In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Image and Silence
  • Giorgio Agamben
    Translated by Leland de la Durantaye (bio)

[End Page 94]

In the Roman pantheon there is a goddess named Angerona, represented with her mouth bound and sealed (ore obligato signatoque).1 Her finger is raised to her lips as if to command silence. Scholars claim that she represents, in the context of pagan mystery cults, the power of silence, although there is no consensus among them as to how to understand this power. Etymologically speaking, myein, the root of the Greek word mysterion, means “to close the mouth, to silence.” At the beginning of the sacred rites in Eleusis a herald “commanded silence” (epittatei tēn siōpen). It is said that that the initiates into these Eleusinian mysteries were required to maintain absolute silence concerning what they had seen and heard during their initiation. Our question is how to understand this silence. Was it a prohibition aimed at keeping a secret doctrine from the uninitiated? Or did it concern, instead, something truly impossible to say?

To begin we might ask what sense there might have been in the obligation to remain silent given that it was possible for anyone—including slaves, and thus, potentially, the entire population of Athens—to be initiated into the mysteries. In his early work, “On Philosophy,” Aristotle affirmed that, “the initiates do not need to learn something (mathein ti), but, instead, to be disposed to something, to experience and to undergo something (pathein kai diatethēnai).”2 It would therefore be possible that in the ancient mystery cults the initiate did not learn a doctrine that could be expressed in words (yet had to remain secret), but, instead, experienced something essentially silent, something impossible to say. “A great awe in face of the gods,” we read in the Homeric ode to Demeter, “silences the voice.”3

The impossibility of speaking—and the power of silence—has two forms, one joyful and the other disturbing. In myth muteness is often associated with rape. The Romans tell the story of Lara who was punished for her inclination to gossip by being rendered mute and who was then raped in a sacred wood by Mercury (who took advantage of her impossibility of speaking). Before being transformed into a swallow Philomela was raped by Tereus, who cut off her tongue to prevent her from recounting his misdeed. Persephone, raped, kidnapped, and conducted to Hades, remained there silent as the dead. In every one of these cases silence is the painful experience of a privation of speech, of being unable to say what one wishes to say.

In Gnostic mythology, the preexisting, eternal, uncreated God contains within himself a female figure which is his silence, Sigē. From his union with Silence Thought is born. “Sigē,” we read in a Valentinian text, “is the mother of all the beings that have emerged from the Abyss. He who has failed to say the unsayable has silenced it; he who was understood the unsayable, has declared it unsayable.”4 Here too silence appears as the experience of an impossibility of saying, as a privation. It is in opposition to this abyssal figure of silence that the church fathers affirmed the primacy of the logos in which God is revealed. Nevertheless, of the power of silence Heidegger would write: “This primordial silence is more powerful than any human potentiality. No one, on his or her own, has ever invented language—that is, has been strong enough to break the power of this silence.”5 [End Page 95]

In Kafka’s parable on Ulysses, we are told that the silence of the Sirens is more perilous than their song, and that Ulysses—who realized, as his ship neared them, that the Sirens were silent—put on an act to protect himself from this silence, plugging his ears with wax and having his men tie him to the mast.6 In Kafka’s retelling of the tale, the silence of the Sirens represents a zero degree of song and, following a stubborn tradition that sees in absence the most extreme form of presence, also represents an at once zero and ultimate degree of reality. In this sense Heidegger could write...