Silence: Beyond the Saturnalias

Mind, Nov. 1904

Vol. XIV no. 5, pp. 517-522


They who are won to silence have passed the gaudy gates of Vanity Fair—the gates that open outward to the Purple Hill of Dreams. They have famished ’mid plenty and roistered with sick heart—and the noises they brewed and the beautiful dreams they spilled on the dusty highways and the soft lies their eyes have told are no more. For them the reign of the Real has begun. In silence they hear—and their souls are the noiseless footfalls of the Eternal.

Caked in these whispering south winds, burnished by these eternal suns that warm without scorching, swaddled in these white wrappings, gulfed thus in the immurmurous—they are the supreme critics of life. Before the tribunals of the taciturn the strident is rapped to order, and the gilded gabbler of the portico is sentenced to wear the motley and caper with fish-women.

With shout and laughter we garnish the days; but Sorrow comes with finger lifted to her puckered lip, and we are silent; or if we cry aloud it is where no one may hear.

Each action contains the germ of a destiny—each action is a distinct individual in embryo—and if we had a finer spiritual organ we should find in these great silences of the soul destinies and embryos and veiled fates in myriad procession. The best of us, as we are, immured in our limitations, deafened by bodily hearing and blinded by bodily eyesight, can hear them, sometimes, scratching their messages on the walls of our being as they pass by. Some fire their way out of the eternal silences, or tunnel their way to the day, and in the blatant world-days are pounded to the smut called action.

[518] I see a huge crowd pacing the boulevards at midnight. Fanfare, pell-mell, cackle—eyes that rove from point to point in anxious quest of elusive Pleasure; fruitless pacings to and fro, inutile phrases whispered to gold-sodden, paunchy disciples of “sociabiity” by papier maché women—each soul in reality gaping at each other. I see also a narrow room on the top floor of a house shrouded in silence. A youth holds Shelley’s poems in his hand. “Swiftly walk over the western wave, Spirit of Night”—he has begun that exquisite invocation written by the Boy of Spezzia Bay. With half-closed eyes he treads with Shelley the western wave and is afloat in the Spirit of Night, and he has heard more than all the mottled mobs of the boulevard, for he listens, while the mobs have only heard.

To be mewed in the marmoreal silences, to fall with sated visage and cloyed tongue and a self, hewed to a million diversities, upon this downy bed canopied and curtained with gauzes and textures of strange patterns—to hear the uproar, tragic in its inutility, inutile in its tragedy, dwindle to a world-buzz, then cease entirely—it is to feel the rapture of calm, the ecstasy of conscious surcease, a passionate peace.

There are an awe, a wonder, a sheen of the ethereal in all fine silences. We here breathe upon the adamantine—and the adamantine is not; we give ourselves to float upon a far-winding stream tinct with ancient sunlights—a bubble drifting upon a greater bubble, blown from pipes greater than Pan’s. On these stilled waters we may be immersed without fear of drowning. It is immersion without submersion, reality without illusion—and we are hidden, yet seen of all.

Hamlet’s silences are the most impressive parts of the play—in his soliloquies we recognize the soul of the troubled Dane. The destinies that lure him to the catastrophe evolve their deviltries in silence. The secret of the tragedy is spoken by no mouth—it is a presence unseen, unheard, but not unfelt by that [519] inner nerve that responds to the Idea in which the muddled action of the play is cradled. The secret of Hamlet is spoken by no one. It is transmitted in silence.

And with what subtle, silent motions do the destinies weave their filaments of adamant around the trusting Othello—damned by a fine virtue, undone by his own nature, discovered, routed and bludgeoned to earth by an ingrained optimistic faith in the goodness of mankind. Iago is the fiend par excellence of dramatic literature. He is the quiet, grim architect of a most magnificent palace of pain. His sense of touch is exquisite. His building is a destroying. And yet in nothing that he says, in nothing that is heard, do we discover the depths of his extremest infamy. It is left to silence—to the imagination. It is Othello who goes out in utter spiritual darkness; and though Iago is gyved, he stands triumphant—and silent. In that silence of Iago in the bedroom of Desdemona the Eumenides have paused to survey their work. Iago was but their instrument. From that seething brain wherein they held their cabals they spied one who loved his fellow-beings well but not wisely.

