‘The Artist’ and the beauty of silence

Emily Esfahani Smith | Managing Editor, Defining Ideas

When I set out to see “The Artist,” newly anointed as the best picture of the year, a month or two ago at New York City’s famed Paris Theatre near Central Park South, I was of two minds about the film. First, I was skeptical. A silent movie described by various media outlets as a “love letter to Hollywood” screamed snobbish pretension — the kind of flick that critics love, but that would bore most people to tears (in fact, someone sitting near me in the theater fell asleep during the film and started snoring). The fact that the movie was playing only in two niche theaters in New York City, one of them in Chelsea, confirmed that this was a film intended more for artsy-fartsy types than for a general audience.

On the other hand, I was intrigued. Noise is such a routine and sought-out part of our lives, so why was this noiseless movie generating so much admiring buzz, especially among a class of people, the critics, known for their talk-talk-talking? But there was another reason that I wanted to see the film, despite my misgivings. I’ve long had a love affair with silence.

When I was a child, I lived in a Sufi meetinghouse in Montreal. The twice-weekly meetings there, where dervishes — largely Iranian, but some Western — would gather in a large room in our brownstone, were centered around silent meditation. People would sit on the ground, Indian-style, on cushions, their eyes closed, their chins to their chests, and lose themselves in a silence that would be considered oppressive to most ordinary people. The idea was to achieve oneness with God by transcending your ego and the distracting trappings of everyday life.

Eventually, my family moved to the United States, and the days where Sufism and silence were a daily part of our lives came to an end. I entered middle school, then high school, then college, listened to angsty “emo” music while I would get ready in the mornings, and learned how to fit in with my peers by carrying conversation and glossing over “awkward silences” with spoken words, however irrelevant they may have been. Now I live in New York City, where the din of city life — the constant screeching of sirens, angry people yelling expletives on the streets, rap music blaring from someone else’s iPod ear buds on the subway — cancels itself out into a meaningless white noise. The sad part of it is that, after a while, you just stop listening, cutting yourself off from the vitality of everyday life.

As I child, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was about silence that was so comforting to me. It wasn’t until after leaving the Sufi house in Montreal that I was able to understand the meaning of silence. There were two experiences in particular, both during my college years, that crystallized it for me. The first, in my sophomore year, was reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time to Keep Silence,” which was recommended to me by a professor of art history who eventually sponsored me into the Catholic Church. In the book, Fermor writes about his experience staying at several of Europe’s oldest monasteries. The second was returning to the Sufi house, this one in Washington, D.C., for the first time in over 10 years during my senior year. When I sat down on the floor to meditate, I was overwhelmed by how still it all was. No movement, no sounds. I struggled even to keep the noise of my breathing under control. After years of being turned “on” and connected digitally with the world around me, it was nearly impossible to turn inward, to close my eyes and clear my head.

I had another professor in college, Jeffrey Hart, who always spoke about the difference between “silence” and “stillness.” To him, silence was nihilistic, representing the absence of things, while stillness was the quiet presence of Being, of God. When you strip the noise away, as I learned reading Fermor’s book and returning to the Sufi house, you are left with the transcendent reality of life. Everything else is chaos and chimera. As Fermor wrote of the monastic life:

For, in the seclusion of a cell — an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods — the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.

G.K. Chesterton remarked that people who are always listening to music — always surrounding themselves with audible distractions — are afraid to be left alone with their own thoughts. I’m sure we all know people who turn the television on while they do the dishes, even if they don’t plan on watching it, just to have sound in the background to drown out the silence. Everyday life is full of ringing cellphones, the high-pitched chatter of office gossip, the viral YouTube video playing from your iPhone.

The idea that silence — and its companion, solitude — is a virtue is so foreign to our culture that I was thrilled to see it make a comeback of sorts in “The Artist.” Sitting in the theater, isolated from the tumult of the city, I watched the film in rapture and remembered that for some people, their entire worlds, and entire stories, come to life through silence.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.

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