For a while now The Great Stoppage had been replaced by the Slow Reawakening. Life had visibly and audibly resumed something akin to its habitual rhythms. John Delacroix experienced this as a kind of loss and not, as apparently he was supposed to, as a definite gain, a victory even.
During the stoppage he had discovered a new thing. Two new things in fact. The second, rather paradoxically, being that the first was not only the revelation of a phenomenon which he had not previously been aware of, but that it was also the rediscovery of something which he had once known long ago. (‘And far away’ he couldn’t stop himself from adding.)
John lived alone in a small flat in the centre of a smallish university city. Ill health had driven him into an early retirement so he had a lot of time on his hands to experience the surging rhythms of the commuters and shoppers and workers and students as they whirled around the medieval heart of the old town. And then from one day to the next everything had suddenly stopped. No shops, no students, no traffic, no tourists. Nothing. The crowds which he had so often, in an irritated sort of way, tried to avoid had become themselves a void.
“No sane well balanced adult,” he had written in his blog a few weeks later, “ever listens to silence. We cannot help hearing it from time to time but why on earth would we want to listen to it? But, of course, only those who have listened to it can even ask such a question, because until you have done it how can you conceive of the possibility of doing it? Listening to silence appears to be a contradiction in terms.”
As an habitual early riser John had begun to experience the absence of noise, as it were, forcing itself into the Delacroix ear. Normally he pottered around for a few hours before breakfast reading or blogging or expressing outrage about something on Twitter to the background of a slowly rising crescendo of sounds- cars streaming by, doors banging shut, ‘planes flying overhead, young people excitedly chattering, the clack-clack of high heels- sounds which had abruptly disappeared not only from his morning background but from his 24/7 background too.
Then, surprisingly, after a while absence became presence. There were commentators and social media influencers who talked (or should that be ‘twittered’?) about the joys of hearing ever-louder birdsong and other signs of a resurgent nature. John certainly shared that experience, but he also heard, and began to listen to, the silence as something which was alive and real and, to him at least, friendly.
“It seems natural,” he wrote, “to use words like ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ when talking about silence as if it were a feature of the soundscape, but,” his fingers hesitated over the keyboard for a few seconds. Was what he was about to write so odd that even the five people in the world who faithfully read his blog would find it off-putting (‘it would have been six people’ he reflected sadly, ‘if mum was still alive.’) Remembering his mother somehow gave him the courage to plunge recklessly ahead with his strange thought, “once you have not only found the hidden entrance but actually gone through it you learn that silence is a landscape you wholly inhabit rather than a soundscape which affects only one of your senses.”
This insight had come upon John not with the blinding flash that is commonly supposed to accompany such things but as a slow awakening. Or, more exactly, as the gradual converging of two paths which had been comfortably running side by side for some weeks. The more that he had listened to (or inhabited) the silence the more he had been reminiscing about his early schooldays. At first he had thought these two things to be unrelated, one was certainly caused by the Great Stoppage and the other was, he presumed, simply the natural consequence of him growing older. Eventually it occurred to him, though, that the childhood memories which his subconscious was selecting and sending forward into his consciousness all had something in common; many of the adults around him had called him ‘dreamy’ or, if they were teachers, ‘inattentive,’ and the episodes he was remembering fitted perfectly into that category. They were times when his mind had been wandering free in a place which was not precisely the same as the one his little body had been travelling through.
For many decades now John Delacroix had thought little and spoken less about the five central years of his childhood, between the ages of 7 and 12. They had been spent in South Africa during the Apartheid years of the 1970’s where ‘white privilege’ wasn’t an argued-about theoretical construct but a legally embodied reality. That he had benefited from it in all innocence was true but did the innocence cancel out the benefit? He could never be sure and he highly doubted that the culture warriors of the early 21st century would err on the side of kindness if they ever felt the need to judge him. So when the memories started creeping back they had the lethargy and incompleteness of old half disassembled tools that had been kept in the attic long after their active days had ceased. They were enough, though, to stimulate John into checking out Google Street View. It turned out that the passage of nearhand fifty years and a major social revolution had affected the built environment and even the street names less than he might have supposed and this opened a floodgate through which memories, consequential and inconsequential, poured through, like that time when the little stream near the bottom of his family’s garden, in which he sometimes paddled ankle deep, turned into a raging, foaming torrent during the rainy season of 1974.
