PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

Bearing the Weight of Jane Brox's 'Silence'

Solitary confinement; monastic discipline; gender discrimination: In Silence, Jane Brox explores how our circumstances shape our ideals, showing how authority muffles her not so quiet subject.

Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives
Jane Brox

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Jan 2019

Other

"Shhh, silence please."

Go ahead: What's your first reaction? Do you picture yourself inside a library negotiating cell phone etiquette with a clerk? Who, me? What did I do wrong? Or, maybe you're at a meditation center, a loosely robed leader ushering you through two familiar steps: (Breathe in.) Find your inner peace. (Breathe out.) Let the world go.

In Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox clarifies why her subject runs deeper than the mere absence of sound. Whether silence is experienced as a reprimand or invitation differs depending upon context and intention. Throughout her lyrical scholarly work, Brox explores how the meaning of silence is shaped by circumstances, contrasting two primary perspectives: that of prison inmates with monastic monks.

Silence begins with a visit that the author takes to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. Surrounded by a cold November light, Brox saw "the detritus of what had once been a dream of order" still standing after its construction in 1829. Envisioned by Founding Father Benjamin Rush, the prison advanced ideas central to the American Enlightenment. As an intellectual and social reformer, Rush supported causes including the abolition of slavery, improved education for women, and a more progressive penal system. Designed according to the spirit of its time, Eastern State Pen combined society's needs for justice and punishment with the goal of reforming the souls of its offenders.

Yet behind Eastern State Penitentiary's granite façade and massive double entrance doors—the pair of which weigh several tons—lies a more complicated story. The intake of new prisoners might have resembled a scene from an abduction. After being stripped of their civilian identities—street clothes removed; hair cut short—inmates were escorted to their cells with a hood over their heads, a practice meant to foster isolation.

Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Within solitary confinement, silence lingered as a reminder of an unfaltering penal system. The controlled environment aided in surveillance, allowing the guards to hear whispering among the inmates. Yet acts of resistance voices proved difficult to contain—something subdued only by gagging. Hoping to catch inmates talking, patrolling guards muffled their footfall by wearing socks over their shoes. But the human spirit remains resourceful. Inmates developed discrete ways of communicating through the plumbing or heating vents. Some even trained pets, passing rats or mice carrying messages back and forth through pipes in the cell walls.

For those confined in a cell the size of a modern-day parking space, time became a shapeless element. Inmates gauged the day's passing by a slot in the cell door which slid open at meal time. Elsewhere, in Maine State Prison at Thomaston, the cells were dug underground; a sliver of light from a small overhead window was a blessing for a prisoner, and the only reminder of the outside world.

Unlike the view inside a subterranean cell, Quakers in 19th century England basked in a different type of light. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism in England, instructed his followers to "stand still in the Light"; that is, an illumination sourced not from the sun but from divinity. Waiting patiently for a divine voice in their meetinghouses to speak to them, the act of listening, for Fox's congregation, became a loving act of worship. As Quaker theologian Caroline Stephen stated, the goal of their spiritual devotion was "a resolute fixing of the heart upon that which is unchangeable and eternal." The Light of God, they believed, takes only a silent heart to receive it.

Monastic monks have also experienced silence as a devout calling. Though hardly correctional facilities, monasteries embody another type of order. A monk's lifestyle is willfully austere and their days are highly regimented. The ascetic silence that they abide by becomes a symbolic threshold, which one enters and exits purposefully. As Brox explains, "both silence and the breaking of it are considered sacred." The pervasive quietude of monastic life is punctuated by canonical hours of prayer; and bells serve as clocks, their periodic ringing summoning the congregation to the next devotional event. Every ritual and routine offer an opportunity for union with God.

Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by Thomas from Philadelphia Area, USA - Cell Block 7 (CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia)

For both Quaker congregations and monastic communities, God's presence took an ephemeral form. Historian Emma Hornby describes the etymology of the word 'spirit' within Judeo-Christian heritage, "Both the Hebrew and Greek words for 'spirit' also mean 'breath' or 'wind' and, in Christian teaching, the Holy Spirit is said to have come to the disciples first as a 'wind.'" In devotion to God's ever-present Spirit, monasteries cultivated a state of spiritual vigilance. Some monks used a specialized sign language to request more food during meal times. Encouraging a selfless language, adjectives declaring types of relationship—possession, parents, or property—were forbidden from use.

Outside of the cells of prisoners and monks, other social groups have suffered a different forbiddance. Women throughout history have been subjected to silence as a tool of suppression. Under 16th century common law in the English Midlands, a woman's legal status was suspended during her marriage. Furthermore, for the then social offenses of bearing a bastard child or for gossiping, women could be severely punished, their tongues fastened with a cleft stick or a scold's bridle!

Even spiritual communities have made dogmatic discriminations based upon gender. Some nunneries were geographically separated from monasteries by rivers; and when nuns and monks shared the same space, women were symbolically separated from their male counterparts by metal grilles during Mass. Furthermore, nunneries' equal access to resources, such as reliable sources of water, might be disregarded by the Church.

Section of the first Monestary. Santuario di Greccio. (By Chris Light - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia)

Trappist monk Thomas Merton understood the limitations of authority. When faith is separated from a universal expression of love, he warned that solitude risks turning from a virtuous lifestyle into an intolerable luxury. During an era of civil unrest in the 1960s, the Catholic Church forbid Merton to write about secular subjects such as war and civil rights. After being censured by his own monastic community, Morton questioned the purpose of a vow of obedience which doesn't allow for "the love of His [God's] truth and of our neighbor." Believing that a monk is responsible for rectifying his relationship with the world, Merton's personal convictions led him to break his vow to the Church. Merton writes boldly about this re-evaluation, "the monk is somebody who says in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent." Despite its service to divinity, the Church, as Merton addresses, is not immune to human limitations.

The difference between a prison and a monastery cannot be reduced to a two-ton gate or a special sign language. Twelfth-century abbot and theologian William of St. Thierry understood "how one's state of mind, one's heart, one's beliefs, determine whether solitude and silence engender spiritual growth or despair." While prisons and monasteries both support self-transformation, one reconciles self with society through punishment and rehabilitation, the other unites self with divinity for purpose of salvation. Either condition can lead to transcendence or succumbing to depravity.

Under Brox's keen work, one of the least understood elements of our lives proves to be an ambiguous subject. As she reminds us, "It [silence] presents the opportunity for a true reckoning with the self, with external obligation, and with power." In the United States of America of the 21st century, there are currently up to 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement at any one time. And beyond the prison walls, some law-abiding citizens across the world continue to experience the weight of silence as suppression. The danger is now clearer, though no less dire: Solitude, without connection to the world, can lapse into isolation; silence, without freedom, into muteness. And either, when given the circumstances, can collapse into an assault on humanity.

So, what does silence mean? Depends upon what side of the locked door, sworn vow, or social hierarchy we find ourselves on.

"Shhh, silence please."

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.