“The silent are never at home in our culture again”

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”


Adam DeVille has a fascinating pair of posts (one here, one here) on Maggie RossSilence: A User’s Guide. Both posts are worth reading in full (and I must now read Ross’ book itself!)

In part 1 of these posts, deVille discusses his own dislike of the term “spirituality”:

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of “spirituality.” I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in “spirituality” taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, “spirituality” was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious–before I had the language to express it–that “spirituality” was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.


In part 2, deVille draws further on Ross’ bracing approach to many oft-abused concepts:

One of the biggest misunderstandings–as I have long thought myself–comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of “experience,” which Ross says is “perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list.” Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today’s usage, running totally contrary to “ancient, patristic, and medieval” wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word–and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed–because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

: All these terms “have become useless and misleading” and function to justify “weirdness,” “exoticism,” “voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography” (90). See below for more on the problems with “mysticism.”

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called “spirituality” exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as “spiritual directors” everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted “spiritual directors” lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross’s denunciation of “spiritual direction, so-called” as having “little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control.” As she continues, “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”


There is a wider cultural context to this:

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross’s critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty “cures” approved by modern “therapists” and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over “unknowing” that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word “experience and other anachronisms” the effect of which is to “have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears.” Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we “experience” (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.


Previously I posted a link to an interview with the media theorist Marie Thompson which made reference to “the conservative politics of silence”. From a rather different perspective, Ross and DeVille share this concern:

For those worried about the “political” implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed “me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell” Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are “green” in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of “custody of the ears.” Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

For me, “simultaneously more liberal and more conservative” captures something not just about our encounter with silence, or with Christ, or indeed with many other phenomena (secular as well as religious), onto which we tend to try and shoehorn our own political preferences and biases.


Finally, deVille captures the tranfigurative power of silence, and its counter-cultural nature:

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User’s Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.


“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation” – GK Chesterton, Allan Massie and complexity

. As I have recently written, I am reading a collection of Allan Massie’s Life and Letters columns from the Spectator, which is full of shrewd judgments. In particular there is this on G K Chesterton:

What is disconcerting for many about Chesterton is that, while deadly serious, he revelled in paradoxes, absurdity and farce. He believed in the Devil, believed in him as perhaps few in the last centuries did, but the weapon he employed against him was laughter; he was at one with Rabelais : ‘the discovery of the reality of evil and the battle against it are at the basis of all gaiety and even of all farce’.

Chesterton would have found Orwell admirable — and ridiculous; ridiculous because of his solemnity. ‘The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums’, he declared. He thought in paradoxes, on the sensible ground that if an idea is worth anything it ought to be able to be held upside down and shaken about.

Sometimes, admittedly, the paradoxes flew too easily, too frequently and tiresomely from his pen. He wrote too much and often, I suspect, when he was tired, and then the paradoxes had a mechanical or tinkling sound like music from an elderly barrel-organ. But at his best they make you think, and this is always disturbing: ‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

That’s a thought you get your mind round. Because he was a man of faith he understood and valued doubt. He thought Charles II’s deathbed admission to the Roman Church proof of his perfect scepticism. The wafer might, or might not be, the body of Christ, but then it might, or might not be, a wafer. More than 70 years after his death he remains an entertaining writer, and a disquieting one. In the opinion of the editor of L’Atelier du Roman, Lakis Proguidis, ‘no twentieth-century author has so thoroughly examined the yawning gulf cut in each soul by the ideology of Progress’.

I know what Massie means about “too easily, too frequently and tiresomely” – at times in the polemical and apologetic works there is a sense of dead horses being flogged. At his best, however, there is a freshness to Chesterton’s prose, especially his fiction. Borges adored Chesterton, indeed placed him with Stevenson (and on one occasion Homer) in a personal pantheon.

Anyhow all this is prelude to a passage from The Everlasting Man which struck me as forcibly summarising the thoughts of Joseph Tainter on complexity:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity.

Rene Girard – “Envy in our world is the real unconscious, the real taboo”

From “Reading the Bible with Rene Girard: Conversations with Steven E. Berry” by Michael Hardin, Scott Cowdell

As for mediated desire, the more democratic the world becomes, the less concrete difference there is between people. Everybody wants to be a billionaire today, and quite a few achieve it. We have a friend at Stanford who made 50 million dollars, in spite of not having a cent to start with. So everything is possible, but these examples are attractive, they’re a mimetic model, which means everybody wants to become a millionaire or marry a princess. This is the world of internal mediation, and it’s inevitably a world of jealousy and envy. Envy in our world is the real unconscious, the real taboo. You mustn’t talk about envy. I think one of the reasons we talk so much about sex, and pretend that we’re very daring when we talk about sex, is that deep down we’re avoiding talking about competition, and therefore about envy. Sex is the false taboo that everybody brags about breaking because they don’t talk about their real motivation, which is ambition, envy of a billionaire or the husband of the most beautiful girl; but usually sex in our world is not the object of a sufficient taboo to be the force that it seems to be. I think it’s ceasing to be that, because all romantic love is disappearing.

