A tender reminder that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness.
by Maria Popova
“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.
Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontag’s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul” is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken — and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.
That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.
Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.
Goldsaito’s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuo’s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.
We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city — “raindrops pattering on his umbrella,” “boots squishing and squashing through the puddles.”
As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.
Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”
The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.
“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”
“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”
“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.
Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.
He goes to the quietest place he knows, the bamboo grove behind the playground, but even there silence is ushered out by the sound of the living world.
The bamboo made a takeh-takeh-takeh sound as the wind banged its stalks together. He closed his eyes and heard the swish-swish-swish of the wind making the leaves talk. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t silence.
As Yoshio makes his way home through the city, he continues to look for silence — at the train station, at the dinner table, in the bath.
Even at night, while the rest of the family is sleeping, he listens for the silence only to hear the faint hum of a distant radio.
The next morning, he arrives at school before everyone else and sits down to read a story, which absorbs him so wholly that he is transported to the elusive place he had been searching for all along.
Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it.
No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned.
In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.
Silence had been there all along.
In that moment, he learns what we so easily forget: that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness, an attunement of the mind’s ear and an orientation of the spirit toward a certain inner stillness — perhaps the positive counterpoint to loneliness, which so often thrives amid the crowd.
Complement the immeasurably wonderful The Sound of Silence with Pablo Neruda’s beautiful ode to silence and John Cage on how silence helps us enlarge each other’s goodness, then revisit this manifesto for silence’s sister virtue, solitude.
Illustrations © Julia Kuo, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company; photographs by Maria Popova