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On Not Speaking

The only common sentences that are not assertive are tautologies, where predicates rather obviously repeat what is in the subjects; and such sentences, when the tautology is exposed, are met with ridicule or boredom, or it is agreed that they be stricken from the discourse as if they had not been said. Recent linguistics, however, has been modeling itself on positivist symbolic logic which claims to be nothing but strings of tautologies, “analytic sentences,” and this logic in turn has modeled itself on algebra that indeed gets its force by exhibiting identities. In my opinion, the idea of common speech is much more like the theory of logic of the older British logicians, e.g., Bradley and Bosanquet, who held that the subject of all predication is ultimately the nature of things, Reality, which they liked to write with a big capital letter:


—the nature of things is such that viewed as a it is b.

Poetry is also assertive, but it does not say sentences and sometimes does not use words of the common code. Rather, since assertion is ultimately assertion of reality, poetry tries to go about the business more directly, by tying down more reality in its complicated structures than is possible in ordinary sentences, and by trying to make the poem itself like a real thing.

A poignant corollary of the assertiveness of speech is the speech-embarrassment of alienated young people who feel that they have no world to assert, and therefore they pepper every sentence with “like” or “you know?” meaning that, though they are speaking, they do not mean to be saying precisely what they are saying, and the world is not theirs to say.

However, if speaking, especially speaking seriously, means to assert a state of affairs, then, if one has a morals or metaphysics of non-attachment, skepticism, maya, transcendentalism, or illimitable unity, there is something inauthentic in talking much about it, especially in prose sentences. A long apologetic for Zen Buddhism doesn’t make sense; the more the philosophy is talked, the less believable it becomes. The appropriate behavior is not to speak, or at most to make an occasional puzzling or derisive remark, or to tell an anecdote like a Zen koan or a Hasidic parable, whose meaning is in the listener’s silent interpretation and perhaps enlightenment.

Wittgenstein said this succinctly. “What you can’t talk about, you must hush up about.” Lao-tze said, “The Way that can be told is not an unvarying way…therefore the Sage carries on wordless teaching.” (It’s not fair to taunt him with inconsistency for making a book of 5,000 words, as Po Chu-I does; that’s a skimpy output for such an old sage, and compiled by his disciples at that.) Confucius did not mention spiritual beings, though he probably believed in them. Plato would not lecture on the Idea of the Good. Medieval Jewish scholars forbade talking metaphysics except to the one chosen disciple. The Alchemists were equally hermetic. In these traditions, speaking as such implies intervention, presumptuous assertiveness, definition, cutting the world down to size, vulgarizing, blasphemy, black magic. Speaking is regarded as itself a proposition.

Similarly, for those who have a nihilistic goal, to bring down the established order by deeds, it does not pay to sound off about their intentions. Jacob Frank the Sabbatean said, “Just as a man who wishes to conquer a fortress does not do it by making a speech but must go there himself with all his forces, so we must go our own way in silence.” But note that he did say it, publishing a manifesto from the underground. For human beings there is evidently something more important than to win: they must explain themselves and have company. James Joyce prescribed “Silence, cunning, exile,” but he wrote, and some of it made him trouble.

Classical Japanese drama, Noh, is remarkable in having an elaborated convention of what is spoken and with what genres of speech, and what is not spoken. Entrance marches and introducing the action are descriptive and discursive speech. Meeting with the protagonist still unrevealed in his true nature is dialogue. The revelation is lyric poetry. The climactic dance is wordless. The climax of the dance is not even danced. The envoi includes spiritual quotations. A Noh play imitates coming to awareness, and in this process some moments require speaking for their realization, others require silence.

Music can accompany, heighten, and realize both speaking and silence. It is sometimes like one, sometimes like the other, and sometimes like neither. When I walk through a meadow or an interesting museum and begin to hum a tune, as I do, is this music the preverbal expression of animal satisfaction, as children sing after supper or as insects hum when the sun comes from behind a cloud? Or is it a cognitive formulation more subtile than words? It is striking that, though I am a writer, I do not think of verses of a poem, though I may do so later, in other circumstances, recollecting the incident in tranquillity.

