September 27th, 2011 / 8:33 pm
Craft Notes

Silence & Communication

A month or so ago, I was asked to write a response to the work of John Cage. And then, 21 other authors and I stood in a big circle around a crowd and read our responses. I thought I’d share mine with you.



Imagine a long line of people, and a very important person—possibly with his wife, possibly with his security, possibly he is a she. The very important person is walking down the long line of people shaking hand after hand. Three quarters of the way down this line of people, the very important person comes upon a man in an overcoat and top hat. When the very important person sticks out his or her hand, the man in the overcoat and top hat does not in return stick out his own hand, but instead lifts his leg and deposits it in the hand of the very important person.

Chaos silently ensues. The very important person is made speechless by the act. The man in the overcoat and top hat is speechless because it grants him, in this situation, all the power.

Speaking truth to power is banal because it is ubiquitous. Everyone speaks truth to power these days. I prefer standing right there next to power, and giving it the silent treatment. And, as the man himself called the gesture, handing power my leg.


Jonathan Richman has a song about Harpo Marx called “When Harpo Played His Harp.” In the chorus, he reminds us that, “…when Harpo played his harp, all was still.”

Given his reputation as an id-powered, goat-footed, teetering-on-the-very-razor’s-edge-of-malevolence physical comedian, stillness (silence) was really the only appropriate reaction to his skill with an instrument so closely associated with the Judeo-Christian superego proxy, the angel.


This is one of my all-time favorite lies:

On an occasion or two, when asked about the origins of the names of the Marx brothers, Groucho told interviewers that Harpo’s name did not come from his instrument of choice, but that he was named for the Greek god Harpocrates.

Images of Harpocrates show him as a child with curly, light red hair, a mischievous look in his eye, and a finger to his lips.

Harpocrates—beloved of the occultist Aleister Crowley as the symbol of the higher self, the thing we perfect ourselves toward—was the Greek god of silence.

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  1. Jeff

      I’m down with this. Erik Satie was also way into silence, and he was a big influence on Cage.

  2. Christoffer Molnar

      Nice reflection.  Fascinating that Crowley the diabolist adored silence; no less a saint than John of the Cross wrote, “Silence is God’s first language.”

      I love silence so much I’d like to leave a blank note in homage, but I’m too weak in my quietness, so I have to comment.  Mark C and I have been playing with this idea for a Quick Lucks theme ( — how does one do what Cage did: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”  The obvious parallel is Hemingway’s iceberg theory, but I actually think more about some Japanese literature — Kawabata, Soseki — and how the literal silence of characters — in many situations, they don’t say anything or even put a leg in someone’s hand — enables the authors to weave these incredibly intricate narratives.  Are there other examples?  How do you use silence?
      It’s really best that I stop babbling and start listening to all y’all’s ideas.

  3. deadgawd

      matthew simmons, it’s too bad you can’t keep silent for 4’33.

  4. Mark Doten

      nice post.

  5. Matthew Simmons

      I never really think of Satie when I think of silence. I think of quiet, though.

      Can you link to a couple of Satie pieces that involve silences or empty spaces? I’d really like to hear some.

  6. Matthew Simmons

      What about silence and white space? A pause between sections? Sometimes Amy Hempel will use a white space pause to let large segments of time pass. Sometimes very small segments of time will pass. But both are marked with the same amount of white space on the page.

      Do we, as readers, fill both pauses with the same amount of “activity”? Long slow burns of emotion in a long passage of time and short, bright-burning explosions in the spaces that indicate a short passage of time?

  7. Matthew Simmons

      Post below meant to reply to this.

  8. Matthew Simmons

      Thanks, Mark.

  9. Matthew Simmons

      You seem nice.

  10. Christoffer Molnar

      I do like white space and how much it can convey.  I always fear it will appear over-dramatic. (I have an allergy to one-line paragraphs.) Short chapters can be similar.  I remember reading Cat’s Cradle and, more recently, Under the Glacier and simultaneously wanting to dart through the pages yet also feeling a duty to slow down and pause at each chapter.  With Under the Glacier, I did exactly that, and I discovered new depths I’d not seen on my first reading.

      Maybe we need start using something similar to that SAT command ending each section: “STOP.  DO NOT TURN TO THE NEXT SECTION UNTIL INSTRUCTED.”  Interestingly, this might be very possible with electronic publishing.  Put a timer that does not allow the reader to proceed for, say, 30 seconds.

