Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Varieties of silence

Just re-read Kirkegaard's Fear and Trembling. Originally the plan was to talk about it in church, but this book wasn't right for that, so I used some other SK stuff, but I went and ahead and finished re-reading F and T.

SK's book is a long meditation on Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, taken from several angles that all burrow into what Abraham as the exemplar of faith says about the fundamental nature of faith. In short, faith is something other than ethics, or heroism, or aesthetics, it is a relationship to the absolute, a strange territory past renunciation, where the absurd reigns. If heroism and ethics serve universal values, faith involves establishing a relationship to the absoluate, which is purely individual and singular.

Kirkegaard ends this essay by considering Abraham's silence--he tells no one what he is going off to do, offers no explanation. It's a point you could easily overlook.

Since Abraham is involved in an act of faith, he cannot speak because human speech brings the human making the speech sound into the service of the universal, in that words must engage universals in order to be understood. Abraham's necessary silence made me think of Pasolini's film version of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is filled with silence, and in this and many other ways I think Pasolini did a marvelous job of capturing what the gospel text describes (thanks to Tom Wills for putting this film on a program where I was able to see it and discuss it).

OK, all that setup is to get to this little point about silence. Abraham's silence is different in kind than the way we often think about silence. I think we usually assume silence generates information richly if we slow down to "listen" to it. It might be John Cage's silence, filled with incidental sound and the essence of Being. Or the silence of meditation, out of which God speaks or the divine emerges. But Abraham's silence is a silence of muteness, of the inviolable singleness of an individual human, standing in relation to the absolute, which language takes away by introducing general categories.

Of course, by Kirkegaard's view, music has the same qualities of silence, in that it is not tied by semantics to the universal. Of course by music I mean, real music, not lyrics delivery systems. OK, OK, instrumental music. Without the words, the sounds of a performance take place only in one place at a single time. The most innocent of these sounds are the most particular and local (and look at Olson for everything local means).

So to recap, we have:
Fecund silence, with meaning and messages bubbling up.
Mute silence, where meaning is cut off in deference to singularity and the relationship to the absolute.
Noisy silence, that strips off the extraneous material of syntax.


This is Rotten Piece, the band of my friends Shaun and Carol Kelly in Houston.

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