Alain Corbin has written a detailed history of silence

It is often remarked by certain snobs of silence that the constant noise of our society does danger to the spirit as well as the ear. Well, those who love silence and lament its loss in the ubiquitous piped music in shops, mobile phone conversations on trains and the like, are not all merely snobbish about the vulgarity of popular taste or behaviour. Artists have always known that creativity is born of silence, just as the saints, those artists of the soul, have always regarded silent prayer, alongside the Mass, as man’s supreme activity.

I have been reading a fascinating slim book, A History of Silence by Alain Corbin, Emeritus Professor of History at the Sorbonne and an intellectual as only the French can produce them. That is, his book is packed with quotations from literature, predominantly French but including authors like Thoreau, Rilke and Kierkegaard, showing his familiarity with a subject that would not be an obvious theme for an English scholar of literature.

I had begun to think Corbin’s book was yet another quaint aesthetic excursion into the byways of classic authors, full of insights into their personalities, such as this from Baudelaire: “Annoyed with everyone and annoyed with myself, I long to redeem myself and to bolster my pride a bit in the silence and solitude of the night” or his laconic aside, “In the 20th century, Proust lingered over the quality of the silence of moonlight”, when in the middle of the volume there is an Interlude about Saint Joseph.

Reminding readers that the Gospels record nothing of St Joseph’s words and describing him as “the patriarch of silence”, Corbin defines this great Saint’s silence as “the understanding heart, absolute interiority”, and Nazareth itself as “the great time of silence.” Indeed, he refers to Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who lived in Nazareth before settling in the North African desert, as wanting his own life to reflect that of Nazareth – a life of “humility, poverty, work, obedience, charity, reverence and contemplation.”

Observing accurately that almost all people now look at paintings with “only aesthetic considerations in mind”, he quotes the French poet Paul Claudel, who believed that the silence evident in Dutch paintings, especially Vermeer, “made it possible to apprehend the soul, or at least listen to it.”

Corbin includes the “silence” of God in the face of the evils of the world, recognising that even for devout Christians it can “lead at times to a crisis of faith”, citing the lives of SS Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa as evidence of the anguish they experienced in their dark nights of the soul, when God appeared to withdraw himself entirely.

Given his sensitivity to the Christian religion, and its hope of eternal life, it is a surprise to reach the end of the book and discover that Corbin thinks the “most tragic silence” of all will be the “inexorable destruction of our planet and the tragic silence of its debris”. Perhaps his book is simply intended as a quaint aesthetic excursion after all?