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If silence is so golden, why flee it?

04 November 2016

Stephen Brown hears the noise interrupted

Lonely Tree: a solitary tree sits in the midst of a cornfield in Peosta, Iowa. A still from In Pursuit of Silence

Lonely Tree: a solitary tree sits in the midst of a cornfield in Peosta, Iowa. A still from In Pursuit of Silence

IT IS rare to spot people who are long dead being thanked in a film’s end credits. Patrick Shen’s documentary In Pursuit Of Silence (Cert. PG) acknowledges the insights into mysticism of Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1328) and into solitude of David Henry Thoreau (1817-62), among countless other witnesses. We meet Greg Hindy, who has made a year-long vow of silence as he walks across America. He holds up a notebook stating the importance of getting away from noise — strangely, because this is done as he travels along a busy highway rather than more tranquil routes.

The film expands Hindy’s understanding of silence. It isn’t the absence of noise but space in which to notice what we may be ignoring. To demonstrate, John Cage’s composition 4' 33" is introduced. Listeners, in the absence of actual music, experience the other sounds of a concert hall.

The film reminds its audience that we frequently give too little time to stopping and staring at the world around us. So, like many other films, In Pursuit Of Silence forces us to do so. Truly beautiful, if somewhat clichéd, images of trees suffused with sunshine, crops rustling, and falling rain are presented to us.

But we also see examples of T. S. Eliot’s still centres in a turning world: hundreds of dealers and brokers observing Remembrance Day’s two-minute silence at Lloyds, London, is a stand-out moment in the film. Even the visit to Burp Castle in New York, a whispering-only bar, bristles with unspoken possibilities.

The central tenet is that silence provides bountiful gifts of well-being. Health statistics are cited. Contemplation leads to lower stress levels, thus enhancing our immune systems and reducing the occurrence of serious illnesses. Of course, we should know this already, but practising it is another thing.

We are shown Trappist monks using words only when necessary. Their short appearances sharply contrast with Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (Arts, 19 January 2007), where they are given 162 minutes’ screen time. It is because the new film works on a larger canvas. Zen Buddhists speak of learning to experience silence in our bodies. George Prochnik, whose book gives the film its title, speaks of silence as being an interruption: those moments when the wind dies down or motion stops. “Sounds are merely bubbles on the surface of silence.”

For whatever reason, references to the current wave of interest in mindfulness remain implicit. My guess is that Shen is keener to show how ancient and necessary the pursuit of silence is, whether it be at Japanese tea ceremonies or on Alaskan wastes. But when strife-ridden noises are hushed, do we hear the angels sing? Perhaps; but this may be when our inner demons are terrifyingly exposed. This film is a good deal stronger on the pleasures of silence than it is on the dark night of the soul, or on why people invest so much energy in keeping quietness at bay.

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