Published: November 3, 2011
It’s amazing how several works of art employ the “silent scream” concept as a way to convey the most gut-wrenching agony a human being can possibly feel.
Edvard Munch’s famous painting of a figure on a bridge holding its bulbous head in its hands with a countenance that simultaneously communicates shock and horror is not the only expression of pain so profoundly deep that words are utterly inadequate.
In the 1965 movie “The Pawnbroker,” Rod Steiger portrays Sol, a Jewish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who is in a permanent state of bitterness because of the loss of his family in the Holocaust.
He detests everyone in his orbit, referring to them as “scum,” a desperate attempt not to risk feeling anything at all.
Jesus, a young Puerto Rican boy who works for Sol, idolizes him, even though Sol constantly rejects Jesus’ overtures of friendship.
After Sol says the boy means nothing to him, Jesus sets up the robbery of the pawnshop.
But it is Jesus who is shot and killed with the bullet intended for Sol.
It is this scene in which the “silent scream” comes into play.
As Sol, Steiger, with his eyes closed, opens his mouth, but no sound emerges.
He would later tell Robert Osborne of the Hollywood Reporter and Turner Classic Movies he thought the scene would be more powerful if Sol’s grief manifested itself silently, as had been the case ever since the Holocaust.
How ironic that even the martyrdom of a boy who loved Sol, who died in Sol’s arms, was not enough to evoke a screeching utterance, not even a muffled sob.
Steiger, a method actor who suffered from depression, had the courage to reach deep inside himself and use his own pain to pull out one of his truest and most gripping performances.
Even music enables the “silent scream.”
In the numerous memorial services following the 9/11 attacks, the symphonic catharsis of choice seemed to be Joseph Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
The piece proceeds melodically, if mournfully, weaving its way around the wounded heart until it ascends to a high-pitched, forceful flurry of vibrating strings that might be unlistenable out of its grief-stricken context.
This climax lasts for about 60 seconds and is followed by a moment of silence before the instruments, mellow with exhaustion, play a few more notes, then return to the main theme.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes/The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.”
Whether instinctively or as creatures who believe in the power of reason over emotion, we retreat into a quiet search for a rubric, an outline, an institution, a format, a formula – an intellectual framework of order through which we may find inner peace if we can just work through the levels.
Analysis and pity, opposite sides of the tragedy, are welcome guests, but only if they respect the priority position that order must hold.
We seek order atop the mountain where stranded climbers eat each other to survive and below sea level where Hurricane Katrina’s wrath gave way only to entrenched Washington’s inertia.
But before order comes the “silent scream,” the most searing sound never heard, a sound so universal that even the deaf can hear it and even the mute can release it.