Advent IV: Let’s hear it for silence

John Neff, Performing 4’33” by John Cage,  2002. Silver gelatin print. From an exhibition at Suitable Gallery, Chicago


I went Christmas shopping with my kids today, and it was really fun. It is nice to go out to Target and get some things for people one loves. But it’s the first time I’ve been shopping this whole season. I have driven by Lenox Square a number of times in the last four weeks and its many lots and decks have been packed every time. So I know the craziness is out there. I just like to hide from it, is all.

I bring this up because I follow Mark Vernon‘s blog pretty closely and he has put up a few things this season about the craziness and overblown nature of our secularized Christmas frenzy. I thought I’d share a few with you. All of these quotes have to do with the terrible rut of noise and activity in which we find ourselves every Christmas, coupled with our deep needs for restraint, fewer choices, and stillness. In a word, silence.

Please note that Mark is an Englishman and there is some Brit-speak in some of these quotes.

1. From “An Hysterical Christmas,” 2 December. The run up to Christmas has to be the most hysterical period in the western capitalist year. It’s hysterical not just because of the frenetic activity, but because the frenetic activity is false activity. As Lacan observed, that’s activity that acts so as to prevent anything from changing. What do we secular peoples want not to change? Oddly, it’s that religious festival called Christmas.

For example, the media goes into overdrive with Advent calendars. (You can hear the discussion in the editorial meeting. ‘What can we do this year?’ ‘Advent calendar.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Twenty-four opportunities to print pictures of celebrities.’ ‘Brilliant.’) Hence, each day, a new hero or event of 2010 is remembered as the calendar door is opened, but in anticipation of what? Not new life on Christmas day, but old films on the TV. Not divinity emptying itself, but the populous stuffing itself.

(It seemed appropriate that the Guardian should launch it’s Advent calendar with a piece from that now most hysterical of writers, Richard Dawkins. Ostensibly it celebrated the moral courage of Christopher Hitchens, which I don’t doubt is worth admiring, only 50% of the piece was against the Pope, and 25% of the piece was about himself.)

Or we send Christmas cards. I’ve already had my first business Christmas card – the depersonalised kind that are signed on mass by ‘the team’ before being stuffed into labeled envelopes. No-one actually saw the card was to me. No-one intended that card for me. But we send ‘greeting cards’ by the ton because we can’t bear the thought that we live alienated lives in our mobile world, where others are not persons but clients; not souls but stakeholders.

Churches respond to this hysterical activity with hysterical activity of their own. They launch real Advent calendars, send cards expressing the real meaning of Christmas. But that’s just as much activity to ensure nothing changes too – for believers, the delusion that the meaning of Christmas matters to the world.

What would be more interesting would be the church that did nothing – that canceled its services on Christmas day. [Silence in the churches.] There would be uproar. The Daily Mail and Lord Carey would love it. But by doing nothing – resisting the temptation to hysterical activity – what it might allow is for the real question to be asked: what is Christmas for us today?

2. From “Freedom, by Giving Stuff Up,” an excerpt from Mark’s book The Good Life, 30 November. The freelance philosopher Ivan Illich had an idea. He was a great inverter of ideas. Perhaps his most well known book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971, argued that modern education risks not actually educating people. It might rather produce individuals equipped with skills to service the great economic machine that has wrapped itself around world. Today, in an age of education cuts, it’s a diagnosis that clearly has currency.

When it comes to freedom and choice, he notes that our problem, in the West at least, is not having no choice, but is having too much choice. He realised that true freedom comes not from making choices, but from making commitments.

Think of the business of falling in love. In a city like London, the choice of potential lovers is almost infinite. And yet, the proliferation of online dating sites suggests that anxiety about finding a partner is booming. Why is there this contradiction? Illich would diagnose that we’re trapped in a cultural confusion: we’re encouraged to think relationships are about making the right choice, when actually they’re about making a commitment.

More broadly, he came to think that there’s more freedom to be found in giving up some of this excess of choice. He called it renunciation: discovering what you can do without. That’s liberating in a consumer society because to discover you don’t need what you’re being told you do need, is to be freer of the tyranny of choice.

Clearly, a certain amount of choice is good. But perhaps a contented life is one that requires far less choice than we might be disposed to imagine.

3. From “Silence at the Top,” 9 December. Great that John Cage’s 4’33” (of silence) is up for the Christmas Number 1, or at least there’s a Facebook campaign to that end.

It won’t succeed in stilling the yuletide ruckus, of course. (Capitalism’s genius is that even a campaign for silence mostly succeeds in just generating more noise in pursuit of the aim.) And Cage’s piece is, partly, so arresting because even 5 minutes of stillness is hard work.

But then again, imagine if it did reach the top spot. It’d be a quite extraordinary cultural moment.

Merry Christmas to all (or Solstice, if you swing that way). May it be a time of silence and reflection for all Alert Readers.