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Salvaging silence: exile, death and the anthropology of the unknowable

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a large concert hall.[1] People in the audience are taking their seats and chatting to each other; musicians are adjusting their chairs and music stands, and maybe doing a little quick practicing.  After a few minutes the lights dim, the orchestra tunes, and we all fall silent, orchestra and audience together.  When the conductor appears, as with so many other kinds of rituals, we mark the formal beginning of the event with percussive noise—not firecrackers or drums, but applause.  From then on, however, we sit in absolute silence, which we enforce upon ourselves by glaring angrily at anyone who whispers or even fidgets too much.  We do not cheer during the exciting parts, or boo the mistakes, or even clap between movements.  The music fills the hall, it fills our ears and hearts and souls, because our silence has made room for the sacred.  It is not so different from the silence expected from the congregation during the greater part of most church services.  Either one allows the light of God or the sound of Beethoven to fill the listeners.

Or at least that is the ideology of the thing.  In fact, anyone who has been to hear classical music or sat through a boring morning in church knows that being silent does not necessarily mean that the sacred flows in.  For many people, much of the time, that silence is an opportunity for the mind to wander.  We think about overdue papers, or spats with spouses, or unscratchable itches.  That is, the silence works differently on the two sides of the stage.  To the musicians looking out at the audience, there is only a diffuse and undifferentiated mass.  With the bright stage and dark hall, it is very difficult to make out individual faces, and completely impossible to discern the thoughts beneath those faces.  From the musicians’ point of view, it appears indeed to be the world of the sacred.  Sitting in the audience, however, we are each lost in our own thoughts.  Perhaps the music affects us, but perhaps we have each wandered down our own quiet path—not just different from what the musicians intended, but quite likely different from all those other people around us.  Joining the silent mass can thus also liberate each one of us as a unique individual, unmoored from all of our usual cognitive constraints except for the need to maintain an external silence.

These kinds of silences—the silences of concert halls or of audiences listening to lecturers—are always enforced in order to make room for some kind of vision of the sacred.  We see them much more broadly in the suppressions that censors create in order to leave room only for the rectified voices of the Leaders, or the enforced muting of exiles who can no longer speak in the world they know, or the ultimate silencing of those whose lives are taken in the name of some greater good.  Even such drastic silences, however, themselves contain a kernel of the liberation we occasionally sense while sitting in the concert hall.  In some, that possibility may be only the thin thread of quavering memory, although in others it may approach the fullness of the sacred itself, as in the Vimalakirti Sutra, where various bodhisattvas expound with increasing brilliance on the nature of non-dualism, but Vimalakirti expresses the more ultimate truth by saying nothing at all (Thurman 2003, ch. 9).

We can see silence playing this role, for example, in the violent destruction of the two colossal, ancient Buddha statues that stood in Bamiyan, Afghanistan until the Taliban blew them up in 2001.  The Taliban were trying to purify religion by removing anything like a religious icon, which is forbidden in Islam.  They even attacked ones like this pair, which represented a religion that had long lost all its followers in this part of the world.  The Taliban intended to leave room for only one possible imagination of the sacred.  And yet, just as Vimalakirti’s silence suggested, what better image could there possibly be of the Buddha’s message than those two enormous, silent, empty niches?  One can experience the same thing sitting in an ancient cathedral like the Chapel in King’s College, Cambridge, whose magnificent gothic niches stand without saints.  They were the victims of Cromwell’s earlier religious purification, not so different from the Taliban’s.  Yet, like the Buddha’s niches, the emptiness of these spaces still remains to remind us of what is no longer there.

These multiple readings of silence, its fundamental indeterminacy, are possible because silence is opaque.  Our usual intellectual lenses have trouble resolving it because it defies easy interpretation.  Perhaps this is why we have a relatively small literature on the topic, and why those who do write about it tend to have a post-modernist’s comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty.  Most current understandings tie silence closely to the exercise of power, as when Derrida speaks of textual erasure or Foucault of silencing sexuality.  At its most obvious, this is the silence of the censor, of children seen but not heard.  More subtly, it is the silence from which every discursive world must arise, and which always haunts that discourse, lying in wait between the words and lines.

