“Don’t tell me things I already know.” — somewhere in Tove Jansson’s Fair Play
Yesterday, I thought a lot about silence.
It began in my comparative literature lecture, in which we discussed Swedish-speaking Finnish writer (cum graphic artist) Tove Jansson’s Fair Play: a short yet brilliantly rich novel that features quiet vignettes illustrating the relationship between its protagonists. One of the defining elements of the book is a profound silence that punctuates the characters’ conversations: there are no filler words, no stock conversations, no needless how are yous. In their stead you find utterances that sometimes make no sense when uttered alone, but that are understood nonetheless; conversations laced with emotions one rarely finds in trite conversation, like disappointment, frustration, exhaustion; and small, but heroic, moments of choosing not to speak when speaking is an option.
Because — oh boy! — is speaking an option.
One thing I’ve come to realize, and detest, but nevertheless internalize, is that small talk comes part and parcel with life here in the USA. As someone who generally doesn’t like awkward silences or hellos left unsaid, I’ve found it to a culture not too foreign to what I’m used to. Yet this also means that how are you? is a question that slips so naturally past my tongue, even when I know what’s next in the script: I’m good, how are you?
And that’s exactly what Tove Jansson opposes in Fair Play: the incessant tendency for people to follow and verbalize ‘the script’, even when it is clearly a chore for all parties involved. Instead, she argues that it is worthwhile to choose silence when there is a mutual agreement between parties, and that practicing the economy of silence is an act of generosity, of giving “artistic, intellectual and emotional space” (my lecturer’s beautiful words) to those who need it.
“There are empty spaces that must be respected — those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.” — somewhere else in Tove Jansson’s Fair Play
In a culture of excess, verbal excess included, it’s a challenge to practice silence. Yet it’s something I want to experiment with as a way of being more mindful of gauging how people really are — if I really do care, that is. One thing I’ve tried to practice is ask better questions: instead of how are you?, opting for what has been the highlight of your day? has led to a faster leap into the kinds of conversation that might actually enrich your day: like talking about a good meal, a friend you haven’t seen in a while, a particularly invigorating class. I encourage everyone to try that too.
Before the day was over, another incident led me to mull over the significance of silence. After my lecture ended, I quickly scurried over to a nearby building to attend the film screening of a new Brazilian film entitled Vazante. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s a film that comments upon the history of slavery that was pervasive throughout Brazil (specifically in the 19th century, before abolition in 1888).
The movie was two hours long, and I’m pretty sure the dialogue, combined, would have only taken up ten minutes.
(The rest, as you might’ve guessed, was silence.)
At first, I was a little bored, and found myself getting antsy whenever characters would stare at each other for a really long time. Several times I wanted to walk out, and the only reason why I stayed was because I really wanted to ask why the director had chosen to produce the movie in black and white — and why there was so much silence.
Unfortunately the questions weren’t really answered in a way that I found clear, which was a bummer, but I had some interesting thoughts nonetheless. Perhaps, as is the case with Tove Jansson’s book, the characters were acknowledging a shared script not only between themselves but also with the audience: Brazil’s history with slavery is a communal one, and all Brazilians carry with them their consequences. For that reason, perhaps there was an expectation for the audience to understand the dynamics that were at play between the characters.
Or perhaps the director wanted to give people the “artistic, emotional and intellectual” space to create the dialogue for themselves, and thus personalize the issue of slavery. Maybe the reason why I didn’t find the movie terribly exciting or moving was because I didn’t exactly feel the cultural pull or the connection — maybe I need some time to understand the script, especially when left unsaid.
And that’s okay. I sat in silence for two hours and watched.