Breathing In, Breathing Out

A few nights ago I took my kids to a local storytelling festival.  The storytellers were all Native Americans or had Native American heritage and the stories they told were trickster stories — Coyote stories, etc. — that traditionally may be told only during the winter months.  I enjoyed the stories (as my husband did when I retold them later), but what I liked more was the reasoning behind why these stories were told to this audience.  Rebecca Stoneman, one of the storytellers, said, “The stories are alive, but they need our breath to keep going.”

These stories don’t exist as expressions of individuality or as showcases of the storyteller’s special talent.  They exist as a common resource.  They are taken in as breath, a privilege to all, and then exhaled into the general atmosphere.  The Navajo attitude toward knowledge is that everything we need to know surrounds us and, if we look for it, the world offers its wisdom willingly.  So when someone gleans a good insight, it is propagated in language and other art forms for the benefit of all.

In his book The Anguish of Snails, Barre Toelken compares the attitudes Native Americans and Euro-Americans harbor toward discovery.  “We [Euro-Americans] seem to feel that discoveries have to be ferreted out of an unfriendly — or at least reticent and inarticulate — environment, and then — to become acceptable — they must be weighed, measured, and analyzed in distant, objective laboratories where professional scientists guard against wishful thinking and coincidence (Toelken: 168).”  Then, of course, there is the problem that when possible, Euro-Americans rush any insights they prize from experience and the natural world to copyright or patent offices, thereby controlling community access and preventing unauthorized reproduction.

But for Native Americans, “Knowledge about this integrated process [experience in the world] is archived and continually dramatized in story, sacred customs, religious rituals, art forms, and dance, not simply recorded in objective, explanatory, data-centered commentary (Toelken: 169).” 

In other words, Native American rituals, customs, and art forms exist to weave old and new insights directly into the fabric of the community.  Knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum but thrives in relation.  Any attempt to appropriate or restrict it for personal gain attracts suspicion and might well provoke accusations of witchcraft.

At the end of the storytelling festival, one participant asked the (small) audience how would it be if next year everyone there came back with their own stories to tell.  Maybe, he said excitedly, the festival would last two days instead of just a few hours.  My own inner storyteller sparked at the idea.  I wondered what stories I had that might be appropriate.  “Maybe ‘The Rampaging Shoe,'” I thought.  “That story might work for all the cultures present here.”  But the thought of sharing it provoked a spasm of reluctance.  I knew that if I told that story to this audience and they happened to like it, it would immediately enter that out-of-control and downright viral environment tagged “the public domain.”  Storytellers could take up the tale and pass it along, perhaps even adapting it to fit their own cultural contexts.  Who knew what might happen to my precious story!

But then I wondered if throwing “The Rampaging Shoe” into the public arena might be the ultimate test of whether or not the story is alive.  Hm, I might just do it.

There’s another reason I might put the story out there.  If I succeeded in introducing it into the communal domain, I might take a few first steps into genuine reciprocity — into a deeper and perhaps different relationship with the godly.  Reciprocity, as Toelken explains, is part of the natural balance of the process of discovery of vital knowledge and its propagation.  He gives an example of reciprocity in the relationship between people and corn (maize).

Recognizing this strong relationship, humans seem to have made their own gods by investing this botanical creation with sacred power.  Yet godliness here, as with the Sioux and other tribes, is expressed fully only through a reciprocal process — not the one-way power of a superior being.  Not only were there maize gods and goddesses but there was a delicate concern for the safety and sacredness of the corn itself: said the Zunis, “love and cherish your corn as you love and cherish your women.” Knowing how central the creative power of women is in Pueblo society, one can glimpse the significance of this sacred equation (Toelken: 172-173). 

Like corn and its sustaining properties, true insight carried in kernals of the best stories helps bring prosperity and progress to the communities that cultivate it.  If my being in the world has provided me insight that has helped me maintain balance and overall well-being, then I should, by the principle of reciprocity, cherish that insight.  I should propagate it intelligently through the stories I choose to tell and, in communal acts of cooperation, I should trust the stories’ care and further propagation to other human beings.

