Thursday 22 March 2018

Review: The Power of Silence by Colum Kenny

Karnac Books, €26.45
As a whistle-stop tour of its theme this book by the journalism professor speaks volumes, writes Christina Reihill

UNSPOKEN WORD: Colum Kenny covers all manner of silence
in his book which is full of thought-provoking definitions
UNSPOKEN WORD: Colum Kenny covers all manner of silence in his book which is full of thought-provoking definitions

Christina Reihill

Silence, like love, makes the world go around, but few outside the world of academia or artistic endeavour attempt to define its elusive theme for a popular audience. However, the author of The Power of Silence has done precisely that.

Professor Colum Kenny's 300-page book, with its David Hockney Fred and Marcia Weisman artwork above the book's subtitle "Silent communication in Daily Life", offers its reader a rich, multi layered definition of this compelling and often complicated theme.

Among the book's many thought-provoking definitions of silence Kenny, provides a poetic interpretation in the first few pages: "The power of silence lies ultimately in the capacity to transcend our best efforts to define or defy it. Silence waits patiently for sound to fade out."

As a psychotherapist, this is a delicious definition to mull over. It is one of the many Kenny provides to engage and wrestle with his reader in silent conversations.

This is not a one sitting, one-sided throwaway text -- far from it. I found reading two paragraphs at a time could have me pondering in deep thought and even irritation as its text fed me too much at times.

But then I'm not an academic, and I don't easily absorb or enjoy tons of information to make a point. But for readers such as me, the communications expert (Kenny is chair of the Masters in Journalism programme at the School of Communications in Dublin) finds a way to break up the density of his subject with easy-to-follow chapters exploring his multi-faceted labour of love.

These include all the greats associated with the book's theme, from God to the therapy room (Lacan) and all the artists in between.

All manner of silence, from the wonderfully trivial (you can download a minute of silence from the internet) to the unspoken utterances of a stare, are explored with adept insight and balance, though a huge silence falls over the subject of suicide -- the noisiest and most profound silence I know.

But little else is left out and some gems defining silence really appealed to the poet in me, particularly Kenny's citation of Max Picard. The Swiss philosopher, whose understanding of silence enriched rather than diminished, stated: "Silence is the firstborn of the basic phenomena. It envelopes the other basic phenomena -- love, loyalty, and death and there is more silence than speech in them, more of the invisible than visible. There is also more silence in one person than can be used in a single life."

Back to my aforementioned irritation, in the chapter on "Silence and the Arts" I felt something significant was missing and far too many words were used to distract my focus on it. And it has to do with too many explanations and a sense that the subject is over studied and over explained -- somehow his eloquent explanation of Beckett's use of silence or artists in general, lacks a certain silent knowing of the unknowing, which artists employ to platform their work.

As a poet, the ultimate use of words is to present the silence/s in between; I'm not convinced Kenny gets Beckett in this regard.

Intellectually, he clearly understands Beckett's ambivalent relationship with words. "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness", but the long paragraphs of explanation which follow destroys the silent richness of Beckett's work and ultimately, for this reviewer, loses the best explanation the author could have used to demonstrate his point. Marianne Moore's opening lines in her poem Silence -- "My father used to say, superior people never make long visits" -- seemed to fit here.

But, maybe, I missed something here. As I said I'm not an academic, and am in fact anti- intellectual, so with a more balanced assessment I'd say this book is a wonderful whistle-stop tour of its theme for anyone who wants to know how noisy and/or exquisite silence can be, and its richly informed delivery on its subject warrants the book a home in every library.

Christina Reihill is the author of Soul Burgers (second edition) which will be launched by IMMA's book shop next month. Visit for more information.

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