The Orientalist painter Eugène Fromentin adored the silence of the Sahara. “Far from oppressing you,” he wrote to a friend, “it inclines you to light thoughts.” People assume that silence, being an absence of noise, is the auditory equivalent of darkness. Fromentin was having none of it: “If I may compare aural sensations to those of sight, then silence that reigns over vast spaces is more a sort of aerial transparency, which gives greater clarity to the perceptions, unlocks the world of infinitely small noises, and reveals a range of inexpressible delights.” 

Erling Kagge, the Norwegian explorer and publisher, seized on this for his international bestseller Silence: In the Age of Noise, published in Norway in 2016. Now comes Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence, published last year in France. Kagge’s short, smart airport read was more tough-minded than the fad it fed. In fact, the crowd-pleasing Silence and Corbin’s erudite history make good companions.

For instance: while Corbin was combing through Fromentin’s Un été dans le Sahara of 1856, Kagge was talking to his friend the artist Marina Abramovic, whose experience of desert silence was anything but positive: “Despite the fact that everything was completely quiet around her, her head was flooded with disconnected thoughts… It seemed like an empty emptiness, while the goal is to experience a full emptiness, she says.” 

Abramovic’s trouble, Kagge tells us, was that she couldn’t stop thinking. She wanted a moment of Fromentinesque clarity, but her past and her future proved insuperable obstacles.

Why should this be? The answer is explored in Corbin’s book, which is one of those cultural histories that comes very close to becoming a virtually egoless compendium of quotations. Books of this sort can be a terrible mess, but Corbin’s architecture is as stable as it is artfully concealed. This is a temple: not a pile.

The present, properly attended to, alone and in silence, reveals time’s awful scale. When we think about the past or the future, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves stories. It’s in the present moment, if we dare attend to it, that we glimpse the Void.

Jules Michelet, in his book La Montagne (1872), recognised that the great forces shaping human destiny are so vast as to be silent. Erosion, for example, “is the more successfully accomplished in silence, to reveal, one morning, a desert of hideous nakedness, where nothing shall ever again revive.” The equivalent creative forces are hardly less awful: the “silent toil of the innumerable polyps” of a coral reef, for example, creating “the future Earth; on whose surface, perhaps, Man shall hereafter reside”.