Two particular images were frequent visitors to John’s mind. One being a process the other an event. The process was his daily walk to school. There was a fairly straightforward route from the family home which John’s older brother, being untroubled by a supremely impractical imagination, always took. The younger Delacroix, however, preferred to make his journey into an adventure and took a more winding zig-zaggy angle of approach. This involved going, at one point, off-road and following an uphill path that wove a sinuous pattern round one of the many Dutch Reformed churches in the area. Once back on solid tarmac he got as many left and right turns in as he could during the short ten minutes or so between the kerk and the school.
“The final leg,” he wrote, “was a short stretch of suburban road which, though it had small domestic houses all along it, always felt to me like a secret path because I never saw any other children on it. From time to time, of course, I saw grown ups but they didn’t really count.” What most enchanted his memories of that last section along Curlew St. was that at its end, beyond the school playing fields he could see, red bricked in the red African morning sun, the buildings that made up Alfred Maitland Primary School in Randburg.
The power to enchant lay not in the prosaic bricks and mortar of a building designed for use and not for beauty. There is an ancient myth about a princess who early one morning went down to the river for a drink. Looking up she suddenly saw, partially shrouded by mists and partially dazzling in the light of the new dawn, a great, multi-roomed, gorgeously built palace. And she knew immediately that this was the place where she would fully enter into her royalty and become queen. For the rest of her life she never saw that palace again, but she neither did she forget it, and all of that life was dedicated to the journey towards the consummation of her queenship which she knew would take place there, in the palace over the water. Not as a child and not as an adult had John (often) thought of himself as a princess, but the thing that Alfred Maitland represented to him was a palace of the mind. It was not only the place where he went to learn things but also where he was to learn how to learn, and how to turn those mental states that made adults call him dreamy into real objects in the physical world. To John Delacroix the blogger that memory stood as a symbol for his pilgrimage through life, always journeying towards that concealed-in-red-brick palace where the things of Mind, with a capital M, reigned supremely and exclusively.
The event was a more ambiguous thing. One day he and the girls from next door, Aimee and Alexandria, were out playing together on a piece of scrubland next to the crossroads at the bottom of the hill where they lived. John was walking behind the girls along the lowest level of a little fold in the land. Something made him turn his eyes to the right just as he came level with what the British would call a small tunnel and what people in more tropical countries know to be a storm culvert.
“Anyway, whatever you want to call it,” John wrote, “at its end I saw, as if through a telescope, a little stream flowing between lush looking grass and trees, from one of which hung suspended a swing. Although I had often been that way before it wasn’t something I had previously noticed. Just as I was about to suggest going through the tunnel to the other end one of the girls, Aimee I think, said, ‘I’m really, really, really thirsty. Lets go to the cafe for a Fanta.’ At that time nothing satisfied thirsty young South Africans half as much as sweet fizzy orange drinks and the cafe was only a couple of minutes away being handily situated at the actual cross of the crossroads. I wasn’t especially thirsty myself but I didn’t think that there was any urgency to going through the culvert either so, not for the first or the last time, I decided to go along to get along.”
Needless to say although he continued to live in the same place for another year or so before his parents moved to another part of Johannesburg, and although he often went down to the crossroads scrubland, never again did he find that culvert or see that little stream or swing on that tree suspended swing. This, at the time, didn’t particularly surprise him, the notion that reality was an unchangeable thing did not hold him as firmly as it did once he had grown up. To 9 year old John Delacroix the appearance and disappearance of parts of the local landscape were something he took in his stride. Why, after all, should reality be stable?
