Finns are world experts in reticence. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht is reported to have described the bilingual Finns as “a people who are silent in two languages.”
On Friday evening, I heard a rabbi give her final sermon to the community she was leaving, centring on the mysterious silence of Aaron after the destruction of his two sons with fire by God for what seems to us to be the most minor ritual infraction (Leviticus 10:2). The gist of her drash – if I understood it correctly – was that sometimes we must remain inconsolable, and when nothing either can or should be said to ease our pain, the only appropriate response is silence.
I was reminded of Wittgenstein’s concluding sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
The word drash is short for the Hebrew word midrash, which means “investigation” or “interpretation”, generally of a text, usually of a portion of the Bible. So what would it mean to investigate the meaning of silence: the silence of another, or of ourselves?
I sometimes go and stay at a retreat centre in the West of England, which continues an ancient tradition known as Noble Silence. The guests are asked to refrain from speech as far as possible during their stay, which is mainly taken up with periods of silent sitting and walking meditation. At first this being speechless with others seemed strange, awkward and uncomfortable, but after a number of visits, I’ve found the silence richly supportive, holding me fast in a risky space of enquiry and self-discovery. Last time I was there, I saw on the wall of the laundry a sign with this rather lovely line from the thirteenth century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:
Let silence whisper you the secrets of the universe.
And it seems to me at least that even with the near ceaseless chattering of my mind, the stillness of my tongue helps me to hear the undertones and to see the world afresh.
The Shakyamuni Buddha was famous for his meaningful silences, often held when asked metaphysical questions such as whether the self is real. To answer such a question either in the positive or in the negative, he said, would only lead to more confusion. In fact if the Buddha had had it his way, he would never have spoken at all, as he thought that for his generation, enjoying attachment as it did would not be able to see what he saw:
And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.
According to legend, it was only through the pleading of a deity known as Brahma Sahampati that the Buddha broke his silence and showed others his way to freedom, though there are probably many people who think he would have been better off sticking to his original decision. Which raises the question, how many great saints and sages have passed unnoticed in this world as they wisely choose to refrain from speaking or writing?
On the other hand, I’ve always been suspicious of “the ineffable”, as it sometimes seems an excuse to shut down a discussion, to close down the investigation. People sometimes say things like, “I can’t explain it; I just feel it’s true” just when the conversation is getting interesting (for me at least) – a defensive unwillingness to to expose cherished but delicate beliefs to the light of scrutiny.
At such moments, I really don’t have the heart to press the point. I would have to admit that some profound emotional, aesthetic, contemplative or religious experiences, are to be expected to be beyond the capacity of the literal. For some, it is this inadequacy of language to the task of addressing the nameless – and the golden residue that remains after a description has been attempted – that defines the mystical, a realm in which the most educated is the least articulate. It’s not about facts, theories or propositions but insights which can only be spoken of, as the Israeli scholar Joseph Dan says, apophaticly, through “a language of unsaying” – or else through metaphor, parable or paradox.
Going back to Wittgenstein, who, for a philosopher in the analytic tradition, makes some remarkable references to mysticism, he writes (again in the Tractatus):
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)
There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
Or, as my Finnish friend Mikko once put it, when I complained of the difficulty I had in speaking the Finnish language, “The best thing is to say very little. That way you make very few mistakes.”