Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.

9780195371857

In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link

 

The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.
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Murphy Devitt stained glass, Chapel of St Martin de Porres, Dominican Friary, Limerick

Murphy Devitt stained glass, Chapel of St Martin de Porres, Dominican Friary, Limerick

I have blogged before about discovering the stained glass work of Murphy Devitt Studios. Here is a brief background from the MDS page:

In the early 1950s at Harry Clarke Studios, Dublin, John (Johnny) Murphy and John (Des) Devitt first met. By 1958 Johnny and Des along with Johnny’s wife Róisín Dowd Murphy decided to strike out alone and immediately started to create some of the most stunning stained glass ever seen in Ireland and beyond. It was a relationship that lasted almost fifty years, most notably in the form of Murphy/DevittStudios Limited.

Imagine my joy at happening on more Murphy Devitt work by chance in Limerick at the Dominican Friary. As is often the case one can reflect at how overlooked this magnificent and very widespread art form is in modern Ireland.

One window has a slightly unfortunate misprint of “designed”

Here is the statue of St Martin de Porres in the chapel:

There is also a later window in the Friary which Reitlin Muphy contributed to. This window featured what seemed to me representations of the social and economic life of Munster. My photo skills were even more sorely tested and this area was quite busy with post Mass worshippers which always inhibits me a little :

One of the nice things about growing older is that you lose some of the inhibitions about admitting you haven’t read a particular writer. One of the less nice things is that your tastes can become a bit ossified and (internally) predictable.

All of which is prelude to saying that I haven’t read the works of Henry Miller, and up to now he he has been a writer I wasn’t terribly interested in reading. Why did I have this prejudice (a literal pre-judging)? I guess what I had read about did not incline me to read more, and in my mind he was conflated with  a certain rather self-conscious American-in-Paris literary pose which grates. Not very edifying on my part, although I do suspect that all our literary tastes have such not very reasonable lacunae.

However recently I have been reading the wonderful blog of Lee Watkins and his discussions / summaries of some of Miller’s work.  The highest praise one can surely give to a literary blog is that it makes you want to read the works featured, and in Watkins’ case it is even better – he makes me want to read a writer that not only I have not read, but one I would not have thought I would ever want to read.

This post by Watkins encapsulates what is it about Miller (or, more properly, what Watkins captures about Miller) that attracts: a commitment to truth and an awareness of his own flaws:

Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?

Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.

On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?

Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.

He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (SexusPlexus, and Nexus).

The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.

But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul

For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.

Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.

Anyway, here is a Christmas with Henry Miller. I found this story moving for its very ordinariness, and also subverting my (and Watkins’) expectations about what a Christmas with Henry Miller might be like!

A first hand account of being in the eye of an online shame hurricane – “Shame Storm”, Helen Andrews |

At First Things, a highly thought-provoking essay by Helen Andrews on online shaming, and specifically her own experience.

One of the most repellent features of online and social media discourse, for me, is the endless moral one-upmanship. Even in what now seem the far off days when I I haunted the OneTouchFootball forums, online shaming and self-righteousness seemed far more intense and focused than the real world equivalent. Of course, anyone who thinks these phenomena didn’t happen pre-Internet is massively deluded,  but the sheer speed and reach of online shaming is something else. The most notorious example probably being Justine Sacco:

Actually, a better candidate for original victim is Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted to her 170 Twitter followers before getting on a plane to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was during the Christmas holidays when news is always slow, so a Gawker post about the tweet quickly went viral. People around the world were soon enjoying the suspense of knowing Sacco was on a plane with no Internet access and no way to know that she had become an object of global ridicule

Not only that, but she lost her job. As far as I can make out, the practice of online shaming transcends political and  sociological categories. There doesn’t seem to be an online grouping or community immune. As is always the way, there is at least an element of ingroup/outgroup definition, with the Bad People being outcast from the Good People. This René Girard quote springs to mind:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>“All are drawn unwittingly into the structure of violent reciprocity -which they always think they are outside of- because they all initially come from the outside and mistake this positional and temporary advantage for a permanent and fundamental superiority.” <br><br>~René Girard</p>&mdash; René Girard Quotes (@Renegirard1923) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Renegirard1923/status/1031302568113328128?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>August 19, 2018</a></blockquote>
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And while I’m at it, here’s another germane quote, from Gil Bailie discussing Girard: 

The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy drives the process toward ever more desperate gesticulations of authenticity which in fact amount to an open declaration of its opposite. On the social level, the end result is a spiritual alienation from oneself and from a healthy social matrix, an alienation from which relief is often enough sought in crude and ultimately violent forms of social solidarity.

 

Someone tweeted that Andrews is conflating people who can justifiably be described as victims of this online shame culture with others who deserved opprobium , the question being in the latter group how many deserve the longer term impact of the shaming (I am paraphrasing and can’t right now find the original) While there may be some merit in this, I can’t help the point is more the dynamics and sheer vitriol unleashed, regardless of cause. Based on a few seconds of video, a tweet, or a brief news report we indulge a perennial human habit of shaming our neighbours.

