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  • Listening to Silence in Pascal Quignard's Vie secrète
  • Joseph Acquisto

Silence plays a particularly important role in Pascal Quignard's work; the verbal elaboration of soundlessness is a crucial if ironic aspect of his role as reader and writer. Quignard's situation of silence between music and language, or between reading and writing, is an important intervention in a dialogue about silence that began in the mid-twentieth century and continues to be a source of social critique and aesthetic inquiry.1 Max Picard's The World of Silence provided, in the wake of World War II, an important critique of the society of noise, while John Cage's experiments in the 1950s challenged the aesthetics of listening by asserting that there is no such thing as silence to be perceived while the perceiver is alive, a conclusion that followed Cage's experience hearing his own blood flowing while in an anechoic chamber.2 Cage's famous 4'33" is an invitation to listen to the ambient sound that occurs in the concert hall while the musician refrains from playing, the sound that is present and to which we can be attentive even when we think we hear only 'silence.' In 1961, George Steiner lamented, in "The Retreat from the Word," the restriction of verbal language (in favor of other kinds of language patterned on mathematics) and its tendency to move away from eloquence and toward silence, resulting in a situation where "the modern writer is threatened by restriction from without and decay from within."3 In 1969, the year of Quignard's publication début, Susan Sontag's essay "The Aesthetics of Silence" indicated the importance of a call to silence in modern arts of all kinds, claiming that, in the wake of such poets as Rilke and Mallarmé, the ideal work of art would be one that bypassed the imperfections of communication by saying nothing at all.4 In this essay I read Quignard's approach to silence as an extension and alteration of these important twentieth-century views about the intersection of silence and writing, with particular reference to Quignard's Vie secrète (1998). Quignard's emphasis on reading as an even more fundamentally important act for him than writing allows him to reshape twentieth-century attention to silence by reengaging with the past on new terms, entering into a richly silent conversation with writers of the past in order to bring reading and writing, fiction and nonfiction, and music and language together in previously unheard ways. [End Page 83]

Sontag navigates perilous territory, in that an art that aspires to silence has the potential to end in its own annihilation. If art is at its most profound when it successfully aspires to silence, how to create art that would not simply be meaningless babble drawing us away from the silent ideal? Darla Crispin argues that "at the boundary of annihilation, [Sontag] envisioned an encounter with the myths of silence, in which [...] she sensed a profound pathos. It could be said that, for her, the search for transcendence became interfused with the pursuit of emptiness, nothingness, silence."5 In this sense, Sontag points the way toward a synthesis of Picard's ideal of silence as a fundamental, elemental aspect of human existence and Cage's challenging of its very existence. Sontag's remarks on silence hold the potential for a new ideal, neither the transcendence of the mystic via negativa, nor the Mallarméan ideal in the unwritten and unwritable experimental book, but a new kind of word that emerges from silence and then returns to it. The "newer myth" that she traces indicates that "art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the 'subject' (the 'object,' the 'image'), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence" (Sontag 5). The natural consequence of this new mythology is that "art becomes the enemy of the artist, for it denies him the realization—the transcendence—he desires. Therefore, art comes to be considered something to be overthrown" (5). One potential route for contemporary artists is thus a highly conceptual or even actively hostile form of art, a kind that aims "to be...