This post will discuss Ms. Sontag and her quote at great length, but I will also focus on the broader problems of responding to quote prompts, particularly the context issues that quotes raise.
The Lady and the Prompt
Here she is, in Essay Option 3: Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967. Anonymous submission.
Part 1: Watch Your Context
As usual, I want my readers to know some of the backstory for the prompt and the issues they must tackle to write a response to the prompt. This despite an e-mail about my recent posts on Chicago. In this e-mail, I was asked why I didn’t just let people make it up, slap something together on the fly, in keeping with the spirit of the U Chicago Scavenger Hunt.
My response–Go ahead, if you want to, but here’s the problem: this isn’t a scavenger hunt. It’s an essay. And among other things, you would probably like to have an original idea for this essay, right? And you’d like to relate your essay to the quote. But how do you know if it’s original? And how do you know what to make of the quote?
One way to answer the first question is to say you can’t know how original your idea is. You may have a great idea that is so amazing that nobody else has ever thought of it. Just like Alfred Russell Wallace, who had a great and crazy idea nobody else had, so he sent it to the greatest living expert in his field–check out what happened here.
Because literally thousands of people will be responding to this prompt, you can expect that a seemingly original idea may have a twin or even an extended family out there. Alfred Wallace was still a brilliant and original thinker, even if you didn’t recognize his name. His application file would definitely be stamped “admit.”
So my advice is paradoxical: Do the research and thought needed to come up with an original essay, but don’t obsess over how original your idea is.
There are some basic mistakes you will then avoid. As an example, you don’t want to invert or reverse a quote’s intent and meaning unless you know you are doing it and have a reason for the reversal. It’s pretty easy to take a quote out of its context and get it badly wrong. Even though our app readers will understand that you are reacting to the quote from your own particular place and time, they will also not be able to help cringing if you get it totally wrong and seem blissfully unaware of it.
This is a pretty common problem, and not just in application essays. For an example, just look at what Justice Antonin Scalia did to poor Robert Frost–In support of a ruling about separation of powers, Justice Scalia quoted Robert Frost thus:
“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”
Dude, you are so blowing your quote there. This is like saying, “Well, as Shakespeare tells us, To thine own self be true.” It’s a particularly egregious mistake for a guy like Scalia, who spends all his time arguing that the law means what it was originally meant to say.
Why? In the first example, Scalia isn’t quoting Frost the man here; he’s quoting a character in a poem by Frost, a character who is described as being like a brutish caveman. The poem itself doesn’t argue that walls are great or even a good idea; it questions the value of walls and fences and associates walls with darkness and latent violence. Read it and see, here. And it’s Polonius, the slimy yes-man to the evil Claudius who speaks the Shakespeare line. He’s speaking it to Laertes, who will mortally wound Hamlet through the deception of a poisoned sword. Right on, man! Be true to your own selfish, murderous self! Using this line as a positive aphorism is a good example of philistinism. (Bonus activity: Try using “To thine own self be true,” combined with the name Ayn Rand, as a search term if you want to have some fun.)
The point is this: You should assume that your app readers are literate in the older sense of the word, in the sense of having read widely and deeply, and that they know something about the quotes you respond to. So before writing in response to the Sontag prompt, I would suggest knowing something about her and about the specific source of this prompt. Try looking at the links I annotate below; after the links, and hopefully after you have taken some time to read them, I will turn to some of the many ways you might interpret this quote without mangling it.
To begin with, the quote is from one of Sontag’s essays called “Aesthetics of Silence” which was published in her collection “Styles of Radical Will,” a work available on Google Books here:The Aesthetics of Silence You should read the whole essay, but she cuts to the chase in Part 2 of the essay, beginning on page 5, where she details retreats into silence.
Next, you should have a look at this link, at what I suspect is the efficient cause of this prompt–the Sontag essay is on this U of Chicago Media Studies page devoted to . . . silence:
This includes a rich discussion of exactly what the prompt asks for.
