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Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Catalogue of Silences: Revisited after Pico Iyer’s ‘Joy of Quiet’

Recently, I read in the New York Times a short but profound article called ‘The Joy of Quiet’ – I highly recommend it. And it reminded me that some time ago, when I was cat-sitting for authors Karina Maglena Szczurek and Andre Brink, that in the silence of their empty home, I wrote this blog about different types of silences. Since then, my life has changed and hence I’ve added a few new silences to the catalogue!

1.58 AM Thursday Morning 16th July (several years ago), House Brink, Cat Sitting

Refreshing, but anything more than half silent would be apocalyptic. Somebody’s got to speak or sing or make music – there’s a whole catalogue of silences, and one for speaking too and music is a kind of speaking – dancing to silence would be pretty bleak, pathetic really, especially if we’re (and I sure am) going to take the Sheep Man’s advice and dancelikeyourlifedependedonit … in all the cold I left the radio on and the electric blanket at high, wake up in a sweat and have that epiphany of sorts, which somehow seems worth noting down, hehe, but I disturb the cat, who runs away and afterwards I read a few more chapters of Dance Dance Dance. It’s a while before I’m falling asleep again, which is awkward because Lilly Allen is singing loudly from the next room the song with the refrain ‘You never make me scream’ and the banjo is playing and I remember re the catalogue of silences some words on a sign in Tuol Sleng, instruction #7 to prisoners: Do nothing, sit still and wait my orders. If no order, sit still, be quiet. When I ask you to do something do it immediately without protesting… genocide loves silence … So Lilly’s singing and I start seeing the faces of the prisoners. A photograph was taken of every soul as they entered the prison they’d never leave, and as if that isn’t sadness enough, next I see a postcard I bought yesterday at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, ‘Jews of Bedzin, Poland’. The card is full of faces, about a hundred and eighty men, women, children …that takes me back to the grey dogs, with yellow eyes, the dogs at the start of Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary about 1982’s Lebanon war. I went to that on Tuesday night … this is no good for sleep … I must sleep, it’s getting on to four, but there’s a distinct lack of silence in my head … I’m back to the catalogue of silences and instead of counting sheep I start to make a catalogue of silences.

Catalogue of Silences:

