Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shh... quiet please

Children and silence: surely two incompatible notions. As followers of this blog will know, I have spent much of my time recently arguing that young children's thought processes are all on the outside, at least initially. Children conduct their dialogues of thought externally, for all to hear. For this reason alone, being with a toddler is a noisy place to be.

But it somehow feels odd to be making that statement. Some of my most profoundly happy memories of parenthood are of moments when I have been with one or the other of my small children, saying nothing and hearing nothing said in return, nor expecting any such bids for verbal connection. It is possible to be peaceful and silent with a child, I think, in a way that other adults rarely let us be. Sara Maitland captures this in her wonderful new non-fiction work, A Book of Silence. She cites the claim of Donald Winnicott, the famous English psychoanalyst, that the capacity to enjoy silence stems from 'the child's experience of being alone in the presence of the mother'. These are moments when all bodily needs have been attended to, and there is nothing left but to enjoy the presence of the other. In Chapter 4 of The Baby in the Mirror, I describe a similar epiphany in a moment of profound peace I shared with Athena, when she was six weeks old. It was an early morning, and she had just been fed. She wanted human contact, and even as a very small baby she was an expert in obtaining it. We simply lay and looked at each other in the dawn light, saying nothing and wanting nothing except the presence of the other. This tiny human was an expert in the art of silence, and she was teaching me something.

Maitland's funny, humane and wide-ranging work makes us think about the developmental aspects of silence in other ways, too. In a fascinating section on silent reading, she explores the idea that the internalisation of reading—its transformation from overt speaking-aloud to the silent processing of text—marked a critical moment in the evolution of the modern self. 'The practice of silent reading led to individual, or independent thinking', as Maitland puts it. St Augustine was the key figure in this transition, although Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, seemed to have given Augustine the idea.

You can read reviews of A Book of Silence in the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Economist. An extract from the book is published in the Guardian. I will be in conversation with Sara Maitland at St. Chad's College, Durham, tomorrow night (Wednesday 19th November) from 7pm.

The Baby in the Mirror has been chosen by Marina Warner as a Book of the Year in the New Statesman. You can read the full article here.

Finally, all the books mentioned in this blog can be ordered through Amazon.co.uk: simply scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the icons in the carousel on the right.

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