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:15 seconds in the elevator with a stranger : short essays from Minseong Wang

-N.silence, quiet, quietude, hush, still; sullenness, sulk, saturninity, taciturnity, laconism, reticence, reserve. muteness, mutism, deaf-mutism, laloplegia, anarthria, aphasia, aphonia, dysphasia. -V.silence, quiet, quieten, still, hush;gag, muzzzle, squelch, tongue-tie; muffle, stifle, strike dumb. speechless, wordless, voiceless, mute, dumb, inarticulate, tongue-tied, mousy, mum, sphinzian.1


Rogetʼs New Pocket Thesaurus (New York, 1969)

e contemplation of absolute

silence has become negative and

terrifying for Western Man. Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he is not alone. From this point of view total silence is the rejection of the human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. As the ultimate silence is death, it achieves its highest dignity in the memorial service.2 In modern Western society, silence is a negative, a vacuum. It is the ultimate absence of meaning and value, thus to be avoided and ‘filled’ at all cost. It seems that silence is more closely related to emotions like rejection or failure. When we describe a state in which a person has achieved something of value we often use the word ‘fulfilled’. Leaving the emptiness empty is quickly interpreted as distance, neglect, and even as a form of abuse. This attitude toward silence is understandable once the visual bias of modern Western culture is taken into consideration, but it is worth noting that it was not always like this even in Western history. It is assumed that silence as ‘a workable concept on its own’ disappeared toward the end of the thirteenth century, the era when the great Christian mystics and the habit of contemplation started to disappear.3 Today through the practice of contemplation the positive aspect of silence is appreciated, but it is still a static state and a partial image of silence. Not positive in its full sense, meditation portrays a quite fragmented image of silence. For the modern urban man silence is instinctively an uncomfortable void, and however one adds meaning to it (through meditation or philosophy) it is ultimately an unnatural state. The background chatter of many anonymous people in a busy cafe is much more bearable than the 15 second silence inside the elevator with one complete stranger.


R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977), 256.


R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977), 258.

Quiet we call ‘Silence’- which is the merest word of all. Edgar Allen Poe

Can you picture the last time you enjoyed some ‘peace and quiet’? Was it a friday evening in your living room after a full week of work? Or a sunday afternoon on your terrace with a bottle of beer and some sunshine? Maybe that’s not it; you had to get away from home, from the crowd and gray and closer to the nature and green. But wherever you imagine yourself, it isn’t difficult to realize that where you find peace, there is actually no quiet. Apart from the muffled sound of the television next door or the distant chatter of people down on the street, there is always something vibrating your eardrums even in the subtlest sense. The constant hum from the electrical appliances, the buzz from the radiator, the occasional gulping from the pipes. Annoyed you may choose to escape the city; but now the sound of the brushing wind and the dance of grass and leaves still accompany you. Wherever you are the sound of various elements never escapes you. When American composer and philosopher John Cage was in an anechoic chamber-a completely soundproof room-he still noticed two sounds, one high and one low. Later on he discovered that the first was his nervous system, and the latter one his blood circulation. He concluded from his experience that there is no such thing as silence, that there is always something that makes a sound.4 The more one strains to soundproof the environment or ignore the sounds from the surroundings you are actually focusing on the smallest evidence of sound, and in the mind that sound can never truly disappear anymore, if not grow louder and louder. But however ironical the term silence is in a technical sense, we know exactly what people really mean when one is in ‘pursuit of silence’. It is in search of a relative state of mind, not an absolute physical vacuum.


R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977), 256.

ey really listened,

heard the silence... On the one hand deafness is among the

most marked and tragic consequences of excessive noise exposure. On the other hand, the Deaf often possess a special understanding of silence.5 ‘Filtering senses’ is a crucial part of everyday life in an urban environment, though it is mostly an unconscious act. Sunglasses to block sunlight, and anonymous glances as well. A bottle of water to wash away that stale taste of dust from your tongue. Choosing to stand in front of a bakery or a fries stand, depending on your diet. And definitely plugging your ears to block out that noise. Or maybe to be in your own private world of music. Either way, having earphones on is an active decision to block away most of the sounds from the environment. Sometimes this could be a hazardous action, since many information is conveyed through sound in a busy city; we all know what to do if we hear a horn from behind. Now could you imagine living in this environment with no auditory information all the time? It is a world designed with an assumption that sound will play a part in it, and is actually ‘deaf’ to the experience of those who to do not depend on their ears as most people do. Considering the fact that many deaf people suffer from tinnitus or from other sounds within the brain, the general assertion that the deaf experience absolute silence is a myth. And if a person is sensitive to visual rather then sound, one can experience visual noise; the visual stimulation from a busy cafeteria might as well be a rock concert for some. But still, it is true that deaf people experience the urban environment in a unique way, and it will be safe to assume that it is in such a way unimaginable for people who are so dependent to their auditory sense. Pierre Desloges, a deaf man who lived in the late eighteenth century said “The privation of hearing makes us more attentive in general. Our ideas concentrated in ourselves, so to speak, necessarily incline us toward reflectiveness and meditation.” Now one may start to wonder what a space created for silence would look like. And by now it should be clear that we are not talking about anything like a Carthusian charterhouse. 5

George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence (New York, Anchor Books, 2010), 247.

