In his “Palabra y silencio,” Ramón Xirau (b. 1924) asks as to the meaning of silence. His answer is that silence is the fundamental pre-condition of all speech. As he puts it: “We can only speak if before, after, and during the process of our speaking we are inhabited by silence” (144). The silence that he has in mind is foundational, or, even, constitutive. It is not, he says, the silence of “pauses,” which are themselves founded on a primordial silence, on a silence that demands the pauses; it is not, moreover, the silence of “being quiet,” which depends more on some psychological factors, or on following rules or conforming to demands, than on anything more significant; it is not, finally, the silence of skepticism, the withholding of judgment, which depends more on a respect for the truth than on a respect for silence itself. This fundamental silence is thus not:
- silence as pause
- silence as quiet
- silence as ataraxia
So what is it? For Xirau, the essence of silence can be found in the words the constitute our language, that make possible our communication, and the way we relate to the world and with one another:
“The only silence that gives words sense and that, at the same time, acquires sense thanks to the words and in the words, is that silence that is born with the Word itself. Essential silence is that which is in the Word as in its home, as its dwelling; it is the silence that expresses: the silence that…constitutes our essential speech” (146).
Xirau’s version of silence has the character of the Levinasian il y a, of the silence of interstellar space, of origins, or, we could say, the silence of an omnipresent God. It is a silence about which, paradoxically, we must remain silent because to speak it or about it is to obscure it, to fall victim to, as Xirau says, the “noise that hides” (151). It is the silence, ultimately, of the mystical experience.
“The mystical experience…[is] unsayable precisely because it refers to hidden that offers itself, to the infinite that gives itself” (151).
But, then, what does it mean to remain silent? In other words, what is the objective of this rule, of this imperative? With silence as pause, quiet, or ataraxia (the kinds of silence he rejects as foundational) we can at least achieve some distance from the immediacy of life and gather our thoughts and ourselves before reacting violently in judgment or physical force. This kind of distance allows time to pass and, with the passage of time, the healing of wounds (mainly to the self or the ego). For Xirau, the objective is much more existentially, socially, and spiritually significant.
“There is no community if there is no communion, just as there are no words if there is not, first, the Word, just as there is no eternal peace if there is no interior peace. It is about finding that silence that resides in us all and, in it, the meaning of reality and of life. Then… silence acquires its real significance: it is recovery, the centering of ones consciousness for the sake of real and secure projects directed at others, those who constitute us as much as our own I.” (152; my emphasis).
But is a mystical experience required to achieve this kind of silence? It might help, but I don’t think it would be necessary. I would think that this kind of centering and recovery would require a particular kind of self-denial, one tied to the existentialist logic of respect and responsibility, the consciousness of contingency, and the denial of absolutes (I’ll return to this later).
I agree with Xirau that silence of that primordial kind is there, somewhere, in the words we speak and in the thoughts we think. But I also think that the
mystical experience that’s required to achieve awareness of it, to see it, involves the three types of silence that he rejects as foundational.
The imperative of silence acts like an impossible rule. This is because in everyday life, one must speak. One must speak and take a stand and be recognized. One must take a stand to be counted. But the silence to which I’m referring, here and in the Introduction, is not the silence of apathy, one where it doesn’t matter what I say anyway, so why say anything al all—this is a silence with claws. It is the silence of non-resistance, the silence of pause, of waiting, of letting things speak for themselves, of lettings others speak to me, about themselves, and for the sake of communion and community.
Thus, we can think of silence in two ways: silence as the ontological ground of speech (Xirau) or silence as ground for active understanding (Portilla—that’s Part B of Part I, although I refer the reader to something else I posted on this before).