Friday, July 22, 2011

Exploring Silence III

What he beheld as present he will have to comprehend as an object, . . . only as an It can it be absorbed into the store of knowledge. But in the act of beholding it was no thing among things, no event among events; it was present exclusively. . . . . And now it is locked into the It-form of conceptual knowledge. Whoever unlocks it and beholds it again as present, fulfills the meaning .[1]

Seeking into the beholding is the work of life -- the ‘travel’ [travail] of spiritual childbirth.[2]

That the British and the Americans are divided by a common language is a very old joke, but many tragic arguments have arisen over the simple but fundamental misunderstanding that in British English everything is assumed until it is mentioned, and in American nothing is. No matter how long an American lives in the UK, it is still possible to be tripped up by absent cultural assumptions, a kind of persistent aporia in one's consciousness. It is only minor comfort to observe that among themselves the British seem to play a national game of trying to guess what the other person really meant by his or her remark.

However, the joke becomes very unfunny when scholars of any nationality deliberately refuse to address their own epistemological aporia. Many ancient and medieval texts are riffs on the structures and processes revealed by the mind's work in and with silence. They mark the unmeasurable paths by which it becomes quiet and self-forgetful, relinquishing its contents into the core silence of the person, where a transfiguration of perception takes place that effects profound changes in speech and behaviour (Cloud ch. 59; 61/37-62/1)—what I have called the work of silence. Yet much of today's scholarship that focuses on these texts is structured by and confined to dialectic. [3]

Too often scholars bow to the pressures of prevailing academic fashion, ignoring or rejecting outright the very notion of the work of silence on the grounds that it is 'religious'. This is a misperception: the workings of interior silence are entirely neutral and become religious only through interpretation. As the philosopher Karmen MacKendrick has noted:

Perhaps mysticism seems so odd or archaic to us because it has no place in a fully confessional [4] culture. Many of us scoff at the ineffable, at the very possibility of ineffability, and assume that whereof one cannot speak, one is simply inadequately educated and articulate—or lying. [5]

A chosen and deliberate blindness and deafness to the dynamic of silence and the ineffable that is a key to understanding many ancient and medieval texts [6]—and art—distorts scholarship for future generations. And, as we shall see, ineffability plays an essential role in the way the everyday human mind works in fact.

Let us first look briefly at the model of the mind and then list the tell-tale signs by which this model becomes apparent in texts. I will be using the phrase the work of silence not only because I want to emphasize the neutrality of the process, but also because I want to include in it not only what the Cloud-author means by the werk, and what Julian of Norwich means by seeking to the beholding, but also convergences with observations that have become apparent in neuro-biology.[7]


[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 91. I came across Buber's stunning exposition of behold vs experience only in the winter of 2009-2010, thanks to a passing reference in Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God, OUP 2007, pp. 167ff. I must have read I and Thou fifty years ago at Stanford, but it had completely gone out of my mind, if at that immature age I understood it at all.

[2] 'The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julia of Norwich' by Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V (Cambridge: 1992), p. 71.

[3] These texts are often dismissed in the name of scientism. In the 1950s, clinical psychologist Ira Progoff translated The Cloud of Unknowing because he felt it would be useful in his work. (The Cloud of Unknowing Introductory Commentary and translation by Ira Progoff, Rider & Co., London 1957). In his introduction Progoff wrote: 'Those who seek to find the objective "mechanisms" of the psyche and who follow, consciously or not, a personal ideology of materialism in one variation or another, feel something alien in such procedures [the development of the faculties of the inner life]. They react against them emotionally, castigate them as "spiritual" and dismiss them as non-scientific. The profound psychological significance of the many and varied disciplines of personality development is thus altogether dismissed. The evidence is dismissed peremptorily, simply by disdaining to discuss the subject. Thus in the name of science, a most unscientific act is committed; and the science of psychology is deprived of a source of information and insight that can contribute greatly to the task of understanding the dynamic processes at work in the inner life of man. . .' (pp. 15-16) He is referring to the work of silence. 'Nonetheless,' he continues, '. . .experimental work has been going on for many, many centuries in the understanding and channeling of the dynamic processes of man's inner life. These. . .have not been "controlled" in the modern sense; nor have they provided quantitative data. But, by a persistent, cumulative gathering and testing of personal experience [the medieval sense of the word], through individual trial and error over the eyars, by reflecting, reconsidering and reattempting the work, a process of experimentation in the disciplined development of the personality has been carried on and a body of knowledge has been accumulated.' (p. 17).

[4] One might add: consumerist.

[5] Immemorial Silence by Karmen MacKendrick, New York, SUNY, 2001, p. 4.

[6] And for certain early modern and modern authors such as Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

[7] There are innumerable articles and books that render current findings accessible to non-scientists, for example, in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, and The New Yorker, as well as in books such as The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Ian MacGilchrist, Yale, 2010; The Psychology of Religious Knowing by F Watts and M Williams, CUP, 1988; Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuro-Science of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rich Hanson and Richard Mendius, New Harbinger 2009; or The Neuro-Biology of Religious Experience by Patrick MacNamara, Greenwood, 2006 (with the caveat that this book has a very crude account of 'religious experience').


Anonymous Henry Burke said...

OK, so when might I see the book published, Silence: A User's Guide? Love the blog -- thanks.

6:13 pm, July 22, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks, Henry. Hope to have the manuscript done by the end of this year, so with any luck the book will be out by the end of next year.

6:48 pm, July 22, 2011  

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