With most of the planet sheltering in place – thinking on how unrewarding saving the world feels – many of us are confronting silence in unusually large doses. I’m not a talkative person by any means – but even still, I find the amount of quiet time I currently have to be as overwhelming as my heroic couch-potatoing is underwhelming. In a normal week, if you can remember those, peace and quiet is most often a refuge I run to when I need to reset. Yet, with an indefinite timeline ahead and generally poor weather keeping me cooped up inside – peace and quiet is daily becoming less and less peaceful. Sometimes, it feels like an all out war.
I’m sensitive to noise. When somebody clicks their pen for too long, yells for no reason, or if nearby music is too loud, I am viscerally uncomfortable. In only a few weeks of responsibly social distancing, I am coming to learn that overdosing on silence feels like a combination of all three, with a side of old dug memories you never wanted to revisit. What I also found however, as an antidote to the deafening silence, is that there are numerous beautiful explanations of the varying kinds of silence – out there in the litero-sphere – each with a new perspective on the beauty of quiet, the fear of isolation, or the myriad ways to cope with situations where the silence seems to draw on endlessly. As I mentioned here before, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is the source of nearly all my book recommendations – and her recent pieces have been rapid firing insightful quotes about silence, solitude and all things quarantine. One that caught my eye was from Paul Goodman, in his book Speaking and Language, where he defines the 9 types of silence:
Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
Reading through these – and keeping them top of mind as I go about my day – it’s easy to see that there are wonderful, less recognizable sides to silence I am not always present enough to appreciate. Goodman’s quote was the first I ever heard of him – and it, if only slightly, moved me enough to be more mindful and thankful for the comfortable, though unfamiliar position I’m in. So I decided to do some digging and learn more about his life.
Goodman died in ‘72 and since then has somewhat fallen into academic obscurity. From everything I read, he was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, with a breadth of artistic and literary scope that the New York Public Library sorted into 21 different categories ranging from poetry to urban planning. (source). He noted throughout his life that professionals from each field that his work touched thought him overstretched, not spending his time mastering his other work (an all too common theme in today’s world “Stick to___” “Shut up and dribble”). Out of an archived obituary from the New York Times in ‘73, we get a glimpse into the depth of Goodman’s character.
Goodman’s foremost work was social criticism. Often categorized as an anarchist, Goodman was essentially opposed to any form of objectivity – pinning him diametrically opposed to institutions: government, schools, prisons, religions, etc. His strongest belief was in the power of human agency – and, viewing society as a human-made institution, he felt that we as a community had the power to change it in a way that would better serve us all. From the same piece in the NYT, “Goodman’s writing is touching because this faith in human possibility had always been manifest its very texture. The writing is the faith because it is a kind of work—not the communication of a message, a means to an end, but a way of being in the world, an action.” Reading some of the commentary on Goodman’s life has scratched the same itch that my very first sociology class did, the day I dropped my 4 other courses and dove head first into upper-level major requirements that I was wholly unprepared for my freshman year of college. By then, the easy classes were all full: hence how my burning passion for knowledge lost me a $100 bet with my mother about my freshman year GPA. A payment she gladly accepted in cash.
One of the first things you learn, as you likely remember if you were lucky enough to take a Soc course, (or if it was forced upon you as schools often do with some of the lesser sciences; chemistry, physics, or the spectacularly overrated mathematics) is how to embrace what C. Wright Mills deemed The Sociological Imagination, or the ability to step out of your subjective, part-of-a-society shoes and view the institutions around you as an outsider looking in. As the NYT article noted, “[Goodman] trained himself to live as an outsider looking in.” This mindset is at the core of any social theorist’s or philosopher’s curiosity. It isn’t until you step back and remember the absurdity of it all (whatever it may be) that you start to question – and questioning is the slight breeze that given enough room to blow, can create waves, move mountains, make change. Goodman’s life work spanned far and wide and his aim wasn’t to pursue fame or wealth, but to affect change: in the minds of readers, the youth of his time, and maybe down the road, a curious, quarantined and overfed QuotationMark.