In Search of Silence & a Life Worth Living: Etel Adnan’s Shifting the Silence

Etel Adnan | i. Apollo 10 ii. Apollo 11 [Two Works]

“Again, a day has gone by. It went on foot, on a horse, or in some ways that we’re not equipped to know,” wrote Lebanese American poet, painter, and thinker Etel Adnan in 2019, “and what am I left with?”

what am I left with?

I can envision Adnan typing at her writing desk in Brittany, France, wrapped up in her long rosewood cardigan– “the rose color of Syria’s mountains,” as she put it. Perhaps sunshine was beaming into the study filled with piles of books in every corner: on the glass coffee table, all over the velvet Turkish rug that matched the color of her cardigan, on the windowsill… Perhaps the sun was about to vanish into the ocean. Time didn’t matter. The familiar click clack of her typewriter and the sound of the lapping waves merged into one, and she continued writing:

“I know what’s left in me, under these clouds, this wind, this cold, this wintry weather: the need to be in Greece. Will I die without returning to Delphi, to Athens? (to Beirut, to the Headlands, by the Pacific?!)”

I can envision the great artist and thinker doing what she did best, writing and thinking, thinking and writing at her desk. But I can’t begin to imagine the way she was truly feeling as these delicate questions ran through her head, and she wrote them out, one letter at a time, at the age of 94. How often did she pause to reminisce about her time in Greece while drafting Shifting the Silence? How often did she reminisce about her time in Greece? Was she keeping any photographs taken in her beloved Delphi near? Which ones? Or did she type up the manuscript matter-of-factly? Did she somehow sense that she would, indeed, leave this world two years later in 2021 without a chance to visit Delphi again?

We can only guess. But if I were to ask her, I have a feeling that her response would be elusive and slippery–like Shifting the Silence itself. “My thoughts drip, not unlike the faucet,” she writes in the book, “They don’t let me know what they’re about. Other ones follow, strangers equally.”

In a way, the complex web of thoughts and explanations are not of high importance here; they are reflections, ghosts, keepsakes–all part of Adnan’s never-ending search for silence. Not the kind of silence you and I know and think of. She seeks “a special state of silence, not the one when you can hear the circulation of your blood in your veins, not the one that’s heard when the music is over, not the one,” but “a silence between eons of silence.”

Like time, death, and life, the concepts Adnan explores in her poetic book, the type of silence she conceptualizes is paradoxical. That silence, she seems to suggests, can be found in the cracks between absence and presence, darkness and light, night and day, collective and individual; it contains them all. “Having more memories than yearnings, searching in unnameable spaces, Sicily’s orchards or Lebanon’s thinning waters,” she writes in one of the paragraphs, “I reach a land between borders, unclaimed, and stand there.” And silence is like a flower that can exist in such a liminal space:

…it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate, return on its steps. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are. We’re at the turn of the year, I have to invite somebody or something. The live thickness of the silence makes sounds free themselves and expand. The year is turning, has turned, 2018 is gone forever, gone into being the new year, people are dancing, 2019 has just entered, wide-eyed, utterly new.

what am I left with?

Elsewhere in the book, she recalls her close friends most of whom have passed on. She ruminates on how she’s seeking her friend Lydia. Still.

She writes:

An absence is a form of silence. Is the space from which language has vanished. The disappearance of answers. But it’s not necessarily a void. Where is Lydia? Orpheus wondered: where’s Eurydice, where? He thought that he found out she was nowhere. But in this moment Lydia has a form of existence which is not ordinary existence, as she is forever invisible. Then, is my search a way of trying to bring her resurrection? 

The silence that surrounds me makes her absence most acute but at the same time gives her a strange kind of presence: I get to be caught within metaphysical mirrors. I am confused, or rather, I am realizing that being, or not being, cannot be dealt with with thinking, but are matters of experience, experienced often in murky waters, and that their intensity creates waves that invade us, that leave us stunned. There’s no resolution to somebody’s final absence.

If silence is the space from which language has dematerialized, can we say that language constitutes silence?

An absence cannot be contextualized without presence; someone’s absence can only exist within the shadow(s) of their presence. This paradoxical nature of existence brings a poignant truthfulness to Adnan’s meditation on death. And at times, her existential musings seem random, grim, and even eerie.

But what do I expect?

