, like darkness, is hard to come by; but mind and spirit need its sustenance.
Certainly there are many and varied sides to silence. There are imposed or voluntary silences of fear, grief, conformity, complicity (e.g. the AIDS-awareness ‘Silence=Death’ formulation), which are often interrelated states. And nature has been progressively silenced, as documented in environmental science writer Rachel Carson’s prophetic Silent Spring. Nature cannot be definitively silenced, however, which perhaps goes a long way in explaining why some feel it must be destroyed. ‘There has been a silencing of nature, including our own nature,’ concluded Martin Heidegger and we need to let this silence, as silence, speak. It still does so often, after all, speak louder than words.
There will be no liberation of humans without the resurrection of the natural world and silence is very pertinent to this assertion. The great silence of the universe engenders a silent awe, which the Roman Lucretius meditated upon in the 1st century BCE: ‘First of all, contemplate the clear, pure colour of the sky and all it contains within it: the stars wandering everywhere, the moon, the sun and its light with its incomparable brilliance. If all these objects appeared to mortals today for the first time, if they appeared to their eyes suddenly and unexpectedly, what could one cite that would be more marvellous than this totality and whose existence man’s imagination would less have dared to conceive?’
Down to earth, nature is filled with silences. The alternation of the seasons is the rhythm of silence; at night, silence descends over the planet, though much less so now. The parts of nature resemble great reserves of silence. Swiss philosopher Max Picard’s description is almost a poem: ‘The forest is like a great reservoir of silence out of which the silence trickles in a thin, slow stream and fills the air with its brightness. The mountain, the lake, the fields, the sky—they all seem to be waiting for a sign to empty their silence onto the things of noise in the cities of men.’
Silence is ‘not the mere absence of something else’. In fact, our longings turn toward that dimension, its associations and implications. Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural new beginning.
Zen teaches that ‘silence never varies …’. But our focus may be improved if we turn away from the universalizing placelessness of late modernity. Silence is no doubt culturally specific and is thus experienced variously. Nevertheless, as Picard argues, it can confront us with the ‘original beginnings of all things’ and presents objects to us directly and immediately. Silence is primary, summoning presence to itself; so it’s a connection to the realm of origin.
In the industrial-based technosphere, the Machine has almost succeeded in banishing quietude. A natural history of silence is needed for this endangered species. Modernity deafens. The noise, like technology, must never retreat—and never does.
For Picard, nothing has changed human character so much as the loss of silence. Henry David Thoreau called silence ‘our inviolable asylum’, an indispensable refuge that must be defended. Silence is necessary against the mounting sound. It’s feared by manipulative mass culture, from which it remains apart, a means of resistance precisely because it does not belong to this world. Many things can still be heard against the background of silence; thus a way is opened, a way for autonomy and imagining.
‘Sense opens up in silence,’ wrote French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. It is to be approached and experienced bodily, inseparably from the world, in the silent core of the self. It can highlight our embodiment, a qualitative step away from the hallmark machines that work so resolutely to disembody us. Silence can be a great aid in unblocking ourselves from the prevailing, addictive information sickness at loose in society. It offers us the place to be present to ourselves, to come to grips with who we are. Present to the real depth of the world in an increasingly thin, flattened technoscape.
The record of philosophy vis-à-vis silence is generally dismal, as good a gauge as any to its overall failure. Socrates judged silence to be a realm of nonsense, while Aristotle claimed that being silent caused flatulence. At the same time, however, British philosopher Raoul Mortley could see a ‘growing dissatisfaction with the use of words’, ‘an enormous increase in the language of silence’ in classical Greece.
Much later, French theologian Blaise Pascal was terrified by the ‘silence of the universe’, and German philosopher Georg Hegel clearly felt that what could not be spoken was simply the untrue, that silence was a deficiency to be overcome. Fellow countrymen Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, however, both emphasized the prerequisite value of solitude, diverging from anti-silence Hegel, among others.
Deservedly well known is a commentary on Odysseus and the Sirens (from Homer’s Odyssey) by Horkheimer and Adorno. They depict the Sirens’ effort to sidetrack Odysseus from his journey as that of Eros trying to stay the forces of repressive civilization. Franz Kafka felt that silence would have been a more irresistible means than singing.
‘Phenomenology begins in silence’, according to American philosopher Herbert Spiegelberg. To put phenomena or objects somehow first, before ideational constructions, was its founding notion. Or as Heidegger had it, there is a thinking deeper and more rigorous than the conceptual, and part of this involves a primordial link between silence and understanding. Postmodernism, and French philosopher Jacques Derrida in particular, deny the widespread awareness of the inadequacy of language, asserting that gaps of silence in discourse, for example, are barriers to meaning and power.
In fact, Derrida strongly castigates ‘the violence of primitive and prelogical silence’, denouncing silence as a nihilist enemy of thought. Such strenuous antipathy demonstrates Derrida’s deafness to presence and grace, and the threat silence poses to someone for whom the symbolic is everything. Wittgenstein understood that something pervades everything sayable, something which is itself unsayable. This is the sense of his well-known last line of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: ‘Of that which one cannot speak, one should remain silent.’
Can silence be considered, approached, without reification, in the here and now? I think it can be an open, strengthening way of knowing, a generative condition. Silence can also be a dimension of fear, grief—even of madness and suicide. In fact, it is quite difficult to reify silence, to freeze it into any one non-living thing. At times, the reality we interrogate is mute; an index of the depth of the still present silence. Wonder may be the question that best gives answers, silently and deeply.
