Amid great historical moments we find ourselves abruptly situated and filled with an urge to record the momentous moments. We should be careful not to overlook the virtue of doing nothing, and the value of silence while surrounded by the cacophony of the Covid-19 crisis.
Cities are deserted. Flight-paths are quiet. The roads are virtually empty. One of the new experiences that the global lockdown has given us is greater silence or, more accurately, a greater range of silences. Now, you might think of silence as a cheap commodity. Virtually everyone can access it and there’s an inexhaustible supply of the stuff. After all, isn’t silence just what is left when there’s nothing more interesting going on? But, as I’ve learned since I began writing a literary history of silence in 2018, there are rich intellectual traditions informing the act of not saying anything. Certain silences have enormous significance, and two of them are of particular relevance to our strange new lives in the lockdown: the silence that comes from living in momentous times and the silence of not doing very much at all.
The day the lockdown began in the UK, my husband and I started a plague journal, named in honour of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year of 1722. Friends began to blog. On and off social media, there seems to be a rush of what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1995 called ‘archive fever’—we are preparing in advance for a time when we will look back on all this, and the urge to record what it feels like to live in this peculiar period is palpable.
There is a passage in Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941), in which a character similarly tries to capture the very essence of the present moment. Just before the Second World War, a historical pageant is being put on in an English village. The pageant is written and directed by Miss La Trobe, an eccentric, spiky character. Having progressed through the Elizabethan and Victorian ages, the spectacle suddenly comes to a halt. There is nothing and no one on-stage. The audience-members look at the programme to see what is meant to be happening and find it is ‘The present time. Ourselves.’ Miss La Trobe, Woolf tells us, had wanted to ‘douche them, with present-time reality’ by simply stopping everything to make the audience-members notice themselves. But she senses that her experiment is failing. ‘Panic seized her. Blood seemed to pour from her shoes.’ For a moment, the silence is glaring, discomfiting, unbearable. To live absolutely in the present moment is not to know how to react or how to go forward.
The Coronavirus pandemic is not a war but today we too have abruptly been ‘situated’. What should we say?
While some people are avidly blogging, tweeting and instagramming right now, others are lost for words. Historicity has suddenly come upon us. In her autobiography, La force de l’age (Force of Circumstance) (1960), the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir confessed that in her student days ‘public affairs bored us; but we counted on events unfolding according to our wishes without us having to involve ourselves in them’. The Second World War—the Nazi Occupation and the Resistance—changed all that. ‘All at once we felt ourselves abruptly situated,’ wrote her lover, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1948 essay Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (What is Literature?). The Coronavirus pandemic is not a war but today we too have abruptly been ‘situated’. What should we say? How can we convey to future generations what it feels like?
In Between the Acts, Miss La Trobe is saved by the weather. Rain pours down ‘like all the people in the world weeping’, and when the weeping is over, the audience-members settle down and life continues again. Will we require a similar cathartic event of mass sorrow before ‘normal’ life can resume in our own time?
If the thought of living in an epoch-defining moment renders us speechless, we are simultaneously experiencing a very different kind of silence in the lockdown. For many people, the time is one of unaccustomed inactivity—another source of disorientation. The eighteenth-century nature poet and hymn-writer William Cowper knew the feeling well. After several suicide attempts, Cowper moved from noisy London to the countryside, finding solace in the quiet Buckinghamshire village of Olney. In the summerhouse at Orchard Side, he thought and wrote in what he described as ‘a retreat as silent as retirement can make it’. In his great poem, The Task (1785), Cowper explores (among many other things) the value of living a quiet life and not doing very much.
Though many people would call his existence idle, Cowper reflects in The Task, his ease is in fact ‘laborious’. Whoever ‘attends to his interior self’, whoever ‘has a heart and keeps it’, whoever ‘has a mind / That hungers and supplies it’: all such people are discharging a ‘silent task’. It might seem that noise and turbulence are signs of importance but, in fact, it is in ‘still water’ that pearls of wisdom are to be found.
For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.
Prizing a life of not doing very much has an ancient intellectual lineage. In an episode in St. Luke’s Gospel (10.38-42), Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, in Bethany. Martha busies herself with preparations for the important visitor, but Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. It is Mary’s conduct—the vita contemplativa or contemplative life—which Jesus praises, rather than Martha’s vita activa or active life.
The Martha / Mary story is drawn on in a number of medieval English works to illustrate the competing claims of two ways of living. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing, for example, characterizes Mary’s part as spiritual ‘work’. Centuries later, the poet John Milton arrives at the same conclusion in his sonnet ‘When I consider how my life is spent’ (1673). Having become blind and so unable to read or write, he wonders how he can possibly be of service to God. Eventually he realizes that ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.
The novelist George Eliot also explores the worth of doing little in her teeming novel about provincial society, Middlemarch (1871-2). The heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is ardent for greatness, hoping to make a large contribution to the world. Her role model is St. Teresa of Avila, who achieved nothing less than reforming a religious order. But events mean that Dorothea’s ambitions are denied her and the only impact she has is local and humble. Eliot concludes the novel with these moving lines:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
It is incongruous to discover the virtue of not doing very much at a time of great historical moment. But the quiet life has some undoubted benefits.
At the present moment, we are finding out, if we didn’t know already, who the truly key workers really are: nurses and doctors, refuse collectors and supermarket workers, cleaners and drivers. The list doesn’t include professors of literature. But the author of the Ancrene Wisse, Cowper, Milton and Eliot remind us not to write off small contributions. Staying quietly at home in the current circumstances literally does save lives.
It is incongruous to discover the virtue of not doing very much at a time of great historical moment. But the quiet life has some undoubted benefits. Early in the lockdown, the British pianist Stephen Hough posted some wise words on Twitter. ‘It’s great to livestream from your living room,’ he wrote; ‘it’s also fine not to livestream from your living room.’ The author of the Ancrene Wisse, Milton, Cowper and Eliot would entirely agree.