Paul Goodman on the Nine Kinds of Silence
By Maria Popova
“I must learn to keep silent,” young André Gide resolved in his journal. But what kind of silence did he mean, exactly? In the 1972 masterwork Speaking and Language (public library), which became his last published work, the great twentieth-century novelist, poet, playwright, and psychotherapist Paul Goodman (September 9, 1911–August 2, 1972) — dubbed “the most influential man you’ve never heard of” — examines the nine types of silence present in life.
“Paul Goodman’s voice is the real thing,” Susan Sontag would come to write in her beautiful eulogy a week after Goodman’s death in August of the same year. “There has not been such a convincing, genuine, singular voice in our language since D.H. Lawrence.” In his exquisite paean to silence, full of what Sontag calls his “patient meandering explanations of everything,” Goodman’s voice spills into its most singular reverb.
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.
In this beautiful recording from WBUR’s radio program Stylus, British literary critic and poetry scholar Christopher Ricks reads Goodman’s anatomy of silence in his own deeply resounding voice:
What a shame that Speaking and Language is long out of print, but used copies can still be found and are well worth the pursuit. Complement it with this fascinating history of the origin and cultural evolution of silence.
Published January 13, 2015