Ahh, Silence – relief, when your baby has been crying, restless, unable to sleep, overtired, not altogether well, but then finally, ahh, silence; he is sleeping at last;
Alla Nazimova Silence – graceful, the silence of movies before sound; Anxious Silence – I admire you so I’m not sure what to say, nervous, out of my depth, I can’t be myself, it’s not good enough; Apocalyptic Silence – when the balance of all things and silence too, tips beyond repair, it’s a universe ending silence, the inverse opposite of the Big Bang; Anorexic Silence – You starve instead of speaking and grow thin of it.
Beat Silence – Harold Pinter’s kind of silence; Bleak Silence – it’s the silence of a bedsit in Earls Court or Kennilworth, in it one old man or woman, who is alone on Christmas eating a tin of tuna; Bland Silence – the relationship isn’t working, you can’t even bother to speak anymore, you’re at an over-familiar restaurant, both eating what you always order, Beautiful Silence 1 – of desert, the red dunes in Namibia, it’s the silence of grand spaces, plains, canyons, endless roads from Cape Town to Cairo; Beautiful Silence 2 – watching your baby sleep, cherubic, entirely committed, perfect Bitch Silence – a mildish form occurs amongst teenage girls, but the worst kind of Bitch Silence is that manipulative silence from a woman who separates a child from a good father in order to force the man to give her money or simply in order to make him suffer. Bar Brawl Silence – very wisely, you don’t want to get hurt for no reason, so you step back and stay silent
Cold Silence – the silence between the grave and hell, limbo; Cruel Silence – you could spare a person some sadness by speaking and it would cost you nothing, but being silent gives you a sense of power; Coward’s Silence – you should speak out against some great or small atrocity, but you prefer to save your skin; Comic Silence – that’s about timing; Cat’s Silence – the way they move.
Devil’s Silence (Diabolus Silentium) – silent only for the sake of argument or something like that; Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You Silence – nobody calls and the silence makes you feel worthless and you wonder if you made the right choices, but you’ll get over it; Drinkers’ Silence – a bonding silence over a drink; Dark Silence – it’s about depression, a chemically induced silence, very hard to shake until its shaken and when shaken it seems hard to imagine ever feeling so dark
Elegant Silence – when there is expression and motion, but no speech, ballet, mime, tango and any time Audrey Hepburn pauses to smoke or just to look; Expedient Silence – the bean-counter’s silence, prudent, self-interested; Eternal Silence – it goes to the stars; Elusive Silence – two people, you’re in a confined space, like a marriage or a car, and all you want is some peace, but the other person keeps talking, Elusive Silence can lead to madness or murder, humour is the only cure.
Fool’s Silence – like fool’s gold, it seems beautiful and valuable, but it’s not; Fulsome Silence – content, it’s when somebody you thought you’d lost returns; Fear’s Silence – Sure, it can lead to terrible calamities, but the heart crushed by fear, must be forgiven, because fear’s the impossible enemy, none survive.
Graceful Silence When you could use social media to rant or vent frustrations about what you perceive to be an injustice, but which is in fact not the injustice you imagine (and secretly you know it), and so you maintain silence in spite of that urge to rant Grotesque Silence – the silence after genocide, the silence of concentration camps and gas chambers; Great Silence – not good, it’s the end of creativity, writer’s block or even the extremely conservative silence of religions that forbid dancing, or other art; Genuine Silence – when there really is nothing to say, it is perfectly acceptable to choose silence over meaningless chatter or something worse like self-congratulatory banter
H Handsome Silence – particularly in men, particularly in relation to women, a man who knows he has no interest in a woman, and so cuts contact in order not to lead her on, even though it would profit his ego immensely to have the occasional adoring message; handsome silence is the next best option if he has already provided a generous rejection, an honest, but kind, ‘no’ and still the lovelorn woman cannot let him beHellish Silence – waiting to hear; Heartless Silence – unlike cruel silence, the heartless silence is not with malice, simply lack of heart, a genuine affliction, the heartless silent has either as a result of drug use or syndrome, such as Aspergers, no capacity to understand how their silence hurts others
I Iconic Silence – not an especially compassionate silence, a person of elevated stature chooses silence as a form of power, it makes them unapproachable, and enhances their mystique; Internal Silence – it does not exist in life, even with meditation all thoughts cannot be stilled, even a brain with no conscious thoughts is not silent until death.
Japanese Silence – suicide, when it is about saving face, preserving honour, and tradition
Killing Silence – in relationships, not talking it out, allowing something to fester until it becomes a poison; King’s Silence – execution, named for Henry, but can apply to all manner of tyrants, it is the silencing of opposition in any form be it a wife you no longer want, or a person you deem a threat to your rule
