Friday, May 09, 2008

Brooding silence

Reading Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) on the L on the way home tonight, I was stopped by the following lines, describing a carriage ride between two men of different class and little congeniality:
Even had the two men's dislike to each other's society been less, the general din of the night would have prevented much talking; as it was, they sat in a rigid reticence that was almost a third personality.
Oh, what a skilled writer can do: with that image, I think Hardy may have forever changed the way that I think about tense silences. Even weirder, I expect that any time I find myself in a non-conversation and start thinking about that simmering third personality, I'll also think of Hardy, who will instantly make an invisible fourth.

Though Hardy was writing of an active aversion, a hostile silence, could his metaphor not also occasionally fit the more casual group silence of the L, or any commuter train? Think of those times when the cell phones and headphone leakage sink into the ambient noise and everyone else is dozing or staring or reading--but most of all not acknowledging in any way all the other people with whom they're sharing this odd-shaped moving room. That group aversion really can feed on itself until it seems to take on a personality and force of its own, and the moment it is punctured, whether by an official announcement or by an unexpected utterance from a passenger, can be extremely jarring.

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