A Moor of One’s Own

A Book of Silence
by Sara Maitland

A Review by Ursula K. Le Guin.

First published in The Literary Review, London, 2009

The pleasure travel books provide to those who want to recall a place they’ve been to, or who can’t afford to go to Tuscany but love to read about it, is vicarious and pure. If we are natives of the place, such descriptions give a less reliable pleasure. The foreign writers exclaim in delight or horror at things we take for granted, and notice things we’d rather overlook; they rush off to the sights we’ve always meant to visit — the Isles, the Desert, the Tower — and we’re ashamed to admit we haven’t been there yet; they can explain a great deal about our country to us, and yet somehow, somehow they don’t ever quite get it right, because they weren’t born here.

The lands Sara Maitland calls Silence are very close to the domains of Solitude — an archipelago, perhaps? The natives of both are called solitaries, hermits, recluses, loners, outsiders, quiet children, and perhaps most generically, introverts. As she points out, neither country is very well regarded these days. The idea of even visiting them horrifies many people (who at once call up somebody on their cell phone to tell them all about it).

Maitland makes it clear that she grew up in much noisier places and discovered the archipelago only, as it were, on a cruise. But she went back again and again, and she offers excellent, vivid descriptions of living alone, with no one to speak to, in silence. The experience she wishes to share with us is voluntary, a chosen silence, not that of deprivation, not like deafness, or the mute loneliness of old people, though she discusses such matters. A convert to introversion, she has the convert’s singleminded purposefulness. A cottage on the moors isn’t quiet enough for her, so she takes a lonesome place on Skye, then goes off to the deserts of Africa, and finally builds herself an isolated house in Scotland.

Though also a convert to Catholicism, Maitland does not by any means limit herself to the hermetic and meditative traditions of her church. She explores, for instance, the Buddhist uses of silence, pointing out that Buddhist meditators are not encouraged to ‘sink into’ the sacred silence, since whatever enlightenment they receive is to be shared in practice. And I believe her book rises from a desire to share the enlightenment she has received. I hope I am not quibbling with her generous intent in saying that she seems a bit inclined to overlook the part privilege can play. She knows how foreign a chosen solitude may seem to many people, but I’m not sure she has considered how simply unattainable it is to most. She breezily dismisses Virginia Woolf’s modest plea for a room of one’s own: ‘She didn’t know the half of it, in my opinion. I need a moor of my own.’ I can only say, nice if you can get it. Most of us are very, very lucky to get the room.

Her wanderings and explorations in the vast domains of Silence are fascinating but often tantalisingly brief; she never stops anywhere for very long. All the information she has gathered and all she has to say about the silence of castaways, or of prisoners; of the practices of sitting zazen, or of the Quakers, or the Trappists; her descriptions of the differences in the quality of silence at different times, seasons, places; her discussion of the muteness of a painting or a sculpture, and how that differs from the muteness of a page of printed words; her experience of the silence of death: all this is excellently told. ‘Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration, and profound joy; being silenced (a silence chosen by someone else and forced upon one) can drive people mad.’

One of the most interesting passages in the book is a description of human silence as not a lack of language, not an opposite to speech, but a different activity: ‘Silence apparently happens in a different part of the brain from speaking or hearing or even thinking in a rational and orderly manner; a part of the brain separate from where language happens.’ This is shown in brain scans of people meditating: the brain doesn’t shut down in deep non-verbal meditation, but its activity takes place, not in verbal consciousness and the language zone of the left lobe, but in the subcortical areas. Those are the parts of the brain we share with animals. Emotion starts there. Our deepest being may be there: the bodily knowledge of an infinitely shared being from which our chattering, scattering daily life bars us in a thousand ways, with a million noisy words.

Writers often wander about seeking quiet places to work — many indeed are exiles from the archipelago — and Maitland is, of course, a writer. But she has found that silence is not good for fiction; plot doesn’t work, she says, and narrative lapses. ‘Perhaps, although silence has no narrative, it does have a rhythm. That would be an interesting idea because it would align silence with music.’ As music is inconceivable without silence — silence is its matrix, and, in the form of a pause or rest, is essential to rhythm — the idea seems worth pursuing; but she does not follow it. Nor does she say much about poetry. Yet if silence ‘has a rhythm’, or rhythm is to be found in silence, then the words that come out of stillness will reflect that; and, abandoning the verbal and cerebral rhythms of prose, will they not seek the older, more direct beat? That is my own experience. To write a poem I need at least some while in a room of my own. And if I am granted some real solitude and silence, then a poem will grow out of it, sooner or later, always.

One of the lessons of silence seems to be patience. It is pleasant to think that now her book is done Sara Maitland may be able to cease wanting so much so eagerly — ‘I want time to notice sheep’s feet. I want to say my prayers and write some new sorts of stories and make a garden and read some books and walk up the hill behind the house’ — and simply find out what her silence offers her.

Spiral

Granta Books
November 1, 2008
ISBN 978-1847080424


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