So far I’ve talked only about myself, about how I’m considering engaging in an experiment to see what I might learn, but of course I wondered how the Mormon way of storytelling compares generally.  How do Mormons participate in reciprocity, if they do?  I’ll say up front that it seems to me that many Mormons, especially those of us of Euro-American extraction, are likely to share the Euro-American view of the world and behave jealously where our treasures are concerned.

On the other hand, our Christian belief in charity (caritas), combined with our perhaps unique belief in mankind’s prospects for progression, ought to offset the Euro-American reflex to exploit, horde, and control vital or even sacred insight or other important natural resources.  Such beliefs might even provide the very vehicles we need to discover other delicacies contained in the truths we hold sacred.  Also, do we recognize and allow for the intelligent propagation of insight outside our cultural expectations and seek it in places other than the usual Mormon corridors (or foyers) of expression?  Perhaps a little more of the spirit of generosity, a little more willingness to breathe the common air, would hasten on and strengthen the voice of a real (read: vital to all) Mormon literature.  Perhaps we would all breathe more deeply. 

18 thoughts on “Breathing In, Breathing Out”

  1. Thanks, Tatiana, and if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s an astoundingly short comment–for you! 😉

  2. Is there a practical way, beyond blogging, that you would recommend to start that process of breathing in and out the Mormon storytelling process? If it were to be similar to the stories you heard, would Mormons start with a series of archetypal narratives (like the trickster stories or creation myths of the Native Americans)? What would those be? Baptismal experiences? Preparing for endowment? Tesimony baring? Would we take these stories and tell and re-tell them, perhaps blogger fasion, until we can identify the “universal” Mormon truths in them? It seems to me, that the only story that is actively being told is that of young male missionaries. From “Fires of the Mind” to “God’s Army” to “The RM” to our own testimony meetings (which seems not too different from the future story-telling event that was propsed by your storyteller) it is missionary stories that seem to function in this manner for our culture.

    So what if someone smart and literary (perhaps someone on this website or from the AML) posted a quintessential, but short, Mormon narrative and then the rest of us could could come and edit it, re-write it, and re-post it to reflect our own experiences? What would happen? Would that be somewhere in the ballpark of reciprocity?

  3. Laura H. Craner, you ask good questions.

    I think we have open to us at least two narrative pathways for telling stories and both of those are tied closely to how aware we are of and how much we care for our audiences. IMO, a lot of Mormon rhetoric is intelligible only to Mormons, and at times some of it has meaning only to Mormons whose families have been in the church for generations. Stories about Mormon pioneer forebears, for instance, range from a “How to Sacrifice for God and Family” narratives to stories that occasionally get parlayed into family identity stories with competing narratives arousing nearly warlike antagonism, all wrapped up very tightly in Mormon rhetoric. I can certainly see pioneer narratives that contain archetypal energy attracting wide attention and being accepted in wide circles. But those whose narrative energy is diverted into bolstering rigid personal, familial, or cultural boundaries will garner only a restricted audience, perhaps merely those who share the same rhetoric and the same views.

    The same’s true of baptism, endowment, or other personal stories wrapped up tightly in Mormon rhetoric. People not familiar with the lingo have to learn the lingo to get at the stories’ meanings. In some cases, “outsiders” to the culture may even perceive the rhetoric as being hostile toward them.

    So we can tell Mormon stories using the established Mormon rhetoric, but those will be most accessible to Mormons who already know the lingo. Such stories have their value (depending on the storyteller’s motives). Or we can be Mormons who tell stories in “the common tongue,” so to speak, language nearly anyone may approach, Mormons and non-Mormons alike (also, of course, dependent on storyteller movtive). Which path holds the highest potential for reciprocity? I suppose it depends on who you think your audience is and how much you like them.

    “It seems to me, that the only story that is actively being told is that of young male missionaries. From ‘Fires of the Mind’ to ‘God’s Army’ to ‘The RM’ to our own testimony meetings (which seems not too different from the future story-telling event that was propsed by your storyteller.”

    I think missionary stories contain difficult-to-miss levels of “archetypal arousal,” or range so high on the obvious end of archetypal excitement that they hit even inexperienced storytellers over the head with their heavy and many-layered meanings. In other words, in the relatively fledgling Mormon storytelling tradition, missionary stories are so striking they enjoy early emergence. Really, _The African Queen_ is a missionary story, isn’t it? How would it be if our mission stories rose to that level where nearly anyone could take something meaninful away from it? I think that eventually, they will. Maybe some do now. I don’t know, I haven’t seen many yet because I haven’t been on a mission and have discovered other vital archetypal pathways that satisfy my quest for meaning in life.

