The World of Silence

Illness, Death and Silence

   Man today is without sleep because he is without
silence. In sleep a man returns with the silence that
is in him back into the great silence of the universe. But
man lacks the silence today which used to lead him back
into the great silence of the universe. Sleep today is only
a tiredness caused by noise, a reaction to the noise. It has
ceased to be a world of its own.
   "Even the sleeping work as they co-operate with what is
happening in the universe." (Heraclitus)

   Even in the world of noise there is a silence surrounding
illness, a silence that all the talking, right and wrong, of
the doctors cannot dispel. It is as though silence, driven
away from everywhere else, had come to hide with the
sick. It lives with them as if in the catacombs.
   Often when a patient is lying silently, it is as though the
sick person were merely the place where silence has settled.
The illness came, followed by the silence. It seems like a
pathway on which room was made for silence. It slowly
occupies the whole body, and the words of the sick one
and those of the visitor can hardly penetrate the silence. 
   Silence has always been present with the sick. And yet
the silence that is present with the sick today is not the
same as in former ages. The silence that is present with
the sick today is uncanny, for it should be a part of
healthy normal life and has now been driven out of
healthy life and lives only with the sick.

   Noise has now entered into that good part of life which
used to belong to silence, but silence has taken refuge in
that evil part of life—the world of sickness and disease,
and silence now approaches man on these evil subterranean
ways. The silence that used to be the salvation and
the healing of man has become a menace and a calamity.
   There are diseases that are like vengeful silence itself:
the silence that is vengeful because it has been expelled
and can only break through to man out of the dark
caverns of disease. Cancer is such a disease. It is sur-
rounded by silence. This does not mean that the origin
of the disease is still wrapped in silence, but that man is
much more diseased by cancer than all the symptoms
show, which are only like symptoms of an evil silence.

   Professor L. was forced by a stroke to speak very slowly.
He did not regard it as a loss that his words found diffi-
culty in emerging from the silence into sound. He said
that previously it had been an easy matter for him to
speak; words had come all too easily, jumping quickly
from one to the other, and never rising slowly from the
silence. But now because of this illness it was quite an
event for a word to become a sound. It was like a new
creation every time he was able to bring a word out of the
silence. It was the same with him as with medieval man,
for whom every movement from silence into speech was
an event in itself. What he had never achieved in a state 
of health—the experience of the birth of words from
silence as the extraordinary event that it is—he had now
been able to make personal experience because of his
   In this way Professor L. overcame his illness. And not
only that, but he became more through his illness than
he had been before it.

   The flowers, the fields, and the mountains stood in all
their vivid reality before us, as if they would remain
forever thus and as if there would be no need of anyone
to remember them when they passed quietly into winter.
   A man stood looking at them and thought of his own
death and of how he would one day see all this no more.
   In the moment in which he thought of death, he was
jolted out of this present reality, and looked at the flowers,
the meadow, and the trees as if already from the land of
death. They now looked as if he were seeing them through
the wrong end of a telescope: far away and very tiny, like
toys, and hovering in the distance. They were beautiful
as never before, and he waited anxiously for them to
become smaller and smaller until they should fade away
into the land of death where he was now.
   The movement of the spirit which enabled this man to
see the present from the past, from the land of death, is
only possible when there is much silence in a man. Then
the silence leads the soul from the present into the distant
land of death, and the spirit does not feel itself forsaken,
but moves along the wall of silence, moves along and
clings to the wall of silence.

          Whatever we have in our home and heart, whatever we
          are before God and man, whatever we need in field and
          wood, in kitchen and cellar, it is the experiences and inven-
          tions, the acquisitions and discoveries of the dead which
          stand us in good stead, on which we rely and depend in
          order to achieve higher and better things. Thus each one
          of us has a part in the vast inheritance from the past, and
          unless a man is sick with frantic arrogance, he will thank
          those who have gone before him for all the pains, the
          fruits of which we are now harvesting in such abundance.

   Man is only in relation with this world of the dead, if
he is already in relation with the world of silence. It is
only in the silence in his own life that he hears again the
words of the dead. Then the dead carry the silence into
the world of man, the world of the word. They give it
some of the power that is in silence. And they make men
and things receptive to the power that comes from silence.
   Today death is no longer a world of its own, it is merely
the last residue of life—used up life, and not even silence
belongs to it any longer. Silence is only as it were loaned
to it, loaned out of pity.
   Yet all at once death may appear again as a whole world
of its own, and life seem a mere prelude to this world. It
can appear in the guise of war, and as the millions of
deaths in war are not able to bring silence, the horrors of
war bring it instead. The silence that has been expelled
from life and from death then comes through the stupor
of terror.

          Precisely because death makes us feel the mysteries of the
          world more acutely, it should be the last thing in the
          world we should use to make life more difficult for each
          other. Let us rather respect death as the clearest symbol
          of our community in the silence, the symbol that hangs
          as an inescapable fate over us all. (Overbeck)