History and religion have a collection of important silences. Sometimes the silence is a lesson or a clear statement. The Buddha, one day, held up a lotus before his followers and said nothing. Jesus, interrogated by Pontius Pilate, responded to a crucial question with silence.
And, on the other side, many people have remained silent when they should have spoken out. Sometimes silence is like a cancer that grows and eats away meaning, as in Simon and Garfunkel’s song “The Sound of Silence.” But sometimes silence comes from a realization of the inadequacy of the words, as in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Slip Slidin’ Away”: “I know a father who had a son. He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he’d done. He came a long way just to explain. He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping, then he turned around and headed home again.”
There is a saying, “Silence implies consent.” But sometimes silence is dissent, or uncooperation. Today Americans may “take the fifth” (the Fifth Amendment, which says no one may be forced to self-incriminate); Iago, in Othello, after saying too many of the wrong things, when he is caught finally declares he will never say another word.
What is certain is that all these silences are not empty but full, swollen even: deliberate, and communicating something important thereby.
Intention is an important aspect in silence, to be sure: one may say it is the essence of muteness. But even where there is no person who might be speaking, you may listen to the silence, and thereby add your own intention to it. John Cage composed a piece, 4’33”, which is a tacet in three movements: you hear not nothing (the sound of nothing at all is not no sound either; in an anechoic chamber it feels as though sound has been sucked out of your ears, but you can hear the blood flowing in your veins), but the ambient sound, the auditory collage of your context, all the little bits you typically disattend.
Silence, or the intentional lack of intentional sound, can also be spiritual. Some monks maintain silence as a general rule; Quaker meetings are mainly silent, too. The intent is to listen to what we normally drown out, perhaps to find the crack in everything where the light slips in (to borrow an image from Leonard Cohen). To hear the still small voice that comes after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, as it did to Elijah. As the Tao Te Ching (Gia-Fu Feng’s translation) says, “Keep your mouth shut, Guard the senses, And life is ever full. Open your mouth, Always be busy, And life is beyond hope.” And, more to the point, “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
But, as word taster Tom Priestly points out, we lack a good, common word in English specifically for a silence that is deliberate. Looking for one such, Tom found obmutescence.
My, that’s a bit of a gob-stopper, isn’t it? And a nice little irony that a word for deliberate silence is so long. Admittedly, it has those hisses in it that tend towards silence (not quite as strongly as “Sshh,” but still), and before those it has an obstruction of the mouth /bm/. But we might wish something more concise. Still, its parts at least are clear: ob referring to blocking or being in front, as in obstacle, obstruct, obstreperous, obnubilate, and on and on; mute as in, well, mute; escence meaning tendency towards, as in adolescence, somnolescence, and such like. It is a word stuffed full, as swollen as a pregnant silence.
Swollen? Obtumescent, in fact. Oh, mind the t and m: in obmutescence the order is m t, as silence may seem empty; in obtumescence, it’s the reverse, and the root is as in tumid, tumour, and tumescence. Obtumescence, which I must admit is a long-disused word, refers to swelling or a swollen condition, as in when your eyelid swells and you can’t see, or your throat swells and you can’t speak (or swallow, or perhaps even breathe).
Tom was looking for le mot juste for an intended silence because he was looking for a better translation of the title of Heinrich Böll’s short story, “Dr. Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen,” normally called in English “Murke’s Collected Silences.” It’s a story of a young man, a recent graduate in psychology, who works at a radio station. He begins to collect bits of tape discarded because they contain only the speaker’s silence – those pauses, breaths, what have you. He takes them home and listens to them. He even records his girlfriend being silent in front of a microphone.
There is more to the story than that; Murke finds himself having to edit tapes of a cultural critic who has decided that he wants to replace his use of “God” with something less specific. Murke finds a use for some of the discarded “God”s: a producer who is making a radio play about an atheist who asks God questions but is answered by silences. The producer gives Murke some silence in exchange for the “God”s. You may like the idea of the atheist getting the word that is not the eternal word, while the theist gets the silence that to him is more than just silence.
Still, the silences one cuts out of audio tapes (or edits out of digital files now) are not necessarily obmutescences; they are often simply gaps wherein the person collects thoughts, or inhales, or they may evince a personal sense of pacing that is slower than the editor wants. Yet if you listen to such a collection, you will likely find them obtumescent, or even pregnant, about to give birth. They are not like the stillness of a person sitting by a microphone and not speaking, a silence that you can wrap around you like a blanket. They are… well, listen (and watch, if you can stand it): there’s a video of nothing but Sarah Palin’s breath pauses from a speech at www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9kfcEga0lk (I recommend not reading the comments, which, as is usual on YouTube, are harrowingly puerile).
And after that… well, to quote Hamlet, “The rest is silence.”