Wrong Kind of Noise

Marina Warner

  • Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Allen Lane, 337 pp, £20.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 84614 426 4

By a bizarre twist, G.K. Chesterton may be en route to sanctity: it was reported in August that the Bishop of Northampton has begun a suit for his canonisation. Diarmaid MacCulloch doesn’t invoke Chesterton’s miracle-working powers, but he opens this expanded version of his 2012 Gifford Lectures with a Father Brown story, ‘The Oracle of the Dog’: by howling at a certain time, the animal gives the priestly sleuth the clue to the murder weapon. Chesterton was consciously taking off from an earlier tale, Conan Doyle’s ‘Silver Blaze’, in which a guard dog fails to bark when a racehorse is killed and Holmes rightly deduces that the animal didn’t raise the alarm because he knew the criminal. The reader of these opening anecdotes in Silence: A Christian History senses that MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and one of the most lucid and authoritative TV historians ever, would prefer to stand by like the original dog, a quiet and eloquent witness to the hubbub and hurly-burly of the world’s crimes, but has always felt compelled to make his voice heard. When he was young and first realised he was gay, he had to sing dumb, of course. Later, he began training for the priesthood, but when the silence about sexuality continued, he refused to accept the pretence and left. MacCulloch doesn’t exactly go in for howling, but he is a stringent analyst of Christianity and he speaks out, determinedly, calmly and broad-mindedly.

Silence is a paradoxical theme for a series of talks, as MacCulloch himself points out. One opposite of silence is noise, another is utterance. Like curiosity, silence oscillates between the poles of vice and virtue, approval and condemnation, a proud ideal and a cause for shame. It’s a material condition out there in the world, as well as a form of individual behaviour or character trait, and its history has been the subject of fresh inquiry recently, in our era of din and turmoil. Sara Maitland, in her account of her retreat to high solitude in Galloway, A Book of Silence, speaks of the sounds that begin to make themselves heard through the quiet. Maitland decided to leave London on grounds that echo Romantic longings, and live according to the dynamics of the countryside rather than the urban ff furioso; she took a meditative turn against ‘the getting and spending [that] lay waste our powers’. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2011) by the American writer George Prochnik shows how ideas of silence slide from literal to figurative as he roams through contemporary multi-track soundscapes made up of sirens, jingles, muzak, bleeps and ringtones, roaring restaurants and bars, police helicopters hovering menacingly over city streets, flight paths (according to recent findings, living near Heathrow causes a higher incidence of heart attacks). But in many ways the industrial past was more cacophonous than the digital present: even typewriters made offices percussive in ways that bleeping computers and cell phones avoid. The sense of increasing noisiness today is an effect of speed and clutter, hubbub in the mind not the ears: twittering and tweeting, the 24/7 streaming of news, cascades of emails, junk or not, bring a syncopated, restless rhythm to the day, filling our heads with Babel.

If dirt is matter out of place, in Mary Douglas’s celebrated axiom, then noise is sound out of place, and MacCulloch maps the changing demarcations through his knowledge of Christian ethics and metaphysics. He has an incomparable command of complex interactions between events and doctrine, conformity and dissidence, but is less interested in questions of personal psychology or, in this book, individual case histories. At times, though, we are given a vivid glimpse of the past, of St François de Sales in Geneva, bitterly viewing from his window his former cathedral, now occupied by John Calvin.

Silence follows close on The History of Christianity, which was written to accompany the BBC television programmes; the preceding magnum opus, Reformation, is distinguished by its rich inquiries into eastern Europe, and other points usually beyond the Anglophone historian’s horizon. MacCulloch comes from ‘a background in which the church was a three-generation family business, and from a childhood spent in the rectory of an Anglican country parish … of which I have the happiest memories’. His audience has a right to know what his position is, he writes in the foreword to his History of Christianity, but a certain awkwardness shows, I feel, in the phrase ‘family business’.

A few decades ago the classicist Paul Veyne asked: ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths?’ It’s a sharp contemporary question that the secular world puts to Christians, and to other religious followers. Rising secularisation on the one hand and combative congregations of different faithful on the other have led to an expectation that those who profess a religion should believe in its tenets. This now seems self-evident, but it was not perhaps so generally assumed in the past, when going to church was a social custom. It would have been anachronistic to ask an 18th-century bishop if he believed in God: churchmen contended over theological issues, but basic belief was assumed as shared, and atheists were rare (and punished). The different churches provided socially bonding rituals (as conveyed by the word religion, from religio, ‘I bind together again’). Oddly, in spite of the threats in the Book of Revelation that ‘since thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth,’ lukewarm was fine. For the recent show about the sacred, which he curated at the British Museum, Grayson Perry echoed this in a sampler embroidered with the slogan: ‘Hold Your Beliefs Lightly.’ It’s a sane ideal, but seems even further away now than it was then, only two years ago.

MacCulloch speaks like a believer. He makes the right noises, quietly, lightly, but firmly declares limits on his commitment: ‘I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity,’ he writes:

I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human existence, and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems. I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating of millions of other members of my species. It is in part to answer that question for myself that I seek out the history of this world faith … Maybe some familiar with theological jargon will with charity regard this as an apophatic form of the Christian faith.