The silence created by acts of power is by no means the only one.  Silence can also resist power—the silent child may not be obeying at all, but may be protesting by sulking or by ignoring orders.  Silent protestors do not acquiesce to authority; they defy it.  Properly used, silence taps an oppositional power of its own.  In the right contexts, it is aggressive and surly in its refusal of convention.  In other contexts, it offers a hidden alternative to power.  That is how even an empty niche can speak.

Still, seeing silence as either a product of power or a sign of resistance is too much of a simplification.  We can never confidently reduce silence to either control or resistance, because we can never interpret it with entire confidence.  The deep problem of silence is almost impossible to experience on the written page, but imagine an interlocutor who suddenly stops speaking…





That is, the most striking feature of silence is that we are never entirely sure what it means.  The same silence confronts both orchestral performer and audience member, censor and citizen, but the understandings it fosters are not at all the same.  I once took a course from a philosopher at a well-known university, who was prone to long and sudden silences.  We never knew for sure quite why he would stop for a while in mid-sentence.  Did he just have a great insight?  Did he lose his place in his notes?  Was he thinking about his cat?  Or just fighting off a sneeze?  Decades later, I still have no idea.  Silence is more opaque, more resistant to confident interpretation, than nearly any form of more audible communication.  There lies its tragedy and its hope.  Each of the cases I will discuss here involves brutal silencing.  None of the stories turn out well for anyone involved, but all of them show how the irresolvable and uninterpretable core of silence nevertheless always offers a glimpse of some alternative to dominating discourses, a hint of some other possible sacred.  This is true even for the depths of that most permanent and unbreachable silence, which runs through all three stories:  death.  These deaths also remind us, however, that the very act of interpretation, of rescuing silence’s meanings from the abyss, does violence to the irresolvable possibilities of the original silence.

Qu Yuan

Let me begin with the case of the ancient poet and statesman, Qu Yuan.  He was a prototype in China, a model for two crucial kinds of silence.  First, he shows how exile’s act of silencing can have unintended consequences, freeing the victim from all kinds of constraints and opening new poetic possibilities.  And second, there is his suicide, which has spoken across the 2,300 years since he walked into the Miluo River, forcing everyone to remember what it means to be an upright official, speaking loudly right past the barrier of death.

Two millennia impose their own kinds of silence, of course.  We have no sources about Qu Yuan from the time when he lived, when the shifting alliances of the Warring States period were reaching a peak.  His life was recorded primarily by Sima Qian, the great historian who wrote more than a century after Qu Yuan had died, at a time when the battles that finally resulted in the unification of China under the Qin and then Han dynasties, and that were so much a part of Qu Yuan’s life and death, were long over (Sima 1993, 435–43).[2]  As a result, nearly everything about his life is contested, including his authorship of the poems collected under his name as the Songs of Chu (Chuci).  A lack of evidence, however, has certainly not been an impediment to how Qu Yuan is remembered in China.  Maybe it even frees up the construction of memories, much as exile can free up the construction of poetry.  We will see this again in some of the other cases to be discussed below.

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Photo by Jean Penders

According to Sima Qian, Qu Yuan was born into the royal family in the southern state of Chu, which was one of the largest at the time.  He served King Hui of Chu as a minister.  His goal was always to ally Chu with other states against the growing military threat from the state of Qin.  Due to the greater cleverness of Qin, however, his plans were undermined and he was sent into exile.  Allegedly slandered by the Prime Minister under the following king, Qu Yuan was forced into even deeper exile, into mountainous areas south of the Yangzi river in central China, at the very edge of the Chinese civilizational world at the time.

He was a sophisticated man of wealth and influence, once trusted by the king with the most crucial diplomatic work in an age of political intrigue and military danger.  How could he have felt, banished to a life at the edge of the world, removed from the luxuries of the capital and the subtleties of the court?  His voice would no longer be heard in the halls of power, or indeed by anyone at all with the slightest political influence.  He was surrounded by strange foods and strange peoples, cut off from all he had achieved.  As he wrote in the semi-autobiographical “Encountering Sorrow” (Li Sao), which is one of the only poems in the Songs of Chu generally agreed to have been authored by him:  “A circle fits not with a square design;/Their different ways could not be merged with mine” (Qu 2016).  Was he talking about the courtiers of the capital or the cruder townsfolk of the far south?  Quite likely both—an exile cannot really feel at home anywhere.  In the hills in the far west of Hubei, in a county now mostly inundated by the new reservoir that has filled the Sanxia gorges, there is an ancient well.  It is said to be where Qu Yuan often stood, depressed and alone, staring at his gaunt reflection.

