An­thro­pol­ogy Ob­jects & Be­hav­iours

Si­lence is not only a pas­sive con­di­tion but a cre­ative op­por­tu­nity to con­struct our space, our rep­re­sen­ta­tions and our­selves

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Francesca Sbardella

The si­lence of our Gods Text by Francesca Sbardella

Si­lence is a con­di­tion re­sult­ing from the re­duc­tion of sound, whether it be a word-sound (an as­pect of ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion) or a noise-sound (any other acous­tic event tied to sur­round­ing re­al­ity). Per­ceived by some as a pleas­ing sen­sa­tion of tran­quil well-be­ing and, by oth­ers, as a both­er­some con­stric­tion and op­pres­sion, si­lence makes our ev­ery­day prac­ti­cal af­fairs pos­si­ble; it ac­com­pa­nies each one of us in our daily lives, in­flu­enc­ing our bod­ies on a phys­i­cal, emo­tive, in­tel­lec­tive and emo­tional level. It is the di­men­sion within which we pro­nounce our speech, we man­i­fest our ac­tions and be­hav­iour, and we es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with oth­ers. They can be oth­ers in flesh and blood or, es­pe­cially, the ones who are in­vis­i­ble, our dead, our gods, our demons: that part of our­selves that refers to the un­said, to the in­vis­i­ble, to the void. I have had the chance to stay sev­eral times in French Carmelite monas­ter­ies, not only in my role as a scholar but also as a pos­tu­lant, a can­di­date for re­li­gious life who wants to be­gin liv­ing in­side the monas­tic com­mu­nity. En­ter­ing clois­tered life re­quires you to im­me­di­ately con­front an ex­treme di­men­sion of si­lence, a di­men­sion that is to­tal­is­ing and pro­foundly af­fects the in­di­vid­ual and the space. Daily life is ca­denced by an or­dered se­quence of si­lences and mo­ments of prayer; once de­nied, our nor­mally used speech of re­la­tion­ships is al­lowed only in a few brief mo­ments of re­cre­ation. Thus a fixed and bind­ing struc­ture of be­havioural ref­er­ence is cre­ated. The fre­netic ac­tiv­ity of the nuns, who are busy pray­ing all day in­side this silent frame­work, al­lowed me to ex­pe­ri­ence si­lence not only as a pas­sive con­di­tion in which we some­times find our­selves, but also as a re­source. It is a cre­ative op­tion for build­ing our space, our rep­re­sen­ta­tions of imag­i­na­tion and, there­fore it fol­lows, our­selves. To opt for stay­ing quiet, to not make noise with the ob­jects sur­round­ing us, to ask oth­ers to be quiet be­cause we want to con­cen­trate on our thoughts — all these are in­ten­tional ac­tions that say some­thing about us and about our way of un­der­stand­ing life; but,

above all, they show us as en­gaged in sit­u­a­tions oc­cur­ring in spe­cific places. As soon as it is con­structed, si­lence is lo­calised some­where. No places are silent per se; how­ever, at ex­actly the mo­ment when we lower the noise, they be­come silent, like a sym­bolic re­cep­ta­cle of non­vis­i­ble pres­ence, of words that are nei­ther spo­ken nor heard, of phan­toms and di­vini­ties while, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the places them­selves gen­er­ate emo­tions, per­cep­tions, and ac­tions. Along with words, we use a whole set of in­ter­sub­jec­tive signs ca­pa­ble of trans­mit­ting, pre­serv­ing and elab­o­rat­ing pieces of in­for­ma­tion which be­come con­trol­lable and use­fully man­aged for com­mu­ni­ca­tion pur­poses. In si­lence, the de­nom­i­na­tion of things as well as the se­man­tic cor­re­spon­dence with the sign is omit­ted. Si­lence al­lows a kind of os­cil­la­tion of mean­ings whereby names and things are no longer found to cor­re­spond. This is why si­lence takes the form of men­tal re­al­i­ties, of im­ages and of sen­sa­tions. Even in the daily life of each and every one of us, we of­ten wind up putting this mech­a­nism into ac­tion, charg­ing the sym­bolic plane of our own — or of some­one else’s — si­lence. Suf­fice to think of when we want to ex­press our feel­ing of love for some­one or when some­one else tries to com­mu­ni­cate his or her own. In such cases, the spo­ken or writ­ten word’s lin­guis­tic ca­pac­ity may seem in­suf­fi­cient to the task; we may pre­fer to use si­lence as the ve­hi­cle of mean­ing. This sym­bolic space, that we could de­scribe as su­per­lin­guis­tic, is lo­calised in con­crete places and be­comes eas­ily func­tional to the de­sire to per­ceive the in­vis­i­ble. These are the places that we per­ceive as sa­cred. Francesca Sbardella, a his­to­rian of re­li­gions and an­thro­pol­ogy, teaches at Bologna Univer­sity. She wrote Abitare il silen­zio: un’antropologa in clausura (Viella, Rome 2015).

Above: St Ro­muald’s cell at Camal­doli, in the prov­ince of Arezzo. In the her­mitage of the Bene­dic­tine con­gre­ga­tion founded in the early 11th cen­tury, it is where the Saint spent most of his day study­ing, work­ing and pray­ing

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