Silent night?

Silent night?

So far this year I had avoided having a head full of Christmas carols, but then the night before Christmas one of them percolated through to conscious attention. This was ‘Silent night’. Rattling around in the mind, it sparked off a train of thought about the different kinds of silence we encounter and make sense of. There is…

Silence about things that are known but unspoken or unwritten or avoided. An example is politician Jan Smuts writing to his British farming friend May Hobbs about things being done but without mentioning the ‘Other’ people who do them. No labour required!

What is silenced, things that are deliberately prevented, or removed, from being expressed. The account written by George Southey, a settler guide working for Sir Harry Smith during one of the frontier wars, about the circumstances in which he shot and killed Xhosa leader Hintsa is a notorious example. It had to be done, he asked for it!

Things that are mute, unable to be expressed, perhaps because there is not the terminology to do so. An example is the silent night hymn itself, with the silence portending wonders. A more quotidian South African example involves the letters between David Forbes and Kate Forbes when he was away, in which awkward phrases stand for emotion deeply felt but expressed in muted ways. Let’s get on with it!

Things that are ‘air we breathe’ and are not said, written or shown because so fundamental. An example concerns the Voss family letters, much of which remain mysterious because the contents are opaque. The letter-writers know who all the people with the same personal name are and can differentiate them, but present-day readers cannot. You know!

Things expressed but slantwise (Emily Dickinson’s term). An example is the way that Eastern Cape farmer Mark Elliot Pringle in his 1960s and 70s diaries lists ‘natural’ disasters and horrors that involved black people and which act as a proxy for the terrible things happening to them because of apartheid. It’s all coming to pass!

Speaking silences: Where silence prevails, but with this speaking louder than words would have done, like the minutes of silence observed on commemorative occasions. An example involving letters concerns the way that Mary Moffat writes and writes of the multitude of domestic and related tasks that she is involved in, which are much ‘louder’ than her very few comments saying that such things drowned out her missionary work. She has been doing this and that and that and this and this and that and that and that and this and that!

In thinking about such things, distinguishing between what is written or oral on the one hand and what is visual on the other is not helpful. Visual representations of all kinds can represent these silences and it is not the case that the visual is always loud or obvious in how it represents such things, for the visual can silence, make mute, convey the quotidian, express slantways, speak silence, as much as what is verbalised or written.

Last updated: 26 December 2019


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