Old Moon

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Other Side of Silence

            “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” 
                          George Elliot, Middlemarch.

            Early in our lives, most of us are taut with eagerness to vibrate in unison with every sensation available. A few unlucky souls are oblivious. Those most observant, most open to subtlety, most susceptible to resonances with emotion become artists. The second tier of sensitivity allows for appreciation of what the elect produce.
            As time passes, those less hardy understand better what George Elliot meant about “dying of the roar on the other side of silence.” In a world so full of fast communication and visual images, the test of survival (psychic and emotional) is often the ability to withstand the worst, though it doesn’t happen to you.
            As a teenager, I read whatever was recommended or what sounded appealing regardless of its horror, and managed only occasional nightmares. In a single summer I made my way through War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Anna Karenina, The Robe, and more. Those books were Book-of-the-Month Club selections on my aunt’s shelves. I read drama, horror (not in the thriller sense)--endless historical fiction.
            Later I watched the movie Gone with the Wind, and suddenly the gripping scenes of the wounded in Atlanta, for instance, were no longer confined to what my imagination could conjure. I read All Quiet on the Western Front, The Moon is Down, Journey’s End. After a childhood surrounded by the knights of the Round Table, the exploits of Greek heroes, biblical warriors, I began to have a dawning realization of the difference between literary and artistic war and the real thing. By 1939, I couldn’t have escaped it if I’d tried.
            I have several friends who have joined the general rave about the movie War Horse. Some wonder that I won’t watch it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that my tolerance for a lot of reality has diminished in reverse order to the number of years I’ve lived. I no longer find it necessary to keep up with experiences I doubt I can withstand without paying an emotional price I find too high.
            There’s no doubt I’m a coward, both physical and emotional. The things we all manage because we have no choice are beginning to seem like all I can take. I don’t need to subject myself deliberately to things that will be far too easy to imagine far too accurately. So I won’t watch what horses went through (not to mention men and mules and farm animals and civilians) in World War I because I don’t have to.            
            The silence of the end of a disaster (of whatever kind)  hides a roar that only saints and philosophers have the stomach for. I wonder how many elderly have become like me.

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