Radio silence

I had a joyful hour last night, listening to a BBC Radio 4 documentary on silence, presented by Lucy Powell.  It was called “Shhhhhhh” and as the promotional notes said, “examining the nature of silence might not seem the most obvious thing to do on the radio, the medium most wholly given over to noise and which was in its day seen as a direct threat to the realm of silence in our personal and public lives.”

With thanks to

With thanks to

Thanks to the programme, I was introduced to the work of Paul Goodman.  Much to my shame, I was not aware of him before the broadcast.  He came up with a distillation of nine kinds of silence, and the programme included a recording from a WBUR radio programme in the States called Stylus, where Christopher Ricks reads from the anatomy of silence constructed by Goodman.

I quickly had to transcribe Goodman’s nine kinds of silence from the BBC iPlayer.  They help add so much to our understanding of the concept that is too easy to take for granted.

“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world.  And there are kinds and grades of each.

✭ Dumb silence, of slumber and apathy;

✭ Sober silence, that goes with a solemn, animal face;

✭ Fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul from whence emerge new thoughts;

✭ Alive silence of alert perceptions, ready to say, ‘this, this’;

✭ Musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity;

✭ The silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift, and helping him to be clear;

✭ The noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud with sub-vocal speech, but sullen to say it;

✭ Baffled silence;

✭ The silence of peaceful accord with other persons, or communion with the cosmos.”

Maria Popova did a great blog post on the same subject earlier this year.

Paul Goodman (1960) "Growing Up Absurd", Vintage Books

Paul Goodman (1960) “Growing Up Absurd”, Vintage Books

As with so much other radio, it has introduced me to new thinkers, new material – in this case, from way back when in the shape of Paul Goodman – activist, pacifist, poet, anarchist, pacifist; some of whose writing focused on education, and sexuality amongst much more besides.  I can’t wait to explore some of his work, which appears at first glance to chime with so much with my own thinking, particularly going by the title of one of his books, “Growing Up Absurd”.  The embrace of the absurd appears to me one of the values most worth cherishing in modern society.

Just as with the absurd, don’t be afraid to embrace the silence, and this programme on BBC Radio 4 made great use of sound (and on occasion, noise) to explain why.



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