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