The lost world of Ana Olgica

The lost world of Ana Olgica



Continuing from my profile of the work of Amity Cadet, I thought I would focus on another artist, once legendary, now only known by a fraction of their life’s work.

Unlike Amity Cadet, however, Ana Olgica is represeneted on Spotify by not one, but two works. Here, from YouTube, is “Sugarcane”:

On 7th September 1968, the Venice Film Festival was concluding, with the Golden Lion being awarded to Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed directed by the West German philosopher Alexander Kluge. In New York, an organisation called New York Radical Women organised a protest against the Miss America pageant that sent bra-burning into the public consciousness. Elsewhere in New York, the New Yorker on that date published George Steiner‘s essay “A Death of Kings”

Steiner’s essay begins:

“There are three intellectual pursuits, and so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess. Mozart wrote music of undoubted competence and charm before he was eight. At the age of three, Karl Friedrich Gauss reportedly performed numerical computations of some intricacy; he proved himself a prodigiously rapid but also a fairly deep arithmetician before he was ten. In his twelfth year, Paul Morphy routed all comers in New Orleans – no small feat in a city that, a hundred years ago, counted several formidable chess players. Are we dealing here with some kind of elaborate imitative reflexes, with achievements conceivably in reach of automata? Or do these wondrous miniature beings actually create?”

As it happened, 7th September 1968, in the city of Novi Sad, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Serbia, which was a constituent republic of what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a baby girl who would become known to the world as Ana Olgica was born. And she would perform major feats in all three “intellectual pursuits” Steiner identified.

Her real name, and her parentage, are unknown. Rumours would abound in the Belgrade of the later 1970s. They were university professors, demoted in the aftermath of the 1968 student protests in Belgrade. Or they were in some way linked to Tito’s inner circle. She made public appearances alone, without reference to a mother or a father.

At the age of five, Olgica performed on a Belgrade stage, playing over fourteen nights Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. At the age of six, she defeated Boris Spassky – still, perhaps still, perhaps, not quite recovered from his defeat by Bobby Fischer in the famous 1972 World Championship, in a ten game series held in Rome. At the age of seven, she delivered a paper On the stability of the linear mapping in Banach spaces to the American Academy of Sciences.

With an infectious smile, Ana became a propaganda fixture of the latter days of the Tito regime. This deflected somewhat from her gargantuan talents. Furthermore, there was continual speculation that some kind of trickery was involved. Never mind that she played music and chess in exactly the same conditions as any one else, or that her mathematical papers were subject the the full rigour of the worldwide mathematical community’s review. What did she herself think of this suspicion? Her warm smile and sunny demeanour on stage seemed to suggest that she was at ease. But no press interviews were ever allowed; even with supine Yugoslav state media.

As the 1970s progressed, the world seemed to tire of the precocious girl. Like so many prodigies, what seemed initially miraculous soon became ho-hum, run of the mill. Just as the world reacted with wonder at Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon but the stupendous achievement of Apollo was met with more and more indifference, Ana Olgica continued to excel in her three areas. The Yugoslav state would send her on visits to nations where she would perform on the piano, deliver a mathematical paper, and beat a Grandmaster in an exhibition. Yet this schedule did not vary. In the later 1970s, Ana Olgica did not appear.

It was May 4th 1984, three years to the day after the death of Tito, that Ana Olgica reappeared to the world. She released a record, a single entitled “Sugarcane.” Yugoslavia, more Western-leaning than the Warsaw Pact, had something of a music industry, and through this the mysterious, placid, self-contained “Sugarcane” was released. It would become an hit in Yugoslavia, Norway, Belgium and San Marino. And still, Ana Olgica was as inaccessible to the media as ever. Now 15, there were no publicly available photos. Rumours spread that she was the cover for a German disco producer’s dabbling in the new ambient style.