Cut off from all that he loved, and from the chance to fulfill the national duties that he so honored, he immersed himself in local culture.  The poems he wrote and collected tell of spirit journeys to lands of eerie beauty, they describe strange and twisted places filled with bizarre life.  His “Encountering Sorrow” is the first long poem in Chinese literature, and the Songs of Chu in general and “Encountering Sorrow” in particular became models for later styles of poetry.  These works exist only because Qu had been forced into exile, whose uprooting allowed him to enrich and transform his elite education through a new immersion in the myths, rituals, and shamanic practices of people at the edge of his cultural and mental worlds.

Of course, we know almost nothing about what the experience was like for Qu Yuan, but the idea that exile can actually free a mind for new forms of creativity seems supported by many more recent (and so better documented) exiles.  China itself is rife with examples, perhaps most famously Su Shi, who lived more than a millennium after Qu Yuan.  His exile first to Hubei (not so very far from Qu Yuan) and then to the miasmic heat of Hainan Island brought us some of the greatest poetry in the Chinese canon.  The West also offers no shortage of famous examples.  The poet Ovid, for example, was banished to the very edge of the Roman Empire, in what is now Romania.  It was there that he wrote some of his most famous poetry, even as he thought constantly and wistfully of a Rome from which he was now cut off.  Much later, Dante spent a great deal of his career in exile from his native Florence, during which time he wrote the Divine Comedy and many other classic works.

None of these people abandoned the political convictions that had gotten them exiled in the first place.  All of them deeply missed their lives at the centers of power and learning from which they had been banished.  Yet all of them also entered a period of unprecedented creativity.  Partly this must have been the result of being in a new environment, constantly challenged to think and adjust.  In addition, though, banishment allowed these people to leave behind habits of thought and action, patterns of speech and life, that had utterly shaped them before exile.  Exile didn’t just prevent them from expressing their political opinions to the public and from exercising national power; it also allowed them not to be limited by the channeling of mind that allows such speech and power.  By silencing these people, exile thus gave them a new kind of voice.  In the long run of human history, this has surely outweighed whatever they might have accomplished had they been allowed to stay home.

Qu Yuan’s fame rests only partially on his poetry.  In 278 BC, he heard the news that everything he had fought against had come to pass—Qin armies had captured the Chu capital and all appeared to be lost.  According to legend, he weighed himself down with stones and walked into the Miluo River in eastern Hunan, where he drowned.  Perhaps he had already been imagining that day for a long time, like when he wrote these lines in “Encountering Sorrow” (Qu 2016):

Since in that kingdom all my virtue spurn,

Why should I for the royal city yearn?

Wide through the world, no wisdom can be found.

I’ll seek the stream where once the sage was drowned.

He was neither the first nor the last loyal official to do this, but he is probably the most famous.  This is the reason why Sima Qian featured Qu Yuan in his history of the period, and why he was on the minds of numerous later political suicides.  Death is the most extreme form of exile.  In the end Qu chose it voluntarily, perhaps because it would free him from the shackles of a world where his land was doomed, as the earlier exile may have freed him from the bounds of courtly thought and diplomacy.  Yet death’s silence is far deeper than that of ordinary exile.

Why choose such an awful silence?  Because, we imagine, he hoped it would speak louder and longer than anything else he could do.  Of course, this is “speaking” only in an odd sense—it consists not of what Qu Yuan can say, but rather of what we can hear in his non-words.  Sima Qian thus seems to be the key.  He is the one who shaped forever our memory of Qu Yuan.  More than that, generation after generation in China have built on that memory.  They have heard words hidden in the silence, by crediting Qu Yuan with some of the major ritual events of the year.  Widespread legend today traces the Dragon Boat Festival on Duanwu Jie (held on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month) to the local fishermen who raced their boats into the river to save the drowning man.  Unsuccessful, with the body trapped on the bottom by its weight of stone, they tossed in balls of sticky rice in the hopes of distracting the fish away from devouring his fresh body.  For over two thousand years, people say, these events are remembered by racing dragon boats and eating steamed zongzi made of sticky rice.

