The past is silent. To know the past, one must know silence.
The theme of silence has come up a lot in my work, something I’ve written about before (see Augmenting Silence), and it was whilst re-reading a blog on Chinese painting that I began to consider – within the context of what I’d written – silence as other.
In that blog I wrote:
There’s a quote I’ve often used from Christopher Tilley. In his book, The Materiality of Stone – Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology, he writes:
The painter sees the trees and the trees see the painter, not because the trees have eyes, but because the trees affect, move the painter, become part of the painting that would be impossible without their presence. In this sense the trees have agency and are not merely passive objects… The trees ‘see’ the painter in a manner comparable to how a mirror ‘sees’ the painter: that is, the trees like the mirror, let him become visible: they define a point of view on him which renders for him something that would otherwise remain invisible – his outside, his physiognomy, his carnal presence… the trees and mirror function as other.
Like the trees, the mountains share that agency; they too ‘see’ the painter’ and it’s almost as if the painting becomes a painting, not of Yu Jian looking at the mountains, but of the mountain ‘seeing’ Yu Jian. It’s not the mountain that is made visible on the paper, but the artist’s outside, his physiognomy, his carnal presence.
I would add now, that, like the trees and the mountain described, silence works in the same way. To empathise with the past, as I’ve written many times before, we must understand what it means to be present, and silent meditation is a great way to do that. Sitting in the garden and listening in silence, one realises how silence comprises many ‘layers’ of sound (and other sensations); how the nowness of now comprises many ‘parts’.
The past too comprises many layers or parts, most of which have been stripped away by the very fact of their pastness. Now the past is silent, but by understanding that silence, we can find a way back.
Another blog entry (An Archaeology of the Moment) backs this up. In it I wrote how in his book Figuring it Out’ Professor Colin Renfrew writes:
The past reality too was made up of a complex of experiences and feelings, and it also was experienced by human beings similar in some ways to ourselves.
The way we experience the present then, tells us a great deal about how people experienced the past when it too was the present.
In a blog about a distant ancestor Thomas Noon (The Gesture of Mourning), I wrote about standing at the grave of him and his children who pre-deceased him; how he would have stood there:
“I can imagine him there, listening as I can to the wind in the trees. He sees the same late-winter sun and feels its warmth on his face. I can, as I have done, read about his children and their untimely deaths. I can read about him. But standing at their grave, my imagined versions of them are augmented by the gesture of my body.”
Back to the blog entry Augmenting Silence. In it I gave three extracts from old newspapers:
“On Sunday last, at the close of the evening service, the Society Meeting was held, and references to the death of Private Rogers were made by several members of the Church. Private Rogers’s mother is one of the oldest members of the Church. The meeting passed a vote of condolence with the relatives, all present standing in silence.” (1915)
“Shortly after dusk, the lightning appeared in the south and western horizon, and soon became most vivid, blue sheets of lightning following each other in rapid succession, but unaccompanied by thunder.” (1842)
“Her mother got up and tried the door but it was locked by [the] witness when her father and mother came in. Her father took the sword out of the sheath which he threw to the floor and then struck her mother on the back with the flat side of sword; neither her father nor mother spoke.” (1852)
What interested me about these quotes were the silences. When I became aware of them, I realised I was empathising with the story much more readily. I could almost sense myself in the amongst words and the scenes they described. To repeat what I wrote earlier:
“Like the trees, the mountains share that agency; they too ‘see’ the painter’ and it’s almost as if the painting becomes a painting, not of Yu Jian looking at the mountains, but of the mountain ‘seeing’ Yu Jian. It’s not the mountain that is made visible on the paper, but the artist’s outside, his physiognomy, his carnal presence.”
If silence is ‘other’, how can it be shown in a work? The answer is revealed in the following from Augmenting Silence. As I wrote:
In all three quotes, the ‘revelation of silence’ comes after the ‘facts’:
“The meeting passed a vote of condolence with the relatives, all present standing in silence.”
“Her father took the sword out of the sheath which he threw to the floor and then struck her mother on the back with the flat side of sword; neither her father nor mother spoke.”
“…the lightning appeared in the south and western horizon… but unaccompanied by thunder.” Silence is not the subject of the texts, but a part which serves to illuminate the whole (which in the second extract is especially pertinent).
It’s like the opening of a camera’s shutter; everything that came before it is condensed into a moment.
Also, as I looked into my work, I realised that ‘silence’ appeared in ‘Heavy Water Sleep‘:
Outside a window stands silent, the surrounding
covered with heavy water sleep.
There is no sound and no movement
dropping through the
a man advancing with resolute step
But for the heavy steps,
there is silence.
from a hole in the day before
at the window stops Outside
the so-lately deserted
the Extraordinary story
that lies behind this scene