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Silence has two faces

  • 30 October 2019


November is racing month in which we are all horses. The drumming of horse hooves at Flemington slides into 'Jingle Bells' played on cash registers of yore during the Christmas season.

At a time when weariness treads the city streets and idle hope imagines a world stopped to allow alighting, the pressure to meet work targets, to leave things tidy for a January restarting, to plan the details of Christmas parties and dinners, to negotiate all the tense relationships of the year's end, and to buy, buy, buy gifts and gizmos — all this pressure and more builds steadily. Many people long for the easing strains of 'Silent Night', and indeed for the reality of silence.

Christmas and its rituals of preparation were originally shaped for quiet people, allowing domestic contentment, to time by themselves. Some chance of finding that today! We are bound into a network of personal, economic and institutional relationships that all bring gifts and demand commitments. 'Silent Night' is a dream, a sweet dream but an impossible dream.

Even the quiet people find it hard to welcome silence. We long for it when we are on the city streets or when we are being assaulted by loud music in a park. We may think idly sometimes of how good it would be to live our lives contemplatively in a monastery or spend a weekend at a silent retreat. But when the weekend arrives we find ourselves wriggling on the chapel seat, looking at our watch every two minutes, getting up and sitting down again, and longing for distractions. Silence becomes a burden.

There is a difference, too, between silence that is imposed on us and chosen, elected, silence. The uplifting silence of the most lovely and isolated landscape in the world would become terrifying and alienating at the moment we realised that we had forever lost all communication with the familiar world.

Imposed silence, too, was one of the many humiliating regimes that high-minded prison reformers have felt free to impose on people put at their disposal. In their desire to get rid of the floggings and casual brutality that were part of 18th century prison life, prison officers separated prisoners from one another and made of prison an entirely silent and solitary experience. People walked in slippers, wore hoods when led past other prisoners and were solitary in cells.

This regime did reduce violence in prisons, but at the cost of