My grandfather had just turned 90 in 2020 when he caught not only Covid-19 but also a profound sense of loneliness–taffy-like, so sticky and stretchy he hasn’t been able to wash it off since. Now, two years later, every time I visit him, I can’t help but fix my gaze at the stark contrast between his sun-worn hands and the translucent skin on his face, impressively wrinkle-free from afar, his watery olive green eyes, and his shriveled frame. In those moments, I think to myself: he may have survived the virus, but his zest for life waned like his symptoms. In those moments, I feel a pang of grief; like Adnan, who my grandfather was has disappeared, it seems. The weight of the world feels too heavy for me at 33; how can one not break when they continue to shoulder it in their 90s? I don’t know whether Adnan ever caught Covid-19, but she watched the outbreak unravel and spread across the world, a baleful gift of globalization. The pandemic. The summer heat waves across Europe. Floods across India. The wild wildfires across America, Australia, Turkey, and Greece. The war in Syria. The list goes on…

How did she truly feel, at the age of 94, when she was bombarded with such devastating news from around the world?

She writes:

Today is yesterday’s tomorrow. That’s how it goes. An avalanche of negative ideas is trying to clean itself out to no avail: the old alliance of Greece and Arabia has been broken because we’re not looking at the world properly, not creating these strings of words that correspond to what we are seeing. We have lost the whole for its parts; 

Prometheus gave us fire not for burning everything that’s alive, but to light the sky, and now, even our inner fire is burning out. Are we sane? I guess we are, and that’s the danger, as sanity wants to keep the fires going.

In another passage, she discusses the impact of the escalating global crises further:

Out of weapons which are for mega-killings other weapons are made, rather artistic, and deadly on a private scale. But death is singular, killing one or many is equally unacceptable, and there’s no consolation in such matters. 

And the killing goes on, and has reached the point where it becomes a matter of personal survival to accept it, and we see morality as a luxury we can do without. The bloody feast goes on, and we stare at it with total hopelessness. 

Adnan’s words evoke a deep sense of hopelessness; she is blatantly honest about the world’s grim reality in the 21st century. To survive, she states, we stay half-awake and keep going. We search–for meaning, truth, and a life that’s worth living, but we don’t find much. But we keep going. Going where? She emphasizes several times– that she does not know, and the ambiguity makes her tremble and urges her to surrender, to give up at times:

Actioned by a fever, as usual, always projected, this engine we call life, or existence, that we carry in us and still search for, always at a loss, running, and running, and not moving ahead, like planet Earth blindly turning in circles, until we both disappear from the screen. I have no strategy, for anything, in fact. Will not boil an egg, will rather go down to the restaurant that just opened next door. You sit, you eat, you go back home; you call that a day.

All this pain and suffering, mortality and eternity–what am I left with then?

She inquires.

The question of existence is at the core of Shifting the Silence: What am I left with? Why am I here? Why do I exist? What’s the meaning of all this, existence and absence? In my reading of the book, I’ve found that Adnan’s seemingly obscure investigation points to the special state of silence as a possible answer–although there are no answers here. “Silence,” she explains, ” is the creation of space, a space that memory needs to use…an incubator. Silence demands the nature of night, even in full day, it demands shadows.” She delves deeper into the nature of silence as she conceptualizes it:

The universe makes a sound—is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul. And this silence can also be heard. 

This silence is the preparation of things to come, but is not free standing. It’s rather the shadow of whatever is, which precedes or follows at will any element that presents itself to this world. Its favorite time is the night.

In this context, it is pertinent to recall the paradoxical nature of this silence, “the core of reality” and “inner silence” as Adnan calls it. Silence may favor darkness, but it emerges out of the cosmic/life cycle in which day and night, as well as darkness and light are complementary to each other–not oppositional. Both at a cosmic and an individual level, it is the continual existence of light in the universe’s eternity that creates darkness.

what am left with?

So, Adnan writes:

The thing left to do is to be willing to go the end of just anything, like burning your eyes, metaphorically and physically, by staring long enough at the sun, like when you were a child (in Beirut), and tears were running down. Those were moments transcending. 

Surrounded by the despair of the 21st century, we may feel lost in an unprecedented dark time. But our existence can still be meaningful on this planet and within the vastness of space if we, as Adnan encourages us to try, “clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.” She clarifies as follows:

Long periods of inner silence favor clearings, they let the light in, the flooding, the blinding, the bedazzlement. We need spaces for the reshuffling of new cards, need to be nowhere.