Who knows if there is even a wisp of truth to this story?  Truth is not the most helpful criterion when we are trying to listen for the meaning not just between the lines, but when there are no lines, no words at all.  Qu Yuan apparently gambled that the cultural trope of political suicide was already powerful enough, and that his cause was righteous enough, for his silence to speak.  This is never guaranteed, just as we will never know exactly what Qu Yuan really intended.  But we can at least catch a glimpse here of all the social labor that has to go into constructing memory from silence, from Sima Qian’s history to the ritualization of dragon boats.

When that construction succeeds, as it undoubtedly did for Qu Yuan, we can see how the silent can become the sacred.  His story is surely now sacralized, as the type case of suicide as political protest, and as the inspirational tale of the tragic man behind a major annual festival.  This process of sacralization, however, is in part the loss of the ambiguities, irreducibilities, and opaqueness that are more faithful to his original silences of exile and death.  Any creation of social memory like this requires a forceful thinning out of the saturated richness of silence.  These memories have allowed him to be “heard” even though he has no words, but only because he has lost control of his own silence.

A-Po’s Suicide

The only suicide I knew of while I was doing fieldwork occurred during my very first experience in Taiwan, in 1976.  It involved an old woman I will call A-Po (“Grandma”), because that is how one addresses women in their sixties in Taiwan.  A-Po lived with her son and his wife in a northern Taiwanese village called Xibei, not far from the town of Sanxia.  It was still a place of rice paddies and water buffalo at the time.  You could get there in about an hour and a half on the bumping, dusty, creaking bus from Taipei.  There was a stop in Xibei, but the driver would only stop there if you rang the bell.  The village was a bit larger than some others just nearby, with a couple of short streets of shops and brick houses belonging to the local farmers.

On the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month that year, A-Po woke up early and roused her son and daughter-in-law to help with all the preparations for one of the busiest ritual days of the year—the annual festival to propitiate all the hungry and abandoned ghosts of the world.  Each year during the seventh lunar month, the ghosts are released from the underworld.  Many temples perform gaudy rituals during that period, in which people bring offerings of food.  Buddhist or Daoist priests mystically multiply those offerings into the vast quantities needed to satisfy those ghosts with their insatiable appetites.  In the Daoist texts, as in most popular opinion, those ghosts are the souls of people who died a bad death—by violence, or far from home, or without descendants to worship them.  As part of the ritual, people release water lanterns (shuideng)—candles balanced on tiny paper boats and rafts—to reach the souls of the drowned.  Hundreds of these little lanterns float down the river from the major temple in Sanxia, tiny lights glittering in the night, gliding silently past Xibei village on their way downstream.

Appeased through these rituals, the ghosts would be willing once again to leave the living alone for another year.  For regular householders like A-Po and her family, it made for a busy and exciting day.  Food had to be cooked and offerings prepared for the ghosts.  These would be laid out on tables in the street or near the temple in town (because no one wants the ghosts coming into their house).  The living would feast on the same food later.  Incense and paper money were needed, and an altar table had to be set up.  Finally, families could go to the temple to watch the festivities and enjoy the benefits of the priestly ritual, before hosting a feast at home.

A-Po woke up that day eager and ready to marshal her family to do everything that had to happen.[3]  Unfortunately, however, her son and daughter-in-law shared none of A-Po’s enthusiasm for the bustle and excitement of the day.  They had no intention of doing any of the work.  They wanted just to skip the whole thing.  On hearing this, A-Po walked out of the house, through the sweltering heat, and straight into the river, from which villagers later pulled her corpse.  The river is not especially deep or fast there.  Like Qu Yuan, she probably had to weigh herself down with stones.  All the same, her death must have taken a tremendous force of will.  Rumor around the village was that A-Po had long lived in tension with these children she felt were unfilial, and this was the day she could no longer bear it.

This death fits into a broad Chinese cultural frame where suicide has a social cause, and where the silence of the grave was widely heard to speak loudly and accusingly.  Qu Yuan’s death was not just the model for the ultimate political protest, but for an even broader understanding of the social embedding of human life, and thus also of death.  Qu’s death reverberated throughout Chinese history, while A-Po’s is now remembered by very few.  Nevertheless, both were part of the same broad ebb and flow of Chinese life and death.  His silence is far louder than hers, but they are heard in much the same way.

