The nuances and complexities of silence.
Brox (Creative Writing/Lesley Univ.; Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010, etc.) moves from the openness and space found in her earlier, well-received books on farms to places far more confining. This poignant and somber book is as much about solitude as it is silence. It’s also a social history of buildings and people who inhabit them, primarily prisons and monasteries, and the silence, whether imposed or invited, that inhabits those within. The author begins with the history of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829, it was largely inspired by Founding Father Benjamin Rush’s belief in a “new kind of justice,” the “silent and separate incarceration of criminals.” The plan was to make prisons “as forbidding and repellent as possible.” Throughout, Brox intimately imagines its first prisoner, Charles Williams, an 18-year-old black farmer, personally experiencing the horrors and sufferings of prison life. The author then transitions to a historical examination of the monastery and the monks who chose a life of voluntary imprisonment as a means to achieve a more spiritual life. Silence, monastic chants, and prayers were an integral part of their daily lives, as was community, something Williams was forbidden. A large part of the book explores the austere life and writings of the famous Trappist pacifist monk Thomas Merton and his life at Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani. Brox touches on many diverse topics, including the lives of nuns in monasteries and the horrific World War II bombing of the Monte Cassino monastery, and invokes many voices, including Dickens, Thoreau, Eugenia Ginzburg, a prisoner of Stalin’s Great Purge, author Doris Grumbach, and Brox’s “own most profound encounter with silence.” She concludes that silence can be many things, from an unwelcome punishment or a “lifelong commitment” to a “deliberate inquiry” or a “last resort.”
A perceptive and subtle meditation about a “true reckoning with the self.”