In silence I had found a place where I could hear the voice inside. I could sit in the sun and sip the sweetness of its cup. I slowed down, reflected, and rested.

And I wanted more.


Imagine you are giving a lecture in an auditorium full of people, let’s say at least 300 people. For the most part the lecture is going smoothly, but maybe a bit dull. So to spice it up a bit you suddenly squeezed in a clever pun confident that it would ease the atmosphere. The moment you expected the laughter, you were greeted by a sudden complete silence. You understand completely, and the air seems to be heavier on your breath. In her book Listening below the Noise Anne LeClaire illustrates a similar moment and explains that imposed silence can shut people from their creativity, spontaneity and ‘the deepest truths of one’s genuine being.’ But at the same time deliberately claimed silence could serve as the bridge to finding one’s authentic self. Silence can lead a person back to one’s center and serve as a path to empowerment and selfknowledge. She explains the need to understand the difference between being silenced and claiming silence. When someone starts to investigate the possibilities of silence, first the contemplative aspect comes up. Apposed to our material existence, spirituality and self identity is no longer an outdated interest. Within such interests it is difficult not to find a physical or mental exercise that embraces silence as a medium; a medium to listen to one’s self, to one’s body, and to be able to perceive the world differently. Silence is a good starting point for such activities and this is definitely a form of appreciating a positive aspect of silence. But here I must note that in this case silence is not a stable state in itself. It is a means to achieve a goal, and a violent inner struggle. If you have tried a silent meditation at least once, you will know what I mean. You will hear yourself mumbling to yourself a lot, and the more you try to block it out the more you discover yourself finding things to listen to. So even here silence can be an uncomfortable, even frightening experience. Might as well be stuck in the elevator all by yourself. 6

Anne D. LeClaire, Listening below the noise (New York, Harper Perennial,2009), 91

One of the first Rules of St. Benedict is this:


Silence is not just a static state for cleaning out one’s closet all alone. The reflective aspect of silence is a strong one, but in this case the interaction between people is totally omitted. Various aspects of silence are manifested within the relationship between people, and it is here where people can experience silence in a much more full sense. Adam Jaworski, a researcher who did a detailed study of silence states, “It is my strong conviction that silence can sometimes signal that the channel of communication remains open, or that one has no intention of closing it, while speech would precisely have the effect of overtly terminating the possibility of further communication between participants.”7 Of course this doesn’t mean that every silent elevator moment actually means that you and that other person are ready to communicate with each other. Frankly it is more likely the opposite; being in proximity with another person there is this instinct that there should be some sort of interaction, but just doesn’t happen because the people are mutual strangers. The point is with the countless encounters of negative silence that we must cope with living in the city, we have a strong tendency to perceive silence as the ultimate negative. Nonetheless, silence communicates. From a suffocating negative to a heart warming positive the spectrum is truly dynamic. And as much as silence could be dreadful, imagine how delightful the other side of that coin might be. The interpretation that is involved within the process of giving meaning to silence is by no means random; you know for sure if it is a good silence or not. The numerous variables at work with silence is fascinating, and if there is a willingness to fully experiencing silence the possibilities are breathtaking to say the least.


Adam Jaworski, The Power of Silence: Social and Pragmatic Perspectives (London, Sage Publications, 1993), 48.

In dumb silence I held my peace, even from good, and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned. î “en I spoke with my tongue. Psalm 39:2-3 Living in a world of auditory overload I must admit it is difficult to experience silence apart from the strong sense of emptiness. We feel the strong urge to fill everything; we need buildings to fill landscapes and objects to fill space, so many flavors to fill our tongues, and of course sounds, music and words to fill our acoustic environment. And since people are addicted to this overwhelmed state, abruptly stripping it away would make one feel the withdraw symptoms with full force. However the (post)modern man perceives silence, I believe if one overcomes the bias created from our daily 15 second elevator experience we shall be able to appreciate other aspects of silence. Appreciating the reflective and meditative side is of course what comes first, and may be a start in experiencing silence. But again this might be a bad first impression, since the contemplating side of silence is a confrontative state that shares many traits with the negative bias of silence. If one stops there we end up defining silence as a static, uncomfortable and artificial state. Silence may be a expression of understanding, one can feel when someone is truly listening to you. Silence may be a moment of content, filled to its brim that there is no room for anything more. Silence may be a expression of trust, there is no need for words for it is unnecessary and moreover inadequate. Shakespeare said that silence is the perfectest herald of joy. And silence may be a state of awe, the ultimate assertion of respect and admiration. Or of sorrow, grieving to its fullest. The richness of silence appears amongst the dynamics between people and in daily life. Both the positive and negative emotions evoked from silence are fascinating, since it comes from nonverbal communication and a sophisticated blend of context and senses. But at the same time it is truly intuitive, making it a genuine and authentic experience worth cherishing.

on silence  

Shorty essays on silence

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