silences

I’ve been thinking about silence for the past few days. As the teaching term comes to a close, I actually have time to revel in a bit of silence. It’s a much needed space for contemplation and I’ve missed it in the busy-ness of work and home life. Silence to think. Silence to ponder. Silence to ruminate. Silence to be.

But I am also thinking of silence in relation to my letters. My, I say, claiming them possessively to myself. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what is said in the letters. I’ve spent a lot of time considering the possibilities of epistolary performance, looking at how individuals crafted identities to share with Tissot.

But I haven’t spent nearly as much time with silence. And yet silence, too, is integral to stagings of self.

What we don’t say might be just as valuable, if not even more valuable than what we do. Lucy Frost, in an article in the journal, Life Writing, considers silence in the telling of family biographies: which stories matter to the family tree? And which might be better, in her words, “expunged” (19).   Here, silence protects not only the moral purity of the family, but, at a broader level, the purity of the nation as a whole. You see, Frost is interested in the intertwining of narratives of belonging and exclusion as they play themselves out in the colonial history of Australia. What happens when questions of nationalism are founded on histories of criminality, imprisonment and transport? What role do the stories of the “150,000 men and women transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land between 1788 and 1853” (19)  in the construction of national identity, both at the level of the individual family and at the level of the nation as a whole?  As she observes, “A quintessentially Australian fear of the ‘convict stain’ is integral to the foundational narrative of nation” (20) and this fear is mirrored in other contexts as well: “At the same time as Australians were writing the convicts out of their family histories, ‘white’ Americans were airbrushing their ‘black’ relatives off the family tree.” (20). According to a museum curator I met a few years ago (whose name I have, unfortunately, forgotten), a similar process took place here in Newfoundland, as ‘white’ Newfoundlanders sought to distance themselves from “undesirable” interracial mingling with aboriginal peoples. Since then, of course, politics have shifted. Now, there is some room to revisit those silences and to write these expunged family members back into the histories of families, communities and nations.

David Gerber notes that immigrant correspondence is a particularly rich source of insight into the nature of epistolarity. For new immigrants in a strange land, letters were “the transnational lifeline of communications in relationships rendered especially vulnerable by separation” (315). Such letters brought families together again, performing the intimacy they once took for granted. But these letters are also spaces of negotiation: fact and fiction mingle as immigrants struggle both to articulate their new realities as to hide the less savoury aspects of their decision to travel. Silence, in these letters, is carefully maintained and controlled.  “There are all sorts of obvious reasons, some of them quite compelling and mitigating, why correspondents might not want to tell the truth to protect the people with whom they correspond, while remaining faithful to the larger purpose of maintaining a relationship. Sickness, unemployment, poverty, martial discord, drunkenness, rebellious children, or abject failure might not only prove variously embarrassing, but also prompt worry and concern in one’s readers….,” observes Gerber.

I think, too, of conversations I’ve had with one of the archivists here at the university, Bert Riggs. Bert notes the differences between men’s and women’s war correspondence, observing that men on the battlefield were much more likely to be silent about the gritty realities of war than their female counterparts. Silence, in this sense, was a way of mediating suffering, and it was directly related to how these individuals understood their sexed and gendered roles in wartime, and how they presented these selves to close family members and friends.

But silence can also be understood as a state of being forsaken: Sarah Haggarty observes (of William Cowper), that when one waits for a letter, one might be “stranded in silence – a period during which [one] expected or hoped in vain for an answer – [one] did not know whether that answer was going to come, let alone when [one] would receive it.” (152). Silence, from this perspective, is about uncertainty, and about the fragility and tenuousness of  long distance relationships. Additionally, Haggarty’s work suggests that silence also denotes a lack of control. Once the letter is out of our hands, it journeys on its own. We can only put our trust in others: will the letter travel safely through t he postal system (and, in the eighteenth century, through the various censors), will it be delivered to the right address, will it be read by the intended recipient(s), and finally, and here is perhaps where the idea of trust carries the most weight: “Will [the letter] be answered?” (152). Indeed, as Haggarty observes, “Even accidental delays… were decoded, and rendered intentional by their initial sender. As one is waiting of the letter that has not arrived, silence, the effect of delay is made to speak.” (161)

In my letters – yes, that pesky possessive again! – silence is also a factor.  It’s easy to overlook because the letters are, in many respects, so very detailed. But the details included in each letter have all been carefully chosen, the body’s logic culled from a broad range of experiences and understandings. Thus some patients take care to include specific details that others, in apparently similar circumstances, don’t recount at all. Take the case of wetnursing, for example. Some might blame experiences of corporeal weakness partially on the poor milk of a wetnurse. Others, however, observing very similar symptoms, make no mention of wetnurses at all, though it’s highly likely that they were wetnursed, given that upwards of 80% of children were sent out to nurse during this period.

Other silences are revealed in the spaces between letters. A patient might claim all sorts of ailments, for example. His doctor, meanwhile, might note that there’s nothing to these sufferings; his patient is merely a gluttonous exercise-phobic hypochondriac (and yes, there is a patient described in exactly this way in the letters).  In the silences that mark the ruptures between these two letters, we find alternative stories, stories that exist only in the silences that mark the letters themselves.

Silence is also fraught. Like William Cowper, Tissot’s patients wait anxiously for responses, their anxiety recorded in letter after copied letter, each one increasingly urgent in tone. One poor onanist wrote Tissot five letters over the space of a few months, each almost word for word the same as the one before it.  Divulging what were perceived to be shameful medical histories, onanytic patients in particular were eager for a response, desperate to know that their letter had been received, and, more importantly, received by the right person. They were, equally, frantic to find a cure to their sufferings. What they couldn’t know, but what I know, is that in several cases, Tissot had no intention of responding, marking a decisive “non répondu” at the top of the first page of the letter.  What might silence have meant to these patients, these suffering individuals who had taken the risk of putting their private agonies into print?

And I am intrigued, too, by the silences engendered by political circumstance. During the French Revolution, some correspondents appear to have embraced their revolutionary identities, signing letters as citizens: “citoyen” or “citoyenne.” Others, perhaps more circumspect, nevertheless mention ‘the difficulties.’ But there are still others who make no mention of the revolution at all. While they are comfortable writing about their bodily sufferings, it’s as though those sufferings are experienced in an almost utopic idyll seemingly untouched by the violence and bloodshed of a violent revolution (especially during La Terreur). Who are these people who claim their political allegiances? Who are these people who prefer to remain silent? Silence and speech were political acts during this period: the censors would no doubt have read many letters. Just how easy was it to speak?  What could one say? What political purpose may silence have served? These are things that will be almost impossible to discern. Nevertheless, silence needs to be taken into account. Silence is as much a part of the story as speech is.

I am reminded of the insights of some of my music instructors, coaches, colleagues, and conductors: silence is not dead space. It is active. It is alive. It has energy. And without it, music is nothing. The same holds true for these letters: silence is not passive. It is active. It has its own stories to tell. And without it, the letter is meaningless. It is up to us to listen for it.

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