    Mormons have plenty of other prospects for archetypal stories. I feel confident that storytellers (of both types noted above) possessing the vitality to tell these stories will arise. As far as storytelling goes, Mormons are still very young, very new to the game.

    Laura, if you were to pick an experience (from your life or the life of someone you know)to narratize, one you think possesses archetypal punch and high potential for reciprocity, what would it be?

  4. “If you wer eto pick an experience to narratize, one you think possesses archetypal punch and high potential for reciprocity, what would it be?”

    That is tough question. . .my first impulse is to say marriage.

    I grew up in Utah and chose to get married relatively young. Then my husband and I started having kids pretty quick–which was not weird in our student ward in Utah. However, we moved out of Utah and have since discovered that being in our twenties with multiple children is strange. So I guess that’s how a marriage narrative strikes me as an archetypal Mormon narrative–when we were immersed in an Mormon culture, our experience was similar to almost everyone else’s. And really, it wasn’t just similar, it was expected.

    So how does it address the question of reciprocity? Well, even though we are considered an atypical family because of our age, anyone and everyone can talk about their spouse and/or their kids. It is the one thing we can always count on as an ice-breaker. (I guess in the context of our conversation I’m defining “reciprocity” as something that resonates within our culture and also without. Am I understanding your usage of the term correctly?)

    So, to sum up, I guess I’d say that a marriage narrative would fit the bill because no matter what culture you come from, family is important(at least in a Western civilization cultures).

    However, as I write this, it occurrs to me that perhaps it isn’t the subject matter of the narrative that, well, matters. It’s the storyteller. Take Jewish American Lit. They have their own culture and their own rhetoric, but Jewish authors have found a lot of success in the national market. So perhaps the it is awareness on the storyteller’s part that the story they are telling needs to be made accessible. Maybe reciprocity is simply inherent in good storytelling? What do you think?

  5. Another fab post, Patricia. Thank you.

    From your description of Native storytelling purposes, it seems to me that it tries to strike a balance between conservatism and exploration. Because, yeah, new information is always coming in, but then, what do we do with it?

    Neil Postman has a very interesting book called Technopoly: Culture’s Surrender to Technology, where he argues that Western culture once controlled its tools, but now tools control the culture.

    Of course we don’t want to live in a culture where only tools reign, or where the culture is completely closed off from new information. That’s what public storytelling is for, to take the new information and experiment with it in a number of different contexts before we make our decision on how it can best be incorporated.

    It seems to me that the best kind of public storytelling for that is open-ended storytelling, or perhaps storytelling without authority.

    Problem is, Mormons don’t have that kind of storytelling in their public venues. When we’re in a testimony meeting, or a sacrament meeting or general conference, the default rhetoric is the authoritative stance. “What I say is true.”

    This gives us very little wiggle room for experimenting with new ideas publicly. We are often forced to take a stand for or against a new idea without the benefit of public consideration. Usually we take our cue from people who have authority. And interestingly, we are almost never party to the times when the authorities discuss how the new information will be viewed by our culture.

    We also have very little stomach for metaphor. I don’t know if Native Americans believe that the raven exists or the trickster, as physical beings who performed acts at a particular moment in time. But my general impression is that they know these stories are metaphors, which gives them great freedom to apply them in many contexts and in many ways.

    Mormons don’t seem to have the same ability. For example, in the latest Sunstone Robert Reese writes about Mormon urban legends about stripling warrior-like Mormon soldiers who go about doing amazing things. When these stories get told in classes or at informal gatherings, I don’t get the idea that the teller or the listeners think these are anything other than true to life stories of actual events that were performed by actual people. We’re very stuck on things being literally true. And that opens us up to all kinds of weird things; truthiness as Colbert might say.

    I think it comes down to being right. People who believe they are right aren’t in much of position to “breathe the common air” They can’t allow other stories to have much validity.