‘Silence is so accurate,’ said American artist Mark Rothko, a line that has intrigued me for years. Too often we disrupt silence, only to voice some detail that misses an overall sense of what we are part of and how many ways there are to destroy it. In the Antarctica winter of 1933, American explorer Richard Byrd recorded: ‘Took my daily walk at 4 p.m. … I paused to listen to the silence … the day was dying, the night being born—but with great peace. Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless.’ How much is revealed in silence through the depths and mysteries of living nature? American author Annie Dillard also provides a fine response to the din: ‘At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, to the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.’
It is not only the natural world that is accessible via silence. Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran indicated the secrets in the silence of things, deciding, ‘All objects have a language which we can decipher only in total silence.’ Contemporary American philosopher David Michael Levin’s The Body’s Recollection of Being counsels us to ‘learn to think through the body … we should listen in silence to our bodily felt experience’. And in the interpersonal sphere, silence is a result of empathy and being understood, without words much more profoundly than otherwise.
Native Americans seem to have always placed great value on silence and direct experience, and in indigenous cultures in general, silence denotes respect and self-effacement. It is at the core of the Vision Quest, the solitary period of fasting and closeness to the earth to discover one’s life path and purpose. Inuit Norman Hallendy assigns more insight to the silent state of awareness called ‘inuinaqtuk’ than to dreaming. Native healers very often stress silence as an aid to serenity and hope, while stillness is required for success in the hunt. These needs for attentiveness and quiet may well have been key sources of indigenous appreciation of silence.
Silence reaches back to presence and original community before the symbolic compromised both silence and presence. It predates what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called ‘the unity of representation’, that always works to silence the silence and replace it with the homelessness of symbolic structures. The Latin root for silence, ‘silere’, to say nothing, is related to ‘sinere’, to allow to be in a place. We are drawn to those places where language falls most often, and most crucially, silent. The later Heidegger appreciated the realm of silence, as did the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, one of Heidegger’s important reference points, especially in his Late Hymns. The insatiable longing that Hölderlin expressed so powerfully related not only to an original, silent wholeness but also to his growing comprehension that language must always admit its origin in loss.
A century and a half later, Irish writer Samuel Beckett made use of silence as an alternative to language. In Krapp’s Last Tape and elsewhere, the idea that all language is an excess of language is strongly on offer. Beckett complains that ‘in the forest of symbols’ there is never quiet and longs to break through the veil of language to silence. Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye found the purpose of Beckett’s work ‘to lie in nothing other than the restoration of silence’.
Our most embodied, alive-to-this-earth selves realize best the limits of language and indeed, the failure of the project of representation. In this state, it is easiest to understand the exhaustion of language and the fact that we are always a word’s length from immediacy. Kafka commented on this in his short story, ‘In the Penal Colony’, where the printing press doubled as an instrument of torture. For Thoreau, ‘as the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.’ Conversely, mass society banishes the chance of autonomy, just as it forecloses on silence.
Hölderlin imagined that language draws us into time but it is silence that holds out against it. Time increases in silence; it appears not to flow but to abide. Various temporalities seem close to losing their barriers; past, present, future less divided. But silence is a variable fabric, not a uniformity or an abstraction. Its quality is never far from its context, just as it is the field of the non-mediated. Unlike time, which has for so long been a measure of estrangement, silence cannot be spatialized or converted into a medium of exchange. This is why it can be a refuge from time’s incessancy. Gurnemanz, near the opening of Wagner’s Parsifal, sings, ‘Here time becomes space.’ Silence avoids this primary dynamic of domination.
So here we are, with the Machine engulfing us in its various assaults on silence and so much else, intruding deeply. The note North Americans spontaneously hum or sing is B-natural, which is the corresponding tone of our 60 cycles per second alternating current electricity. (In Europe, G-sharp is ‘naturally’ sung, matching that continent’s 50 cycles per second AC electricity.) In the globalizing, homogenizing Noise Zone, we may soon be further harmonized. British essayist Pico Iyer refers to ‘my growing sense of a world that’s singing the same song in a hundred accents all at once’.
We need a refusal of the roar of standardization, its information-noise and harried, surface ‘communication’ modes. A No to the unrelenting, colonizing penetrability of non-silence, pushing into every non-place. The rising racket measures, by decibel up-ticks and its polluting reach, the degrading mass world—Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
Silence is a rebuke to all this and a zone for reconstituting ourselves. It gathers in nature and can help us gather ourselves for the battles that will end debasement. Silence as a powerful tool of resistance, the unheard note that might precede insurrection. It was, for example, what slave masters feared most. In various Asian spiritual traditions, the muni, vowed to silence [from the Sanskrit], is the person of greatest capacity and independence—the one who does not need a master for enlightenment.
The deepest passions are nurtured in silent ways and depths. How else is respect for the dead most signally expressed, intense love best transmitted, our profoundest thoughts and visions experienced, the unspoiled world most directly savoured? In this grief-stricken world, according to German philosopher Max Horkheimer, we ‘become more innocent’ through grief. And perhaps more open to silence—as comfort, ally and stronghold.
“Silence” by John Zerzan was originally published at The Anarchist Library,
which includes a comprehensive list of citations and references.
- John Zerzan’s website
- Ajahn Sumedho: The Sound of Silence
- Shūsaku Endō: Silence
- Matsuo Bashō: Deep Silence
- Philip Gröning: Into Great Silence
- Rainer Maria Rilke: On Solitude
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Meditations of a Solitary Walker
- Michel de Montaigne: On Solitude