Five Facets of Silence

by Matt Cohen

This is a longer version of a contribution to the roundtable “Silence in the Archive” at the June 2015 Society of Early Americanists / Omohundro Institute conference in Chicago, Illinois.

LUCY: Echo of thuh first sort: thuh sound. (E.g. thuh gunplay.)
–Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play

Good citizens, the Romans loved history, as we do, and commemorated their dead. Did they hear the rumbling emanating from that hole better than we do?
–Michel Serres, Biogea

LUCY: Echo of thuh 3rd sort: thuh body itself.
–Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play

The erasures and absences of the archive of slavery whisper to us that there come times when the creation of possibilities, when the animus of our inquiry, must be drawn from other sources than the known, the spoken, our discipline, even if in the end we decide that our story is not one to pass on. Five facets of silence: a series of cuts, as Fred Moten might say—potentialities at the conjunction of the aesthetic and of history’s pain.

I. The Silence of the Mosquito Prince

In late 1775, the former slave Olaudah Equiano sailed for Central America from England as part of a plantation-establishing venture. The planters were headed to the contested Mosquito Coast in what is now Nicaragua, and they brought with them four Miskito people who had journeyed to England a year before on a diplomatic mission, “during which,” Equiano tells us, “they had learned to speak pretty good English.” Equiano, a recent convert to Methodism, befriended George, the son of one of the Miskito leaders, and began to instruct him in English reading and writing and in the basics of Christianity. George began to exhibit piety, but not long before the ship reached its first stop, Jamaica, some fellow seafarers began to mock his belief. Equiano, in his now-canonical Interesting Narrative of 1789, tells us that these jibes “caused the prince to halt between two opinions.”

Thus they teazed the poor innocent youth, so that he would not learn his book any more! He would not drink nor carouse with these ungodly actors, nor would he be with me even at prayers . . . . At last he asked me, “How comes it that all the white men on board who can read and write, and observe the sun, and know all things, yet swear, lie, and get drunk, only excepting yourself?”

Equiano answers that it is because they do not fear God as they should, and clarifies the tortures of hell that such an attitude will bring. This conversation “depressed his spirits much,” Equiano reports, with the result that George “became ever after, during the passage, fond of being alone.” The phrase “halt between two opinions,” echoing 1 Kings 18:21, may suggest that Equiano had hopes that the prince would, like the followers of Baal convinced by Elijah, come around to worshiping the Christian God. But no such conversion happens, and we hear nothing substantive of George again in the Interesting Narrative. The Miskito prince’s silence inhibits our ability to read; going off by himself is a tactic that both on that ship and in our historical investigations thwarts our desire for linking, for reference, for knowing. Silences proliferate under colonialism, or under any state of violent normalness.

Silence is an ancient theological and social practice. It is a tool, an idea, a negative positive. The Quakers; John Dickinson’s non-appearance at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

If you ask [the Natives], what is the Reason they do so, they will make you no Manner of Answer; which is as much as to say, I will not tell you. Many other Customs they have, for which they will render no Reason or Account . . . . [T]here are a great many of their Absurdities, which, for some Reason, they reserve as a Secret amongst themselves.
–John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina

Absurdity. . . . Etymology: Originally < post-classical Latin absurditat- , absurditas dissonance (4th cent.), perversity (5th cent.) < Latin ab + surdus (in active sense) deaf, (in passive sense) silent, mute, dumb, (of sound, etc.) dull, indistinct.
Oxford English Dictionary

Had he been able to say it, anything of his own language—even the commonplace formula of greeting “Where are you going”—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself, but he was dumb. Not dumb—silence was the older and better part of custom still—but inarticulate.
–N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn

II. The Great Hole

The silencing of the archive, or its destruction or disassembly, are a source of inspiration and renewal for artists and writers today across a range of media. There’s an unusually strong spike in the area of art made out of books, or book sculpting.


Brian Dettmer, “The History of the World” (2009)


Brian Dettmer, “Prevent Horizon” (2008)

And there is Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play. It is sort of about the creation of an archive. The play tells the story of a man, denominated the Foundling Father, hinted but never explicitly stated to be a black man, who to the whole world is the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln. He is a grave digger. Inspired by a visit on his honeymoon with his wife Lucy to The Great Hole of History, which features parades and “Reconstructed Historicities” of past figures and events, the Foundling Father creates a replica of it after running away from Lucy and his son Brazil to the West. The replica of The Great Hole of History is a grim version of places like Colonial Williamsburg. The Foundling Father makes a living as a historical interactor, giving patrons the opportunity to reenact the assassination of Lincoln—he playing Lincoln to his clients’ Booth, endlessly re-creating the moment of the Great Man’s launching into history, animated by the particular desires and interpretations of his clients. He says, of the “faux-historical” objects he uses in his reenactments, that “some inconsistencies” in historical realism “are perpetuatable because theyre good for business”; a resonance of some of the persistent fetishes in the narrative histories of Great Men, Great Nations, and the creation, perhaps, of some archives.

His quest to follow the great Lincoln undoes the Foundling Father’s family and, ultimately, undoes him, too: “I quit the business,” he says, perhaps from the grave, “And buried all my things.” In their quest to recover husband and father, Lucy and Brazil leave behind the performances of the past, the attempts to recapture by reenacting history. Brazil and Lucy, at the play’s end, are the curators of a Hall of Wonders, not performers of stories. Having dug up from their “shallow graves” the faux-historical objects the Foundling Father buried, Lucy and Brazil become exhibitors of a range of historicities, not Reconstructors of Historicities by way of self-commodification as the Foundling Father had been. But the Hall of Wonders is not an archive, at the same time: neither performance nor a source of truth. “Over here,” Brazil says, “uh bust of Mr. Lincoln carved of marble lookin like he looked in life. —More or less.” The Foundling Father’s buried objects are resurrected here, but not his performance; that is not repeated, but the historicity of faking is preserved as one among many.

