The World of Silence

“’Where silence is, man is observed by silence. Silence looks at man more than man looks at silence. Man does not put silence to the test; silence puts man to the test.

Silence is the only phenomenon today that is “useless”. It does not fit into the world of profit and utility; it simply is. It seems to have no other purpose; it cannot be ex¬ploited… It gives things something of its own holy uselessness, for that is what silence itself is: holy uselessness.
The basic phenomena take us, as it were, back to the beginning of things; we have left behind us what Goethe called “the merely derived phenomena” with which we normally live. It is like a death, for we are left on our own, faced with a new beginning—and so we are afraid.

Still like some old, forgotten animal from the beginning of time, silence towers above all the puny world of noise; but as a living animal, not an extinct species, it lies in wait, and we can still see its broad back sinking ever deeper among the briers and bushes of the world of noise. It is as though this prehistoric creature were gradually sinking into the depths of its own silence. And yet sometimes all the noise of the world today seems like the mere buzzing of insects on the broad back of silence.’
Max Picard, “The World of Silence”
Wolrd of silence 1
Reflection – This is an obscure book by an obscure author that a couple of us at Madonna House have discovered recently, and that I am enjoying very much. The author writes with poetic, almost mystical conviction on what I think is an important subject, perhaps one of the most important subjects there is, in fact.

Our world today flees from silence. There was a study at the University of Virginia recently that was much reported in the media, where a large percentage of people, when asked to simply sit in silence without any distractions for a mere fifteen minutes, preferred to administer mild electric shocks to themselves rather than do that.

‘Silence puts man to the test’. And so we flee from it. We surround ourselves with distractions—electronic devices on which we can play games, listen to music, watch movies, chatter away or follow the twittering chatter of others. It is not that all these devices are evil and must be rejected (it would be rather hypocritical for me to suggest that), but rather they must be put away regularly, turned off frequently, silenced daily.

It is a very deep matter, this necessity of silence for the human person. It is this whole business of uselessness, of a non-utilitarian mode of being. Our world today, insofar as it cluttered by noise and chatter and ceaseless activity, is a world of utilitarian values. What use is it? That is the only question. If something is not delivering some value to us–diverting us, feeding us, informing us—then it is useless and to be thrown aside.

But as with things, so it is with people, right? We cannot adopt a utilitarian attitude towards life without extending that towards the people in our life too. And of course then we have the phenomenon of people being thrown away, or at best (and what a sad and pathetic best it is) judged and valued by how ‘useful’ they are. An insecure and terrible way of being.

And so we have the need for this holy uselessness of silence. Picard is right—silence is the one thing that cannot be exploited economically. It is available to us, free, at the simple price of turning off all the sources of noise in our life. And it is a very deep matter—Picard is a very deep writer indeed on this subject.

Silence as ‘death’, as returning us to the immediate experience of reality, underived, uninterpreted, raw and naked, like Adam at his creation, silence as this vast towering reality that surrounds us and threatens to engulf us, silence as a constant presence encompassing the world of noise—these are serious things to consider. We flee from silence; really, in this we are fleeing from reality, from ourselves and from God. Ought we?”

Fr. Denis Lemieux, a Priest of the Madonna House community based in Combermere, Ontario, Canada.
World of Silence 2
“This classic work is so filled with aphoristic passages that it is easy to lose sight of the larger premise. That premise, that silence is not the absence of noise, the absence of something, but is a phenomenon in itself, was startlingly clear only when this work first appeared in 1948.

As a German Swiss Catholic theologian, Picard is strongly influenced by the Catholic phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel, who wrote the preface to this edition, but also by related philosophers such as Heidegger, and by the whole thrust of lyric German poets like Rilke and Holderlin. Equally strong, however, is the influence of the post-war atmosphere of cautious post-modern conservatism, at home in, say, Gilson, Maritain, and Thibaud – reconstructionists and rehabilitators of a broken world.

To Picard the theologian, then, silence is to be contrasted with language, the gift of consciousness that distinguishes the rational being from the universe, capable of silence and noise. Silence is the context of consciousness, language is the expression of creation. Picard sees language not as the product of the evolution of consciousness but as the gift of God, a divine jump-start for consciousness.

Through the many short chapters of his work, Picard offers impressions of the role of silence in balancing human effort and conserving virtue. But Picard’s insistence on the supremacy of language versus the noise of modern technology (from construction noise to the radio) is a weak protest against time and change.

While Picard is to be commended for rescuing silence from its philosophical enemies, several resources for breaking the paradox that he proposes may be found elsewhere. For example, Ricouer’s transcendence of modernity as a path, or the Zen limnology that breaks the absolutized boundary of language with silence. There are other channels into which we can navigate without depending upon language or our present “reality.”

We can see Picard’s hesitancy in a passage in the chapter “Nature and Silence”:
‘The silence of nature is a conflicting silence from the human point of view. It is a blessed silence because it gives man an intuitive feeling of the great silence that was before the world and out of which everything arose. And it is oppressive at the same time because it puts man back into the state in which the word might be taken away from him again into that original silence.’

But isn’t this exactly what death is, this “taken away from” and return to “original silence”? This state must be explored not because it can be posited but because it suggests the natural restful state of the universe, wherein lies the consciousness we enjoy, wherein is found God. But Picard’s orthodoxy makes him wary of approximating his discovery of silence, pushing it metaphysically or theologically to reveal itself. This is the ultimate irresolution of an otherwise breakthrough work.

This work is invaluable in inoculating us against the fear of silence, in seeing silence as a natural state, in preparing us for a life of silence if we choose, the beginning of a mysticism of silence and solitude, and a death which is, after all, silence.”
“Something like a hymn, a prayer, a work of devotion rather than philosophical analysis. A book that could be read (perhaps should be read) contemplatively rather than discursively, so that each sentence and word is allowed to work its way through the frantic motions of our brains into the quieter notions of our hearts, shaping a whole new and wonderful vision of the world. For it is all of creation, both visible and invisible, that Picard senses as emerging from the fertile womb of silence, about which adjectives like divine and holy and life-giving might properly be applied: ‘it is a positive, a complete world unto itself.’ Whether Picard is speaking of God or man, language or music, the world of nature or of human artifice, silence is the lingua franca which he develops in images both aural and (even more strikingly) visual: ‘the branches of the trees are like dark lines that have followed the movements of the silence; the leaves thickly cover the branches as if the silence wanted to conceal itself. . .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.’ Picard’s great prose poem, like the silence it depicts, ‘does not fit into the world of profit and utility; it simply is. It seems to have no other purpose; it cannot be exploited.’ Perhaps herein also lies our highest praise for this remarkable book.”
Picard 2
Max Picard (June 5, 1888 in Schopfheim – October 3, 1965 in Sorengo, Switzerland) was a Swiss writer, important as one of the few thinkers writing from a deeply Platonic sensibility in the 20th century.

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