Over the rest of the 1980s, a torrent of Ana Olgica works followed. They followed a similar style to “Sugarcane”, but utilised a bewildering range of solo instrumentation. Pipe organ, harpsichord, cello, double bass, trombone, tuba, glass harmonica, gamelan, french horn, oboe, bassoon, violin, violin, steel drum, xylophone, theremin, trumpet, flute, guitar, accordion, banjo, ukelele, bass drum… all were used individually, to create a world of gentle, yet flowing enchantment. These albums came out via the Belka Tashmaydan label, and achieved milestones internationally. The first commercially available CD in New Zealand was her “Glowing”, recorded entirely on hammered dulcimer. The highest selling album in Japan in 1988 was her “Panoply”, recorded on Northumberland bagpipes. A recording of her piece “Smoothness”, recorded on Fife drum, was launched into space aboard the space probe Galileo.

And then Yugoslavia broke up. Even more obscure than the obscurity of Ana’s prior years is what happened over the next decade. It is as if the stage were in shadow, and suddenly a kind of reverse spotlight thrust her into deeper darkness. What did happen is that Belka Tashmaydan became the subject of UN sanctions, and in the aftermath of these it transpired the company was being used to launder money from the heroin trade in Milan. The assets of Belka Tashmaydan, including the Ana Olgica recordings, remain in a legal limbo, and her albums of the 1980s cannot be released, or even mentioned, due to ongoing cases in the courts of eleven countries.

So her songs go unheard. Except “Sugarcane”, which was not released by Belka Tashmaydan, and one more song which appeared in 2000, just after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Atoms” is a song of quiet devastation, with a sense of loss that both sums up and transcends its historical moment. Ana Olgica may record again, but in “Atoms” she achieved a summation of all her musical work before. In a way, to hear “Atoms” and “Sugarcane” is to hear all her vast, eternal output, and to recognise that here was one prodigy who survived the crushing expectations of a demanding state and jaded global public to achieve a measure of peace.


The lost world of Amity Cadet

The lost world of Amity Cadet

The works of the Vietnam-born French composer and pianist Amity Cadet have all but vanished from public consciousness. Of her innovative and eclectic body of work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, only one song – “Romances” has made it into the era of YouTube:

and Spotify:


Cadet was born in Saigon on the 7th of May 1954 – symbolically the day of the fall of Dien Bien Phu which would mark the end of the French presence in Indochina. Cadet’s father was a railway engineer working on the maintenance of the North-South Railway Line, her mother a teacher in the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat:


Amity Cadet’s destiny was to move from lost world to lost world; it is not clear when exactly the Cadets left Vietnam, but they next were in Algeria, just in time for the escalation in the Algerian War of Independence that followed the Philippeville Massacre. They stayed in Algeria somewhat longer, until the mid-1960s. After all the Cadets were not pieds-noirs, and it seems that Mr Cadet secured employment with the post-Independence. In 1964 the Cadets relocated to Quebec City. At that point, Quebec remained a highly traditionalist, Catholic province. This suited Mrs Cadet, who at this point had become intensely devoted to the Most Immaculate Heart of Mary, but in the familiar pattern Quebec too was about the change, if not as violently as Vietnam or Algeria just as decisively.

Cadet’s teens spanned the years 1967 to 1974, but contemporaries did not recall her seeming terribly affected by the supposedly epoch-making events of the time. “She was a calm, placid girl. She liked slightly cheesy music – Neil Diamond, John Denver, that kind of thing.” She had begun learning the piano in Algeria, and kept up her lessons with Madame Press, a legendary Quebec City music teacher of fearsome repute. Yet, uniquely among Press’ students, Cadet had a calming effect on the irascible, ancient woman who had been been brought to Canada by her parents fleeing an Odessa pogrom in the year 1881. “Things that, from anyone else, would bring forth a hail of Yiddish curses and blows from tiny fists, would be greeted with a benevolent smile if Amity did them,” recalled a contemporary from the Quebec City Conservatory.

It was in 1975, aged 21, that Amity Cadet began to release albums on the legendary Montreal label Les Enfants d’Esprit. The pioneering dronerock act Nul and the “extreme singer songwriter” Benoit de Boniface (whose ninety five minute strums on open chords had so divided opinion during the first Festival De La Sagesse held in 1972) were the best-known acts on this label. The Les Enfants d’Esprit archives, including the cover art for all records released on the label, were destroyed in a fire in 1983.

All known copies of Amity Cadet’s debut, Piano de l’Enfer were destroyed in the flames. Perhaps, somewhere in a mouldering jumble sale or in an attic, there remains a copy of this album described by Canadian music critic Doug Bundle as “at the same time terrifying and arousing, like the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon” (to which Amity Cadet reportedly replied “What does that even mean?)

