I’ve read a lot of short stories, but none have changed my life in so many ways as “Murke’s Collected Silences,” by Heinrich Boll. Murke, a radio editor is fascinated by those brief moments (which he is obliged to cut out) when blowhard talking heads pause, as though almost actually thinking, begins to keep these snippets for himself, stringing them together for his own satisfaction.
The idea of listening to silences as something to be honored, not precipitously broken or laughed off, astonished me. Shortly after reading this story, I proposed in a university seminar—I don’t remember the text, but it was in a “Christian Classics” course and in some way it too praised silence—that the class should not simply discuss the work but engage in a bit of independent research together into the thing itself, by sitting in our places in complete silence for one minute. The professor was eccentric enough to think this was a fine idea, so we did it.
I believe this experience cured me forever of the impulse to refer to all mutual silences as “awkward,” as though they were generated by some kind of social or intellectual failure, of which we should be embarrassed. Contrariwise, I have come to perceive silence as the sound of people taking responsibility for a conversation’s future. It is a hopeful sound, in which possibilities develop themselves, and possibilities within those possibilities, like invisible fractals opening up in the air.
But what affected me the most—as it so often happens—was the first sentence: “Every morning, after entering Broadcasting House, Murke performed an existential exercise.” His exercise is to ride the archaic “paternoster” past his floor, up through the machinery at the top, and back down to his floor. He calls this activity his “panic breakfast.”
Even before I understood what a “paternoster” was (picture the cross on a rosary traveling across the back of your hands, then down and around and back over as you pray), the very idea of an “existential exercise” was eye-opening. It was a new category for me, breaking the childish dichotomy of work and play I had lived with to that point. An existential exercise is something you do neither for fun, nor to accomplish anything: like standing in line for a movie and then leaving when you get to the front. It’s something necessary, but done not so much out of compulsion as out of a need to be free. You can never really explain to someone why you did it. And usually you don’t have to.
But sometimes your exercise will overlap with the practical in ways that will puzzle or offend, and you may find that you have to offer some account of your choice. And this is a dangerous thing, because you will be tempted to put it in ethical terms, when it is nothing of the kind. It’s not aesthetic, either. Maybe it’s somehow religious. The best you can do is just tell the story and hope that in the silence left over at the end, your friends will hear the truth unfold in the shape in which you heard it.
For example, what if you went to grad school, completed your course work, passed your comprehensive examinations, and even wrote a dissertation, but then decided to refuse the last little step between you and a PhD? As it happens, we have before us a case just such as this. The following document, in which the person in question defends, not his dissertation, but the decision not to defend it, was leaked to us by an anonymous source connected with his dissertation committee. The text is a poem of sorts. Observe the grace with which the author skirts the practicalities of it, and allows the decision to speak for itself.
To my dissertation committee and the —– Foundation:
Both happily and sadly, I will not be going forward with the formal defense of my dissertation as I had intended. I do not expect any of you to understand this decision. I thank you, sincerely, for all of the time you have spent with me, especially you, Dr. —, for the time you spent observing my English 150 class on the day we discussed William Faulkner, which I assure you has not been wasted.
It is not for some reason that one might expect, like I need more time with my son or because I am trying to start a business to support both him and myself or that I have taken-up snowboarding! It is because I am a poet, and I have no choice but to try to be that in the world now, the best I can.
I would like to come see each of you and express my thanks and apologies in person. If you would like to see me also, send me a good time for any time after February 17. I will officially withdraw from dissertation hours.
For now, please know, I decided thusly for this:
One March afternoon in 1995, I sat my English class, at the United States Naval Academy, as physics major. We were reading John Keats, and learning about metrical patterns. I then learned that my last name, as my father had always spoken it to me, was trochaic tetrameter! It was math! So I who had only months ago been resolute in my desire to study vectors (a childhood passion of mine, connected to my love of chess) learned that beauty was truth, and truth was beauty, and that was all I needed to know on earth. And all I needed to know. So, I took it quite literally, changed my major (I’m glad my friend — is teaching there now, helping to mold military minds; later, after the move from physics to metaphysics, they called me “faggot” for loving poetry) and the rest, as they say, is history, like one moment when studying the poetry of Richard Wilbur in Rome just three short years later, I saw Bernini’s statue “Saint Teresa in Ecstasy” with my lawyer —, pulled out my now signed blue Richard Wilbur book, and said:
After the sun’s eclipse,
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.
Not all cries are the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by the wand, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.
The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.
Then I promised right there in the moment that I would be a poet, no matter the cost.
And I have the overwhelming sense right now, in this moment, that the cost is one PhD.
PS to —: I posted a link to your diss (ND website) the other day on the BnT Facebook page. It seemed like a good place to steer him and answer the question. If it was a bad answer, let me know
PS to Dr. —: I told you the story above of the best and most memorable class of my lifetime. I have recently been publically commemorating the best and most memorable classes of my UNM career by composing a collection of riddles, which of course also includes a range of riddling styles from the mysterious to the bawdy. Anyway, the first of these, which I call “Riddle 13”, is for you. Forgive my many punctuation errors, and thank you for allowing me to recite Old English poetry in your class that day.
I was shaped by many a shaper;
I suppose my mode is mutable.
Gaze through this window at my weird life.
I rode on the back of a beast and was free,
But a blade broke through. (I bear that scar still.)
They stripped me naked, shaved my flesh,
Then tied me up, tore me in all directions;
Every fiber of my being buckled then folded out
Time and time again, torture unbearable.
I thereafter remained rigid and enlarged.
Later, an austere artist came to me
And fixed the form you find today.
I thought my worth had withered away
Till that shaper stained me, set down words
With a wing’s fallen leaf. What’s my name?