Susan Sontag [1933 -2004] was a writer of fiction and non-fiction, a filmmaker, teacher and political activist. I know her best for her extended essays and metaphorical insights. Wondering whether she had written on silence, I found an essay among one of her most popular works, from 1966: Styles of Radical Will. The first essay is The Aesthetics of Silence.
Now Sontag dives deep quickly. This essay is about art, art as a metaphorical representation of the spiritual quest. John Cage had already published his collection of essays, Silence and created his famous work 4’33”.
Nor can silence, in its literal state, exist as the property of an artwork— even of works like Duchamp’s readymades or Cage’s 4′ 33″, in which the artist has ostentatiously done no more to satisfy any established criteria of art than set the object in a gallery or situate the performance on a concert stage. There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else— like an intention or an expectation. As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or non-literal sense.
Cage’s work 4’33” consists of a pianist walking on stage, sitting at the piano, looking to the sheet music, on which is written tacet [be silent] for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. At this point the pianist departs the stage.
Sontag reiterates Cage’s view of silence and considers the analagous situation of empty space.
As Cage has insisted, “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” (Cage has described how, even in a soundless chamber, he still heard two things: his heartbeat and the coursing of the blood in his head.) Similarly, there is no such thing as empty space. As long as a human eye is looking, there is always something to see. To look at something which is “empty” is still to be looking, still to be seeing something— if only the ghosts of one’s own expectations. In order to perceive fullness, one must retain an acute sense of the emptiness which marks it off; conversely, in order to perceive emptiness, one must apprehend other zones of the world as full.
Sontag and Cage both have embraced “the impossibility of silence” and the necessary relationship to “something”. You can’t have a concept of “not that” without first having “that”.
“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence. Not only does silence exist in a world full of speech and other sounds, but any given silence has its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.
Sontag continues the theme by shifting from sight to vision for her discussion on silence in contemporary art (she is writing in the 1960s):
Consider the difference between looking and staring. A look is voluntary; it is also mobile, rising and falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up and then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, “fixed.” Traditional art invites a look. Art that is silent engenders a stare. Silent art allows— at least in principle— no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.
Sontag proposes a number of possible uses for silence:
- in repressive social relationships e.g. where “children should be seen and not heard”
- as an ascetic act e.g. a “vow of silence”
- as a finality in a conversation i.e. “having the last word”
- providing time for contemplation e.g. experiments in voluntary silence as well as the Freudian analyst’s ‘silence’ … Sontag notes “silence keeps things open”
- as a device in speech, creating emphasis or focus e.g.
Everyone has experienced how, when punctuated by long silences, words weigh more; they become almost palpable. Or how, when one talks less, one begins feeling more fully one’s physical presence in a given space.
For an excellent discussion of the thesis of Sontag’s essay in relation to the silence of the contemporary artist, read the article by Maria Popova in her blog brainpickings : The Aesthetics of Silence: Susan Sontag on Art as a Form of Spirituality and the Paradoxical Role of Silence in Creative Culture