3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Category: Silence

How we privilege the heroic loner

A Heroic Loner

I’m writing a book on silence, and the way in which those who are silent are both celebrated and reviled in our culture. One of the most important studies about the social effects of silence is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s The Spiral of Silence1. In this book she examines the way in which majoritarian viewpoints work to eliminate the public expression of dissent, until it is even impossible to have private articulations of contrary view-points. She begins her book with a parable, based upon her viewing of a ballet, in Chicago, in the spring of 1980:

Somewhere, possibly in Italy, there is a small town with honest citizens and a count and a countess of local lineage. Outside of the town, in a castle on a hill, lives a strange man who has the oddest ideas. He never ceases to give people cause for amazement; perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that they are partly amazed and partly annoyed by him, while at all times keeping their distance.

One Sunday this man appears in town leading a unicorn by a chain. People can only shake their heads about him. A little later, however, the count and countess are also seen in town leading a unicorn by a chain. This is the signal for everyone in town to get a unicorn.

Another Sunday, the strange man in the castle suddenly appears with a gorgon. People ask him what has become of the unicorn. The man tells them he was tired of the unicorn and decided to pepper and grill him. Everyone is shocked. But when the count and the countess also appear with a gorgon, shocked surprise turns to envy, and all at once gorgons are the rage.

On the third Sunday, the man in the castle turns up with a manticore and tells the people the gorgon was slaughtered. At first the townsfolk are scandalized. But then everything follows the usual course: the count and the countess secretly dispose of their gorgon, the townsfolk follow suit, and all at once the manticore is in vogue.

Time passes; the strange man in the castle is not seen anymore. People are sure the manticore has been slaughtered too. The towns­people form a committee to put an end to these crimes and march on the castle. They enter the castle, but are brought up short by what they see. They find the strange man dying in the company of his three animals—the unicorn, the gorgon, and the manticore. The unicorn represents the dreams of his youth, the gorgon his middle age, and the manticore his old age.

The townspeople discarded his ideas as quickly as they had taken them up; they were just passing whims….We all take the poet’s side. …The poet represents our image of man as strong, indepen­dent, imaginative. And we are all familiar with the count and the countess—superficial trend-setters who have no ideas of their own but want to be leaders wherever they go. Those we despise most, however, are the people who go along with the crowd, first making fun of a person because he is different from them but then absorbing any new fashion and finally giving themselves the air of moral authority.

This is one point of view, and it is the way strange people from the castle, loners, artists, and scholars have always felt.2

Noelle-Neumann doesn’t feel that it necessarily the only point of view…

As long as we privilege the heroic loner, the outsider, the rebel, and at the same time, refuse to recognize our need to conform, and to make others conform, we will only see the point of view of strange people from the castle. Don’t the count, the countess, and the townspeople deserve to have their story listened to as well?

  1. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion, Our Social Skin, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) []
  2. Noelle-Neumann, Spiral of Silence, viii–ix. []

The power of books in hostile environments

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute, Image P48/16/216

Chapman in Greenland

Chapman in Greenland Freddie Spencer Chapman, explorer, author, and war hero, published a volume of radio talks under the title Living Dangerously1 In the final chapter, ‘Living and Reading’, he talks about the importance of books for the explorer:

…my first encounter with a polar bear will always be connected in my mind with that wonderful incident in Handley Cross when James Pigg is asked by Jorrocks to find out what sort of a night it is; he accidentally opens a cupboard door instead of the window and exclaims: ‘Hellish dark, and smells of cheese’. At that time four of us, during the course ofsmall boat survey, were camping out on a sandy spit between two fjords. I had just read this passage aloud to the others and we were convulsed with laughter when all at once one of them said, ‘Ssh, there’s a bear outside’. And sure enough, in the sudden silence, we could hear a bear snuffling and growling just outside. Next morning we found tracks within a few yards of the tent, and had a wonderful view of a mother bear and her cub swimming past our camp. I still cannot re-read these two passages without being transported back to Greenland, and hearing the bear growling and the rending noise of the ice.

He goes on to say that the choice of books, although down to the individual’s interests and the conditions of the expedition, should never do away with “the necessity for reading material”. Otherwise you will be left with

nothing to read except the descriptions and advertisements on your food tins.

  1. F. Spencer Chapman, Living Dangerously (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953). []

What to read in five month’s isolation

August Courtauld, after being relieved, May 1931

August Courtauld, after being relieved, May 1931

If you ever find yourself isolated on the Greenland Ice Cap for five months, with no one else to speak to, or be with, and no knowledge of when you will be relieved, then follow August Courtauld’s advice:


Purchas His Pilgrimes.
Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens.
A Tarpaulin Muster, Masefield.
The Brassbounder, Bone.
The Ghost Ship and Other Tales, Middleton (Benn).
Two Years Before the Mast, Dana.
The Golden Key, Van Dyke (Scribner).
Under Sail, Riesenburg (Cape).
Fenceless Meadows, Adams (Hutchinson).
Great Waters, Hutchinson
Almanach des Gourmands, M. Florence.
Life of C. M. Doughty, Hogarth.
Peter the Great, Graham.
My Brother Jonathan, Young.
Joseph and his Brethren, Freeman.
Portrait in a Mirror, Morgan.
The Legion of the Damned, Doty.
Cambridge History of Empire, Vols. I-IV .
The Star Spangled Manner, Nichols.
The Art of Forgetting, Shepard.
Essays and Fantasies, Lucas.
The Aftermath, Churchill.
The Nature of the Physical World, Eddington.
The Universe Around Us, Jeans.
The Compleat Angler, Walton.
Great Poems of the English Language, Harrap.
The Red Rover, Fenimore Cooper.

Quoted in J. M. Scott, Portrait of an Ice Cap: With Human Figures (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953), pp. 120-121.

I am ashamed to say that I have read none of those.

Silence: the barking of dogs

There was, of course, no necessity to write at all, but in all animals abnormal experience urges communication. The more stupid the dog the more it barks, and nothing makes for more chatter than ignorance.

Christopher Burney, ‘Preface (to the Second Edition, 1960)’, in Solitary Confinement; the Dungeon Democracy (London: Macmillan, 1984), p 2.

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