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Dictionary of Silence

Silence of The Oxford English Dictionary:   “The complete absence of sound”. 

This definition is a succinct statement of the physical characteristics of silence. It exists as an absence, a negation, a nullity. This definition, however, is impoverished by the exclusion of the psychological aspects of silence. Unlike physical silence, psychological silence is not an absence—it is a presence filled with meaning. Many, many meanings; sometimes elusive, sometimes contradictory, but always of significance. I offer this very abridged Dictionary of Silence to augment Oxford.

Silence of Language

Silence is a precondition for language. It presupposes a silent regard between speakers. When we come into the presence of another, before we speak, we share a common ground of understanding that makes speech possible. We need not share the same language—a mutual understanding that we are in the presence of another, a shared co-presence, an intersubjectivity, is implicit in our face-to-face encounter.

We are meaningfully attuned to others from birth, as our biology instinctively orients us to the face and eyes of others. Nonverbal gestures—eye gaze1, facial expressions, bodily postures and movements—all are of the fabric of intersubjective regard from the first moments of life. We do not need the physical presence of another to be within the meaningful ground of silence; our very being confers meaning to silence.

Silence of Music

Music, like language, presupposes silence. It is a form of language whose expressive power “takes over at the point at which words become powerless”2. It may seem that music is composed from the notes, from the sounds, but this is only half-accurate. Music teachers talk of those who have a musical sensibility and those who don’t. Beginners, and those who don’t, can play all the notes, and perhaps do so in perfectly correct time, but they do not “make music”. To do this, one also needs to play the silences; the pauses, hesitations, legatos that express the meaning of the relations between the notes. Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them”3.

The ultimate expression of the central role of silence in music is John Cage’s “composition”, 4’ 33″ consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The “music” is whatever sounds that occur during this silence. He purposely draws attention to the fact that sound arises from the ground of silence, and that all sound-silence in our lives can be experienced as music. Once we decontextualize sound-silence from our usual interpretative frames, experience it as “music”,  we become aware of the sheer miracle of sound—any sound—that startles us, alerts us, awakens us to the thrill of being alive. It is not unlike the visual artist Andy Warhol whose soup cans urge us to “see”.4

Silence of the Elephant (in the room)

This is the unspoken presence of an unavoidable issue that is avoided; left to the realm of silence because, if given voice, it would lead to unpredictable and, perhaps, irreversible, damaging consequences. This is a silence of fear and anxiety.

Silence of Complicity

Elie Wiesel offers this exhortation against silence: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And here is Pope Francis’ response to the question that he was aware of and sheltered priests who had sexual abused children: “The truth is humble; the truth is silent.”

Silence of Guilt

When accused, silence is a powerful, ambiguous and, possibly, damning statement. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who wrote extensively about the power and meaning of silence, had this response to the accusation that he was a supporter of the Nazi’s during WWII (he was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party until almost the end of the war): Silence.

Silence and Truth

Silence can also offer up truth. Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind, who possessed unimaginable creative power to penetrate Nature’s secrets, has this to say: “Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation”.

Silence of Books

They sit on the shelf, mute. The soul of the author, who may be long dead, pressed into its pages, waiting to be released in the life of another who, silently, will enter its corridors of meaning. A book is a miraculous leap of the spirit across space and time, in a collusion of silence.

Silence of Libraries

A double silence permeates libraries. Rows and rows, floors and floors of books, poised at attention. The air vibrates with the silent murmur of centuries of voices, compressed between covers, beaconing passers-by to leap across space and time into another reality. Libraries are also a place specifically set aside for books, and one of the very few public spaces that enforce a code of silence. Libraries honor and pay homage to reading and contemplation. This is a sacred silence, the silence of a temple to the life of the spirit.5

Silence of Truthful Madness

Helen Keller was both blind and deaf, and offers this insight about the relative loss from each: “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.”

Deafness creates a wall of silence, blocking all communicative contact through that most potent, biologically conferred means of exchange: speech. The lack of hearing, however, does not exclude from the circle of human relatedness. The fundamental ground of intersubjective regard conferred by our human biology, noted above in the Silence of Language, is shared by those who cannot hear, and makes possible the various forms of nonverbal communication used by the deaf community.  Nevertheless, isolation and an underlying sense of “other”, of being outside the normative circle of the “hearing world”, accompanies deafness and can result in profound and disturbing detachment.

Goya, one of the greatest of Western painters, became deaf in his later years. Over the course of his lifetime his paintings moved from deeply insightful psychological portraits of royalty; to deeply unsettling depictions of war; to, finally, deeply disturbing images of universal human madness.6 I cannot help but think that this last stage was forged within the detachment of silence that gave rise to his penetrating and unsettling visions of the human condition.

I have tried to capture what this experience must have been like for him by watching television with the sound off; trying to view the actions of the players, naively, without the automatic interpretive frame we typically use to understand social activity. This, I think, has helped me to crudely conjure up his experience; the human scene as a “clown pantomime of absurdity.”

Silence of Love

This silence assuages our isolation and loneliness in an indifferent world. Knowing that someone we love is in the world, with us, even if they are not visibly present, imbues our experiences with their loving scent. I sit in my house, alone, writing, but I know that I am not bereft, for while Sharon is absent, the silence of the house sings her presence. Her presence in the world warms the silence of her absence.

Silence of Grief

This silence is a scream, a lament, a cry of emptiness. It is the absence of a presence that will never return. When someone we love dies, even if expected, the absolute finality of the loss and their irreversible disappearance is a silence that chills. This silence in a house of grief unmoors us.

Silence of the Grave

This silence passes beyond the silence of the living—to nonexistence; to Oxford’s definition of Silence.

Silence of Being

There are many, many more silences, all with their special meaning: The silence of 3 AM darkness, the world all to myself; the silence of a winter’s night snowfall, covering everything in brightness; the silence of the desert that assumes an almost physical presence. I am sure you can think of others. We cannot escape its ubiquitous presence but it is oft overlooked, ignored, avoided; hidden by the noise that surrounds us, the noise we make, the noise we seek.

We chase away silence with loud distractions, incessant chatter, and self-reassuring boomings aimed at keeping us from fully experiencing the deep silence that enfolds us, pervades us, resides at the heart of our being. Silence is a route to the sacred in many religious practices, for it is in silence that we shed the nervous, busy-bustlings of the world. It forms the ground of our life-giving bonds with others. It also constitutes the most severe form of punishment—solitary confinement. The emptiness, the solitude, the isolation of silence intimates death, and can provoke responses untethered from the mundane concerns of everyday life.

Silence offers a glimpse of our existential predicament, inspiring transcendence, underscoring our relatedness, and evoking angst, despair, and madness. Oxford’s Silence brackets our life, and between these brackets we inhabit the Dictionary of Silence.

  1. see Eyes
  2. Debussy.
  3. Debussy.
  4. See .Eyes
  5. It is one reason we were married in a library.
  6. The picture above is a detail from Burial of the Sardine; Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando


  1. Bill Mayhan

    Brian….A beautiful meditation on silence. Thanks. Bill

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Bill.

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