    For example, I have a well-traveled relation who recently wrote to one of my siblings on his mission about culture shock. He tells about one culture in particular where he saw a lot of behavior that struck him as being unrighteous. But then, as he wrote to my sibling, he realized that God loved them too and that the unrighteous parts of their culture were paths that could bring them closer to God. Then he started noticing the good things about the culture, which, strangely enough, corresponded precisely with the things that my relation’s culture values.

    So he was able to see things in the culture that corresponded to his own values, and then mentally prepare a schema for the way that they could come to accept the rest of his values). He was always on top looking down. He was like the teachers I studied about around the turn of the century who went to Alaska native villages to “uplift the Native,” collecting artifacts along the way.

    I think most Mormons look at conflict as a struggle between good and evil. My preference is to think of it in Hegelian terms. When two ideas, cultures, etc. clash, the resolution of the clash isn’t one or the other winning. It’s the creation of an entirely new idea, culture, etc. What if, instead of seeing ourselves as pure vessels trying to keep ourselves unsullied by the world, we saw ourselves as crucibles, capable of producing new things from the materials that come into us?

  6. Laura,

    Reciprocity is a process whereby the experience of one group might resonate with another, but it’s also much more than that. Going back to Toelken’s corn example, he explains that because of how things happened in the relationship between humans and the strain of grass we call corn, corn became completely dependent upon humans for the dispersal of its seeds.

    Toelken: “Virtually every story and myth about corn attributes energy and fertility to it and describes the plant as a reciprocating relative who nurtures us in return for us nourishing it.”

    This is a potent relationship and the recognition and successful expression of it through prayers, rituals, art forms, etc. will naturally resonate across cultures. But at the heart of reciprocity is its give-and-take energy, a sacred kinship whereby everybody involved takes care of each other, thereby maintaining a healthy balance.

    Here’s another simple example of reciprocity. Living out in the country as we do, we need help — preferably a natural one (not poison) — to keep our mouse population in check. For months, we had been watching a stray cat cross our yard on her way back to the canyon, presumably to hunt for her food. We decided to court the cat’s interest and succeeded; now we provide all her food, water, shelter and care and she provides companionship (especially for my young daughter) and keeps the mice in check.

    How might Mormons foster reciprocity? And with whom or what? Well, I think that’s something of a frontier, especially since our relationship with God has strong “one-way, all powerful” elements to it. We do have covenants, and in those cases obedience seems to be what we offer in reciprocity for…what? What do Mormons gain through obedience? Blessings…maybe. Eternal life. Salvation. Our key metaphor for the relationship between us and God: usually, Father and child. Provider and dependent. I don’t think this is the _only_ relationship Mormons can have with their god, but appears to be the most usual one.

    Reciprocity is more “equal” than that. I had a Mormon mentor who said to me about our relationship (all the time we spent together in his office sharing the sacrament of learning) “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t getting something out of it.” At first I thought that was a shockingly selfish thing to say. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times (and taken several rough turns that have taxed my personal resources and know how people can, often without meaning to, take a lot out of you without giving anything back), I use his statment of what I now understand to be reciprocity as a measuring stick for my activities and relationships “in the world.”

    I have more thoughts about this, but my comment is already running long. I think we (not only Mormons but the world’s populations in general) have only brushed up against the shoulder of the truth of our relationship with the creation and the Creator. Reciprocity? Hoo, it boggles the mind.

    But one of the most distinctive (please, people — preserve it) ideas we have about our relationship with the divine is that we may ourselves ascend to godhood. Here, perhaps, is one of the most dynamic spheres of our belief; furthermore, in its implicit assumptions about creativity and productivity, it perhaps considers and engages in reciprocity more deeply than we do in the usual levels of belief.

    Storytelling that achieves consciousness of this potential for or the actualities of our relationship with the holy and that is potent enough to engender consciousness in others will tap into reciprocity’s renewable energies. Furthermore, reciprocity has potential not only to help us maintain the healthy balance in how things now are, but also a healthy balance as we ascend to the next level of truth and creativity.

  7. Stephen said, “That’s what public storytelling is for, to take the new information and experiment with it in a number of different contexts before we make our decision on how it can best be incorporated.”

    I guess I’d say that’s what _some_ storytelling is for. In the Native American tradition, one of the purposes of trickster stories seems to be to raise the awareness of the stories’ hearers (especially children) so that they can learn how _not_ to behave. Coyote’s behavior is greedy, lazy, foolish, deceptive, etc. — behaviors directly opposite those that signal reciprocity and harmony.