So, despite the crises, disasters, and horrors:

what am I left with?

Her eloquent responses to this core question can be found within different passages formulated harmoniously, in an exquisite way that complements her commentary on the darkness that pervades the world.

what am I left with?

the light […]

the particular one that covers Lebanon, Syria, Egypt

[…] the ones of the Eastern Mediterranean […]

the light that enters the room in the early hours of the day as a messenger of the sun, a direct voyager, a particle, a wave, who knows, but an object of sorts that left its solar source, covered miles, and landed on my skin. So the universe constantly visits us while waiting for us to reverse that itinerary.

what am I left with?

There’s a dance of fireflies, little lights turning around the boats of the Bay, tiny creatures chanting, fish jumping—the feast of early summer subsiding in the heat, and lemonades!

There’s something I can do that fills me with happiness: get up in the middle of the night and watch the sky, the nights covered with stars. This doesn’t happen in cities anymore, but lately, in Brittany, it happened, and quite often, and the sight is mesmerizing… 

1127 Months, 4 Days, 7 Hours, 53 Minutes and 19 Seconds, and what is left are those seemingly trivial moments in which I am fully present, she suggests:

What’s left? This season of heat and wind, this dinner tonight, and these large bands of trembling waves of various shades of green that split my heart with their incredible beauty.

…more moments of lightness: I speak of the dinner last night at home with Nick Hoff […] a simple dinner in a simply friendly atmosphere, moments stolen, mysterious, given the weight of the air that we’re breathing. 

A piece of bread, a serving of cheese in quietness, is that what will lead us to the divine? Why shouldn’t it?! 

Bread and cheese…Psomi ke feta…the café Adonis in Sopelos with its chairs painted in blue, its tables too, and straight ahead the blue sea under the blue sky and the whiteness of the cheese and the somnolence in the head, that’s my paradise…the incense smelling Greek churches…my own kind of the great promise. 

Adnan highlights that “yes, there’s all the horror we know,” and the media “seem to revel in the news of accidents, murders, disasters.” But she also reminds us as she reminds herself that “there are still people who lead decent lives,” and that “Cash Creek in Yolo County, the upper Hudson, the Nile under the pharaonic hues, Mount Shasta under the rain, and the mountain, and the one which is mine, take me into their own identities, they silence the world.” She continues:

I want to go rafting, not only on rivers but on any experience, the mental ones particularly, feel the joy of frantic concepts, of their freedom mainly. It’s tiring to analyze, cut thinking into bits, scrutinize happenings, so much labor for mediocre results. Let’s jump and dive, go with winds, let’s get wet and hurt, let’s give the Yellowstone River the chance to toss us the way it does tree trunks and salmon, let’s use its ways on our dormant brains! […] if I had the chance, would rather watch a tiger run for real than read my most beloved poets. But poets are poets. Nothing will dislodge them. Even in their most pathetic moments, they’re badly needed.

I need to simplify my thinking: to come to the roots of the olive trees I have planted on my island, sit close to them, look at every leaf. Start early in the morning. Then close my eyes and let the morning sun touch my face. Go to the Mediterranean at the street corner, go into itswater, its salt, its acid colors, its heat. Oh Lord, let’s stop thinking. Let’s just be, and for many hours in a row, merge with this vegetal and metallic kind of consciousness which is so overpowering.

what am I left with?

…Sunsets [that] are violently beautiful.

I would say that they are so by definition, but there are lights, not even colorful in the habitual sense, lights elemental, mercurial, silvery, sulfurous, copper-made, that make us stop, then lose balance, make us open our arms not knowing what else to do, arrest us as if struck by lightning, a soft lightning, a welcome one. I wait for those lights, I know some of you do too, wherever you are, I mean when you are standing by an ocean, alone, within the calmness of your spirit. Be planetary.” 

I’ve read and reread this work of poetry and prose several times; still, I can’t help but ask, how is it possible for a book on aging, death, and grief to be serene and ethereal?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with reading and pondering about death –to an extent that I couldn’t visit my grandmother’s grave when she passed away because she had the same first and last name as me.

