Secret Library

Say Nothing: A History of Silence

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle contemplates silence, courtesy of Alain Corbin’s new book

I wasn’t intending to write about this book this week. But then on Monday night, I learnt of the death of Mark Hollis, the lead singer of the 1980s and early 1990s band Talk Talk, and I found myself writing about him. So although this isn’t a music blog and this post isn’t about music, as such, I felt I had to write something. Because there are some of us who feel that Mark Hollis was the most outstanding English songwriter and musician of his time, and his death revealed just how many of us there are who hold that view.

But as I say, this isn’t a music blog, so I won’t wax lyrical about Mark Hollis for too long. I will remain silent – something he may well have approved of. For if there is one thing which characterises Hollis’s work, it is silence. If Walter Pater is right and all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, then for Mark Hollis, all the best music is constantly aspiring towards silence. If you haven’t yet listened to Talk Talk or you know them for radio-friendly favourites such as ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Life’s What You Make It’, take some time out to listen to ‘New Grass’, ‘John Cope’, ‘It’s Getting Late in the Evening’, ‘After the Flood’, or ‘Wealth’. Any of those five should do it. Especially ‘New Grass’: ten minutes of music that will change your life. Then buy Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, and, for your most contemplative moods, Hollis’s self-titled 1998 solo album and valediction to the music world. For the last two decades of his life, the greatest silence of all was Hollis’s own, as he retired from the music industry having achieved, one guesses, what he had set out to do.

For Hollis, listening to silence was preferable to listening to music. It’s rumoured that even the length of the silences between tracks on his albums was something he sought to control, knowing that the pause before a track is a powerful moment in the mind of the listener (as Christopher Ricks has said, we ‘hear’ the beginning of the next track before it begins, because our memory prompts us to recall the notes of the song). But this got me thinking about how often we actually get the chance to hear or enjoy silence in the modern world. Take a moment to think about the last time you could truly hear nothing. And is ‘nothing’ the same as ‘silence’? Is silence merely an absence, a lack, or is it something positive and present, as T. S. Eliot suggests in The Waste Land with his speaker who looks ‘into the heart of light, the silence’?

In A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day, Alain Corbin offers a brief history of silence and touches upon some of the most important questions concerning silence. In chapters titled ‘Silence and the Intimacy of Places’, ‘The Silences of Nature’, ‘The Search for Silence’, ‘The Education and Discipline of Silence’, ‘The Speech of Silence’, ‘The Tactics of Silence’, ‘From the Silences of Love to the Silence of Hate’, and ‘Postlude: The Tragedy of Silence’, Corbin examines the deeper implications of silence, which, his prelude reminds us, is ‘not simply the absence of noise’. Silence, rather, is something people have always gone in search of, because it enables contemplation, introspection, meditation, and prayer.

But urban expansion and the development of new media have all made silence a more precious commodity; or, more worryingly, they have made us forget its value. Perhaps because we know it is no longer easy to seek out complete silence and enjoy the peacefulness and tranquillity it can bring, we have internally devalued it. Although Corbin’s fascinating study ranges far and wide across philosophy, literature, and culture, the literary examples of silence down the ages were especially interesting to me (but of course). Chateaubriand described the ruins of the Syrian town of Palmyra as the ‘abode of silence’ (sadly, nothing much changes). Max Picard, meanwhile, declared that the Sphinx of Egypt ‘remains from the time of the most violent silence, as an image of that silence, still with us today. After all silence has disappeared, it is still with us, always threateningly ready to invade the world of noise.’ As Corbin points out, silence can be conducive to prayer and contemplation, but it can also be ominous, and even tragic. Maeterlinck offered the following advice: ‘Hold thy tongue for one day; on the morrow how much clearer are thy purposes and duties.’

A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day is out now from Polity Press.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.


  1. I might try that book. It’s so hard to find silence anywhere these days. It’s My Life is one of my all-time favourites: I was very sad to hear of the death of Mark Hollis.

    • ‘It’s My Life’ was the track that got me hooked on Talk Talk. I love the album, too: I think every album built upon the last, and have great fondness for the title track on that 1984 album, as well as the sublime ‘Renee’ and ‘Tomorrow Started’. Mark Hollis’s death was a real shock, but it was heartening to learn how many people had had their lives changed by his music. I’m off to dust off my vinyl collection (all five studio albums plus the 1990 compilation and the two remix albums).

  2. Very well put. It makes me want to pick up Corbin’s book and rediscover Mark Hollis’ music. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the comment :) Corbin’s book I’ve found very timely, as the world seems to be getting more clamorous, impulsive, and noisy, and less contemplative and quiet. I’ve been playing all of Talk Talk over the last few days. Especially Laughing Stock. 43 minutes of the best music (and silence between the notes/voice) ever recorded.

  3. Farewell Mark Hollis, indeed! Always been a star in my eyes and the final three Talk Talk albums are among my all time favourites.

    I must read the book. Silence is something becoming harder to find with each passing year.