Lazy Silence – You could say something, but you just can’t be bothered; Lugubrious Silence – broody and morose, potentially operatic; Lardy Silence – You eat instead of speaking and grow fat of it.
Miser’s Silence – the man who thinks himself too good to speak, hordes up his words and thoughts like scrooge … for what Miser? Words are no currency to the dead, soon you will have no mouth to speak, no fingers to write with, and there will be no listeners or readers.
Noisy Silence – You’re in a crowd, but nobody is speaking to you, you’re the loner on the fringes, it can even be at a cocktail party, and you can be speaking pleasantries, but saying nothing, so it is the silence of vacant words ; Noble Silence – Not speaking in order to find the peace of not thinking
Ostracizing Silence – group cruelty, the tall poppy’s untimely end, you were so brilliant and successful, people were always jealous, and when you fell from grace, the group exiled you, and they relished it; Outcast Silence – you were once part of the in-set, but are no longer one of the favoured ones and so without knowing why exactly you have been cast out of the fold, you are silenced.
Predatory Silence – a killer watching his, her, its prey; Patient Silence – a parent or teacher allowing a child to do something for themselves even though it’s taking time; Profiteer’s Silence – you know something, but say nothing, or get paid to say nothing, inside information, inside trading, deceit, blackmail, you get rich on this silence; Political Silence – it’s all about correctness and keeping your position in the court; Philosophical Silence – the result of excessive thought; Pleasant Silence – when you are so comfortable with a companion you do not have to speak; Plotter’s Silence – a person chooses not to speak yet, they’re biding their time, plotting a best strategy, possibly waiting for more information before committing themselves to a voiced opinion
Quincunxical Silence – in a petty matter, this is a very awkward silence, like on the dice you are the dot in the middle of the other four, and no matter what you say somebody is going to get hurt, somebody is going to get angry, all pointlessly, so you absent yourself and say nothing
Readers Silence – a very fine silence punctuated with the sound of turning pages.
Sleeper’s Silence – can be so compelling like Eri Asai in After Dark, it’s visible silence, you want to watch; Sulker’s Silence – as long as it doesn’t go on too long, it’s okay, and best to let the sulker sulk (excessive Sulker’s Silence is pathological); Shotgun Silence – an old fashioned kind with a long history, like at shotgun weddings, and nobody wanted to say the bride was pregnant, but nowadays, this kind of silence covers all manner of social embarrassments, which are only embarrassments because of the way certain (often uptight or petty) people look at them
Toothsome Silence – when food is so tasty a party of eaters falls into this silence as they eat, until somebody remembers to speak again. Usually the first words uttered after Toothsome Silence are in praise of the meal; Thinkers Silence – admirable, but if it lasts too long it can be anti-social; Tsukuru Tazaki Silence – A literary device:a friend or friends stops speaking to the main character and you don’t know why.
Unhandsome Silence – particularly in men, and especially in relation to vulnerable women, this is a kind of Coward Silence, the man who misleads, leads on purely for the benefit of his little ego; he should just say with generosity:no.
Virtuous Silence – overrated; Victim’s Silence – one of the most tragic silences, prevalent among women and children
Writer’s Silence/ Worker’s Silence – when you refuse to answer the phone or speak to anyone because you’re writing/ working; Weird Silence – like on the sixteenth floor at the Dolphin Hotel in Dance Dance Dance; Wishful Silence – perhaps the most exquisite of all silences: you’re seeing or experiencing something so breathtaking, there are no words for its loveliness, and all you can do is wish it could go it go on forever, but know it will vanish, and the most important thing is not to panic over the transience, for panic may spoil the Wishful Silence Why-Wasn’t-I-Invited Silence – it is a double silence: the lack of invitation that creates the first half of this unsettling silence, which forces the uninvited to muster Zen strength in order to overcome being too unimportant or uninteresting to earn an invitation. It is the act of acknowledging but not commenting on the lack of invitation that creates the second half of this silence.
X Out Silence – the silence of adead man after a contract killing, the mobster’s kind of silence
Yawning Silence – the silence of the unemployed or burnt out, you stay home and stare at a something for extended periods of time because there is nothing else you can do; Your Silence – in human relationships, when one person is silent and another doesn’t understand why, but accepts with silence their silence, the only decent way of respecting the other person’s reasons, so acknowledging the other’s battle, in the sense that everybody is fighting a battle, it is a forgiving silence
Zane Grey Silence – It’s the silence of the old trapper – ‘a far-seeing eye cleared by distance and silence, and the force of the great, lonely hills’, it’s the silence of one who knew ‘progress was great, but nature unspoiled was greater.’ Zealots’ Silence – usually a group silence, among those who cannot question, and take it all on faith, and will kill to silence anyone who disagrees.


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