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.

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