    But the power of story to raise awareness (or as I say, consciousness) to new possibilities — that’s what the best storytelling does. Certainly there exist stories whose only purpose is to maintain a status quo or further entrench consciouness at a certain level. Also, there are evil stories whose purpose is to restrict the possibilities of potential victims, to persuade them that a certain course — usually one that exploits people and public or natural resources — is the only way open to the hording of power, prestige, and — oh, here’s a keyword — control.

    “It seems to me that the best kind of public storytelling for that is open-ended storytelling, or perhaps storytelling without authority.”

    Or maybe storytelling that works at several levels, so that people of varying levels of understanding and/or belief might take something away and do something new with it? If you’re trying to say that what we don’t know or we are only coming to know is in many ways more important than what we know, I agree with you. But IMO that idea is best applied on the personal level rather than the cultural one. “What _I_ don’t know is more important than what _I_ know.”

    “We also have very little stomach for metaphor. I don’t know if Native Americans believe that the raven exists or the trickster, as physical beings who performed acts at a particular moment in time. But my general impression is that they know these stories are metaphors, which gives them great freedom to apply them in many contexts and in many ways. Mormons don’t seem to have the same ability…We’re very stuck on things being literally true. And that opens us up to all kinds of weird things; truthiness as Colbert might say.”

    Maybe some Mormons are stuck on things being literally true, but I think that Mormons are very open to metaphorical stories IF they allow for free agency in their application. An aggressive story intent on “setting right” or destroying a competing Mormon narrative will almost certainly be taken as a threat and met with a phalanx of self-defensive stories, as it will be in other cultures or belief systems. But in my experience, a metaphorical story that prompts new awareness in ways the hearer might take away and work with in his or her own fashion will be accepted nearly universally. The more levels to a story, metaphorical or ironical or what have you, the broader its appeal. And I don’t mean “ironical” in the sense of snide or ridiculing of apparent incongruities. Irony for me engages the tension between what we believe is happening and what is actually happening. As such, it is an underlying principal of the eternal.

    “I think it comes down to being right. People who believe they are right aren’t in much of position to ‘breathe the common air’ They can’t allow other stories to have much validity.”

    Again, Stephen, I agree with you but believe this principle is best applied on the personal level, like the “What I don’t know is more important than what I do know” comment above. I know part of what you’re doing when you make such remarks is “just throwing stuff out there.” But sometimes your snowballs have rocks in them :o!

    Personally, I try to look out for where my stories fall short, for where they point toward the edge of what I think I know. Anymore, I don’t think so much about how I’m right. I have a little saying: “I know I’m wrong — the point is to become less wrong.” This is “ironic tension” — the zone where my stories spark.

    “What if, instead of seeing ourselves as pure vessels trying to keep ourselves unsullied by the world, we saw ourselves as crucibles, capable of producing new things from the materials that come into us?”

    Yes, what if? I’ll take on a higher level of personal responsibility to find better stories and the language to express them if you will. Oh, wait — I like that level of adventure so much I’ll do it whether you do it or not. Given your comments and posts, though, I don’t see the culture holding you back much. The same mentor I quote in a comment above also told me, “Never apologize, never explain — just do what you’re going to do and do it well.”

  8. Thanks for all the replies! Talk about not knowing stuff :)Thanks for indulging me in all my questions.

  9. I wonder how much time a Native American storyteller spends analyzing the story they are going to tell or if they should tell the story at all, verses just being filled with the spirit and telling it.

  10. Laura said, “Talk about not knowing stuff.”

    Hey, I’m right there with you!

    And thank you for reading stopping by AMV. Hope you drop by again!

  11. Larry,

    I’m not an expert on Native American storytelling — I’m just writing on observations, feelings, and ideas going to a storytelling festival sparked in me. But I think it’s safe to say that, along with love of and concern for one’s family and community, generations of analysis of social situations and cultural needs produce such narratives. From Toelken, it’s clear NA storytellers don’t engage in anaysis of their stories; in fact analysis and dissection of these stories is considered to be in bad taste, kind of like talking about doing an autopsy on somebody who isn’t dead.