The word apophatic – ‘against utterance, unutterable and unspoken’ – is used to describe an approach to understanding the divine through negation: specifying everything it is not, so as to leave a space of non-delineated and ineffable force, which only metaphors can struggle to reach. The Temple in Jerusalem enshrined in the Holy of Holies a godhead not to be looked upon or named; Allah has 99 divine epithets which are recited and inscribed calligraphically over and over again, but he does not show his face. Secrecy and silence communicate the numinous. In the Musée Branly in Paris, a deity from West Africa is represented as a big lump of something dark (mud? best not inquire too closely) behind a curtain inside a small, enclosed space: hiddenness and inscrutability, dramatically staged, very effectively radiate a sense of the sacred. The museum setting removes the need to believe or to reject belief. It would be incongruous if a prayer meeting assembled there: they would break the solemn silence with the wrong kind of noise.

MacCulloch reminds us not to be careful of universal constants. God has been noisy too. The Judaic tradition of the early books of the Tanakh (as MacCulloch calls the Old Testament) features a God who talks, gives orders, scolds, rails and rages when he’s disobeyed; his prophets act as obstreperous conduits of his complaints, thundering and ranting. When he falls silent, he has withdrawn, and that is more terrifying and desolating than his anger. Praise-songs ring out to the clash of cymbals, the beating of tambourines and the flourishes of trumpets to rouse him and beseech him to come back. A turning point comes when Hannah is seen mumbling to herself in the temple by Eli the priest. He thinks she’s a crazy, drunken old woman: worshippers should sing and pray aloud together. But Hannah’s silent prayer is granted, and in her old age she gives birth to the prophet Samuel. Eli realises he was mistaken to reproach her, and the practice of silent prayer becomes respectable.

Ideals of private communion with a quiet divine presence come mostly from the Neoplatonists, MacCulloch argues, and they imprint later Judaic approaches to God with their values – the two traditions conjugate together. Philo of Alexandria provides evidence that in Hellenistic thought unfathomable silence became accepted as a divine attribute, not a sign that God was dangerously sulking. The ‘hugely influential’ fourth-century philosopher Evagrius of Pontus cultivated inward prayer as an intimate pathway to God, and drew a fine distinction between meditation, which depends on external stimuli such as images and relics, and contemplation, when consciousness sinks wholly into its object and the contemplator experiences ‘nothing other than a loving, simple and permanent attention of the mind to divine things’.

Such mysticism is harder to grasp than ecclesiastical history, and even harder to practise. In some of the most thoughtful passages of this study, struggling over the virtue or otherwise of silence turns into deciding what can or should be represented. The iconoclasts of Byzantium in the eighth century were influenced by the ban on icons in Islam and destroyed images of Mary and Jesus wholesale, driving a generation of artists to carry to Rome the cult of images and the marvellous iconographic imagination of early Byzantium. MacCulloch argues that iconoclasts were not so much troubled by images per se as committed to rooting out private prayer and personal responses – the ecstasy of the nun in her cell. It’s interesting that the phrase ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ has become current jargon again, since pressure to conform and obey authority is a feature of contemporary life. ‘One way of reading the Iconoclastic Controversy,’ MacCulloch writes, ‘is to see it as a contest between the monopoly claims of holy noise, in the form of the liturgy of the Byzantine Church, and the dissident and democratic voice of contemplative silence.’ This is a striking and novel view of iconoclasts’ motives. The eye is always wandering, but ears can be stopped – by filling them with sounds.

Art under Attack at Tate Britain (until 5 January) shows how the English Reformers and Puritans devastated the fabric of medieval culture so thoroughly that only pathetic stumps of stone saints and shattered stained glass remain to be exhibited. Their fury against idolatry oddly depended on accepting the speaking power of the sacred images which their acts effectively silenced. Even after all these years, the scissoring, scratching, scoring and blows landed on the faces of the saints carries a vicious charge: they look as if they’ve been beaten to death. Disapproval of music in church, as wanton and luxurious, fluctuates over the years even more than the rage against images: while Elizabeth was zealous in ordering the replacement of icons by written tables of scripture (these calligraphic pictures oddly Islamic), she was musical, and did not root out singing. The Puritans later reprised the Reformers’ rage and while MacCulloch admits they would not have liked to see themselves as descendants of Byzantine choral tradition, he does suggest that their promotion of singing, testifying in public, and even ranting and quaking, can also be seen as an attempt to impose conformity on congregations.

A plate from the late 16th-century Lord’s Prayer series, published in Antwerp by Philips Galle (after Maarten van Heemskerck) and collected by Nicholas Ferrar for the Little Gidding Concordance Room. Images of God were removed from Catholic prints, in line with the Second Commandment.
A plate from the late 16th-century Lord’s Prayer series, published in Antwerp by Philips Galle (after Maarten van Heemskerck) and collected by Nicholas Ferrar for the Little Gidding Concordance Room. Images of God were removed from Catholic prints, in line with the Second Commandment.

