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Für Émilie : Silence and collaboration

Publié le 1 octobre, 2009 | Pas de commentaires

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Though this was supposed to have been an essay on silence written in collaboration, in the end, you’re left with only one voice here; if perhaps only for now. I’ll come back to the reasons why the collaboration failed below, but can say in the meantime that this remains, still, an essai on silence. An essai, in the French sense, meaning an attempt, a quest unfinished and a question unanswered, because really what could I say, definitively, about silence that is not inevitably a lie, a betrayal, a failure; except that that failure, in this case, is perhaps inevitable.

Rubens Ghenov
Libby Rosof, Rubens Ghenov, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

John Cage : « There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we might to make silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber … a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University years ago, and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, and the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. »

As soon as I start to speak, I misrepresent what I mean to say. I make noise. I send out words intending to point at and reach towards silence, but manage in the end only to get turned around, misdirected, and to point only towards a failure, an impossible longing for something to say. For there is a touch of nostalgia in what Cage is saying. As if silence were something we’ve lost and might hope to find again, to rebuild, if only … we had the right technology? As if silence were, perhaps, what we all long for (Dionne Brand).

Certainly, Maisonneuve longs for it. Sieur, Paul de Chomedey, first govenor of the city but transplanted by the novelist Robert Mazjels into present day Old Montreal, talking and talking as if to defy all that and those that tempt him to abandon his failing colonial mission. « Then he says no more. It’s not merely that speech is physically taxing; the sound of his own voice is unbearable to him. Vain chatter. Self-absorbed yammering. Oh, how he longs for the peace of his own silence. To be free at last from ambition, pride. Desire. To abandon himself completely and irrevocably to Her; to those loving arms, that gentle bosom, golden hands, alabaster cheek, dark downcast eyes, perfect lips, to the blessed fruit of her womb… to be released from himself ». To be released, into the silent abandon of desire, from himself, from the weight and the noise of himself that he bears like a cross upon his shoulder dragging noisily against the sidewalk behind. As if himself, his identity, the role he has chosen to play, of founder and hero, stands between him and his own desire to let himself get carried away. Unable to still, himself, to silence the incessant yammer of his hero’s ambition and founder’s pride, voices more powerful than his own impose in the end that silence upon him. And so Maisonneuve, in Mazjels’ novel anyway, remains alone. Untouched. Under arrest.

Earl Tremblay, the anti-hero of Robert Morin’s cult classic, Yes, sir! Madame (1994), likewise longs for, and fails to find, in time, that silence. Narrated in both English and French by Tremblay’s simultaneous, and increasingly unfaithful, self-translations—which he expects will make this « a real fuckin canadian movie »—the film ends on a sequence by a lake in parc LaVérendrye where Tremblay watches a group of naked men, women, and children swimming together silently. To a man virtually destroyed by the violent cacaphony of his own conflicting voices, this silent group seems almost exotic, attractively foreign, fascinating, for how, though they do not speak, they seem not only to get along, and enjoy themselves, but to understand one another and act in concert, effectively, even in crisis.

And there is a reason for that. Silence, pragmatically speaking, is useful—for certain purposesdesireable. In Wasela Hiyate’s, « Jeanne Mance Park », for example, the narrator, a young woman, is « tickled » with anticipation at the thought that the young man who is not yet her lover, Maxime, is about to tell her « what sounds like a sexy story ». Though it isn’t, really, a sexy story. Not explicitly anyway. Though that may, after all, be what sexy is all about. And so the story goes. On the first day in the dojo, he recalls, Maxime and his martial arts teacher « just stood there… facing each other. Two people standing, not moving, not talking, just breathing ». « It was intense », he explains. « I lasted a minute. But the next time we stood there for ten. It was all about learning to listen, which requires stillness. You cannot engage properly with an opponent, or, for that matter, a lover, until you’ve understood the violence within yourself ». The violence of identity, the compulsion to produce and preserve a sense of my own self by silencing everyone else that causes, Maxime notes, « so much trouble », for both lovers and fighters he says, but for collaborators too.

Writing, talking is a risk. I risk imposing on another my own misconceptions, and I risk getting trapped, in turn, myself, in someone else’s misunderstanding of what I meant to say. But deciding not to, or being unable to write, is likewise a risk. Unable to speak I risk being spoken for. Unwilling to write I risk being written off.

A soundwalk is a walking tour in which instead of looking, you listen. As I listen, I begin to be able to isolate, identify, and then to reconstitute the relations, perhaps the rhythms and melodies, the textures of the soundscape in which we are daily bathed. But in order to listen, as Maxime is right to point out, I have to be still. I have to stop moving, stop looking around, stop shifting my weight. Even simply walking, and though I do not drag my feet or swoosh the cloth of my clothes, I make noise enough to distract me from the task of listening. However, for the tour to go on I have to keep walking. In order to stop, I have to first have walked. I have to walk in order to get to where I’m invited to stop next. On a soundwalk, then, stillness is what I require, but that stillness in turn requires that I keep moving. Or as John Cage puts it : « What we require is silence. But what silence requires is that I go on talking ».

The question, then, as always is how? How do I go on talking as silence requires if talking simultaneously means imposing some silence somewhere, upon someone, for certain purposes? « How to write », or talk, as the novelist and essayist Gail Scott puts it, « is always the question ».