There are opposite pathologies, speaking when not speaking is called for and keeping mum when speech is called for. Both kinds are unfortunately common. For instance, the correct conclusion of a practical syllogism is not a third proposition but doing something. If a man says he wants something and it is made available, the conclusion is to take it and not talk about taking it. When something ought to be done and there are means to do it, it is suspicious if people do not do it but go on discussing it. If people blab on in such cases, they mean to prevent action and to exhaust in words the feelings that motivate to action. With a neurotic, this might indicate ambivalence about the original wish; he does not really want what he said he wanted. With administrators and statesmen it is a common kind of fraud; they appoint committees of experts to study what has already been well studied, and then they disregard the findings anyway.

It is a weakness in Shakespeare that his people blab away in extremis, granting that it is sometimes times splendid blabbing. One is almost reminded of the hilarious scene in Medea when, within, she is killing the screaming children and the Chorus outside keeps chattering, “Oh dear, something is amiss.” [Preface to Three Plays]

On the other hand, there is the fellow who falls speechless and keeps you hanging. Forty thousand years elapse while he characteristically grinds his molars. What’s going on, from his point of view, is that he’s “thinking,” perhaps carrying on an interior monologue in which he offers to himself various formulations and rejects them. Sometimes in this state of absorption, he imagines that he has been speaking out. Effectually, he excludes you, but he holds you fast, waiting. You get exasperated, which may be his intention.

Normally—though there are exceptions—people do not “think” before they speak, as if speech were a translation of prior thoughts rather than a part of the process of thought, or as if it were a description or consequence of feeling rather than an organic part of feeling. Normally one just speaks and makes sense as one goes along. Memory, perception, syllogism, style, and tone that are feelingful and adjust to the listener, these are in the spoken words themselves, by habit, somewhat by instinct, and continually shaped and invented in each present situation.

Speaking is one way of taking and making a present situation. When a person “thinks” before he speaks, watches what he says, censors before he says, he may be afraid of sounding stupid or crazy, he may be suspicious and afraid of being trapped, he may be embarrassed because he is repressing exhibition or hostility. He may have a conceited image of himself as if his words were ex cathedra, so he has to pay them out. There are indeed situations in life that are so problematic or portentous that it is hard to find words or it is necessary to weigh one’s words; but they are rare. Most often the flow of speech in dialogue is itself the best method of exploring the subject and discovering the right words. In my observation, too much going to school and being quizzed inhibits people from speaking naturally; instead of saying what they have to say, they have to figure out before-hand what the teacher wants them to say. For learning to write (and read), school-going is a disaster.

Since we pretty reliably know the occasions for not speaking and for speaking, silence gives information, sometimes crashingly. A child tests out an adult, raising the ante; the silence—and the thickness of the silence—tells him, sometimes quite precisely, what the limits are. An unanswered letter usually speaks more forcefully than an answer. When the chiefs of the Great Powers do not talk over the hot-line, we learn that the current international crisis is not quite worth destroying mankind for. In such cases, however, silence does not seem to be as assertive, as committal, as speech. In passional personal situations, we nag the other to say it out, whether “I love you” or “I can’t stand you.” Perhaps the information given by not speaking has in it too much potentiality and possible surprise; it requires great confidence to endure it. In general, not speaking seems to give a broader, more contextual, kind of information, whereas spoken sentences give more pointed foreground information.

Nevertheless, there is one major kind of not speaking, namely listening, that is at least as pointed and precise as speech and that continually forces speakers to refine their speech in the minutest detail, to give the drift, to avoid ambiguity, to focus attention. The active silence of listening determines the phonetics, the lexicon, the grammar, and the style of speaking. The sharpest contemporary linguists say that what is heard, rather than what is said, is the most accurate basis for the study of language—e.g., C. J. Bailey, a disciple of Labov: “Hearing and production are not symmetrical. Understanding of speech is closer to competence than production of speech is.”

Naturally, as a writer, I think that there is a special virtue in creative production, but the language of a writer is always tempered to be “as clear as possible”; he has in mind an “ideal audience”—that is silent indeed, most being dead. The same tension obtains in good colloquial speech, between being as expressive as possible and being as clear as possible. In my opinion, it is this tension—rather than common code or symmetry between production and hearing—that is the object of the study of language. (Needless to say, I take linguistics as one of the humanities, aesthetic and political. It cannot be “value-free” any more than any other of the behavioral sciences.)

Thus, not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy. The sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face. The fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts. The alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This…this….” The musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity. The silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear. The noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud with subvocal speech but sullen to say it. Baffled silence. The silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

There is the speech that names things and reads off sentences of how they are. That defines an essence and reasons from it. That creates and maintains community bonds. That recognizes the other as a person, asks questions, and exchanges information. That directly touches another by imperatives. That exteriorizes and shares what one is feeling. There is the speech of the literary process that travels a thesis from the beginning to the middle to the end. The poetic speech that alleviates an inner problem by bringing it into the public forum, and then reconstructs the world in words.