Some 10 or 15 years later John read a story by H.G. Wells called ‘The Door in the Wall.’ It immediately seemed very familiar to him. Essentially it was his story except that in this case the culvert had been a green door and that the little boy did go through it. Having seen what was on the other side Lionel Wallace, which was the boy’s name, always wanted to go back. From time to time later in life he encountered the door again but always when the rush of some apparently important business of the day stopped him from going through it. He came to bitterly regret not taking advantage of these opportunities and formed the resolution that the next time he saw the door, whatever else was happening in his life he would go through it. For the narrator of Well’s story it was obvious that to go through the door was also, and in the exact same moment, to die but for Lionel Wallace that was not an important consideration provided he could go through to the other side.
“What do these newly recovered memories from more than 45 years ago have to do with inhabiting (or listening to) silence in the second decade of the 21st century?” John asked his blog readers, “You probably think that that is a rhetorical question, but, as of this moment, although I sort of, kind of, intuit an answer I’m not at all sure that I could situate that answer within a logical, rational explanatory framework.” His experience during the Great Stoppage was able in some ways to replicate the state of mind which he had had during his African childhood because the intensity of his internal mental life as a boy, combined with the physical space he had in which to roam freely and the lack of electronic gadgets, excluded from his consideration many of those sounds and activities which the Great Stoppage so many decades later had brought to a grinding halt in the outside world.
To put it another way, John’s boyhood mind had a youthful capacity to focus wholly on whatever he wanted it to, and mostly that was things of the imagination or abstractions, and this had the necessary but unintended consequence of tuning-out virtually everything upon which he was not focussing. As he got older he lost that special power, but when the Great Stoppage came the external environment had obligingly replicated in the world what his mind had once been able to impose on it, namely an inability to distract him from whatever he chose to point his intellect at.
“The common denominator here,” thought John reflectively, “is mind. Perhaps silence is a property that adheres not to the world of things but to the world of thought. That is, humans create silence rather than encountering it. Or, to put it another way, silence does not exist for any creature on earth save humans because silence is a conceptualisation rather than an object. Which all sounds rather Zen.” Still, for all that, to be aware of silence requires not only the presence of silence but also that of awareness and without the awareness how could there be silence? Silence is not simply a thing-in-itself it is also a thing-which-is-experienced and that presupposes an experiencer who can exist independently of the silence, whereas silence cannot exist independently of an experiencer.
Normal people lose patience with this sort of reasoning because it seems to be common sense that if a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it then it will make a noise, likewise if it doesn’t fall it will be silent. And, yes of course these things are true, but also misleading. The thing we call noise and the thing we call silence exist in the thing we call nature but if there is no one to experience them as clear phenomena conceptually different from their surroundings in what sense do they exist? They are forms without content, the content is what humans give to them after they have developed it in their minds.
“Enough with the buddhism-lite,” thought John with some irritation. Like all the Delacroix he was, at least nominally, a Catholic. Which reminded him. He had a vague feeling that somewhere in his Apologia St John Henry Newman had written something relevant. Yes! Here it was-
“….my imagination ran on unknown influences, on magical powers, and talismans. I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel, and all this world a deception, my fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me, and deceiving me from the semblance of a material world”
The boyish John Henry like the boyish John Delacroix had had the sense that his waking hours were spent in a world where one always visible reality was superimposed upon another, occasionally and imperfectly glimpsed, reality that was every bit as real as that ‘normal’ one which was all that the grown ups ever talked about. And whereas the workaday reality was impersonal and therefore indifferent to John the other reality resembled a realm inhabited by persons, and one specific Person in particular, who very much did care for him. As King Solomon had sung in his mystical Song-
My beloved is like a roe, or a young hart.
Behold he standeth behind our wall, looking through the windows,
Looking through the lattices.
Behold my beloved speaketh to me:
Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one,
Sometimes that other realm was unseen, ‘behind our wall’ and sometimes it was partly seen and partly obscured by the lattice, but the imperative call to come away was always there to be heard for one who listened. And that call was also the silence that one could or should inhabit.