Whatever the merits of Bundle’s clotted prose, Amity Cadet’s debut was a milestone in the development of minimalist music. One contemporary said that the best way to imagine it is “Ligeti’s Musica Ricercerta II – played in hell by a pianist being slowly disembowelled by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon”

The years went on – Charles Manson and Richard Nixon became somewhat lesser cultural touchstones – and as the 1970s became dominated by punk (according to ageing music critics) and the Bay City Rollers (in reality), Amity Cadet found herself swimming against a musical tide of triviality, swimming against a cultural tide of cynical materialism, and swimming against a personal tide of repeated bad relationships. In 1979 a nightmare date with Donald Sutherland, followed by a nightmare date the following Saturday with Leonard Cohen, was immortalised in her minimalist piece “Threnody On Nightmare Dates with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Cohen on Two Successive Saturdays” She persuaded Les Enfants D’Esprit to release this fifteen hour work in a twenty-LP set, no small vote of confidence in a work that consisted of Cadet repeatedly pressing all 88 piano keys at the same time using a length of wood.

The album “Romances” appeared in 1981. It is from this that the one surviving Amity Cadet track that appears on Spotify and Youtube comes from. Along with Tubular Bells, it is regarded as the high water mark of New Age music. “Romances”, the song, is the paradigmatic piano relaxation song, one whose structure however contains hidden repetitions of note sequences that encode the opening verses of the Books of Revelations.


Later in the 1980s, Amity Cadet renounced music. The death of her mother in a train crash, for which her father, who had been unaware his wife was on the train, was later held criminally negligent for, deeply affected her. She used what royalties she had gained to buy up her records and destroy them, and to pulp entire runs of magazines that mentioned her career. She, like her mother before her, was to devote her life to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and music played by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon in hell did not quite fit this aspiration. Some tender impulse, however, led her to spare “Romances” from the memory hole, and to this day we can enjoy this epitome of piano relaxation.

“the unbridled onward rush into the abyss”

From “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield:

“Optimistically, the more benign form of frenetic standstill is not a new thing. In the terminology of popular media we have been ‘living on a hamster wheel’ since the 1950s, while we have been ‘on a treadmill’ since the 1970s. And we can go further back still. In February 1920, in a letter to his colleague Ludwig Hopf, Einstein observed how he was ‘being so terribly deluged with inquiries, invitations, and requests that at night I dream I am burning in hell and the mailman is the devil and is continually yelling at me, hurling a fresh bundle of letters at my head because I still haven’t answered the old ones’. And further back still. ‘Everything is now “ultra”,’ Goethe wrote to the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter. ‘Young people are . . . swept along in the whirlpool of time; wealth and speed are what the world admires and what everyone strives for. All kinds of communicative facility are what the civilized world is aiming at in outpacing itself.’ That was in 1825. Regrettably, not all of our new acceleration is benign. Rosa concludes his book with a worst-case scenario, an endgame he calls ‘the unbridled onward rush into the abyss’ – death by time. It will be caused by our inability to balance the conflict of movement and inertia, and ‘the abyss will be embodied in either the collapse of the ecosystem or in the ultimate breakdown of the modern social order’. There may also be ‘nuclear or climatic catastrophes, with the diffusion at a furious pace of new diseases, or with new forms of political collapse and the eruption of uncontrolled violence, which can be particularly expected where the masses excluded from the process of acceleration and growth take a stand against the acceleration society’. Happy days.”

“a media to look at rather than to read”

This article from Politico on Robert D’Agostino, the man behind the website Dagospia, is an interesting read on both Italian media/politics and the general mental landscape of the internet. I was struck by a phrase from the journalist Filippo Cecarelli, quoted in the article:

Ceccarelli, the La Repubblica journalist, credits Dagospia’s success to two factors. D’Agostino’s was one of the first media outlets in Italy to grasp the potential of the web. And it was the first to understand that the web was a post-ideological visual space.

“Dagospia is a media to look [at] rather than to read,” said Ceccarelli, who wrote the foreword to one of D’Agostino’s books.

It is something of a commonplace to describe the Internet as a medium that privileges the visual over the written (although I recall in the early days of the mass availability of the internet pieces claiming we were entering a new epistolary golden age) – but something about this passage (and possibly the context, with the description of D’Agostino’s eclectically decorated apartment and the febrile world of Italian politics) resonated. It certainly would have appealed to Neil Postman with his concern with how we were amusing ourselves to death via media ideal for entertainment rather than reflection

I was also struck by a quote from D’Agostino himself:

In D’Agostino’s view, Italy is run by “powerful bureaucrats” who direct elected politicians and ministers from behind the scenes. His bottom line is that Italy has always been and remains a feudal country.

“In a serious country Dagospia would not exist,” said D’Agostino in an interview in his Roman mansion. “But in Italy news gets buried.”

I recall hearing Italians self-deprecatingly observe that other nations were “serious”, not them. I suspect this may be a universal perception – that other nations Do Things Better.