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.
3 OBSERVATIONS ON SILENCE (FEATURING HARPO MARX)
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.