On Silence by John Biguenet

By | November 11, 2015

From Surrounded by Souvenirs of Life: A Conversation with John Biguenet by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais (The Los Angeles Review of Books, November 3, 2015)


How long have you wanted to write about silence? What drew you to the subject?

When I was approached by the publisher and asked if I would write a volume in its Object Lessons series, silence was the first subject I proposed. A writer spends so much of his or her life in silence, composing and reading, that it seemed an object with which I was very familiar.

Silence, in about one hundred pages (not counting notes or bibliography), delves into a wide range of topics and references — from Twain, Poe, Foucault, Kafka, and Chekhov to solitary confinement, luxury goods and experiences, sensory deprivation, punctuation, Edward Snowden’s leaks, and the Afghan practice of raising a girl as a boy when a family has no son. You also balance the personal, political, and philosophical. Is that what you were trying to do?

I wanted to create something that would mirror the life of the mind — integrating information, the testimony of others, personal experience, and then doubt about the conclusions reached. Someone has written that Silence reads like a novel. If that’s true, I would be very pleased.

One of the fascinating things about this book and about the series Object Lessons as a whole is its open-ended yet confining nature. While its topics are enormous and wide-ranging (and about things most people casually assume they understand), the short form requires the author to make difficult decisions about how to approach these subjects. Silence could have taken endless shapes. What ideas or examples did you immediately know you wanted to include? What did the short form force you to exclude? What did you wish that you’d had more room to explore?

The first paragraph of the book is about silence, but it might as well be about silence as a subject for study:

We may conjecture that somewhere in the cosmos, beyond the border of all human trace, a zone of silence awaits (always receding, of course, before the advance of future explorers), a great sea of stillness unperturbed by the animate, an utterly quiet virgin territory. But our imagination misleads us if we conceive of silence as a destination at which we might arrive.

The boundary of the subject, too, always recedes before our efforts to reach its frontiers. The deeper I descended into silence, so to speak, the more the subject expanded until there were few aspects of life that didn’t seem to depend, in some sense, on silence. I knew, for example, that I would have to address the relationship of silence to power and to religion. I could not have guessed, though, that I would write a chapter on the silence of dolls. I expected to write about torture as the antidote of silence: “For what is the purpose of torture … is it not to force stubborn silence into speech?” But I was surprised by my argument that the camera is, fundamentally, a silencer. On the other hand, I anticipated writing about the erotics of silence — examining, for example, “Murke’s Collected Silences” by Heinrich Böll in which a man records the enforced silences of “a very pretty blonde” so that he can listen to the tape in the evenings when he is alone. But the contractual word limit of my book silenced me before I could speak of such things.


SilenceJohn Biguenet is Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA. His publications include Oyster (2002), The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories (2001), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (co-editor with Rainer Schulte, 1992), and Foreign Fictions (1978). He served as the first guest columnist of The New York Times (2005-2006). His latest book, Silence, is part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.

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