Such a perspective would also turn upside down the conventional picture of Protestantism (not to speak of ‘non-conformism’ itself) as the champion of individual conscience against the dogmatic and centralised power of the papacy. It does tally, however, with the equally unexpected argument put forward by James Simpson that the vernacular printed Bible imposed uniformity on the faithful to a degree never achieved by medieval Catholic worship, with its heterogeneous local shrines and feast days, miracle stories, rewards and fairies, dances and processions. The Tate show includes in the last room a sculpture by Michael Wilkinson; made from scores of unspooling audiotapes it remembers the Taliban’s furious campaign against recorded music – a more recent instance of puritan fervour against private pleasures.

Concepts of denial, both positive and negative, shadow the long ideological struggle over who speaks, when and how. Denial can be practised by a saint, the anchorite who, confined in her cell and speaking rarely, wins general admiration; and it can spell betrayal or simply weakness, as in Peter’s denial of Jesus. Silence can also express defiance: ‘Love and be silent,’ Cordelia says in an aside as her sisters gush. But Lear isn’t satisfied, he wants to hear her speak. She chooses not to comply, an act of truthfulness that brings her closer to the folk-tale heroines who, comatose or otherwise muted, haunt Shakespeare’s plays. Their most familiar descendant, the Little Mermaid, gives up her voice for a human body with legs and a human soul. She was formed by Hans Christian Andersen from Romantic stories (like La Motte Fouqué’s Undine), themselves taken from tales scattered throughout medieval Europe. To keep quiet was often to take the wiser part, and the braver. Silence could be magical, wordlessness a sacrificial road to higher powers – it was brute creatures who were dumb.

Silence as a virtue, and specifically a female virtue, is an eerie thread that also runs through exempla of virgin martyrs who took the blame for sins they did not commit (as in the case of St Pelagia, who chose to live in disguise as a monk and suffered in silence when accused of fathering a baby). Evil forces sometimes choke their victims’ voices, and silence becomes an ordeal a questing girl must undergo: in the Grimm Brothers’ story ‘The Six Swans’, the protagonist knits shirts for her brothers to restore them to human shape, and all the while keeps her vow never to laugh or utter a word, or the counter-spell will be undone and they will stay in bird form for ever.

The idea of virtuous (female) wordlessness, most viciously captured by the old inn sign of a headless woman (the best kind, proverbially), was – and still is – a principal target, quite rightly, of feminist anger. But heroic silence is still possible: in the refugee camp in Woomera, central Australia in 2002, seventy Afghani asylum seekers and some of their children went on hunger strike and sewed their lips together. In the UK, the right to silence, once a pillar of common law, has been hedged about with qualifiers as a consequence, it is argued, of anti-terrorist action.

In the second half of the book, MacCulloch turns to the negative aspects of silence, and his tone becomes punchier and his material more polemical. He finds examples of silencing throughout the history of the Church: St Paul tried to quell the tumultuous early church communities, warning them: ‘If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?’ During the persecution of Jews and Muslims in Spain, the conversos and Moriscos practised their faith clandestinely: Nicodemites, MacCulloch calls them, after the disciple of Jesus who was scared to be seen with him and went to visit him only at night. He is angered by the failure of the Vatican to stand up to fascism under Mussolini, and during the Third Reich, but does not linger or investigate. He deplores the cover-up of child abuse by clergy and passes on. The ‘comfortable gay male Anglo-Catholic network’ appears in this chapter, ‘Silence for Survival’, where he regrets the silent hypocrisy of the closet, but some of his least austere pages evoke the camp socialising of Anglican vicars, curates, deaconesses and acolytes from the late 19th century into the 1960s. He quotes Compton Mackenzie in Sinister Street: ‘The sacristy was crowded with boys in scarlet cassocks and slippers and zuchettos, quarrelling about their cottas and arguing about their heights. Everybody had a favourite banner which he wanted to escort and, to complicate matters still further, everybody had a favourite companion by whose side he wished to walk.’

MacCulloch has become an eloquent speaker for ecumenism but the history he has researched so expertly keeps belying his hopes. He is as dismayed by the calamitous splitting of the world faith that took place at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as he is about the expulsion of the Jews in Spain in 1492. His vision of coexisting faiths in the distant past reads like a dream or a prayer. He doesn’t draw out the implications of today’s faith schools or other aspects of multiculturalism here, and comes to rest instead on a mystical image of ‘the divine wild-track’, the elusive, living, multivocal hum in the silence that flows in the spaces between each of us. The effect is despairing, for the long history he covers shows how over time those moments of quiet, when beliefs were held lightly, have been few and far between. He has historicised a difficult, abstract subject, notating the ring dance of different participants in relation to their ever changing opposite numbers. But for every sequence with one partner, another appears, coming in from the side, clamouring to be noticed: talking about silence raises a raucous mêlée, in which MacCulloch’s modest hopes and beliefs as ‘a candid friend’ of religion are muffled.