This is basically an account of Sara Maitland’s journey towards becoming a modern-day hermit and it is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.
I’ve always really liked Maitland’s short fiction. There is something about the way she rewrites mythologies that I find particularly elegant. Over the last year I’ve been feeling the need for more silence in my life, so when I saw that Maitland had written an entire book on the subject, I ordered it from the library.
Until quite recently, Maitland lived a very noisy life. She comes from a large family, was educated at boarding school and Oxford, married a vicar active in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, had two children, got involved in feminism and became a relatively well-known author. Everything went well for her until she hit a crisis in her late forties: her marriage disintegrated, she ran out of steam as a writer and, most frighteningly, began to hear voices.
She started to crave silence and decided to try and incorporate more of it into her life. But as she cut out the noise, she was surprised by the alarmed reactions of friends and family, who interpreted her desire for quiet as some of kind of mental breakdown. She began to notice the negative associations that silence has accrued in our western capitalist society – silence is frightening, dangerous, oppressive, a possible source of madness, the place of death and chaos, something that is waiting to be broken. There is less and less space for positive silence in our lives, but what effect, she wondered, is all this noise having on us, physiologically speaking?
Maitland decided to try and expound the positive qualities of silence. She spent an ecstatic forty days alone in a cottage on Skye and then visited a range of silent places, the most extreme being a spiritual retreat in the Sinai desert. Eventually she built a little house on a moor in Northern Galloway where she still lives alone. One of the most interesting chapters is the one entitled ‘Silence and the Gods’ in which she discusses a number of creation myths, comparing those that depend upon silence bring broken (i.e. Genesis; the “big bang”) and less well-known ones that depend upon the maintenance of silence.
Maitland does acknowledge the dark side, the dangers of silence. On a symbolic level, in a world in which entire groups of people are “silenced” by various forms of oppression, it is important not to romanticise silence, or forget that in order for silence to be a positive experience it must be freely chosen. More literally, imposed silence can indeed be dangerous. Maitland recounts one frightening experience of being snowed in alone and losing all sense of control. She also experiences a certain amount of accidie, the lethargy that has plagued silence-seekers all the way back to the desert hermits. She finds the silence spiritually fulfilling, but then it makes it harder for her write fiction.
Still, all in all, I felt she made a convincing case for the experience of silence as a necessary aspect of human life and for silence as “multiple” – there are so many different kinds of silence. I have a very noisy life – I’m a loud person, with a loud family and lots of loud friends living in a noisy inner-city area. While I have no desire to go to the extremes of silence enjoyed by Maitland in this book, I do intend to make more effort to create silent spaces in my life.
The fact that I’m writing so much here shows that A Book of Silence also got under my skin and troubled me. This is not least because it has its own deep silences. I knew that Maitland was a Christian feminist; what I didn’t know is that after her marriage ended she converted to Catholicism, but she glosses this decision in about two sentences when it must have created some conflict for someone who is in many respects a radical feminist. I also became a little concerned that I was about to be unwillingly plunged back into Catholic theology. This wasn’t really the case, as Maitland is careful to keep her book generally spiritual rather than specifically Catholic in nature (she makes efforts to explore the silences of Buddhism and Quakerism) until, that is, the chapter on the ‘Desert Hermits’, which I did find uncomfortable reading because it put me back in touch with that extreme, uncompromising, anti-modern strand within Catholicism. And I couldn’t help but feel that Maitland actually regards this kind of silence as her ideal. She now aims for eighty percent silence in her life and prays for three hours a day. She is practically a hermit.
Class is also silenced in the book. After all, Maitland’s ability to carve out a silent life for herself is largely based on the privileges enjoyed by an upper-middle-class white woman from a wealthy background, who has had a lot of doors opened by a public school and Oxford education. As a result, Maitland is able to do things that simply would not be possible for the majority of women. Despite her “voice hearing”, for example, she is well able to stay out of the mental health system which I very much doubt would be possible for a working-class woman reporting the same experiences. She occasionally complains about not having much money, but she is able to build her own house so I’m not sure that her conception of being hard up is exactly the same as mine!
Perhaps the greatest silencing in the book is the silencing of gender. As I read, I had an increasing sense that there was something unusual about Maitland’s narrative. I couldn’t put my finger on the source of the strangeness until Maitland decides to experience the silence of the stars by driving into the Derbyshire hills for a few days and sleeping in her car at night. Then it dawned on me: there was no fear in the narrative? No fear of doing any of this as a lone woman, no fear of being attacked, or robbed, or raped, of the car breaking down and being stranded in the middle of nowhere? If I spent forty days alone in a cottage on Skye, there’s no doubt that gendered fear would be part of my experience. The fact that I felt the lack of such fear made me realise the extent to which the expression of gendered fear has become a part of the cultural construction of femaleness. A narrative that absolutely refuses to express fear comes across as oddly de-gendered. When Maitland does experience fear (when she’s snowed-in for example) she still keeps gender strictly out of the picture and gives a lot of examples of men having the same kind of experiences. The fear she experiences is not articulated as having anything to do with her being a woman in this situation. This may well be deliberate of course. She doesn’t express any guilt either, although I very much doubt that she has totally escaped the accusations of “selfishness” and “self-indulgence” that generally accompany any attempts by women to behave in ways that are traditionally reserved for men.
Although Maitland repeatedly identifies herself as a feminist in her book, the role that feminism plays in her journey into silence is also oddly silenced, which I think is a shame because I suspect it’s actually fundamental to this journey. Maitland places herself in a tradition of radical female Christian mystics who have rejected their gendered responsibilities and adopted male spiritual prerogatives. If you think about it, what Maitland has done is refuse the kind of gendered responsibilities that she would probably be expected to shoulder as a woman in her fifties, particularly the social responsibilities of caring for other people. When her family do make demands on her, she becomes deeply frustrated and feels burdened. I think it’s very interesting that one of the first things that goes while she’s on Skye is any care for her personal appearance, something she gives up with evident joy and relief. On consideration I began to feel that this spiritual odyssey is also the logical culmination of Maitland’s own radical feminist journey, an utter rejection of culturally constructed femininity and a radical attempt to live an uncompromisingly authentic life.
Fascinating and disturbing.