The “social history” promised by the subtitle of Silence is pretty limited in scope. Author Jane Brox focuses particularly on two environments: prisons and monasteries. Despite a brief engagement with Thoreau and some short tangential passages about the development of silent reading, silence in Quakerism, and so forth, institutional penitence dominates the account.
The fourth of the five parts is dedicated especially to the social effects of gender on expectations of silence. An extensive discussion of female silencing and related judicial punishments leads into the women’s particulars of incarceration and monasticism. Implicitly, silence is given to be a sign of obedient virtue in women for the history treated, but there is no clear sign of how any masculine silence compares or contrasts with it (let alone the silences imposed on exceptional gender and gender resistance).
Brox’s prose is generally lucid and occasionally beautiful. The history is leavened with reflexive anecdotes regarding her research experience and significant digressions about architecture. A considerable portion of the book is given over to thoughts from and accounts of the twentieth-century celebrity monk Thomas Merton.
I learned some history in the course of this reading. It was surprising that I was a little less ignorant of the ancient and medieval aspects of monasticism than I was of the modern evolution of the US penitentiary. But in any case, I never really arrived at the understanding of the social role of silence that the subtitle indicated would be on offer.
I only desire to know the truth for the sake of the truth, and not for the purpose of obtaining any selfish advantage. Teach me these secrets, and I will forget my own self, and devote my life to benefit the universal brotherhood of humanity.
Lamaseries and lodges, orders, monasteries, convents, and places of refuge have been established, where people might strive to attain a higher life, unimpeded by the aggressions and annoyances of the external world of illusions. Their original purpose was beyond a doubt very commendable. If in the course of time many such institutions have become degraded and lost their original character; if instead of being places for the performance of the noblest and most difficult kind of labour, they have become places of refuge for the indolent, idle, and superstitious; it is not the fault of that principle which first caused such institutions to be organised, but it is the consequence of the knowledge of the higher nature of man and his powers and destiny having been lost, and with the loss of that knowledge, the means for the attainment, the original aim, was naturally lost and forgotten.
“One cannot be careful enough in selecting one’s guides,” continued the stranger. “There are at present so many false prophets and guides. All the world is at present crazy for poking their noses into the mysteries of the astral world. Everybody wants to be taught witchcraft and sorcery. Secrets, which for thousands of years have been wisely kept hidden before the eyes of the unripe and profane, are now bawled out from the housetops and sold at the market-place as objects of trade. Hundreds of self-appointed ‘masters’ and guides speculate upon the selfishness and ambitions of their disciples, and, the blind leading the blind, they both come to grief. If only all the seekers for truth were like you, they would not be deluded by false promises held out to them for attaining adeptship.”