I can tell you, if you are interested, the precise moment when I became interested in Psychology. I was listening to a radio programme, ‘Science Now’, I think, when I heard a feature on non-verbal communication. I was doing my A-levels at the time, all three sciences, and had become just a little tired of the anatomy of plants, the properties of molecules and being stuck in Physics because, unlike just about everyone else in the class, I was not doing Maths.
Hearing about the ways in which people communicate without words opened my eyes not only to what I had already intuited (that words are only the half of it) but also to the possibility that there was, just beyond my schoolboy reach, a science of human behaviour. Wow!
After a year on a General Science course at Durham University I was offered the chance to read either Botany or Psychology for single honours. It was, perhaps, my first ‘no-brainer’.
Over thirty years later all this came flooding back to me in a cinema, the Gala at Durham. The film was not ‘The Scientist’ but ‘The Artist’. The much praised silent movie by Michel Hazanavicius about a narcissistic actor who is hostile to the coming of the talkies.
From what I had heard, I had expected the film to focus on the issues prompted by a changing world. I had anticipated either a nostalgic endorsement of nostalgia or a nostalgic critique of nostalgia. I read a couple of reviews and feared that it might be not much more than a nerdy cinematic homage with clever-clever references that would whizz way over my head. Doubtless there were many of these, though the reviewers gave me enough tips to be able to notice a few flying by.
To my surprise, however, the film triggered a reflection not on change but on speech, voice and words. This was curious, since I began to think about the same subjects after my last visit to the cinema which was to see ‘The King’s Speech’.
What the two films have in common is a sensitive understanding of what you might call ‘voice shame’. It’s not subject that is often mentioned. It is the shame that dare not speak…. I wrote a chapter about it for my book Barefoot Disciple, but removed it in the final phases of the writing.
Inevitable, perhaps, but I don’t regret it. I have come to think of editing as the most important and defining skill of a writer. Producing words is simplicity itself. It’s removing the worthless words that is so difficult. And it is seriously painful to edit. As Annie Dillard put it in The Writing Life: ‘The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, the part which was to have been the very point’. And that hurts.
Silent movies are not without words altogether. They have titles and there are credits at the end to read. And there are occasional intertile cards sharing the dialogue, and maybe the camera alights on a love letter which you, the audience, can read, or a sign on a wall. (An ‘exit’ sign is very significant at one point in ‘The Artist’.) This is constrained use of language rather than absolute silence. Absolute silence is so rare as to be relatively unimportant. Far more interesting is what happens between people when words become few and far between.
The most telling words in the film are when one of the characters says that she ‘did not mean what she was saying’ on an occasion when her hurtful words were overheard. It was a powerful speech that she had been making. But maybe the words she was producing led her away from her true self. Maybe her ‘position statement’ undercut her integrity. Words can do that – when we let them run on ahead of us.
When I studied Psychology we were taught that non-verbal communication is fatally ambiguous. But maybe what it lacks in precision (which in my view is seriously overstated) it makes up for in transparency. We all vary in this. Some of us can play poker better than others, but many of us have faces that others can read all too easily. And we all know that if the words say one thing and the facial expressions another, we believe the expressions. The twitch, the loss of eye-contact, the briefest of hesitations, these ‘say it all’.
Watching a silent movie is a different social experience than seeing any other sort. You start listening (or at least I did) to the quality and tone of the audiences’ ‘mmmmms’ and ‘aaaahs’ and laughs. There were neither belly laughs nor any sharp laughs when I saw ‘The Artist’. The noises at the Gala were more considered, sympathetic and, or so it seemed to me, shared than they often are in the cinema. They came not via the verbal intelligence but from other parts of the brain, or maybe other parts of our being. I refuse to think of these as more primitive. They are, I suggest, the opposite of that.
Relative, if not absolute, silence, like its sibling editing and its cousin verbal restraint, have the capacity to liberate our most elevated and exalted selves.
And what’s the word for that? ‘Soul’, perhaps.
I wonder: if we were content with fewer words, maybe our souls might find it easier to speak.