By the generosity of the authorities the Great Stoppage was relaxed enough to permit people to go out for a daily period of exercise. During one such excursion, early on a Spring Sunday morning, John had experienced, or so he thought, an inbreaking of the other realm. He toiled up Quaker Hill then rambled (slightly illegally) through the empty grounds of the abandoned University. The only living creatures he saw were some gaily coloured butterflies; the only ones which he could hear were those elusive birds whose liquid song refreshed the spirit. But it came upon him that he was not alone, there were Principalities and Powers, Newman’s angels perhaps, around him, the fluttering of whose wings he could all but hear. He was reminded of Wordsworth above Tintern Abbey,
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
John was certainly alone in the empty University grounds, but he was at the same time not alone and not just on the campus. He was inhabiting silence, silence was inhabiting him. And this was a function of listening in an undistracted way.
When 9 year old John had experienced no surprise that storm culverts could appear and disappear perhaps it was because his perception of what was real was more and not less accurate than that of the fiftysomething John who expected things to stay where they were put. The material universe was only a stable place to those who thought of it as stable. Those who engaged in lifelong journeys towards palaces of the Mind, or who noticed concealed entrances into otherwheres did not, maybe, dwell in that kind of cosmos.
“The idea that silence is a product chiefly of the human mind rather than of things external to it; and the idea that there are parallel realms to this material one, access to which is through the door of such a silence, are not necessarily contradictory ones,” John wrote to his blog readers (in relation to whom the words ‘increasingly bemused’ sprung unbidden to John’s mind.) “We can see how they might be reconciled in the tenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.”
To the Hindus Sri Krishna is, in the original sense of the word, an avatar of the Supreme Godhead. In the Gita, like Wordsworth, he lists a number of things in which he is deeply interfused. “Of prayers,” he says, “ I am the prayer of silence.” Which means that although not all prayer is silence, prayer in its superlative form is precisely silence; and although not all silence is prayer, silence in its superlative form is precisely prayer. To think of two different things as the same thing is a feat which is easier for children, at least for some children, to perform than it is for adults. Always provided that these children possess the special powers of a ruthless focus, which excludes the unnecessary, and an imagination which can clothe the necessary in apprehensible forms.
To children, certainly to young John Delacroix in the Transvaal of the 1970’s, the diversity of the world is an exciting thing to explore through play, but this does not mean that they are without a sense that underlying the many things there is one thing. There is nothing odd to a dreamy child in conceiving of the world, and himself or herself within it, as itself the product of a dreamer, from whom it comes and to whom it shall return. And within the silence of the Great Stoppage, once he surrendered to it and began to inhabit it, the adult John Delacroix too began to see that the many things which had distracted him were just that, distractions. Which implied that there was something from which they distracted him. And that something was singular not plural (though present in plurality), universal not particular (though present in particularity) and it was not only a worthy object of his attention but possibly the only reason why he possessed attention at all.
“Whether there is a Great Stoppage or not, whether you are the kind of person who prays or not,” John was well aware that most of his readers fell into the ‘not’ category so far as his second ‘whether’ was concerned, “in those odd, unintended moments when we experience undistracted silence is it not often the case that we are enfolded within a sensation of nostalgia? A nostalgia for a time we never experienced, a place we have never visited, a sort of generic unfocused but nonetheless real and poignant nostalgia.”
“It is a sense of incompleteness. Until we know for what, or for whom, it is that we feel nostalgic. And until we close the circle by encountering or entering into the particular reality which produces that feeling then we cannot be complete, we cannot finish our journey. It is in silence that we first fully recognise this nostalgia, though its dimly felt presence is a restless accompaniment to all our other conscious and unconscious states. Probably then it is only in silence also that we shall resolve that feeling of incompleteness after patiently waiting or listening or inhabiting that space we finally and fully encounter the unity present but hidden beneath the diversity.”
“And that,” thought John Delacroix, “is about as far as I can go. Thanks to the Great Stoppage I have discovered a question that needs answering and a possible way of answering it. The rest is silence.”
He paused and reflected for a moment then pressed the big green PUBLISH button on his blogging app. “It is accomplished,” he thought. When he sat back he saw without seeing the little picture he had long ago hung on the wall. Smiling down on him from it was an image of the Virgin Mary.
thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.
My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.
The picture is from the blog Musings of a Curious Individual