Some highlights from Andrews’ essay:

There is a celebrity fashion blog called Go Fug Yourself that specializes—or specialized back in 2011, the one and only time I visited the site—in unflattering paparazzi shots and red carpet disasters. The odd thing about Go Fug Yourself, I discovered, was that all its nastiest posts featured the same tic. After unloading whatever brutal snark she had for Jennifer Lawrence or whomever, the writer would always include the same disclaimer: A celebrity has one job, and that’s to look glamorous, so if you can’t manage the one thing you owe us in exchange for all the money and fame, then find another line of work, and until then lay off the cheeseburgers and hire a decent stylist. This dime-store Joan Rivers can’t think she’s fooling anyone, I thought as I scrolled through the archives to see if every post really included this lame moral alibi. Her motivation has nothing to do with celebrities falling short of their duty to the public. She’s making fun of ugliness for the same reason anyone does: It stimulates our lizard brains.

The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. ­

In Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday’s memoir of his years as a PR consultant, he describes a roundtable meeting at the Huffington Post where the editors discussed how a certain big company should have handled its recent PR crisis. The editors offered the usual bromides: “Transparency is critical.” “Be proactive.” “Get out in front of it.” Holiday replied, “None of you know what you’re talking about.” The old rules don’t apply in the free-for-all world of online journalism, and they especially don’t work when the figure at the center of the controversy is one lonely individual. If a client came to him because he was being called a racist or sexist on Twitter, Holiday says (pardon the vulgarity), “I would tell him to bend over and take it. And then I’d apologize. I’d tell him the whole system is broken and evil, and I’m sorry it’s attacking him. But there’s nothing that can be done.”

When I was debating whether or not to write this essay, which, after all, revisits an unpleasant incident that has long been at least semi-­dormant, if not quite forgotten, I saw a headline in the New York Times: “His Body Was Behind the Wheel a Week Before It Was Discovered.” The man, Geoffrey Corbis, had committed suicide in a parked car in the East Village. Only his name wasn’t really Geoffrey Corbis, the Times explained. He had been born Geoffrey Weglarz. He changed it after an incident in 2013 at a McDonald’s near his home in Connecticut, when he threw a sandwich at a pregnant server who had given him the wrong order. Newspaper coverage of this funny local fracas did not mention Weglarz’s recent divorce or long-term unemployment after leaving his job as a computer programmer at Dell. He couldn’t find work with the McDonald’s story at the top of his Google results, hence the attempt at a fresh start as Geoffrey Corbis.

All this puts me in mind of Philip Larkin’s The Mower – we should be kind while there is still time:

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time

Against the inspirational

A while back I posted about what I called the Inspirational Imperative; the pressure to craft suffering and distress and setbacks into more-easily-digestible, feelgood stories of “inspiration.”

The need to be “inspirational” can become like the “the success-failure whiplash”, wherein our identities become caught up in how inspirational and positive we can be.

An addiction, not unlike that to being busy or being responsible for others’ pain.

A pressure.

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience.” Hype breeds disillusion. Most of all, our own internal hype, one that is pumped up and primed and built up by technology and our media-saturated lives – but is also something perpetual in human life.

 

We reach for quick fixes,  practice solutionism, search for the new New Thing.

We are continually being asked, “what then?”:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’ 

When the viral video’s hits have plateaued, when the few seconds rush of Inspiration is gone, when any “success” has been achieved, there is always a “what then?”

I’ll end this post by simply saying that we all have our own Plato’s Ghost. But who is yours?

Tim Miller on the Bush funeral and “the sad truth of public theatre”

At his blog Truth and Silence, Tim Miller has a post on the funeral of George H W Bush and what it reveals about the media and our culture..

We have a funny view of politicians. Someone once said that politics is the only profession in which every says they would prefer an amateur to a professional (it was phrased a lot more fluently than that)

As mentioned before I have been reading quite a bit of Edwin Friedman lately. It has provoked a lot of thought for me about leadership, responsibility, and the recurrent patterns of our relationships. It struck me how much is projected onto leaders. Personally, I have always felt I would vote for someone who announced “Public administration is complex and challenging. I don’t have all the answers. Also, there are lots of things I and any government cannot possibly control. I have principles, relevant experience, and will respectfully listen to expertise and respectfully listen to concerns and  complaints – but won’t promise blind obedience to experts or that I can solve every problem.”

Would such a candidate get any, or many votes? Would a political party with a platform of “we don’t know the exact answers, but we will do our best” get anywhere? It seems too trite to load onto politicians the freight of taking the brunt of the decline in influence of organised religion – although I have a feeling they may identify with this post on clergy burnout, for similar reasons.  

Leaders tend to be the landing place of many projections. And when disappointed, the electorate are unforgiving. To give one of many examples, it is reasonably safe to say that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are the most despised politicians of the recent past in Britain and Ireland respectively – yet both were the most successful electoral performers of the last twenty years.  Of course, both are despised for very specific things, but some of the intensity is surely due to the rage of our own self-projections proving fallible.

