Monday, April 05, 2010

A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland.

On two occasions, Maitland evokes the words of Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea quartet in A Book of Silence. She does so in a quasi-mystical way, referring to the magical silence held within names and the roaring silence that follows battling the natural elements. In reviewing A Book of Silence for The Literary Review, Ursula le Guin is anything but mystical in her approach to the book, noting the following:

I hope I am not quibbling with her generous intent in saying that she seems a bit inclined to overlook the part privilege can play. She knows how foreign a chosen solitude may seem to many people, but I’m not sure she has considered how simply unattainable it is to most.
It is a fair point. A Book of Silence is a finely written meditation on silence and one that brought this reader moments of quietude. Even so, the book, like its fascinations with explorers and adventurers, is weakened by the fact that so much of the “silence” described by Maitland is outer—in a real world—one that has to be bought by privilege.

A Book of Silence is a wonderful, imaginative work. It rises far above the ubiquitous DIY meditation manual of New Age philosophy. The book is truly a meditation on aspects of silence, detailed, eccentric and far-ranging. In spirit, the book echoes the Renaissance and elaborate writers such as Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. But there is always this annoying sense that silence is not for the common reader, rather for the person who can afford to rent a cottage on Skye, or visit the Sinai desert, or build their own house with a moor of silence through the window.

One of the most interesting lines of enquiry followed by Sara Maitland is that silence is not negative, is more than an absence of sound. Indeed, silence is anything but a vacuum: it is a density. Also, given her occupation as a writer, the author of this work courageously observes that writing and silence are enemies: a writer needs silence to work, but entering fully into silence, that space beyond words is death for any author. Reading and writing, in our present cultural climate, are silent and “deeply private activities” (p.150) states Maitland in a central section on reading. And she goes on to speculate about the reading experience: reading, for her, isn’t an encounter with silence; such tends to be an active, inner battle with an authorial point-of-view or a passive surrender to an inner fictional world that sucks life out of her. I recognise both these states of reading, but, as is the case with many fascinating sections of A Book of Silence, the author doesn’t consider the whole spectrum. Yes, reading The Observer on a quiet Sunday frequently turns into a blood bath…rage with the world…anger with political deceptions…poorly written book reviews. Yes, reading What is the What over many nights before sleep was a sapping experience. But Maitland ignores that mode of writing, poetry, which more than any other deals with silence. At the close of “Silence and the Gods”, Sara Maitland alludes to a new method of reading, one that is slow, meditative, personal and in tune with the quality of words. Isn’t that the reading experience that comes with poetry? On this, she is regrettably silent.

At one point, during her reflections on reading, Sara Maitland quotes St Benedict: “a cloister without books is a fort without an armoury.” She takes the statement at face-value, books belong to silence, without observing the secondary idea suggested by St Benedict. The cloister of silence is a fort and books are its protection against evil. These words resonate for me at the moment. They touch upon what I see as central to the link between silence and reading. Recently, I lost a close friend to a manipulative religious church in Malawi. In a sudden conversion, he exchanged his love of poetry for Bible classes, for a church that is hostile to individual creative expression, such that all texts “mislead”, as he informed me, “from life”…except The Bible. For 40 days, like Maitland’s Christ-like excursion into the silence of the isle of Skye, I have pondered this, retiring more and more from anger and grief into a place of intense loss, trying to find silence, balance, an end to conflicting narratives. The question I have been answering is why he decided to accept my idea of Hell: a Bible class of untrained readers being rhetorically initiated into a single interpretation of text and life by a prejudiced guide. What allowed this? My final answer has to do with silence. He lacked silence within himself. He did not have the cloistered fortress within him, a self-awareness developed through reading, to resist the Devil with silent defiance.

The ultimate evaluation of A Book of Silence should be on Sara Maitland’s terms. It did not lead me into a noisy quarrel with her ideas. I found her ideas gently explored. It did not draw me into a kind of Romantic escapism that emptied life out of me, leaving me frustrated and empty, accepting the fact that I live in the heart of a noisy city where silence is rare. It helped me, in a quiet, medial manner, to perceive that sanity is related to the sacred silence, whatever that is, within an individual; and that silence should be cultivated…even taught…and meditative reading is a form of hermetical protection, a sealing off, against noisy, predatory forces in the world. "All silence," as Maitland's anatagonist/Job's Satan says to her, "is not waiting to be broken.