    But there’s nothing wrong with a little analysis for purposes of coming to understanding. Nor do I think analysis necessarily precludes the workings of the spirit. In some cases it might even facilitate it, as in the repentance process, where one must engage in close consideration of one’s behavior and intentions.

    By the way, your paintings are quite striking. Really, everyone ought to go look at Larry’s website. The LDS-themed work, “Lion of the Desert,” “Maroni,” and “John the Baptist,” are way cool. I especially like “John the Baptist.” The landscapes are quite fine, too.

    Check them out: http://larryogan.visualserver.com/

  12. While reading this post and the responses, I began to wonder about the place of silence in storytelling? Ia there room in a communal resource of stories also for communal silence?

    The question that follows, then is how does silence translate across the arts? It is used to great effect in aural arts, but can it be used in visual or literary? Since communication for these arts takes place in the mind and not the public realm, how does an artist paint or draw silence? how does a writer communicate silence?

  13. Sorry for the delay in responding, bRadlyaLLen. I’ve been out of town and since returning I’ve been playing catch up.

    “Ia there room in a communal resource of stories also for communal silence?
    The question that follows, then is how does silence translate across the arts? It is used to great effect in aural arts, but can it be used in visual or literary? Since communication for these arts takes place in the mind and not the public realm, how does an artist paint or draw silence? how does a writer communicate silence?”

    Fun question(s). I suppose answers might depend upon what you mean by silence. If you mean “soundlessness,” “utter quiet,” then in storytelling one might look to the dramatic pause where the storyteller stops talking and allows quiet to settle for a moment while the audience draws conclusions, makes connections, feels the weight of some aspect of the tale, experiences amusement, shock, or awe, etc.–all versions of the “pregnant silence.”

    Of course, there’s the silence that threatens … the question that’s left unanswered as a way of signaling malignant intent, for instance. There’s the silence that hangs about a question one is too grief-stricken to answer. Those could be conveyed in storytelling.

    Silence also implies stillness, and IMO that part of silence — quiescence — translates effectively in visual arts, whether it’s physical, spiritual, or emotional quiescence (poise, for instance?). I remember a friend showing me a popsicle wrapper, whereon were written the words, “a quiescently frozen confection.” When I read those words, I remember trying to imagine a popsicle freezing quiescently; my mind is still working at that puzzle.

    How do you convey stillness in words? Gee, I think that would be an interesting experiment.

    The problem is, silence has gone largely extinct. I remember hearing it at Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon 25 years ago and wondering at it then, at its power which, oddly enough, I experienced as a kind of roar, and I remember wondering at its dimensions. Where I live now, I occasionally experience something that approaches silence. It’s a profound but fleeting quiet that lies like snow lies in the shade of the junipers before ambient air temperatures melt it. Now that you’ve posed the question, I’ll try paying attention to the patches of quiet I happen upon and see what possibilities arise.

    But now, for me, another question comes to mind. What do you think is silence’s aesthetic value?

  14. In order to experience true silence, I find that I must exile myself away from mankind. In Utah, that is pretty easily accomplished as I exile myself to the desert wastes all the time.

    There, I do experience silence as the “roar,” an almost overwhelming experience that must eventually be “broken” by some kind of “noise,” otherwise I fear I will be swallowed whole by the enormity, emptiness, and the oppressiveness of

    vast

    open

    space.

    —–

    Silence’s aesthetic value?

    Silence is a literal place in aesthetics. For me, a place where consciousness, thought, and spirit meet in a moment of pure understanding. Silence is the country where the experience becomes a physical reality for me. Whether through the dramatic pause or the physical embodiment, it is the place to digest and make the “art” part of one’s being.

    Silence has enormous value to me, there being so little of it in the world today. In fact, some of my greatest experiences with the arts have included great “moments” of silence, whatever the expressive form.

    I can remember arriving for the very last performance of the very last Cleveland Performance Art Festival some years ago. I arrived an hour early, entered the performance space, and discovered the artist in intense meditation. I joined her in this experience. When the silence part of this five-hour performance ended, I discovered the experience to be so much richer, so much deeper and better. And certainly more meaningful to me than those in the audience who skipped the first two hours and only showed up for what they considered the “performance.”