In fact, A-Po’s death could have come directly out of Margery Wolf’s classic analysis of suicide in Taiwan, coincidentally published just the year before A-Po drowned (Wolf 1975).  Wolf had shown the alarming rise in suicide rates for older women in Taiwan as daughters-in-law wrested more and more power from their mothers-in-law over the course of the twentieth century.  Taiwan had changed from the late Qing Dynasty, when it was a place where the highest suicide rates by far were for young women just at the age of marriage, and there was a much lower peak for old women.  As love matches became more valorized, mothers-in-law in the twentieth century found themselves increasingly disempowered.  Suicide rates for young women went down, and those for the old rose steadily.  Women of A-Po’s generation had seen the worst of both worlds, suffering the indignities of being a daughter-in-law in the house of a powerful mother-in-law, wishing only for the day when she herself could hold the power.  And yet when it was finally her turn to be the mother-in-law, her son and his wife, she felt, had turned against her.  Certainly, the villagers themselves seemed to see things in light of Qu Yuan’s precedent and in a way consistent with Wolf’s analysis.  Many understood A-Po’s death as a condemnation of her unfilial children.

The silent denunciation written in A-Po’s death is quite different from the silence she would have experienced at her wedding.  A bride had to remain silent on her wedding day as the groom’s family transported her away from her natal home.  She contrasted utterly with the noisy groom and his friends and family, who would have talked boisterously while shooting off strings of firecrackers.  Weddings silence brides as power silences weakness, in this case the power of insiders over outsiders and men over women.  There is no Qu Yuan tradition to make that silence speak.  Nursed for decades, the bride’s silence had taken on a tragic power, which A-Po released during the ceremony for the hungry ghosts, by threatening to become one herself.  Drowned ghosts, after all, are among the most frightening of all, always eager to pull in one of the living to replace them.  A death like A-Po’s is thus not just an accusation.  It is a threat.

In 1924, Lu Xun wrote a story called “Zhufu”, usually translated loosely as “The New-Year Sacrifice.”  More literally, it means “wishing (or praying) for happiness,” which is the primary purpose of New Year rituals.  In the story, the young narrator travels back to his home town to celebrate the lunar new year with his relatives.  He soon runs into a woman he has known for years.  Everyone calls her Xianglin’s wife, and no one knows her real name.  She had been brought to the village as a maid after her young husband suddenly died.  Later she was compelled to marry a second man, and he too soon died.  She had no place to go except to return to this town, where people wanted little to do with her, to avoid being tainted by her bitter fate.  This was never clearer than at the new year, when it was so important to everyone to create an atmosphere of good fortune.  Xianglin’s wife, however, was the very antithesis of that atmosphere.  No one was a better index of disastrous fortune than she was, and she was thus an object of taboo, especially at this time of year.  By the time of the story, she had grown into a gaunt and grey beggar.

She recognizes the narrator when he comes back for the holiday, and as Lu Xun describes the scene, she says:

“You’re a scholar who has travelled and seen the world.  There’s something I want to ask you.”  A sudden gleam lit up her lackluster eyes…  “It’s this.”  She drew two paces nearer and lowered her voice, as if letting me into a secret.  “Do dead people turn into ghosts or not?” (Lu 1980, 170–71).

The narrator has no idea how to respond, and feels more and more awkward as she goes on.  She wants to know if there is an underworld, and if so whether she will meet family members there.  Did A-Po wonder any of the same things as she walked to the river?

The next day in the story is New Year’s Eve, just the moment when everyone is most concerned with “zhufu,” wishing for happiness.  At dinner with his uncle, the narrator learns that Xianglin’s wife is dead.  We never find out if this was also a suicide; we are told only that she died “of poverty.”

Of course, she did not die of poverty any more than A-Po died of having to do extra work to prepare for the ghost ritual.  Both died of social systems in which their gender, age, and family history granted them only a tenuous position.  Lu Xun ends his story, bitterly, by having the narrator stop worrying about it, his mind swept clean by the festive atmosphere.  Perhaps A-Po created more possibilities than Xianglin’s wife by dying at the ghost festival instead of the new year, and by raising the specter of a vengeful watery ghost.  Her death at least had the potential to be heard through the silence, unlike the death of Xianglin’s wife.  The water lanterns would soon float downstream again past Xibei, reminding everyone once more of the awful memories lurking under the river’s water.

