The title for this post comes from an exhibition of Vilheim Hamershoi’s paintings at the Royal Academy in 2008. It was a fantastic collection – mostly of interiors, some populated by solitary figures, usually female, and all suffused in soft pastel blues and cool greys. The paintings are at once sad portraits of modern alienation, but also deeply poetic celebrations of quiet meditation. For me, they exude the beauty of surrendering to the singularity of the moment, whether prompted by loss, sorrow or just a need to gather together the different strands of the self to experience the whole. In both content style and style they represent the poetry of silence.
Some of the most significant decisions I have made in my life have come about as a result of similar periods of quiet contemplation as the ones depicted by Hamershoi. Moments of solitude like these, whilst sometimes necessarily tinged with sadness, make it possible to interrogate the way that things are and imagine how they could be different in the future. My decision to leave work for university after 6 years of earning money to become a teacher is a case in point. I only scrapped an E at A Level and, although the idea of teaching English appealed to me greatly, I had no idea whether I would be able to cut it at university and then in the classroom. I needed to be alone to realise how unhappy I was and to summon the courage to do something about it.
I have now been a teacher for nearly 12 years and, despite the pressures and heavy workload it often entails, I am now much more fulfilled. I worry a little, though, that many young people today are not able to separate themselves from distraction in this way, or have learnt to appreciate the redemptive possibility of silence. They have grown up in a world that increasingly rejects the beauty and creative power of being still in preference for the noise of the here and now. There appears to be very little that encourages young people to value being alone or to accept that moments of sadness are sometimes necessary constituents for being happy – a part of what it means to be human. There is a constant need to be connected and online. The isolated figure is marginalised and made to feel that their loneliness is wrong.
I recently gave an assembly where I shared Hamershoi’s work along with some anecdotes from my life. My intention was to encourage students to appreciate the occasions when they are by themselves and to use them to find out what makes them truly happy, the things they want to do and the people they want to be. It is often hard to do this in the company of others surrounded by stimulus making continual demands on our attention. I also tried to stress the importance of valuing the time spent with loved ones and learning to appreciate experiences as they unfold, rather than through retrospective posturing on Instagram or Facebook.
There is part of my assembly where I then show ‘one of the most ground-breaking compositions of the twentieth century’, John Cage’s 4:33. If you are not familiar with the piece, it is essentially 4 minute and 33 seconds of silence. The orchestra ‘play’ from blank music sheets. Cage’s intention was to draw attention to the beauty of the sounds and experiences in the background by removing the presence of noise from the foreground. On its first performance in 1952, some of the audience walked out. For Cage, these people ‘missed the point’ because ‘there’s no such thing as silence’. The people who left early ‘ didn’t know how to listen’ and consequently did not hear the ‘accidental sounds’ of the ‘wind stirring outside’ or raindrops ‘pattering the roof’.
What was particularly remarkable for me was that during each of the 4 assemblies over the course of the week, there was palpable unease amongst the students once they realised that the musicians were not going to play a single note and that I was going to let them sit there in silence watching these musicians do nothing. It took considerable willpower to keep playing the clip of Cage’s work, whilst the students shuffled on their seats and attempted to fill the emptiness with coughing and throat clearing. It was as if they did not know how to confront the silence; they did appear to know how to just sit still and just be.
In his recent book The World Beyond Your head Matthew Crawford provides a powerful account of the way that modern society makes continual demands of our attention, and how increasingly difficult it is to ‘suppress environmental input’ because distraction is everywhere. He draws a comparison between silence and other valuable resources that we take for granted, such as the air we breathe and the water we drink:
I think the absence of noise is a resource of just this sort. More precisely, the valuable thing that we take for granted is the condition of not being addressed. Just as clean air makes respiration possible, silence, in this broader sense, is what makes it possible to think.
Crawford goes on to use the example of first class airport lounges to highlight the way in which the rich resource of silence is slowly becoming commodified by the rich as ‘a luxury good.’ In executive suites, Crawford suggests, ‘silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious.
This marketisation of silence is potentially frightening, particularly if we accept that it one of the factors that enables us to truly ‘think’. I don’t really know what a school can actively do to teach its students to truly value moments of stillness and the virtue of sometimes being alone. Obviously, a single assembly by a 40-year-old man is obviously not the answer, as much as I would like to think I did a good job. It’s probably more in the ways that we conduct ourselves as adults and role models around the school and in our classrooms that is likely to leave a longer lasting impression. Whatever we do, I think that along with celebrating the active life and promoting participation and the importance of community, we should also recognise the place of silence, sorrow and isolation as equally natural facets of the human condition.
Silence should be packaged up and made available to all.
A copy of my assembly can be downloaded here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/htn32wmb7dwddtz/Silence%20assembly%202015.ppt?dl=0
and accompanying movie overview: https://www.dropbox.com/s/xbvhd1wweddq4w1/The%20Poetry%20of%20Silence.mov?dl=0