    When seeing a live performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, I found that silence had the same impact. The first movement is twenty minutes of sheer intensity, sturm and drang, outright pain expressed in music. At the end, we sat for several minutes in silence (not an intermission), but just silence before the orchestra moved on to the rest of the work. What a meaningful few minutes (to digest and understand the music better) before hurrying on to finish the work; I know that Mahler himself indicated in varying places that this silence is part of the performance.

    I could go on and on and on about experiences with silence in art, drama, storytelling, music, etc., but will leave it at that.

  15. “In order to experience true silence, I find that I must exile myself away from mankind. In Utah, that is pretty easily accomplished as I exile myself to the desert wastes all the time.”

    I do this too but haven’t found a place where silence doesn’t have to squeeze in between airliner noise. I remember listening in wonder to the sky when all air traffic was grounded following the attacks on the twin towers, but I lived in Utah Valley then. The noise pollution there is made up of more than air traffic noise and is part of a complex of environmental degradations that includes air and light pollution. So the effect was overwhelmed. Commercial airliner noise intrudes into every desert nook I’ve wandered for the last 15 years.

    “Silence is a literal place in aesthetics. For me, a place where consciousness, thought, and spirit meet in a moment of pure understanding. Silence is the country where the experience becomes a physical reality for me. Whether through the dramatic pause or the physical embodiment, it is the place to digest and make the “art” part of one’s being.”

    So if a tree doesn’t fall in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it not fall … what’s silence then? Just fooling around there. Sorry.

    There’s something about quiet — and silence, when you can find it — that releases the senses, sharpens them. Then when a natural sound does pronounce itself — say, a boulder banging down a cliff, a canyon wren suddenly piping — the silence emphasizes and frames it. Every note sounds intensely. I don’t know about you, but silence frames and enhances auditory experiences for me so that they strike deeper chords in the brain.

    “There, I do experience silence as the “roar,” an almost overwhelming experience that must eventually be “broken” by some kind of “noise,” otherwise I fear I will be swallowed whole by the enormity, emptiness, and the oppressiveness of

    vast

    open

    space.”

    I’ve experienced another effect besides that one: Sometimes, when I’m out in the desert, and there’s no wind, the heat is intense, I’m alone and all is deeply, broadly quiet except for the ring of silence in my ears, I feel like I’m at the center of the universe, a pinprick of consciousness with creation spinning around it, notwithstanding its smallness. I feel vastly connected.

    Your point about the experience being “almost overwhelming” raises something in my mind. Often in my wanderings I meet ATV riders. ATVs vary in the noise level they generate. Occasionally I hear an ATV that is all about noise. I know we have the technology to make quiter vehicles, but obviously some people want, maybe even need, to surround themselves in a field of noise when they’re out in the vast, open, quiet desert. They seem to need to assert themselves against the quiet.

    I live out away from town at the edge of the desert, and it gets very dark out here. We keep our outside lights off at night unless we absolutely need them. You can barely see our house from the road at night. But some of our neighbors have blaring, glaring, outdoor lights that flood their yards (and their neighbors’ yards) all night. Fortunately, we’re far enough away from the brightest lights that the light trespass they cause doesn’t affect much our yard or view of the glorious night sky. Another neighbor commented upon how dark our house is at night. He approved, noting that they turn all their outside lights off as well. “What’s with the others?” he wondered. “Are they afraid of the dark?”

    I think the answer is yes. People are afraid of the vast, open dark and they’re afraid of the vast, open quiet.

    How that applies in the arts: I think some people are often similarly uncomforable with dramatic pauses or other moments of artistic silence. They don’t know what to do or what to make of it. They don’t know what to expect. So we produce laugh tracks and loud commercials, loud vehicles, radios with the volume cranked up, etc. to take the edge off.

    BTW, do some tones and notes in bagpipes remind you of how silence sounds? I know some people can’t stand bagpipes, but their droning sometimes reminds me of broad undertones one hears in that roar of silence.

  16. Interestingly, many traditional folk cultures have developed instruments like the bagpipes where the drone is a fundamental part of the music. Even modern composers have made attempts to imitate this place between silence and noise. Most specifically, a guy named John Luther Adams. He has lived in Alaska for some 25 years and has made a career attempting to express the “silence” of that country through the western classical tradition.

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