In a recent New Yorker article, Jane Brox describes a train ride that she took from Boston to New York. She entered the “quiet car,” and settled in for what promised to be a peaceful trip. But the woman beside her was making a virtual ruckus. With her multiple devices, the woman was reading and replying to messages throughout the ride. Her incessant keyboard-tapping drove Brox to distraction.

“She wasn’t making much sound at all,” Brox said recently on the phone, “but she was much noisier than someone who might be talking.”

Which raises the question of what constitutes quiet, or silence, in the first place.

In her fifth and latest book, “Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives,” Brox explores the many faces of silence. She examines two of its more extreme settings —  the monastery and the penitentiary. Her book alternates between the two, demonstrating how silence can be used as punishment, reward and much more.

Cover photo courtesy of Jane Brox

Brox spoke recently from her home in Brunswick, where she has tried to cultivate a degree of silence. “Without it,” she says, “I couldn’t do the work I love.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Q: How did you choose the two institutions that would become the centerpiece of your book?

A:  This book started with a chance visit to a monastery, in 2001. I was visiting friends in the south of France, and they said, “Today, let’s go to the monastery.” Just being in those spaces that were created for silence — the stone, the austerity, the sense of time and peace — I was stunned by it. And I came away thinking I would just love to write something.

Later I read an article about Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. I took a trip there, and all of a sudden, I saw how a book on silence could oscillate between these two architectures. When I saw the prison cells, I understood that this was based on monastic silence — the idea of monastic silence gone awry.

Q:  When you envisioned the two anchors for this project, did you have any idea what you were stumbling into?

A:  Not really. But writing’s always like that. The thing is, I’m not a writer who could have written about silence in an abstract way. The monastery and the penitentiary were these concrete worlds. They gave me places and people to write about — they gave me story.

Q:  You’ve described the process of writing this book as bewildering. In what sense?

A:  For the longest time, I just didn’t know what I had. And I understood that, to do it justice, I couldn’t present these places as polarities. The monastery had to bleed into the penitentiary and vice versa. Then the book started to take shape. It was almost like a poem: Like the night in the monastery handed itself off to the night in the penitentiary. I just kept trying to find little connections like that throughout, that would hold it together.

Q:  Was it inevitable that Thomas Merton would be a key figure in the book?

A:  I’ve been reading Merton since I was in my twenties. I just went to him to read about silence. In the circle of this kind of writing, he’s the most often referred to. I hesitated to make him a central figure, but he’s so articulate, and his journey from the world to the monastery just fit in the book. And he was a skeptic with his anti-war views, his questioning of silence in the nuclear age.

Q:  What is the difference, in practical terms, between silence and quiet?

A:  Everybody has such a different idea of what silence is. There are hundreds of different kinds of silence, sort of on a scale. I think silence itself has no synonyms. Muteness is not a synonym, quiet is not a synonym. Quiet has its own integrity — something settled down, or sort of a peaceable moment. But silence, to me, is larger, and — as I think of it with Merton — it’s an opportunity for inquiry.

The other thing I’ve come to understand is that silence itself possesses both its positive and negative qualities at the same time. It’s both the space of the monastery and the space of the penitentiary at once.

Q:  Does silence necessarily imply absence of sound?

A:  If Merton were sitting in silence in the Kentucky Hills, there would be sound everywhere — the sound of the natural world, voices in the distance, there might be cars and motors going by, but it’s still silence.

There are times when I feel as if I’m sitting in silence, and the world can be fairly noisy around me. Other times, the world can be very quiet, but I don’t feel as if I’m in silence.

Q:  So you’re talking purely about an inner state?

A:  Yes.

Q:  Do you also allow for the possibility that silence, in the larger sense, has an acoustic, sound-related definition?

A:  I think that’s true. But why are the sounds of nature considered parts of silence, while human sounds are not? If I were a writer in the 19th century, I don’t think this book would have ever occurred to me. This is a book that could only have been written in the 21st century.

Q:  Is there such a thing as true or pure silence, or is that just theoretical?

A: Well, there’s no such thing as complete absence of sound. John Cage went into an anechoic chamber, which was supposed to keep all sound out, and he claims he could still hear his heart and the blood coursing through his body. So, complete absence of sound would be death. I don’t think it’s useful to think of silence simply in terms of hearing sound.

Q:  In the course of writing this book, what were the big surprises?

A:  Just how complicated silence is! And the thing that keeps coming back to me is, even when silence is beneficial, it can so easily tip over into the unbeneficial. I started this project as a real innocent, so I learned a lot along the way. There are these two institutions, the monastery and the penitentiary, that were built on the idea of silence. Also the structure of the monastery was very rigid, hierarchical. What’s to say that silence in the monastery isn’t a means of control?

Q:  Yes, Merton was asking that question.

A:  So, to me, reading more and more about that made me think about whether there is such a thing as pure, unadulterated beneficent silence. Or is there always that underlying secondary nature of it?

Q:  And what’s your conclusion?

A:  I have no answer! In fact, I didn’t want to write a book that answered questions. I wanted to write a book that would give me a chance to be in conversation with readers.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.


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