Then it might be wise to learn a bit more about the author, Unfortunately, one of the best places to get a quick overview of her biography, work and influence is in an obituary, as she died in 2004. Try this obit on Sontag in The Guardian:
If you want to keep reading about her and want to check out more of her work, the New York Review of Books has this page with links to her writings and writings about her:
And finally, one of her best essays, called Looking at War, in which she analyzes “Photography’s view of devastation and death” was published in the New Yorker in 2002. This essay is particularly interesting as she talks about how the viewer of a photograph forms the meaning of a photograph. You, of course, are going to take a quote and make meaning out of it. We’ve got what you might call an epistemological parallel going.
The text of the article is not behind the New Yorker’s paywall but, sadly, the incredible photographs published with the article are not included here–due to some copyright issues, I’m sure. These are all shocking photos; in one example, a militiaman in a neatly pressed uniform, with his sunglasses pushed back on his head, his Kalashnikov dangling from one hand and his cigarette daintily raised in the other, is swinging a boot to kick the head of a woman lying face down on the pavement. The woman appears to be dead or dying. Sontag had a commitment to seeing and writing about what she saw, whether it was horrifying or beautiful. You can read the article here: Looking at War. (Late Addendum–I have just found the article posted as a pdf, with the photos, at the following link; the image quality is a bit compromised, but worth a look; copy and paste this address into a new window in your browser: www.uturn.org/sontag_looking_at_war.pdf )
Part 2: Some Approaches to the Quote
Whoa, heavy and serious, you may be thinking. Well, yes, Ms. Sontag was very serious about her work, and the quote does present a serious argument for the value and meaning of silence. Specifically, as you know having read The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag was looking at artists who renounced their work or retreated into silence, and to other ways that silence can be both a haven and a statement. This makes sense for a writer who focused with some regularity on the grotesqueries and philistinism to be found in our consumer culture. She’s after an aesthetic for the artist and thinker, and her tone was often critical, detached, and paradoxical–note how she asserts in this same essay that “Art becomes the enemy of the artist.”
So you might be constructing an essay that follows the lead of Sontag. If you are, you need to know something about paradox. (If you’ve looked at my posts on the other U of Chicago prompts, it’s deja vu all over again.) You might want to write about a time you used silence constructively, or as a shelter, or as a renunciation or as an assertion of the self, in an act of authentic resistance to shallow blabber. You could build on what you’ve learned about Sontag and the source essay directly.
On the other hand, the two most important requirements of the prompt are that the experience be personal and that silence play a role in your response and in the outcome. You could go in a completely different direction. For example, silence is often assent. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. This can be an intentional affirmation through silence or it can be acquiescence.
You might follow the example in another famous quote, that of Martin Niemoller, speaking of the response to the Nazis in Germany:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
Here we have acquiescence, silence as an act, out of fear. All of us have been silent out of fear or apprehension at some point, so this could be fertile ground for an essay. Perhaps you silence was unwise or made you complicit in something wrong–handle this with care–perhaps your fear was well-grounded and your silence wise.
On the other hand, somebody in a meeting in which Roberts Rules of Order are being followed is offering positive affirmation when by remaining silent when the chairperson asks if there are any nays, and the person does not speak.
Or maybe you have been in a setting in which silence was a rule, intended to create a meditative or contemplative environment, or to foster nonverbal communication. Taoist and Buddhist cultures have places reserved for silence . . .
Or maybe you spend time out in nature, observing, where you have discovered the virtues of silence, what silence allows you to see or what silence brings to you (is this also true in some social settings? That those who constantly talk cannot see, blinded as they are by themselves?)
And what about that John Cage composition 4’33”, composed of . . . silence . . . or the sound that fills the hall when the instrument is silent . . .
Have fun with the process and look for a post on prompt four for U of Chicago soon. And remember what Hamlet said: The rest is silence.
What a closer!