Onlookers packed A-Po’s funeral.  A spirit medium would be there, and a rumor had gone around that her spirit might literally speak from her self-imposed silence.  Everyone was eager to hear her words.  They hoped she would illuminate the dead silence which had necessarily been opaque until then.  Would A-Po denounce the children directly through the voice of the medium?

They were disappointed, though.  The medium spoke, but only in the clichés of filial piety and living a good life.  The voice from the beyond offered no vengeance, and the possibility of other interpretations thus remained open.  After all, maybe she was senile and wandered obliviously into the water.  Or did she just slip?  Or was there some other heart-rending or mind-crushing problem that had nothing to do with the children?  No words from the dead spirit cleared away the opacity of silence.  Still, perhaps this is as close as one can come to a silence with an audible message, whether or not that message was actually intended by A-Po.  The powerful cultural trope for reading suicide condensed her silence into a single interpretation, dissolving her unique experience into a general narrative, and losing the complexities of her actual life and death.

Silence is most interpretable when it has a powerful cultural frame, like the suicide of a Chinese mother-in-law.  Even then, though, we always see room for doubt.  Perhaps that is why we see formalized silences only under very limited circumstances.  Think of the “moment of silence,” which is usually confined to just one minute because it is too hard to control after that.  Or recall the silence of some priestly orders, or even some initiation rites, where enforcement is possible only for a few people with virtuosic training, held within a draconian institution to enforce the silence.  The suicide frame allowed many people to read A-Po’s death as accusation.  It could not erase all alternative interpretations, but it had its effect:  the unfilial children moved away soon afterwards.

Aunt Miriam

Let me finish with a more self-indulgent case, one with no connection to China:  the story of Aunt Miriam.  Aunt Miriam was actually my father’s aunt.  I had no idea she existed until one day I succumbed to the anthropologist’s professional ailment and tried to do the genealogy of my own family.  Aunt Miriam, my father told me, was the oldest of his father’s siblings, and the only one who never emigrated from their home in Galicia, on the frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  My father knew almost nothing about her, and had not thought about her for decades.  All he could tell me was that her siblings in the U.S. had seemed very fond of her.  And, he added with a note of puzzlement, a tear would come into my grandfather’s eye whenever he mentioned her.  My father fell silent after he said this, and so did I, as I think both of us grasped for the first time what this must mean—that she had died in the Holocaust.

How could it be that my father had never realized this before?  It could only be because neither his own parents nor his uncle’s family, with whom they lived, ever talked about it.  My father refers to his own childhood as a time of being greatly loved and totally spoiled.  He was the youngest, and his family did all it could to keep him coddled.  As proof, he would tell how all through college he would mail his dirty laundry home to be washed, and his mother would mail it back.  Yet even children who were never coddled often do not hear of the darkest moments in a family’s history.  It is almost too much for a parent to bear to show genuine evil to a child.  The result has often been the complete disappearance of these memories.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that A-Po’s son ever told his own children (not yet born at the time of the suicide) about the causes of her death.

Note how different this is from silence.  Silence sits there in front of you, uninterpretable yet demanding interpretation.  With disappearance, though, even the silence is gone and there is nothing to interpret.  How much of the history of every Aunt Miriam, of every A-Po, of every human, has disappeared?  Think how thin is the thread of transmitted memory that saved Aunt Miriam from the utter disappearance that the Nazis intended.  Her memory rests on no more than the invisible trail of a tear that never quite trickled down my grandfather’s cheek.

This is the opposite of A-Po’s death.  A-Po committed an act of individual defiance and desperation.  Whatever her exact motives were—and she will always be silent on this—she surely knew how the community would read her act.  A-Po used the silence of death to speak and be heard in a way she could never have done with words.  Or rather, she had surely been speaking for years with words that revealed the issues that troubled her, but no one heard her.  It might as well have been her wedding day.  Only her daunting act of suicidal agency finally made people think about what she and her life had meant.  Aunt Miriam, though, was object and not agent.  She did not choose silence to speak through a cultural frame.  Instead she was silenced, and so too were any cultural frames that might have given meaning to her death or her silence.