In those recesses of our being where the ashes of our dreams lie inured in their bronzed, time-worn receptacles; in those caverns of the undersell, where our projected but abrogated selves murmur against the decree that has sentenced them to those barren wombs—in all that past that is not, yet is everlastingly, we recognize something of the inarticulate, something that may not be uttered even by the heart to the brain.

Ecstasy is mute. Shadows curl around “I Will”—and acts are the undoing of dreams. “I Will Not” is bred of the higher view. If it is cold at the poles of ultimate negation, it is so only in spiritual prospect. When one has fought his way there he has cast his laprobes of illusion behind. The sense of op[520]posites is lost. There is neither cold nor heat on those silent promontories—there is placidity, the urgency to rest. The calm of a half-humorous disdain bathes us. The soul is a rendezvous for shadows—the mind the Rialto of the dead. Postponements are postponed—and it is on the condition of perpetual silence that Eternity has made her assignation with Time.

Thought laps us all about and we are hemmed in by dreams. Speech and act at best are but a stammering. Our confessions to each other are stuttering. The finest revelations are made to ourselves. Who has never paid a pilgrimage unto himself has never touched the Kabala. The Mecca of motion is oblivion.

Elate youth darts upon Life and with rough hand and strident voice seizes his tinselled trophies. He takes the universe for his ’scutcheon, and by the divine right of vascular palpitation he claims the circling worlds. Blatant youth! where dost thou run—or, rather, where runniest thou not? In mid-life his cries have withered to a whining acerbating, and our Don Quixote has dwindled to a vinegary critic. His elder age is a discreet silence. Old age should hold its tongue. Like the walls of old houses, it has secrets to tell.

There is no soul born to flesh-woof that has not on a day heard the drumbeat of retreat sounded in his ears. We have fought and wept, replied and defied—but in the Unconscious our genius is chiselling the Hour—that fateful hour that shall put clamps upon our affirmations and sew up our lips with the golden threads of taciturnity. Our scale of life-values has been wrong. The battles we have fought have only served to cloud our brains with the dust of combat. We see we have been trying to measure. Eternity by the minutes—thenceforth we shall eternize the minutes. We smile—and take the veil.

In silence there is universality. Lonely souls seek the soli[521]tudes of nature because it is there the dreams of spiritual liberty come true. In these chaste fastnesses are creatures disburdened of trammels. Winged and crawling things empty their souls of impulse as they list. In the wilderness desire and attainment are one. The spirit soaked in these silences participates in the wild riot of life—riot without uproar; revels that are mum; endless muffled motion. The soul passes into all living things. The silent observer becomes the spirit of the place—and his meditations are spun into the crannies of each shadow and the crevices of unapprehended worlds.

Here man regains his lost kingdom—and sits proudly throned on Self. He feels himself at the very core of Being, flush with every conceivable future. He is coalesced, welded into a One. What has been is jettisoned, what is to come is unvisored. It is Nirvana without annihilation. The squirrel that darts up the tree carries a human soul with it, and the bird that flies overhead is chanting a finer song than it knows, for it warbles for two. The forest dreamer rides on the crest of yon fiery cloud—and the slime on the tarn—that is he, too. The individual is blotted out, and the mystery of the one in many—thenceforth it is no mystery.

This is the only liberty man can ever attain, and the path lies through silence. Each must go his own way. There is a supreme release for each, but two cannot find it together. The unthwarted will, equilibration, quiescence, the suffusion of dateless days—would these be yours?—then rivet yourself to the silences, put your ear to the dark shell of Night, and fly the hubbub.

Man is a phenomenal fragment, a temporal circumstance, a momentary coagulation of débris on the infinite stream of Being. His personality is dispersed in meditation or in death. In the vast upper silences the infantile me of daily blab fades like the shadow of a dream. The whole universe of things lies [522] stretched before us like islets in an ocean. The radiating streams of Time flow back to their sources and drag with them the ages.

Like the Greek naked and sweaty from the games who plunges into a cooling stream, so we, sweaty and distraught, fresh from the satanic saturnalias of action, may plunge into the lustral calms, the healing silences—and forget.