Working, she describes, with the « materiality of language », with the way « language hits you like mud in the eye », Scott is very conscious of how, in her writing, she may be « projecting (her own) accumulated lack on unsuspecting bodies », effectively « sentencing them ». She is conscious, that is, of how a sentence, in both its linguistic and judicial senses, can « end up being quite binding ». This is important, for instance, when she writes in English about francophone culture in Quebec (Heroine); or when, as a white tourist, she articulates her own anxieties in terms of the kinds of insecurity experienced by the sans-papiers in France (My Paris). Consequently, the experimental quality of her writing project resides in its effort to make her sentences « as fleeting as possible », « more porous ». To let them « fall apart completely », or « fall into other languages ». To « question the sentence in all kinds of different ways ». Which is to say that she builds into the writing itself an awareness that the very condition of language is its power to bind—« in the sense that the sentence ends with a period »—that « a sentence, even if only for a minute at a time, is a way of putting a final point, making a judgement regarding what is perceived ». Though that moment of silence, performed by the period at the end of the sentence, is a risk—risks imposing that violence within its author onto others—it is a risk, Scott decides, that is ultimately worth the while. « While there is an element of judgement in sentences, at the same time, and it’s the reason why I write fiction », she says, « I think of sentences as things that go back and forth between people and back and forth between groups of people. You have to take the risk of that momentary attempt to string things together, to pin things down, in order to communicate with another person ».

I have to risk reducing all of what silence is, to what it isn’t, in order to open up a conversation on what it might be, what it might be useful for. I have to start speaking somewhere in order to get, in the end, at what I might have to say (about silence). And I have at some point to stop speaking entirely (if only for a moment) in order for what I might be saying, in turn, to have occasion to make sense to someone. Or to paraphrase chapter 11 from Lao-tzu’s Tao, I talk and talk and talk, but it is in the silence when I finally stop that the sense of what I say depends. I string the black mark of letters and words along a blank page to express myself, but it is upon the spaces between them—upon the silence of commas and periods—that the reason I speak depends.

So in order to write about silence, for instance, I might forego pretending to say anything myself about it, and collect instead a series of citations from others, re-construct the contexts from which I’ve drawn them, and string them along one after another, allowing myself not to have to make explicit the line of my own narrative, but leave gaps instead between each paragraph, in the silence of which what I might have to say could perhaps better be heard, as if in performance. Like that iconic image of the Mohawk warrior and the Canadian soldier standing still and eye to eye on the front lines of the Oka crisis. What’s so intense about that photo, I think, even today, is that in the stillness of their silent staredown—a silence only augmented by the logic of still photography—I understand that the encounter being captured on film is not only between two men, but between two whole nations rather. It is not only about a golfcourse or a cimetary, a bridge or a blockade in the present, but about the 400 odd years of colonial history that prepares and produces that front line in the first place. I understand, in the stillness of their steady gaze, a whole history of violence and of resistance, and except for that silence, that stillness, none of the intensity and incessance of that history would be audible.

In the meantime, a series of stimulating conversations that started one afternoon at the dog park led to a decision, shared, to write this piece together. In the gap, again, opened up in the back and forth of the collaborative process between our two separate voices, and in the distance between the different disciplines in which we are trained—in those moments when our two voices, like Irigaray’s image of two lips, « non divisibles en unes », refusing to fuse into only one—we might together be better able to embody that kind of silence that we require, but that requires we go on talking to approach.

Moreover, the fact that I would have to translate her voice into our English text—for she writes, as we converse, in French—would provide an occasion to open up another version of those spaces of silence we are after, which Benjamin, in his essay on translation, calls « pure language », upon which, he says, the « kinship » of languages depends. « So far » is it « from the sterile equation of two dead languages », translation « serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages ». « Languages » he says « are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori … interrelated in what they want to express ». Languages meet, like tongues, in the « intention » they share, « which no single language can attain by itself, but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other », what he calls « pure language » : that « tensionless and even silent depository of truth which all thought strives for », that « predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages » that lies beyond anything that can be said, that is, in silence.

Talk talk talk, say the tongues, but only of course so long as until they achieve that silence of touch they look to share.

The irony then is that we did not talk enough. Though we talked a lot and agreed, i think, on what we might have to say, we spoke though only too briefly about how in the end we would say it. Perhaps because we do not share the same assumptions about what a text should look like, or perhaps because we too quickly assumed we shared the same understanding of what this text should do and how, or perhaps simply because we ran out of (or did not give ourselves enough) time, in the end, the text I produced in the process of translation did not, as we had planned, produce only moments of silence between our two voices, or between her original French and my English translation, but silenced her voice completely. Unable to find a way to integrate her voice and mine into the same text, or rather, unable to silence my own voice long enough to leave room for hers to take its place, I simply cut hers out completely. And so in turn she removes herself as a signator from this text. If this is perhaps an embarassingly masculine of me, and if therefore the friendship that our conversations were based risks being fractured by my decision to go ahead and publish a text on my own that we failed to produce collaboration, i’m willing to take that risk.


Walter Benjamin, « The Task of the Translator » in Illuminations. (transl) Harry Zohn, London : Fontana, 1992.

John Cage. Silence : lectures and writings. Middleton, Conn. : Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Wasela Hiyate, « Jeanne Mance Park » in Anna Leventhal (ed.), The Art of Trespassing. Invisible publishing (2008).

Luce Irigaray. Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. Paris : Editions du Minuit, 1977.

Lao-tzu Tao Te Ching. (transl) Victor H. Mair. Bantam Books 1990.

Robert Mazjels, City of Forgetting. Toronto : Mercury Press, 1997.

Gail Scott « In Conversation », in Lianne Moyes (ed.), Gail Scott : essays on her works. Toronto : Guernica, 2002.

— « My Montréal : Notes of an Anglo-Québécois Writer », in Brick 59 (Spring 1998); 4-9.

Heroine. Toronto : Coach House Press, 1987.

— My Paris : a novel. Toronto : Mercury Press, 1999.

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