Behind the scenes it does seem most politicians are hard-working strivers trying to do their best and navigate the various competing interests (which, of course, includes you and me and our own interests)

Anyhow, Tim Miller captures this better than I am. Here are some bits I especially liked:

Many of these moments—at least the ones that are now fodder for Twitter and cable news (I put Twitter first on purpose)—are clearly staged to some extent. But it’s also true that many of these kinds of meetings and friendships are genuine. Yet the cynicism of the 2016 election, and the mistrust of public figures and public spectacle that has been going on for decades, begs the question of what is going on here. How can Al Gore be talking to such an evil man as Dick Cheney, and how can Dick Cheney be talking to such liberal scum as Al Gore? Isn’t this the very kind of hypocrisy that normal people despise in politicians? And for those who aren’t talking and are just in the same room together, how can Donald Trump sit so close to Hillary Clinton without doing all he can to finally lock her up? Are these forms of public spectacle just the highest examples of the contradiction and insincerity that lies at the heart of political and social life, or are they examples of what civilization actually is, that people who disagree usually come together, and in some cases are friends?

No one in my lifetime anyway has had the ability to change how politicians and public figures are presented; at best, they are only the manipulators of the media landscape they live in. If anything, Donald Trump merely picked up what was already on the ground and used it better than anyone ever has, and it’s doubtful he would have been elected if the ways we communicate and receive the news wasn’t already so degraded.

That very degradation cannot deal with the complexity and the actual truth that these powerful people embody: that those with vastly different visions for how the world should work just might get along, and that outside of the kinds of rallies and invective the media encourages and the public seems to want, the truth is actually much quieter. So the real sadness of watching George H. W. Bush’s funeral is this: that while the politicians, supposedly the most insincere people in the world, realize the complexity of their positions, the public at large does not.

 

…Even more powerless than the politicians to change how we interact with others and the world, we regular citizens blindly accept the public theater as actual reality and have ended up despising one another, and quite literally rupturing any sense of wholeness, or a shared soul. Gore and Cheney can talk peacefully, while voters who admire one or the other are proud to hate each other. For my part, I’ve stopped believing that the right or the left can possibly be as idiotic, ignorant, childish, or brutal as the anecdotes that make it onto Twitter or Reddit or cable news claim to show. That is not who we actually are, and while I never thought I’d say such a thing, it’s taken politicians to show me this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The demands of silence

The demands of silence

On of the recurrent themes of this blog has been various writings – by others, by myself – on silence. Of course, all this verbal activity on silence carries with it a kind of hypocrisy. A lot of noise about silence! I’m aware of the irony, and the risks.

I’m aware, too, of the downside of silence – those who have been silenced, had silence forced on them. I’m aware that to be silent can be to condone injustice. A book I read some years ago which has been very helpful in this regard is The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel, full of examples of how conspiracies of silence are maintained, often without any formal “conspiracy.”

One concept Zerubavel mentions (rather in passing if memory serves) is the “conspiracy of noise” – wherein we do not find silence but the opposite, noisy activity about everything except what matters.

This concept, along with this passage from George Steiner – “Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”, have helped me in resolving this tension between silence as a positive, life-enhancing experience and silence as oppression or repression.

I’ve been gradually making my way through Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide. It is full of good stuff, arresting stuff, stuff that makes me question some of my own habits and practices.

I do have one caveat, which is a nagging sense that perhaps Ross’ approach may make the best the enemy of the good. Her scorn for much nonsense about “mysticism” and “spirituality” is no doubt justified. Similarly the related scorn at the commodification and institutionalisation of an experiential process.

At times, however, the tone is a little like those three step I-You-He miniatures that Craig Brown (for one) has written (I have been try to recall what they might be called) in the form of:


I experience silence in the purest form
You have a rather superficial interest in the practice
He is a middle-class dillitante whose so-called spirituality is a mere commodity fetishism

Maybe a bit unfair to Ross, and no doubt she is right to be wary of romanticisation of monasticism and such. But it all seems rather harsh. Silence is a practice open to everyone (as Ross very clearly sets out – indeed even the term “practice” is too redolent of something forced)

It struck me today that silence has its own demands, ones that compete, usually unsuccessfully, with the demands of busy-ness and of the world. This is especially true as our culture becomes more and more always on, full of alerts and notifications.

I loved the Odon von Horvath quote – “I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him” featured in the post above. Which is of us, if we died tomorrow, would feel that the digital trace of our lives would be “me”, would sum us up, would capture our essence?

Silence is somewhere we encounter our essence. This encounter can have explicitly religious elements, or not This is an encounter, increasingly, that it takes specific effort to have. Our default is becoming noise and the vigilance of alerts (of course, there is a vigilance and threat with silence – a deeper threat indeed)

We also need to remember that “silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth” and that a certain humility with regard to our own efforts is crucial. Absolute silence is probably physiologically unobtainable, indeed much of the discourse on silence is really about freedom from humanly-created noise.

In this context, we need to remember that Silence has its own demands. Just as sleep is something we need to consciously facilitate against various pressures of modernity, despite its “naturalness”, we no longer just experience silence but have to be open to its demands. To take things full circle, “the silent are never at home in our culture again”