  11. deadgod

      I think there is oblivion, but not silence.

  12. Tim Horvath

      I teach the pause or the cutaway in one of my classes, “Cinefiction,” using film technique as an analogue. I think it’s a central literary technique. Part of scene construction is knowing when to get out, pull away, shut up–echo chamber maintenance. To set the stage we watch “The Squid and the Whale,” in which virtually every scene ends effectively, resounds. Renata Adler does it brilliantly in Speedboat, which if I recall rightly, is a book you like, as do I. What is Speedboat stripped of its pauses? One journal once took out all my pauses by mistake and my story read as the work of a hack lunatic.

      Anyway, when we workshop that week, we look first and primarily at the last lines of sections. It’s a fun approach, offering a different vantage point (a cliff’s edge, perhaps, a fault line?) from which one still has to factor in characterization, theme, plot, etc., but from this central axis of breaking off. And often one finds a better break-off line hiding earlier in the section.

      Other random thoughts: the rest is silence, the battery dying in Justin Sirois’s Mlkng Sckls, the PowerPoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad, where the narrator’s brother is obsessed with pauses in songs, the uncomfortable silences one observes sometimes in couples at neighboring tables in restaurants, the comfort to be found in being able to be silent with someone.

  13. Cremistress

      that is deep, dawggod

  14. deadgod

      what is your thinking about “silence”, creamstress

  15. Jeff

      Yeah, I guess you’re right—Satie doesn’t really have any silence-based works in the same manner as Cage’s 4’33” or Ryoanji (have you heard that? so awesome). I guess I was thinking how at the beginning of Satie’s Vexations he instructed the pianist “to prepare oneself…, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities” or else he/she wouldn’t be able to accurately repeat the same motif 840 times. And how there’s such a tentativeness in Satie’s Gnossienne’s and Gymnopédies. And also Satie’s conception of furniture music, which for him was essentially ambient music and wasn’t supposed to be heard/ listened to by anyone, at least not consciously.
      Eno has some great silences. Or at least some great pauses.

  16. Cremistress

      the only true condition of silence is a dammed throat, gaudygodd

  17. Matthew Simmons

       I like that you point to the “tentativeness” in the Gnossienne’s and Gymnopédies. There indeed is a little silent space there. Just an ever so brief one. A little stall. In some of those pieces, the note that follows that stall can really slay you. This one is full of that for me:

      It’s those little badum, badums*, showing up just a bit of a second later than you expect them to arrive.

      Ambient music, too, is sort of fascinating. I kind of like drones an sleep with a white noise machine much of the time. I’d like to know the neurology at work when a brain turns noise into “silence.”

      * “Badum, badums” is a technical term music-y type people use, right?

  18. Matthew Simmons

      White space is dangerous and addictive. It can certainly create an artificial heaviness, and when the preceding paragraph doesn’t earn it, it’s pretty clear.

      I had not considered the way the ebook could be tinkered with to dictate a reader’s pace. I wonder if anyone has done that with online lit. The only thing remotely like that I can think of is this:

      (This, for the record, scared my partner so much she nearly threw my laptop to the ground. Turn your speakers way down.)

  19. Matthew Simmons

      Speedboat is a book that uses space/silence brilliantly. Thanks for bringing it up.

      Also, if you read the author bio at the back, it occurs to you that the book is essentially just memoir, but it calls itself fiction. So, it says, I’m made up, and then whispers …but I’m also mostly true… with a finger to its lips like Harpocrates doing a lousy job of keeping its own secret.

  20. Matthew Simmons

      Oblivion keeps me up at night. “Silence” helps me sleep.

  21. Jeff

      That version is badass–thanks for sharing. And word on the badums.

  22. deadgod

      I can hear gagging, creamdistress

  23. deadgod

      Well, there is quiet – which is the “the nothing that is” that 4′ 33″ plays with by playing against “the listener” – , and there is throttlement (often political) – sometimes a “Nothing that is not there” – , but oblivion?

      . . . something for a snow perchild to think about not being able to think about.

  24. Cremistress

      that’s the whole gag, dogfather

  25. Christoffer Molnar

      Even though I had an inkling of what was coming, that was horrifying.

      Now that I can move again, I find myself intrigued by how the “asemic” sounds that accompany the startle-you images are all the more petrifying because they have no recognizable meaning.  There’s probably a parallel to silence/white space, but I’m a little too scared to try thinking it through.

  26. deadgod

      hole gag gurgle, creamydress