If silence could tell us a story about itself, what would it say?
Talking (or writing) about silence immediately springs us into the trap of paradox — how can one recount the history of something that cannot be put into words? Perhaps the only truly meaningful way to approach a topic like silence is to ponder how it has been understood, practiced, and contested by different communities at different points of time. Like a subatomic particle, perhaps we can only know silence by considering the impact it has — the trail it leaves behind, so to speak, whether for good or ill.
Such is the approach taken by literary nonfiction writer Jane Brox in Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements in Our Lives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). She approaches her elusive topic from three different perspectives. Most of her book consists of a kind of dialectical fugue between the story of how silence inspired two radically different — yet profoundly similar — social institutions: the monastery and the penitentiary. Her exploration begins with the story of Charles Williams, an eighteen-year-old African-American farmer who in 1829 was sentenced to two years of solitary confinement in the silence of the newly built Eastern State Penitentiary outside of Philadelphia.
She contrasts Williams’ unhappy encounter of silence with that of Thomas Merton, the renowned Catholic poet/mystic who lived in the austere silence of a Trappist monastery from 1941 until his death in 1968. Unlike Williams, Merton chose his deep dive into silence; indeed, the first British edition of his bestselling autobiography carried the title Elected Silence. As she teases out the differences and uncanny similarities between her two subjects, Brox paints a picture of silence that is nuanced and ambiguous.
Since both of her two main subjects were male, Brox also includes a section she called “The Silence of Women,” considering how gender impacted the experience of silence in both the cloister and the prison cell. Spoiler alert: the politics of gender bring the stories of cloistered nuns and women convicts together in an almost sadly predictable way.
Setting a monk and a convict side by side to explore the multiple meanings of silence may not seem particularly revelatory, but Brox has a keen eye for how surprise and irony erupts into the lives of her subjects — and, by extension, into all our lives. This is particularly illuminated as she details the story of Eastern State, which at the time of its conception in the early nineteenth century was seen as an innovative, perhaps even visionary, approach to punishment and rehabilitation. While the concept of a penitentiary (a place for repentance and, therefore, amendment of life) had been part of ecclesiastical culture since the 1400s, the idea of a secular pentientiary only dates from the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. So Eastern State, regarded by historians as the first true penitentiary (as opposed to simply a jail) was very much a product of a new and presumably enlightened approach to corrections — rather than dismissing convicts as unreformable (and there deserving of the strictest possible punishment), this new approach to prisons sought to find rehabilitation and therefore redemption in the silence and solitude of its controlled environment.
This new/enlightened theory of punishment and correction was championed by thinkers like Benjamin Rush, a philosopher-physician who was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Rush, drawing inspiration both from the Quakers who had settled Pennsylvania as well as from monasticism, maintained that solitude and quiet would be conducive to inner conversation of heart — thereby facilitating the rehabilitation of prisoners and preparing them for re-entry into society.
In practice, imposed silence proved to be anything but redemptive — Brox carefully details how the use of solitary confinement has remained a form of extreme punishment in many prisons to this day, and how those who are subjected to such punishment often experience mental distress and illness as a consequence.
If silence is practically a form of torture to the incarcerated, then for monks, at least on the surface, such institutional quiet appears to be an invitation into a life of serenity and prayer. But even this type of silence contains more than meets the eye (or ear). In our time monastic life is entirely a voluntary life choice, but in previous times not all monks or nuns ended up cloistered by their own choice. Monasteries and convents served as repositories for a variety of unwanted persons, from noble-born men who do not stand to inherit anything, to women who needed to be disposed of after having an affair or bearing a child with a priest or some prominent person. But Brox puts most of her attention on Merton, very much a “modern” monk who entered religious life as a result of how own spiritual searching.
She touches on the question of whether Merton, like many others, embraced the austerities of Trappist life because of some felt need to do penance (in Merton’s case, for a misspent youth filled with alcoholism and a child fathered out of wedlock). But she also considers the promise and potential of monastic life — how those who embrace it do so as a way of seeking God, of seeking through prayer a sense of mystical intimacy or even union with God. The silence of a pre-Vatican II monastery, broken only by the chanting of the daily prayer offices at fixed points during the day, may seem almost alien to us who live in a world blaring with electronic devices and industrial noise, but even in our time the monastery remains an icon of spiritual serenity, enough that at least some religious communities continue to attract vocations, even if in numbers greatly reduced from the past.
What lessons can we carry away from Brox’s quirky survey? She is too good a writer to draw conclusions for her readers, and we are left to marvel at how chameleon-like silence can be, adapting the colors of whatever social location where it might be found. Silence is neither a panacea nor a pestilence, but perhaps in its own quiet way, it is a mirror, reflecting back on us both the promise and terror of the human condition.