On the frustrations present in silence.
Spirit of my silence, I can hear you
But I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
Sufjan Stevens, “Death With Dignity” (2015)
There’s only a shadow of me
In a manner of speaking I’m dead
Sufjan Stevens, “John My Beloved” (2015)
Picture in your head the image of silence. What does it look like to you? A grassy overlook under stars, or a carpeted room and a desk and a window, or an expanse of white-light space, or the void? And in this image of silence, do you appear alone, or is there another, sitting by your side or hovering in your thoughts?
In his newest album Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens meditates on the death of his mother, and his meditations draw him continually back to a theme of overwhelming silence. Wrapped up in the delicate cloth of these songs are grief and vulnerability, confessions of weakness and desire. There’s hardly an electronic in here. His voice is soft, even whispering at times, and considering the aural theatrics of Age of Adz, his last major LP (barring the Christmas music), this stripped-down take surprised a lot of us. But then it absorbed us. Sufjan hides nothing here. He reveals everything that he can, and still he shows us that for some questions – and some realities – silence is the only adequate language.
Silence shows up in many different iterations in Carrie & Lowell. We can see it from all sides, which is to say, we can become aware of all the different ways that we do not understand it. The first silence is Sufjan’s own repressed attempts to utter the death of his mother, Carrie. He begins his meditations with the lines, “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you / But I’m afraid to be near you / And I don’t know where to begin” (“Death With Dignity”). In classical form, Sufjan invokes the muse to inspire his song. Only for him the muse is his mother, the one who provides the substance of his lyrics, the cause of his emotions, and the spark for his contemplations throughout. As he sits to write about the death of his mother, there is the silence of the still pen, the awareness of his mother’s ghost fluttering around the room beside him. “What is that song you sing for the dead?” There are no words to share your love with someone dear who has died. They cannot receive them. But how do you shake that impulse to speak lasting monuments out loud when all you can think is “You’ll never see us again / you’ll never see us again”?
We harbor a deep sense of self in our ability to speak. We want to make ourselves known, and we want to know each other, to meet where we really stand, as we really are. But there are times when each of us, in our selfhood, loiter in rooms together saying nothing. “Shall we beat this or celebrate it? / You’re not the one to talk things through” (“All Of Me Wants All Of You”). This is a silence of presence, an entity conjured in the collision of two selves who wish to love and be loved truly. This sort of silence can feel like failure: you are on a coffee date, small-talking about movies and food and the like, until something obstructs the natural flow of words – an awkwardness, a failure to express, the saddening realization that however you say it, this person may never understand who you believe yourself to be. “I’m just a ghost you walk right through.”
Sufjan notices such a silence in a moment with a lover, and he remembers a past instant with his mom: he traced her silhouette in the dirt at Spencer’s Butte. “Empty outline changed my view / Now all of me thinks less of you.” He knew only an outline of his mother, and now she is gone and what memory there was slips away in time. Only the outline of bare thoughts, empty words, remains for him. However, to think less in such a case is perhaps a justice. Wittgenstein ended his Tractatus with the maxim, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Silence may gesture toward the unknowable loved one, a signpost rooted in the earth which points without symbols toward the one for which there are no adequate symbols, present and lacking location. His mother’s spirit wanders in the corners of his silence. His lover’s soul is lost in words, and the silence need not prove a failure but can stand as a marker of this person who is there.
But in relationships among the living, we always hope these silences are terminal, that someday the two of us will shatter the obstructions and know each other in full. We do not want the limits, however well-handled; we say instead, “All of me wants all of you.” And for someone whom we truly love, this deepest wish does not simply disappear with her death. It becomes interminably frustrated. The desire grows in proportion to the depth of our realization that no, we will not ever know this person any better. Sufjan considers all his memories of times with his mother, all the ones that hang around, and he comes up only with glimpses, vignettes. Some cigarettes hidden in her sleeve. Lemon yoghurt. Her drunken head on the floorboards. When she left them at the video store. He cannot reach back into all that memory, all that time, and pull out some true fullness of his mother. Neither can he get us to know her; there aren’t enough words. “What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?” (“Eugene”) This is a lonely exchange we have with Sufjan. We cannot know him through his songs; we cannot know his mother. We cannot understand his love.
This silence before creation, silence of the fear to create. This silence of presence. This silence of our failure to know and to love. This silence of the unutterability of each other. All these silences, and yet all we seem to have at our disposal are words. What good are they? Words, like fossils of something once alive – “Have they no life of their own?” (“John My Beloved”) The only hope we can have for the words we string together is not that they express something true of ourselves, some bit of our souls, but that they become their own animals in the world. We must untether them from ourselves, sever the umbilical, murder the author. “Once the myth has been told / The lens deforms it as lightning” (“Blue Bucket of Gold”). All we have is to tell the myth and to watch while the world makes it speak to them, gives it a life beyond our control.
And as far as we go, in our personal carryings-on amid the world of the living, we do not (and should not) shake this thirst for real interaction, but it will not necessarily occur through words. There are other languages. “Raise your right hand / Tell me you want me in your life” – enter into the dance of failed words but realized presence, a gesture of the body, a raising of the hand, whatever you can. Be here now. And in the silence of the night, when you hunger for a sentence from the sky, let your prayer be, “Lord, touch me with lightning.” We need not fear living in myth, as long as the myth is true, luminous, alive as lightning.