Vernon Lee

In praise of silence

Of the truths which come (if any do) with middle age, is the gradual recognition that in one’s friendly intercourse the essential the—one thing needful—is not what people say, but what they think and feel.

Words are not necessarily companionable, far from it; but moods truly meet, to part in violent dissonance; or to move parallel in happy harmonic intervals; or, more poignant and more satisfying still, to pass gradually along some great succession of alien chords—common contemplation, say, of a world grievous or pleasant to both—on towards the peace, the consummation, of a great major close. Once we have sufficient indication that another person cares for the same kind of things that we do—or, as important quite, cares in the same degree or in the same way—all further explanation becomes superfluous: detail, delightful occasionally to quicken and bring home the sense of companionship, but by no means needed.

This is the secret of our intercourse with those persons of whom our friends will say (or think). What can you have in common with So-and-so? What can you find to talk about? Talk about? Why, nothing; the enigmatic person remains with us, as with all the rest of the world, silent, inarticulate; incapable, sometimes, of any inner making of formulae. But we know that our companion is seeing, feeling, the same lines of the hills and washes of their colours, the same scudding or feathering out of clouds; is living, in the completest sense, in that particular scene and hour; and knowing this, it matters nothing how long we trudge along the road or saunter across the grass without uttering. The road of life, too, or the paths and thickets of speculation.

And speaking of walks, I know no greater torment, among those minor ones which are the worst, than the intelligent conversation—full of suggestion and fine analysis, perhaps, and descriptions of other places—which reveals to us that the kindly speaker is indeed occupying the same geographical space or sitting behind the same horse as we are, but that his soul is miles and miles away. And the worst of it is that such false companionship can distract us from any real company with the moment and the place. We have to answer out of civility; then to think, to get interested, and then … well, then it is all over. “We had such a delightful walk or drive, So-and-so and I,’ says our friend on returning home,” and I am so glad to find that we have such a lot of interests in common.” Alas! alas! … Hazlitt was thinking of such experiences, knowing perhaps the stealthiness and duplicity which the fear of them develops in the honest but polite, when he recommended that one should take one’s walks alone.

But there is something more perfect even than one’s own company: the companion met once, at most twice, in a lifetime (for he is by no means necessarily your dearest and nearest, nor the person who understands you best). He or she whose words are always about the place and moment, or seem to suit it; whose remarks, like certain music, feel restful, spacious, cool, airy-like silence. And here I have got back to the praise of such persons as talk little, or (what is even better) seem to talk little.

There is a deal of truth, and, as befits the subject, rather implied than actually expressed, in Maeterlinck’s essay on Silence. His fine temper, veined and shot with colour, rich in harmonics like a well-toned voice, enables him, even like the mystics whom he has edited, to guess at those diffuse and mellow states of soul which often defy words. He knows from experience how little we can really live, although we needs must speak, in definite formulae, logical frameworks of verb and noun, subject and predicate. Let alone the fact that all consummate feeling (like the moment to which Faust cried Stay) abolishes the sense of sequence revolves, if I may say so, on its own axis, a now, forever; baffling thereby all speech. And M. Maeterlinck perceives, therefore, that real communion between fellow creatures is interchange of temperament, of rhythm of life; not exchange of remarks, views, and opinions, of which ninety-nine in a hundred are merely current coin. To what he has said I should like to add that if we are often silent with those whom we love best, it is because we are sensitive to their whole personality, face, gesture, texture of soul and body; that we are living with them not only in the present, but enriched, modified by all they have said before, by everything remaining in our memory as theirs. To talk would never express a state of feeling so rich and living; and it can serve, at most, only to give the heightening certainty of presence, like a handclasp or asking, “Are you there?” and getting the answer, “Yes; I am here, and so are you” facts of no high logical importance!

As regards silent people, this characteristic may, of course, be mere result of sloth and shyness, or lack of habit of the world, and they may be gabbling volubly in their hearts. Such as these are no kind of blessing, save perhaps negatively. Still less to be commended are those others, cutting a better figure (or thinking so), who measure their words from a dread of” giving themselves away”—of “making themselves cheap,” or otherwise (always thinking in terms of money, lawsuits, and general overreaching) getting the worst of a bargain. Indeed, it is a sign how little we are truly civilized, that such silence or laconicism as this, can be met constantly outside the class (invariably cunning) of peasants; indeed, among men exercising what we are pleased to call liberal professions.

The persons in whom silence is a mark of natural fine breeding are those who, being able to taste the real essence of things, are apt, perhaps wrongly, to despise the unessential. They are disdainful of all the old things inevitably repeated in saying half a new one. They cannot do with the lumber, wastepaper, shavings, sawdust, rubbish necessary for packing and conveying objects of value; now most of talk, and much of life, is exactly of that indispensable useful uselessness. They are silent for the same reason that they are frequently inactive, recognizing that words and actions are so often mere litter and encumbrance. One feels frozen occasionally by their unspoken criticism; one’s small exuberances checked by lack of sympathy and indulgence; one would like, sometimes, to pick a quarrel with them, to offer a penny for their thoughts, to force them to be as unselective and vulgar as one’s self. But one desists, feeling instinctively the refreshment (as of some solitary treeless down or rocky stream) and purification of their fine abstention in this world where industry means cinder heaps, and statesmanship, philosophy, art, philanthropy, mean “secondary products” of analogous kind.

Before concluding this over-garrulous tribute to silence, I would fain point out the contrast, ironical enough, between the pleasant sense of comradeship with some of those who “never utter,” and the loneliness of spirit in which we steam and post and cab through every possible realm of fact and theory with certain other people. I am not alluding to the making hay of politics, exhibitions, theatres, current literature, etc., which is so much the least interesting form of gossip. What I mean are those ample, apparently open talks between people who have found each other out; who know the cardboard and lath and plaster of the architectural arrangements or suspect the water-supply and drainage behind; talks where one knows that the other is shirking some practical conclusion, divagating into the abstract, and has to pick his way among hidden interests and vanities, or avert his eyes from moral vistas which he knows of. … “So-and-so is such a delightful talker so witty and so wonderfully unprejudiced; I cannot understand why you don’t cultivate him or her.” Cultivate him or her! Cultivate garlic; those elegant white starry flowers you wonder at my weeding out of the beds.

Compare with this the blessedness of knowing that the contents of the other person’s mind are nice, pure of all worldliness, pretence, and meanness; that the creature’s thoughts, if opened out to one, would diffuse the scent of sunshine and lavender even as does clean, well-folded linen.

Hence the charm of a whole lot of persons not conspicuous for conversational powers: men who have lived much out-of-doors, with gun or rod; shy country neighbours, cross old scholars, simple motherly little housewives; and, if one get at their reality, peasants and even servants. For we have within ourselves memories and fancies; and it depends on our companion, on a word, a glance, a gesture, that only the sweet and profitable ones, thoughts of kindness and dignity, should be stirred up.

(1904)

MLA Citation

Lee, Vernon. “In praise of silence.” 1904. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 11 Apr 2007. 18 Aug 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/lee/praise_of_silence/>.

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