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"We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think" by Shirley Hazzard

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Shirley Hazzard, author of two magnificent novels I have read, The Great Fire and The Transit of Venus, collected a series of lectures and reviews in a slim volume, called We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think. It concludes with a series of reviews of novels, only one of which I had read. I found her review of that book unfortunately too brief to do more than touch on some basic points.

Ms. Hazzard brings up some edifying insights in a series of lectures called “The Lonely Word.” They serve as a fairly straightforward observations about fiction that clearly bear repeating. She establishes early on that the narrative art dealt originally with the large-scale undertaking by larger-than-life actors: war, challenging the gods, going on great quests. She says the First World War made it impossible to ever focus on the grand canvas again. The actions of rulers during that great and tragically shortsighted conflict proved wasteful and idiotic. As T.S Eliot said, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Narrative art has focused on the personal ever since. Inward journeys, the overheard dialogue with oneself, invented by Shakespeare and not improved upon since, form the basis for the bulk of current fiction, and is part of the reason we find it so compelling. As a follow-on concept, Ms. Hazzard avers, 

"Articulation is an aspect of human survival, not only in its commemorative and descriptive function, but in relieving the human soul of incoherence. In so far as expression can be matched to sensation and event, human nature seems to retain consciousness.”


How much more rudimentary, or more persuasive, can a statement be? As a reason for writing, and a bald formula for it, Ms. Hazzard
cannot have said it any better. She cites Yeats, who said he wrote to give emotions expressions for his own pleasure: otherwise 

“all would be oratorical and insincere. If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root.”


These bracing and simple statements about writing provide an antidote to some of the more arcane thoughts about narrative expressed by Derrida and Bakhtin, for example. I want to thank the author for her perspective and her thoughts and recommend this collection to anyone caught up in recondite language concepts and struggling to see the bigger picture.

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