Rosamund Purcell, from Bookworm, “Skeleton Series” (2006)

Rosamund Purcell, from Bookworm, “Skeleton Series” (2006).

Silence functions at a formal level in the play. Parks puts brackets around some sections, designating these as optional, silenceable, for directors. And there is the setting, impossibly described in a surreal pun. Parks’s directions call for this: “Place: A great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of The Great Hole of History.” The script of The America Play refuses the assurances of archiving, or repeating or capturing, but confirms their creative potential at the junction of art and history, of kinship and its material remains.

Jules Michelet, The Insect, illustrated by Giacomelli (1856).

Jules Michelet, The Insect, illustrated by Giacomelli (1856).

III. Jules Michelet’s Insects

Parks’s response to the old Western imagination that one can recover the silenced past, create a replica of a thing never actually known, seems to amend the foundational French historian and archivist Jules Michelet’s understanding that history might vector “the whispers of the souls who had suffered so long ago and who were smothered now in the past.” Michelet gets a correction from Michel-Rolph Trouillot, too; yet his career offers a window onto another world from which to think about silence: that of insects. Michelet’s sentimental approach to history bore expression not just in his famous histories of France but in a series of natural history works, including this one on insects. michelet3michelet2
From their hitherto silenced perspectives Michelet draws of course lessons about Love and Death, but also an entire critique of contemporary disciplines. In the archives of contemporary posthumanism are not just scientists and philosophers, but historians—and insects, those famous enemies of the archive.

IV. A Bibliography of the Destroyed

We are still not quite sure what to do analytically with happenstance, coincidence, good or bad luck, or the willy-nilly—with chance. A bibliography of the destroyed: Sojourner Truth’s two-volume scrapbook, which she called “The Book of Life,” containing clippings about her, letters to her, autographs, and much more; the colors of all of those newspapers Nicholson Baker didn’t save from the British Library and many others, preserved only in black and white microfilm, if at all; the seas, archives of humanity filled not just by greed and fear but by hurricanes and floods, surely Katrina but also the New England hurricane of 1815 which swept the archives of Providence, among others, out to sea; the fire that destroyed Helen Keller’s house; the autobiographical manuscripts inside the valise that the Ojibway writer Jane Johnson Schoolcraft left behind one day in the nineteenth century on a train platform; Anne Bradstreet’s house…we each have our bibliographies of the destroyed.

Texas, 2015.

Texas, 2015.

V. Quiet Time

Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact—it is silence which isolates.
–Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

One can never be alone enough when one writes . . . there can never be enough silence around one when he writes . . . even night is not night enough.
–Franz Kafka, in a letter to his fiancée

Attempting to understand speaking in its quality as a gesture, Vilém Flusser writes:

Strangely, an observation of speaking leads to a question of silence. Silence is, of course, not stillness but the gesture that arrests the word before it comes into the mouth. Silence means that the word speaks rather than coming into the mouth. To grasp the gesture of speaking, one must first observe that of being silent, for in silence the word speaks and glows. To grasp the gesture of speaking, one must learn to be silent.

Lately there has been a minor surge of interest in the powers of quietness. From tumblr quotes and Zen guides; to university-based scholarship like the work of Heejung Kim on the dangers of talking; to the revived popularity of books like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence, an essay on “the slow and cumulative spell of healing quietness.” Even more popular is a bestselling book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. (A TED talk based on the book has been viewed by millions.)

Cain is a writer and consultant, a former lawyer who specializes in negotiation skills training. In this book she makes an extensive, powerful, and deeply researched argument for the crucial importance of introversion as a personality trait beneficial to society. “Our reverence for alpha status,” Cain writes, “blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.” Extroversion, she argues, has become overvalued in the United States, an obsession with the flashy, loud, fast-talking, confident, and expressive that has resulted in, among other things, corporate malfeasance, a series of large-scale financial collapses, and an increase in anxiety, depression, and its consequent pharmacologicalization. Cain links the latest science on the functioning of the brain region known as the amygdala—the ancient, fight-or-flight activator—with everyday tales of social anxiety and peer pressure to build a convincing argument that the most successful, and happiest, enterprises are built out of attentive collaborations between socializers and bookworms. She points to figures like Gandhi, Warren Buffett, and Rosa Parks, who titled her autobiography Quiet Strength, to address the question, “Why shouldn’t quiet be strong?” One might also ask how we might redefine, or even change our valuation of, strength in light of the history of quiet and of silence. With this question history meets our academic sociality, for while Cain points out that many academics are the introverted type, I’m sure we all have experienced the negative effects of overweening personalities in the academy. I have stopped trying to figure out ways to make quiet students participate in class discussions. I’m not entirely sure why I was doing it in the first place. Maybe the academy—not just our relationships with Deans or our advice to junior colleagues about self-presentation—is an organizational space particularly susceptible to extroverted types during an age of austerity. What is the quiet version of the “public humanities”?

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, Sketch for

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, Sketch for “Mural No.6” (1958), Tate Modern.

Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth.
—M.K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth


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