There is something fundamentally alien about total silence. Not relative silence, but total silence. For most people, the world is not a quiet place: We are surrounded at all sides by great and shifting tapestries of individual sounds that blend into one another with deceptive density. Electric and organic sounds, the sounds of machines and people in motion in ways big and little, from the roar of engines to the soft flutter of breathing. Yet even deprived of these, the natural world is far from silent. Everything makes noise.
Recently, I had a conversation with my mother about the hypothetical loss of a physical faculty—an idea that had come up as an exercise in a creative writing class that she had taken many years before. "What would you sacrifice? What couldn't you sacrifice?" In the end, we both agreed that while many fates would be unpleasant, deafness would be the most alienating. Where the loss of sight might deprive us of the image of the outside world, deafness deprives the world of depth and distance. A sudden hand on one's shoulder is far more frightening if one cannot hear it coming, for instance. Worse yet, to be unable to hear one's own breath, one's own heartbeat. To be alienated from sound is, above all, to be alienated from the body.
So comes the question of silence. Sound is the motion of objects in space creating vibration within a medium which our ears transform into sensory data. For something to be silent, it must either be motionless or move in such a way as to cause little to no vibration in the medium through which it moves. The feathers in owls' wings are optimised to cause as little friction as possible within the air while still maintaining lift, allowing them to soar and swoop down silently when hunting their prey.
We are trained to expect that, for the most part, only that which is motionless is silent—that is, that which is dead, or that which was never alive to begin with (at least not in the way that would imply motion). What does move without sound is therefore strange and often threatening, if not for this immediate reason than because of the question that follows it: Why is it silent despite being a thing that moves? The answer, of course, is rarely comforting.
Silence is also important for a very different reason: It creates negative space wherein any other sound that occurs, quiet or loud, is automatically emphasised. This effect is most obvious in media with a strong or predominant auditory element: Music especially, but also film and theatre. Yet the principle may also be applied to other disciplines through the aforementioned concept of negative space. The elements of a painting may determined just as much as by what is not shown as what is, both for what as seen as emphasised by the open spaces and what is implied by those absences. This follows through into prose and poetry, wherein what is and is not described in a scene or stanza sometimes assumes equal importance to the actual content presented. What we know is only half of the truth; the other is what we know that we do not know.
As someone with a passion for the music, film and literature of dread, I could easily digress on the use of absence as a horror motif, particularly with respect to the notion of "the weird"—that is, the element of the inexplicable as a driving force in a fear-based narrative. And indeed, I have something planned discussing that very topic. But ultimately, I think that it would be unfair to single out only that one emotion here, however powerful it may be.
Indeed, the open question posed by silence may, depending on the circumstances, invoke any number of complex and contradictory emotional responses, from laughter and joy to grief and shock. Where the sudden pause before a theme in a grand composition might indicate a devastating blow, it might just as well indicate a declaration of love or an unexpected triumph. Silence is as much a tool for one side of the scale as the other.
But in the end, the purity of absolute silence is a less malleable force, subject less to manipulation than to deference. It is an enigma, an open and empty expanse wherein no shapes can be discerned, no distances charted and no limit determined. It is endless because its end is unknowable. All that stands to us is to say what this means.