Sunday, September 18, 2011

history of silence


I just finished reading  L’innommable,  
a novel by Samuel Beckett. The text 
pokes holes in what one might be likely to assume about everyday life. 
For example, the paradox of listening to silence, if you could hear silence, 
it wouldn’t be silence. Silence can’t be heard. Another major theme is the 
paradox of trying to locate a consciousness, narrator, character or group of 
characters responsible for or related to the voices or murmurs that break the
silence of someone in the dark.

The act of listening and understanding involves the voice. Thoughts 
occur as words without images or images without words, words 
with images. How do thoughts occur? Do thoughts originate in 
the body of an author, narrator or character? What is such a body? 
Maybe such a body is nothing more than a head in a jar, 
unseen, except perhaps by the owner of the eatery,
who feeds the head and changes the sawdust and 
sometimes covers the jar against bad weather.

The book is filled with repetition, reiteration, summary, lists of possibilities and complex reasoning about what may or may not be happening. Does one see? Is there anything to be seen, or maybe he has no eyes?1 Who is the narrator or the characters and who speaks the voices? Where do they come from? Where is this happening? Is it in a room, a cell, a prison, one character, with a whole people, in a cathedral-like structure?2 Of course that’s not it. Then it must be something else, endless speculation. What does he see, other than glimmers of light and then darkness? Is it day or night? What is the season?

What intrigues me most about the book is the hypnotic style. Open the book anywhere and get swept along by plain, although sometimes complex, eloquent prose. In one sentence, spanning nearly two pages, he tells a melodramatic love story. A woman’s husband goes to war and doesn’t hear from him. She falls in love with another man. Her husband comes back and dies in expectation as he arrives at the station. The woman, heartbroken over the loss of her husband arrives home to find her lover has hung himself by the neck, because he fears she will dump him in order to reunite with her long lost husband. The woman is doubly heartbroken after losing two mates. The sentence ends in a discussion about a detail, which interests the narrator more than the story of love and loss: a door. The door is made of wood. Who closed the door and why was the door closed? Wow, there’s a real story!3 In the next sentence, he returns to talking about silence.

The narrator makes an effort to pay attention, to listen, to understand, but he’s unable. Immediate experience breaks down endlessly into detailed components capable of further division and analysis. It leads back to the starting point of a voice that comes to one alone, or maybe with a whole people, in the dark, with glimmers of light, and not being able to exactly know the voice or voices. It’s a tormented experience. “One” has a sense of being punished and not knowing the misdeed. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about anything. Don’t think.4 He’s attempting to say everything in order to not have to say anything.

I found it inspiring to read a book that takes an unsentimental and unflinching gaze at the act of being alive, the strange mystery of daily life, death and dream, “l’histoire du silence”5, “ce sont des mensonges”6; “c’est peut-être un rêve7.

I read the book from the point of view of a dreaming man. While reading, I  contemplated how the knowable is contained within the brackets of the knowable. One knows enough to know how much one doesn’t know. Intense scrutiny of one’s stream of consciousness, to closely observe how thoughts come and go, moments of silence broken by voices, which can’t be clearly identified, all this calls reality, or the tissue of lies, into question. In the last pages, the word lies occurs frequently as words attempt to find clarity, to say what seems to have to be said in order to not have to say anymore.


1 page 206. L’Innommable. Samuel Beckett. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. 1953/2004.
2 Beckett. p. 204.

3 pages 199 – 200.
4 page 83.
5 page 211.
6 page 212.
7 page 212.

No comments: