Fourteen Variations on Silence

A Meditation on the Unheard

“In Clarity and Silence,” by Field Kallop

1: Bucharest, Romania

The chapel doors are open—the midafternoon sun spills over the wooden coffin in Bucharest. Birdsongs duel with the dust. The babas look mortified as I lean over, one palm on the mountain of my unplanned pregnancy, to kiss the grandmother who raised me when my parents fled Romania. There are seven black sutures that stitch her eternal mouth shut.

My grandfather sighs and shakes his head. He says Bunica died without knowing of my disgrace; she moved on  before meeting the secret of her first great-grandson. The infinite silence of the dead invokes the sacred and profane in one breath—it carves the unspeakable from the edge of the audible.

The problem with silence is determining what one is winning, or losing. Or which rules one should regret when breaking.

2: Dayton, Alabama

Silence has always been haunted by its proximity to loss. It began as a noun: the Latin silentium, “a being silent,” and from silens, the present participle of silere, which means “being quiet or still.” By the 13th century, silence entered English through Old French, where it designated the “state of being silent; absence of sound.” Thus, silence evokes the condition of soundlessness as well as its embodiment–silence is pregnant.

Silence impregnates the coffin, the unwed mother, the rural graveyards of Alabama. Lacking a cemetery to call home, I trangress—I trespass the posthumous real estate tucked deep in the curve of red dirt roads. I cut my husband’s hair over marble slabs as our three kids make rubbings of tombstones, the visual clichés present themselves in pageant: a stone lamb laid near the child’s name, an angel guarding the infant–it is easier to consecrate the tragedy than to explain it.

 “I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question,” Anne Carson writes in “Variations On the Right to Remain Silent;” humans “resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new.”

The aesthetic of loss is baroque here— swarmed in succulent vines, flooded by excess, small piles of rocks on cinder blocks, porcelain angel statuettes with gold patina washed off by rain, discolored silk carnations drooping from stone vases; the words martyr, beloved, eternal, most favored growing moss in the armpits. The filth is no longer personal. The ornamentation is counterbalanced by quiet: we can hear the tree leaves rustling, no cars, no sounds of humans.

When I mention the quality of silence to my husband, he looks surprised. “That’s impossible,” he reminds, “you have lost the ability to hear silence.”

But you have lost is an insufficient way of modifying the subject who has gained a new relationship to sound.

3: An Alabama highway

On the drive home, the kids play Quiet As A Mouse. Despite their speechlessness, the rumble of engine, the roil of tires, the wind rubbing against metal, keeps the car from being soundless. Given the game, the air is dense, charged by expectancy and withheld breaths. This is the suspense of a conscious silence, and the winner is the one who keeps silent the longest.

Keeping silent is a strange expression; it overlooks how silence keeps us, or how it invokes a promise of protection and safety. A kept silence is a tended one. Unlike the abrupt awkwardness of unintended silence, the tended one feels firm, erect, solidified by intention. The expression silent as a statue evokes an intentional silence that is rooted in the natural quality of stone. The idiom relies on stone’s muteness to make its point. But soundlessness is not silence, not quite. The statue is soundless without being silent; it speaks from its commitment to being present in the past-ness, being permanent on the landscape, being captioned with a name, date, and deed.

Which stones get to keep quiet can be a story about power—a diagram of where power resides in a community or a room. To suggest that standing on a podium without speaking is a form of silence ignores the nature of power itself: the presence of the image, the authority of its status, the noise of merit varies by marketplace, but it is always for markets—always marketing. Like the podium, the plinth upholds what is worthy of memory.

Perhaps what the statue makes permanent is stasis—an absence of self-reflection, the failure to reflect on one’s actions, as with Narcissus staring into the water, the only reflection is an echo. The statue cannot give rise to its own critique.

4: Washington, DC

The Romanian Orthodox priest says I must complete a confession before he can bless the apartment. So I confess: I admit to ravenous lust; to not believing Mary was a virgin; to thinking the United States has destroyed my parents’ marriage. I confess to having sex outside all nuptials; giving birth to a bastard; raising him without a father; craving sex and raspberry mousse; cursing heads of state and multiple governments. 

The priest lays an ornate, hairy hand on my forehead, absolving me of my sins. He gives me a prayer rope to use at night. “Wear it on your wrist and use it immediately,” he advises.

The rope is too big for my wrist; it dangles ominously as the priest schedules a blessing appointment for the following Tuesday. He tells me I am free—my confession is complete.

But I do not confess to the abortion. Nor do I confess to not regretting it. The priest would not absolve me of this. Without absolution, my son’s crib would remain unblessed. The sacrament of confession is limited by my silence about what I would never undo or change. The heretic and the writer know this.

5: Saint Rita in Paris and New York City

Simone Weil said she’d be more ready to die for the Church than enter it: “To die does not commit one to anything, if one can say such a thing; it does not contain anything in the nature of a lie.” Weil doesn’t want to lie; the problem of lying involves being true in a bigger sense, or in a sense that isn’t measured by humans. When her friend Gustave Thibon asked why she refused to join the Church, Weil replied: “The question is to know where there is less of a lie.” Since it would be impossible for her to choose between remaining outside the church or entering it without being duplicitous, the choice itself forced a lie. She could not win at the game of earthly allegiance.

Author Annie Ernaux wanders through Paris, seeking Saint Charles de Monceau,  the church she visited after having an abortion at twenty-three. She remembers the church distinctly for how it changed her—how she entered seeking forgiveness and repentance, only to discover the end of belief. Upon entering the church, Ernaux pauses in its iced silence, and lights a candle next to the statue of Saint Rita. Ernaux  has completed the pilgrimage; she has paid her respects to the girl she was before the abortion. She has lit a candle for the girl who is dead.

I’m in transit, between stations; movement is my passion play, a continuous reverence obscured by my vow of silence. The decision not to speak of things is a fence around the most sacred, the tabernacle of privates.

When S., who works at the Brazilian Embassy in NYC, invites me to a Jane’s Addiction concert, I wear the same jeans and shirt I wore the day prior. He hums as we kiss at every metro stop back to his apartment. The next stop is ours, S. says. Later, I stare at the wall above his bed, a poster of a woman. “Saint Rita—the patron saint of lost causes.” His mother’s favorite saint. I find Rita again and again—as a votive in an empty beige room, the candle near S.’s face, the eyes of this saint watching us, again near a bed, Silvina Ocampo’s posthumous novel, The Promise, whose narrator invokes Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes, to save her from drowning in the ocean. If Rita saves her, Ocampo will write the book, fulfilling the promise she made to someone whose name is not given.

6: Birmingham, Alabama

Poet Heinrich Heine spent seven years in bed, living with pain, writing the poems from “Matratzsengraft,” or Mattress-grave. Heine loved Paris. It was his place, and he is buried there, near Oscar Wilde. But I am in Birmingham, missing Paris during pandemic. P. works from home as the children virtual-school in separate rooms, each attached to a screen, their glazed eyes ending the lie we once held about a village, a network of support, a non-existent mutual aid.

Against eschatology, Simone Weil says “those who wish for their salvation do not truly believe in the reality of joy within God.” The human’s inability to imagine a truly “incorporeal” soul means that belief in immortality or afterlife is just “a belief in the prolongation of life,” a belief that “robs death of its purpose.” I find these words in her essay, “Decreation,” on the week in which I drive myself, alone, to undergo a spinal nerve ablation, without the possibility of sedation.

On the drive to the clinic, I address Weil aloud, and directly, since there is no one except me and her in the car, no one to overhear or judge us. You did not love life, I hiss to Weil. You did not love it enough to fight for it by living. To fight like a desperate animal.

She reminds me that there are curtains which make it difficult to see clearly: “The curtain is human misery: there was a curtain even for Christ.” We cannot see ourselves through the inarticulable suffering that separates us. This allusion to Christ invokes all the crucifixes I have seen—and the distance between the Protestant’s empty cross and the Catholic’s mortified one, with its hands nailed to the cross, the brutal agony of the flesh. Physical pain is the crux of torture—it is the part that opens the mouth by force, that makes everything, including standing, impossible outside imagining an end to the pain. It hurts to miss my mother, but nothing compares to the wordlessness of excruciation.

7: Etymology of embodiment

Physical pain is unspeakable—boring, redundant, useless. Pain curls into a fetal position and removes the mind from the body; it pillages the senses, overtakes consciousness, demands complete attention. Nothing is louder than physical pain, and this is why it remains quiet on the page. Again, the heretic and the writer know this.

Pain comes from the Latin poena (penalty, punishment, execution) which comes from the Greek poinē (penalty, fine, blood money). It is an administrative event, a settling of accounts which lacks communicable physicality. It is some god’s version of revenge.

In Romanian, poiana means “meadow.” Saint Rita looks away from those who lie during the sacrament of confession. 

8: Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Suddenly to remember: the ancient Assyrians carved words into every surface, including those surfaces no eye would see. The back of a wall. The underneath of a floor.

—Dan Beachy-Quick, “January Notebook”

In the room which holds the ruins of silence, the words are carved under things which reconvene in the precise pitch of sunlight meeting a floor. Stretched on my stomach, in the company of correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, I steal time from small mammals to think, to sink into the busy silence of reading which is not silence so much as a space where ghosts can speak. Upon hearing the alarm of a baby wailing, I remember dropping the pen on my notebook before rising abruptly—and then, then the sound of a roof falling, or a tree slamming into the roof, a strange white light like thousands of sparks stitched together, the vast blurring split by the distant voice of my son, mommy mommy what happened, Mommy, Mommy get up, mommy; the address itself complicated by capitalization, confusion as to whether the son was speaking to me, his mommy, or whether this was the historical wail of sons crying for their moms—at which point what he missed was the possibility that a mother could be revoked. And an urgent need to find the child’s mother. . . all sensation leaving my lips, the senselessness.

I remember motion as patches of radiant light.

Fainting revokes the self, revealing the seams between fragments that compose wholeness, the joints where an image can fracture. Reentry disorients: the cold feel of one’s cheek on the hardwood, the temple hot as if kissed by a lover in a dream, the slurred spinning of a room refocusing, taking shape. A baby crying as if bridging an ocean inside a glass bottle. Too swooned to stand, a lump of flesh, tingling, the shimmer of blood returning to limbs as one crawls through the hallway to find her, the dread tangling in the light’s epiphanic quality, the fear that one might faint again, that one might fade out, leaving three small kids alone in a house until the husband came home. The ear ringing, ringing, ringing. The unfamiliar body named Mommy pulling a baby close from the floor, soothing a nearby toddler, kissing foreheads. The feet learning again  to read the hardwood. The ruin of sound marked by the arrival of tinnitus in my right ear.

I didn’t realize how the ringing would change life. Nor did I realize the ringing was permanent. Tinnitus comes from the Latin word tinnire meaning ‘to ring, tinkle’; it is an innocuous sound. “O I wish the bells would come and blow my mind away,” Mary Ruefle writes. And when they do—they arrive on tiptoe, a choir of chimes blowing through the brain’s chambers, an evolving quintet for which I am the single audience. —Surely, I think, this noise cannot last forever . . .

But the noise goes on. The noise lasts throughout the week and into the weekend. The tinnitus demon whispers in my right ear: tinfoil crackling, astonished daffodils, the violence of a ferris wheel that stops and lurches at the top. In the pandemonium of evening lawnmowers, tinnitus narrows the amorphous blaze into sharpness, like one thousand matches trying to ignite into noise, to be discernible as something. Tinnitus is selfish, competitive, responsive: it wants to be the loudest phenomenon. The stronger the noise, the angrier the tinnitus’ response, the more robust its duet. Ambulance sirens transform into a shrill flute, stabbing the eardrum. Sirens echo for hours, even after they are gone.

In Greek mythology, Sirens were females with bird-like qualities who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of their songs. The Sirens seduced heroes like Odysseus from their journey home. A woman’s body, the lure of her song—the word siren enters our language with seduction, or with distraction. If we listen to the mysterious, we are hooked. There is no going home.

Frank Kafka’s parable “The Silence of the Sirens” reverses the danger of seduction—it is not the Sirens’ song that can ruin a life, since “it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing,” Kafka writes, “but from their silence certainly never.” Silence is when the sirens pause to catch their breath between songs. To know the Siren can lure demands eternal vigilance. Kafka would have us guard the ear against it. But what lure could distract me from the ocean of tinnitus frothing in my right ear?

The angels on the Victoria’s Secret billboard cover the sky with their wingspan. They are silent—the image is all. There is no song. Flesh lacks resistance to the alarm songs wired for repetition, the long wail of the ambulance, the air raid warning, the fire alarm. Modernity ruins silence with its sirens—there is no space for seduction, only the work of disconnecting the body from the sounds cued to frighten it. Violence is the undertone of the mechanistic siren.

Homer said the Song of the Sirens granted the hearer omniscience to know “whatever happens anywhere on earth.” To hear it all, to know everything, is to be sunk by it, incapable of motion, torn between the wails across continents. 

My husband jokes that I am now a prophet—my ear the orifice into which gods pour warnings no one else can hear. For the prophets, silence is an expectant relationship, a state defined by waiting for revelation. And the room is the desert which precedes the ecstatic vision, the silhouette which stands in the world and yet against it.

On days with many sirens, I dream in red flashes, leaf-blowers raised like rifles, my head exploding, leaves falling from my daughter’s eyes. I have escaped Kafka’s worse-case scenario: the silence of Sirens is inaccessible to me now. The ocean is alive, frothing, in my right ear.

9: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee

In the month after the room with the ruins of silence appears, I attend the funeral of a beloved older friend who lived a long life and died a good death. The funeral marks the official moment of memorial; it scores time by making the impossible official. There, among the organized flowers, people gather to fumble for words that value a life. My ear choreographs the footsteps approaching a coffin. The echoes unsettle me long after the shuffle-march disappears. There is no sense of an ending. There is no synthesis or resolution—nothing a tenured mammal might label as progress.

In the year after the room, the ruins, the buzzing, I wander through the offices of countless audiologists, otolaryngologists, and neurologists with three small children at my heels, trying to find an end to the asymmetric tinnitus. But the end is another word for the expectation of an answer.

Because I neglected to seek medical counsel for a month after fainting, no one can explain whether the tinnitus emerged from a concussion or from the brain injury that happened decades ago. There is no revelation. My failure to see treatment at the appropriate time is “unfortunate.”

When I ask the eminent Alabama neurologist what to do, he says, “There is nothing to be done; you will get used to it.” How can I believe him? What does it mean to get used to unknowing silence?

The eminent Mississippi otolaryngologist says: “If you had tinnitus in both ears, I would put you in a free program that we have for veterans dealing with suicidal urges as a result of symmetric tinnitus from war.” Since my tinnitus—like my eye color—is asymmetric, unusual, abnormal, there is no option except to live with it. He gives me a list of things I need to avoid, an inventory of no-no’s which will aggravate—or “turn up”—my tinnitus. No loud screeching noises. No screams within a foot of the affected ear. Avoid fireworks. I read the first three, then stop. And stare at my children, for whom I am a full-time caregiver. Resisting the lure of dying is the only part I can control.

10: Internet chat room

Because I cannot discuss tinnitus with my friends, because speaking about the abnormal self is calculated as unpaid emotional labor in the therapy economy, I become “Dave799,” a profile in a private online group composed entirely of male veterans dealing with PTSD from tinnitus. There are no similar groups for females; the internet suggests tinnitus is primarily a masculine torment. I know they are lying to me, one man writes, I know it is a brain tumor. Another agrees: They lie to save their asses, they tested some chemical on us … why else would this be happening just to us? The men express terror; fear that the noise will not end; shame at being unable to discuss it with family; humiliation at needing to wear earmuffs when mowing lawns, and not wanting their wives to discover their weakness. “Maybe we’re cheating on our wives with tinnitus,” I type. The men drop LOLs. It is funny, this terrible secret, the bond it creates among invisible strangers, our paranoia lightened by emoji-generated laughter. We have achieved a voiceless intimacy which unravels into humor, then guilt, then the contemplation of guilt which thickens into an awareness of personal failure, so that we can return to the real world, the world of not existing.

But our non-existence is different, as are our lies. I have never heard these men speak aloud. My presence in this space is only because it occurs without attached sound. They don’t know my susurrations.

I hide the screen from my husband when I am “Dave799.” The developing intimacy verges on the inappropriate: these men know me in a way I’m hiding from my partner. But they also know me as a name, a masculine mask, which I am not. This appropriation allows me to keep something hidden from them. When nervous, my knee bobs up and down in a nervously syncopated rhythm that seeks to abolish anxiety itself. In my head, the sound of horses, the clatter of hooves, P. J. Harvey. Is a pseudonym a form of silence? To whom do I owe my name, my gender, my articulated worries?

Anais Nin published Diary in 1966, but she didn’t publish Henry and June (the first part of unexpurgated diary) for another twenty years. Nin withheld the intimate to protect what existed between her and Henry Miller. She kept mum until her death, and then Miller’s. The unexpurgated versions of Nin’s diary were published posthumously in 1986 and 1987. To read the unexpurgated text is like discovering a new character in the room, a Nin who is implicated and involved, one whose silence included the erotic tone of a kept secret. Is the posthumous publication a loudness that rips silence open without living to carry the cost?

11. Birmingham, Alabama

I always defer letters (which could seem to ask you for something) to a moment when it is too late and when consequently, they are no longer indiscreet.

—Marcel Proust, Letter 20 (translated by Lydia Davis)

We lose time then write the tomb. Proust fashioned entire books from lost time in order to consecrate the sense of losing. Writers bring the lost to life. Sometimes it’s too late.

Composer John Cage defined musical composition as anything made from two materials, sound and silence. Because his goal as a composer is to create pieces that correspond to the material’s nature, Cage composed with an eye to durations, as seen in rhythmic phrases and time lengths, rather than harmonic structure, “derived from pitch, which has no being in silence.”

The idea that silence lacks harmonic structure assumes silence is soundless—a view we often impose on the deaf or hearing-disabled. To lose one’s hearing isn’t to be swept into silence but to encounter a constant private stream of percussion which no one else can share and hear.

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” Cage writes in Silence: Lectures and Writings. He offers evidence that we cannot create silence:

For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

Cage entered the anechoic chamber to find absolute silence, but what he discovered was the inaudible, the parts of life silenced by the world—his blood pulsing through his veins, his nerves, the tiny noises drowned out. “Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot,” Cage concludes. We can only hear it, respect it, acknowledge it, interpret it, let it speak to us in its use of space and time.

Silence is filled with sounds. Even the idea of hearing falls flat given how much of the brain’s relationship to sound is felt and embodied.

12. Berlin, Germany

“One ought to speak of events that reach us like an echo awakened by a call, a sound that seems to have been heard somewhere in the darkness of a past life,” Walter Benjamin wrote in 1938. The echo interacts with objects and surfaces—the sound it delivers isn’t the original but that of the past in the present, a recovered memory.

The relationship between sound and embodied history involves the stickiness of a note, or its echoes. Audiologists refer to the sounds with echoes attached as “wet.” Wet sounds are sticky; they collect the noises around themselves. A “dry” sound is described as being distinct, crisp, and individualist. It stands alone with itself. A dry note is one that has few echoes, while a wet note is one that carries its echoes along, that extends itself in and through these echoes, refusing to delineate itself as clearly. As a certain designation of sound, silence, too, has a past life just as a word has all the lives we hear in it, given proximity, syntax, and nearness. I remember the sound of light moving across the hardwood floor.

13: Philadelphia Museum of Art

There is no relationship between what others say I have lost and my embodied self. There is a site-specific piece titled “WITH HIDDENNOISE” by Marcel Duchamp. This ready-made object consists of a large ball of twine sandwiched between two metal plates above and below, secured at each of four corners with metal screws long enough to resemble table legs. The exposed screw-legs evoke an industrial banality in the dull palette.

The titular hidden noise refers to the object placed inside the piece by the artist’s patron, Walter Arensberg—there is the secret invoked between the two of them, buried inside the twine. Only Arensberg heard the object tinkling against the metal when it was installed. The decision to press the adjective and the noun together, creating a new word, hiddennoise, isn’t legible outside the context of the object’s creation. A friendship. A secret.

On exhibit, Duchamp’s piece is soundless. Not even an echo of sound—not even a shadow. “There is no solution because there is no problem,” Duchamp said of the piece. There is no answer to something that exists as unspoken between intimates.

14: Bran, Romania

Night is the best. Night is the reunion with silence as the sounds of the house slumber, go numb, vanish from the mind. By 1:00 a.m. the sensible world sleeps. I lay in the backyard, grass prickling my neck, my ankles, my skin, I lay there and wait to hear nothing. The tinnitus crackles like radio fuzz in my right ear, a continuous static, an incomprehensible signal. Or maybe the invisible engine of a plane whose wing reaches down from the sky, lodging in your throat, the earthworm you want to see the other end of, the hope squirming inside it. Night is the best, the worst, my favorite.

Once I slept on a grave in Transylvania, seeking communion—the knowledge that something existed beyond the stone, the dates, the names, the official memorial. Maybe the dead want to feel alive.

Sum quod cris, often inscribed on gravestones and urns, means “I am what you will be.” Silence as a gesture towards infinity, or towards unfinishedness. Perhaps even continuity, the hope of completion.

Alina Ştefănescu