And it worked.  What is left to us now of Aunt Miriam’s death, or of her life, or even of her way of life?  Just my memory of my father’s memory of a tear that never fell.  I have tried, since hearing about that tear, to piece together her life.  She would have been born in about 1880, in the small town of Zalosce, at a moment when both the total population of about 7,000 and the Jewish population (which was roughly a third of the total) were peaking.  Originally owned by a noble Polish family, the town stood in the shadow of their ruined castle, whose remnants still housed a brewery and stables.  It was a town of farmers and petty shopkeepers (including almost all the Jewish families).  Not so different from Xibei, in its way.  There was a Jewish doctor for a while, and a short-lived Jewish school that opened a bit too late for Aunt Miriam.

By the time she reached adulthood, Jews had begun their emigration, largely for economic reasons.  Hyman, the eldest of her younger siblings, left first.  He arrived in Boston in the middle of the 1890s, and brought my grandfather Ira a few years later to join him working in a barber shop.  The other siblings followed.  Zalosce suffered badly in World War I, losing about 40 percent of its total population, and slashing the Jewish population.  Did the 524 remaining Jews in 1921 still include Aunt Miriam?  As the eldest, and as a woman, perhaps she felt compelled to stay home and take care of her parents, and perhaps she worked to help send her younger siblings abroad.  She almost surely married and had children of her own.  Beyond that, there are no records and no memories.

The Germans took the town from the occupying Soviets on July 9, 1941.  They shot the first twenty Jews the same day, and declared the town Jew-free in October of the next year.  Perhaps Aunt Miriam was gone by then, quite possibly having moved to some nearby town with her husband.  It hardly matters:  the story is the same wherever you look.  Most of the surviving Jews of Zalosce were resettled into the ghetto of a nearby town, which itself was liquidated in the spring of 1943.  Some were put to forced labor, and others went straight to Belzec, an extermination camp.  Aunt Miriam would have been in her sixties by then, and probably not much of a laborer.  I imagine her on her final trip, riding a train that smelled of old cargo and new terror, holding desperately to some kernel of hope, even as she knew there was none.  They would have sent her straight to the gas chambers with all the modernist efficiency and Weberian rationality of the Nazi state.  They erased her and her people completely, destroying even the local town records.

I have invented every detail of Aunt Miriam’s life and death, of course.  There is no other way, after a silencing so thorough.  All I really know about her, after all, is my father’s memory of a tear.  Maybe she emigrated before the disaster, or somehow survived.  Maybe she lived to be a hundred, and died surrounded by loving great grandchildren.  We can all grasp at kernels of hope, even if we know better.

Yet even this silence, imposed with all the power of that bureaucracy of death, had its limits.  It is hard to imagine a deeper silence than the one forced on Aunt Miriam, but like all silence, it remains open to many readings exactly because it is opaque.  The silence itself would have to be erased, to disappear, before we would lose the power to create alternate interpretations.  In the end, silencing Aunt Miriam allowed us to imagine her life and her death, her entire world.  More than allowed: it forced me to imagine her.  She has occupied my mind far more than any of her brothers and sisters whose lives are more open to me.  I still feel some of her desperation in the squalor of the ghetto, the dark feeling in the pit of her stomach as the train pulled into the station, the push of the crowd as she descended the final staircase.  I think of her every time I go down subway entrances, which share a nearly identical layout to the gas chambers, designed to move crowded masses through narrow openings as efficiently as possible.

Aunt Miriam and her world almost surely never existed in the way I imagine them.  The act of imagination, though, is crucial—not because it is true, but because it reveals a truth.  It shows the inexhaustible possibilities of silence, even a silence as absolute and as dehumanizing as this one.  Designed to make us forget, instead this silence forces memory on us.  My memories of Aunt Miriam have had to be invented, and surely they do no justice to her actual life and death.  Yet the memory of this horror is made real in the process, and her silence can thus still be heard today.  We hear it quite differently from A-Po’s silence, but just as loudly.


The spoken and the silent are not opposites, not ontologically different from each other.  One is not the power to the other one’s resistance.  Derrida focused our attention on this when he wrote that “silence plays the irreducible role of that which bears and haunts language, outside and against which alone language can emerge” (Derrida 1978, 65).  Foucault suggest a similar thought:  “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (Foucault 1978, 1:27).  Speech is possible only because silence exists.