The uses of not speaking and speaking are quite specific, and my hunch is that they are quite exclusive. Perhaps some cases overlap, when either behavior is appropriate, but I cannot think of important examples. That what must be shown cannot be said is more than a tautology. For instance, an anatomical demonstration of a corpse is not an illustration of the lecture but a way of teaching in its own right that makes the lecture make sense; starting from that sense, the lecture too has its own kind of message. Sensations are not describable. Some feelings are not even namable. Sometimes music says them more accurately than speech can. Aesthetic criticism depends on the prior enjoyment of art works that are criticized; the verbal criticism is no substitute, yet it is a valuable experience in its own right. And a long line of philosophers has held that the unity or individuality of anything, though it is intellectually knowable, cannot be said in propositions; yet it is the beginning of all judgments and science.

On the other hand, except in trivial cases there is never an adequate nonverbal substitute for words. Speech is not just one of a number of our instruments for defining experience, realizing ourselves, and communicating with one another; it occupies a special place. In theory, behaviorist psychologists would like to do without verbal reports, but they finally always include speaking and the meaning of the speech as an essential part of human behavior. In his late Logic John Dewey undertook to construct a theory of inquiry based entirely on the operations in laboratories, but when he came to structure them he found, to his surprise, that the result was very like the old logic based on sentences. It is a current mania among people in “multi-media” to say that literature is passé and even speaking is on its way out, but nonverbal media cannot convey a definition, syllogism, subordination, sentence, exposition, or narration. And I’ll bet that people will go on talking.

For human beings silence and speaking are complementary and are best understood together, as limits of each other, or contrasted, as I have been contrasting them. They both seem to be primordial conditions from birth—there is no real “infancy” and it is as easy to conceive of mankind emerging from chattering monkeys as of our ancestors first breaking the silence with speech. The need—or choice—not to speak or to speak is one of the most interesting things about us.

I think Bloomfield is wrong when he says, “The situations which prompt people to utter speech include every object and happening in their universe.” Some happenings cannot prompt speech, and some speech creates a situation in the universe rather than being prompted by one. It is often good advice to shut up and not start something. And I do not agree with those phenomenologists, e.g., Merleau-Ponty, who say that all intention wants to complete itself in saying. Meaning does want to exteriorize itself, for animals live in their environments and are unthinkable apart from them; but the completion of an intention can often occur without talking. I think that Malinowsky, as a communitarian, overstates the case when he speaks of the necessity of talking because of “the imperative of establishing ties of social communion.” To be social cement is perhaps the chief use of speech, but community is natural and it does not need to be established. If somebody were twisting my arm for an answer, I would guess that community makes speech possible rather than that speech establishes community.

Consider the case, a man attentively repairing his automobile engine checks the fuel pump and carburetor, decides that the trouble must be in the spark, cleans the points, and finally notices and repairs a broken wire—all this without a word external or internal. It is pointless to say that he is subvocally murmuring the names of the parts as he proceeds; he’s humming a tune, and what he seems to be doing, at least, is feeling himself into the operation of the engine. Meantime, his friend is going along with him in the same wordless behavior, attentively following the procedure and handing him the appropriate tools. And the completion of this highly intentional and highly communal behavior occurs when the driver turns the key, the car starts, and they both smile. At this point, of consummation, they are almost sure to say something.

On the other hand, the fact that somebody speaks is not always a big deal, an intervention, the creation of a new situation, a consummation, an “excess of our existence over nature,” as Merleau-Ponty puts it. Speaking may often be just a routine continuance of nature. Some people never shut up, just as I never stop writing. We say, dramatically, that we break the silence, as if the silence were there primordially; but maybe it was never quiet. The clamor of a cocktail party in a room sounds very much like the clamor in a tropical forest, and there is perhaps neither more nor less communication (or poetry) going on. It is a talkative and sociable species, and when people are together it is usually uneasy if they do not talk—Malinowski speaks of “the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.” Much of being alone and almost all of what is called “thinking” are subvocal talk. We must often exert a strong act of will to break off talking and let the silence flood back. Some monastic orders impose on the monks a rule of periodic not talking, because the world is too much with us.

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