On Guarding the Questions

Over the course of the semester, my students begin to acknowledge that attending to literature means that we need also attend more fully to silence, not merely as a mode to be overlooked or overcome, but as an alternative to language and thought that might open us to new possibilities. Acknowledging the recalcitrance and contingency of the medium of language, the disparity between what is experienced and what it is possible to say, the students reflect on what happens in the rush to fill the silences that arise within and among spaces of academic exchange: the neglect of divergent forms of thinking, the failure to make space for others’ thoughts, and our own, by being too quick to speak. Exploring the use-value of being quiet in classrooms, in writing on-line, and in reading texts suggests alternative forms of understanding silence, as “pregnant, not empty.”

I reach for this when I set up a “quiet gallery walk” for our discussion of Gayle Jones’ novel, Eva’s Man. I tape large sheets of paper on the classroom walls; each bears either an excerpt from the book, or a reflection, posted by one of the students, about her experience of reading the novel. I invite the students to get up, wander around the room, read each of the passages, comment on those that speak to (or provoke) them, wander again and–if moved to do so–comment again on the growing conversation. Then I have them cluster around the cluster of comments they’d most like to continue exploring…

All this is done in silence.

Imprisoned for the bizarre murder of her lover, Eva Medina Canada recalls a life tormented by sexual abuse and emotional violence.

The disagreements about what we should attend to in Eva’s narrative, and how we should respond to what gets highlighted in that selection, are sharp.


As I read the disturbing encounters Eva had with the men in the book, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the guys…What were the stories of the males? What made them act this way? Who or what hurt them in the past that led them to act out their personal abuse?… I see all characters involved as victims…all are apart of a cycle of abuse that goes on in cultures, communities, etc….I think there is a larger conversation to be had….that touches upon male’s oppression, sexism and internalized sexism in the African-American culture.1


I couldn’t agree with you more! I especially found myself thinking about the “cycle of abuse that goes on in cultures, communities, etc.” when Eva talks about her relationship with…her husband….2


Personally, I don’t need to know the men’s stories as this is Eva’s. Yes, they are in complicated situations, but I’d like to recognize that this is Eva’s story, and I don’t need to act as another psychiatrist.3

Surrounding the discussion with silence gives it space to play out. For us to speak, to listen, to disagree, to reflect. And again to be still.

Attending to silence expands the range of possible interpretation, gives us space to listen, really listen, to what one another has to say. It generally –and most particularly in this case–does not mean consensus. Deep listening, really deep listening, takes us beyond agreement. Deep listening, really deep listening, takes us beyond agreement.

According to John Wideman, who calls silence an “illusion”–insisting that “if we hear nothing,” “it only means we aren’t listening hard enough,”4 silence functions as a method, a means to arrive at fuller understanding–-and so at fuller explication. Silence, as figured in those interruptive images of Claudia Rankine, with which this chapter begins, enacts an aural and visual “blank space,” a gap, an abyss that marks those uncertain teaching spaces, those moments of reading and talking when…

we don’t know what we are seeing, what we are hearing–and so we do not speak. In the pause, we might notice the “negative space,” not just, as Jennifer Roberts says in evoking “The Power of Patience,” “a passive intermission to be overcome,” but “a productive or formative force in itself.”5 Allowing for silence might mean taking more time. In Roberts’ account, it’s about looking at a painting for three hours. In my classes, as in my travels, it involves going inside the experience of silence, recognizing both the awkwardness of pausing, in a world wired for sound, and the fertility of doing so, the way in which space is thereby opened for…

something unexpected.

Most of us want to be recognized, to be intelligible—and allowing space for silence often means insisting that we forestall the desire to immediately be understood–or to understand: as we pause and acknowledge puzzlement, we refuse the pressure to speak. But such pauses can play an important role in our shared project of searching for understanding. As Abby Rose explains, during a second iteration of the course,

there are not only opportunities lost to understand others when we shut out language that is not immediately accessible to us, but there are also lost chances to understand ourselves better. Sometimes we do not yet have the language or the means to come to important conclusions about ourselves; these methods or materials may be inaccessible to us at first. If we pause, listen, be silent, and perhaps speak to that silence, then there may be a whole new realm of expression to explore.6

Over the arc of a long semester, and again with a different group of students, several years later, silence is at first only a physical phenomenon, the absence of sound: this is the definition that guides most of our structured silent exercises. Prodded by Wideman, and again by the great cultural critic Susan Sontag, we next explore the possibility that there actually is no silence, that even in the absence of speech, interpretation is always–somewhere, somehow–happening.7 Eventually, we arrive at the counter notion that so terrifies me in Central America: that silence might mark, not only a profound failure to transmit meaning, but the absence of meaning itself. We struggle with what Samuel Beckett calls ultimate silence–the refusal of the universe to answer our deepest questions, with “Every word …an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”8

Our orientation is, ultimately, ecological. We end “looping” between speech and silence, knowing that, a world of vast interconnection, something is always concealed. We begin to celebrate silence as a way of valuing what is not being shown, what exists—although it may not, at any given moment, be articulated.

“Sound imposes a narrative on you,” he said, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative”

George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence

To be out is really to be in–inside the realm of the visible, the speakable….engaging in…dialogue about “personal” or “private” aspects of yourself…can make you TOO easy to understand….maintaining the liminal…position…means that you do not become “culturally intelligible.” You can’t be mainstreamed; your deviance cannot be absorbed…cannot be contained

Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine 

  1. couldntthinkofanoriginalname, “Reflections on Eva’s Man,” November 18, 2012 (3:33p.m.), accessed February 18, 2016.
  2. Owl, “I couldn’t agree with you,” November 19, 2012 (1:08 p.m. ), accessed February 18, 2016.
  3. jhunter, “Notes Towards Day 23,” November 27, 2012 (11:37 p.m.), accessed February 18, 2016. 
  4. John Wideman, “In Praise of Silence,” Callaloo 22, 3 (Summer 1999): 547-549.
  5. Jennifer Roberts, “The Power of Patience,” Harvard Magazine (November-December 2013), accessed February 18, 2016.
  6. abby rose, comment #14, accessed February 18, 2016. 
  7. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation.” In Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966: 4-14.
  8. Anne Dalke, “Notes Towards Day 13,” October 11, 2012 (10:50 p.m.), accessed February 18, 2016,.