The appeal of silence for me is precisely that it poses the problem of power and interpretation in such an extreme form.[4]  We may sometimes think of silence as a sort of interpersonal black hole, but in fact it is fully social and communicative.  It is not the opposite of speech but rather the far end of the continuum of uninterpretability that affects every kind of communication.  It differs from other forms of sociality primarily in its opacity, in the way it resists the social controls that allow some speech to appear, in context, as unambiguous.  All communication is subject to alternative interpretations, but silence more than any other keeps possibilities open and makes a final resolution impossible.  Power can thus enforce silence—as for Chinese brides or Europe’s Jews—but can never ultimately control its meaning.  Remember those empty niches, whether in colossal Buddhist shrines or medieval European cathedrals, which cannot help but raise the specter of those spirits whose images were destroyed in the name of a new sacred.

Even the final silence of death continues to communicate and continues to offer alternatives, as Qu Yuan, A-Po and Aunt Miriam show in their very different ways.  If there is a real kernel of hope in their grim stories, it lies in the unsoundable depths of their silences, which continue to bubble up new sources of meaning.  Their silences have fought off the enormous forces that tried to control their interpretation, as they challenge even our own attempts to reduce them to simplicities.  Silence will always pose irresolvable problems of interpretation, even as it demands interpretation.  Its opaque depths frustrate our attempts to understand, but that very frustration is what provides the solace in these stories of human tragedy, and perhaps suggests a step toward an anthropology of the unknowable.

Such an anthropology, however, risks destroying the rich potentials of those silences in favor of the simplicities of social memory.  By honoring Qu Yuan in his writing, Sima Qian indeed saved Qu’s silences of exile and suicide from disappearance, but he also locked them in place.  The ritualized aspects of how Qu Yuan is remembered in dragon boat races are no different.  In the same way, this essay has perhaps saved, in a small way, A-Po and Aunt Miriam from totally vanishing, but only at the risk of having done violence to the concreteness and complexity of their lives by having tried to evoke them.  It is all too easy to reduce these people to the clichés of cultural tropes: Qu Yuan as political suicide, A-Po as disempowered Chinese mother-in-law, Aunt Miriam as genocide victim.  An anthropology of the unknowable will instead have to continue trying to salvage silence from disappearance, but at the same time accept its irresolvable depths and respect the solitary tragedy of those who left it to us.


Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Lu, Xun. 1980. “The New-Year Sacrifice.” In Lu Xun: Selected Works, translated by Xianyi Yang and Gladys Yang, 1:168–88. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Mann, Susan. 2007. The Talented Women of the Zhang Family. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Qu, Yuan. 2016. Poems by Qu Yuan (340-378 B.C.). Translated by Hsien-yi Yang and Gladys Yang. Accessed March 7.

Sima, Qian. 1993. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I. Translated by Burton Watson. 3rd edition. Hong Kong: Columbia University Press.

Thurman, Robert A. F., trans. 2003. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. Penn State University Press.

Wolf, Margery. 1975. “Women and Suicide in China.” In Women in Chinese Society, edited by Margery Wolf, Roxane Witke, and Emily Martin, 111–42. Stanford University Press.

  1. [1]A much shorter version of this essay was originally written for a session at the American Anthropological Association in honor of Emily Martin, who was my dissertation advisor.  It has evolved significantly since then, but is still written in gratitude to her and with thanks to the audience.  Versions of the more complete paper were delivered in seminars at the University of California, Berkeley and at the London School of Economics. I am very grateful to both groups for their helpful and generous feedback.
  2. [2]Note also how Susan Mann invokes Sima Qian’s approach to history and his attempts to fill its silences, as she tries to fill in the gaps in elite women’s lives in the Qing (Mann 2007).  My thanks to Harriet Evans for pointing out these many layers.
  3. [3]My knowledge of this case depends almost completely on the anthropologist John Shepherd, who was working in the region at the time. I am grateful for his help.
  4. [4]One could, of course, distinguish many forms of silence; the silences of the concert hall, the censor, the exile, the suicide, and the genocide are all quite different.  Nevertheless, they all share the same ability to resist confident interpretation that I have talked about here.

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