My silence is my salvation

I enjoyed reading a fascinating article on silence in the poetry of Thomas Merton and T. S. Eliot (in The Merton Journal 22.1 [2015]). The author, Sonia Petisco, quotes Merton as follows:

My life is a listening, His is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond. For this my life has to be silent. Hence my silence is my salvation.

Also, these lines from Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ spoke to me:

… pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.

Petisco herself offers some interesting insights into Merton and Eliot’s work, noting, for instance, that ‘with their poetry they were implicitly hinting at the dethronement of man as the owner of Logos, so that things around us can recover their own speech and engage in a (sic!) honest dialogue beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy. … awakening in us a new sacramental awareness of the mystery of Life’.

And some brilliant lines from Eliot’s ‘East Coker’:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And from Merton’s Cables to the Ace:

Waste. Emptiness. Total poverty of the Creator: yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible.

Eliot again, this time some well-known words from ‘Burnt Norton’. For, addressing the limitations of language, he is all too aware that his words:

… strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
will not stay still.

‘History’, Merton suggests in The Tower of Babel, is ‘going inevitably forward / by the misuse of words’. The current public discourse around refugees and asylum seekers comes to mind. What both, Merton and Eliot, are aiming for, Petisco suggests, is ‘a theology based on the regenerative Word of God as the only antidote to the word of fear ruling the contemporary world’. However, that word can’t be heard because there isn’t enough silence in the world. Again, what is needed is ‘a Word which decentralizes man as the owner of Reason, restoring the lost dialogue between “I” and the otherness’. And, with silence being the key, Merton prays:

Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all’.


Under the seams runs the pain

Geryon struggles on in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, grieving for the devastating loss of a lover. But we also learn about other aspects of his life. Like Carson herself (there are strong autobiographical references in this story), he is a linguist. And so, sat in a café in Buenos Aires, ‘he rummaged inside himself for Spanish phrases’. Yet what he found was that

German irregular verbs
were marching across his mind as the waiter drew up at his table and stood …

Two key issues that pervade the narrative are Geryon’s difficulties with self-acceptance (being red and endowed with wings, he is noticeably different from everyone else) and how he is perceived by others. Thus there is

the fear of ridicule,
to which everyday life as a winged red person had accommodated Geryon early in life …

as well as this telling dialogue with a woman he met in a bar:

Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.

One of his endearing character traits is a desperate need for order. As he enters a lecture room, we are told:

Geryon disliked a room without rows.
His brain went running back and forth over the disorder of desks trying to see
straight lines. Each time finding
an odd number it jammed then restarted.

On another occasion, he struggles when someone he has enjoyed a good conversation with leaves the bar, abandoning him to the company of virtual strangers.

Oh don’t go, thought Geryon who felt himself starting
to slide off the surface of the room
like an olive off a plate. When the plate attained an angle of thirty degrees
he would vanish into his own blankness.

And so:

Geryon subsided into his overcoat
letting the talk flow over him warm as a bath.

Once more, I am finding myself amazed at how well Carson captures the panic an introvert might face in a situation like that.

But loss and grief remain his main problems. In a conversation with another stranger the issue of emotionlessness or artaraxia comes up, which Geryon defines as ‘absence of disturbance’ but which so evidently eludes him. Whatever he does,

Under the seams runs the pain.

In his desire to come to terms with his struggle and life generally, he eventually takes up philosophy:

We would think ourselves continuous with the world if we did not have moods.
It is state-of-mind that discloses to us
(Heidegger claims) that we are beings who have been thrown into something else.
Something else than what?
Geryon leaned his hot forehead against the filthy windowpane and wept.
Something else than this hotel room

Geryon sat on his bed in the hotel room pondering the cracks and fissures
of his inner life. …

Yet Geryon did not want
to become one of those people
who think of nothing but their stores of pain. He bent over the book on his knees.
Philosophic Problems.
‘… I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it.
But this separation of consciousness
is recognized only after a failure of communication, and our first movement is
to believe in an undivided being between us ….’

Carson so brilliantly exposes the autobiographical dimension that inheres in our work and study. Geryon, for obvious reasons, is particularly intrigued by the notion of redness. More generally though he is concerned with perception (how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others), consciousness and the impossibility of communication.

His reading also leads him to explore the nature of depression:

‘Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.’ He was about to turn the page for more help …

Yet again, Carson offers such an intriguing perspective in these lines. There are quite a few fascinating angles here, but I particularly love the final words, ‘he was about to turn the page for more help’.

And then the inevitable happens …

Thoughts on life, love, friendship, fear etc. from Connie Palmen’s Die Freundschaft

Connie Palmen, Die FreundschaftConnie Palmen, whose work I discovered only recently, is perhaps as much a philosopher as she is an author of fiction. Which should come as no surprise, as she studied both philosophy and Dutch literature.

Here are some quotes from Die Freundschaft:

In Worte zu fassen, was nicht unbedingt auf der Hand liegt, darin liegen für mich Glück und Befreiung.

(To put into words what is not necessarily obvious – in that for me lie happiness and liberation.)

Man wird ein bißchen irre, wenn man Tag für Tag immerzu leben muß …

(You get a little crazy, when you always have to live, day after day …)

Nicht der Haß ist das Gegenteil von Liebe, denn Haß muß man sich immer erst noch verdienen, sondern es ist diese Gleichgültigkeit.

(Not hatred is the opposite of love, for hatred you always still have to earn first – it is rather this indifference.)

Jemand, der maßlos nachdenkt, hat wahrscheinlich größere Angst vor dem Leben als andere.

(Somebody who reflects exorbitantly probably has a greater fear of life than others.)

Alle Süchte sind Versuche, die Sehnsucht nach Freundschaft aus eigener Kraft zu stillen, das heißt ohne dabei von jemand anders abhängig zu sein.

(All addictions are attempts to allay the longing for friendship out of one’s own strength, which is to say, without being dependent upon somebody else.)