(I know, I wasn’t kidding)

To be fair, the end of life as we know it, the end of Being, and the eternal silence are all difficult subjects/concepts to confront and comprehend. As I read Shifting the Silence and, as I write this post too, I keep asking myself:

Is Adnan suggesting that the beauty and serenity we find in quotidian moments where we are truly present can be a reverberation of that special state of silence that will become part of us when we pass on? (Moments such as a quiet morning on the porch, dinners with loved ones, a hike in the forest, swimming in the sea, cuddling with the cat and the dog…)

Perhaps that’s what she’s suggesting.

She writes:

We will always be somewhere, and at some point, enmeshed in cosmic forces, tributary to ancestry, involved in social circles, finger printed, filed and identified, meaning never free, but then would death when it comes mean freedom? That radical experience will be no experience, as it won’t be shared, and evaluated, and discussed, no, it will be a radical passage, a passing, a spilling over, death as the end of language, the end of being at the heart of Being.

And if this silence can be found in the liminal space(s) between day and night, as well as life and death, is death really the end of language and Being? If it is, isn’t death also the beginning of language and Being?

Etel Adnan’s poignant meditation on time and mortality is both cerebral and celestial, and as a text it is a brilliant example of the paradoxical state of silence that Adnan herself sought/seeks. Shifting the Silence is raw and elusive, like the very reflection you’re reading about it here, but it will urge you to confront the incomprehensible. And more importantly, it will make you appreciate your life because, as I’m convinced, that’s all that matters.

So, what are you left with?

5 thoughts on “In Search of Silence & a Life Worth Living: Etel Adnan’s Shifting the Silence

  1. It seems to me that life is sometimes so hard you can become burnt out of being alive, but that it can go away suddenly and you can recover Joy de Vivir again. Not that melancholy isn’t okay or sadness about violence or the difficulties of humanity separating itself rather than working together in peace, but I do sense a feeling of burnout in the writing since I’ve felt it myself. In Hawaiian there is an idea of Lokahi or harmony between an individual and humanity, the land and God, so the pandemic could have displaced nearly all of that, with less human connection one on one, for some a disruption of travel and going outside, and for nearly everyone, a disruption of sacred rituals for the religious and non-religious people like me who seek nature or other seasonal ritual trips like seeing the forest and snow. Over the past few years, I’ve gone through parental burnout and come out of it and I’ve been through creative, professional, and academic burnout as well. In my particular community getting outside once a week by creating a scout group at the beach healed my burnout because I was with people as much and as little as I wanted there, with the land, and also it always feels to me that near the sea it feels like a reminder of God or the idea of God, just due to the magnitude of the sea being so much larger than the individual. I’ve also been thinking a happy life is a combination of meaningful work and joy/relaxation so that can explain why when people have their work disrupted, taken away or made to feel meaningless why the extra time for joy doesn’t just automatically create a good life… I think when there is a lot of light we don’t notice it at all, but during sunset, it is reduced and we notice it the most, so to when we are less happy sometimes it’s a good time to notice what ever made us happy, what our flavors of joy are and life can always shift back to joy again, it’s hard to know what will shift it that way. “The Present” is a cute film that helps my kids and I shift back to joy, there is very often some joy in the present. 🎁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such beautiful words–thank you for this, Sakura. I agree. Life can be so difficult sometimes, but life has always been hard for humans. I do think that we encounter a different kind of difficult in the 21st century. The emotional and mental burnout is exacerbated by the constant flood of terrible news, and of course, we’ve begun to see and feel the effects of the damage we’ve been doing to the Earth. That’s why I do think we need “Lokahi” and the genuine connection with people, pets, and the land and the nature more than ever.

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve emerged out of the burnout with the help of your community and the land. I am truly in love with the sea for a similar reason–I love how vast it is and how it is such a perfect example of life: rough and stormy one day, and the next, it is placid, but it stands and still exists. It survives it.

      It’s interesting that you mention how you think extra time for joy doesn’t automatically create a good life. Ironically, I’ve gotten over my (emotional, mental, and academic) burnout by focusing on work that is meaningful to me. And that shift in perspective has actually allowed me to create more time for joy.


      1. Not that I’m anti joy, but I think like plants that need sun and water in balance, work and joy both add to well being, but most people may not associate work with well being because perhaps they don’t have work that authentically connects with their soul. 🌦️

        Liked by 1 person

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