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Poster Commentary
"Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech."Susan Sontag
Poster design:Arnold Schwartzman


by Erica Brown  •   •

We have all sat in the awkward silence between words, when silence did the heavy lifting. It created a space for thought. It acknowledged that a quick answer is not always a right answer. It acknowledged the mystery that words not only describe but also limit our understanding of the universe.

In a shiva house, no one is allowed to speak until the mourner opens the conversation. If the mourner chooses silence, we follow in the silence, understanding that silence can sometimes be the only honest response to complexities that don’t offer easy answers: suffering, transcendence, joy, beauty.

Susan Sontag (1933–2004) was an American writer of depth and fierce courage, famously remembered for the racing stripe of white that ran through her otherwise dark hair. She once described herself as suffering from attention surplus disorder, such was her focus and concentration. Next to a photograph of her sitting at her writing desk, a large wooden table covered with books and papers, she wrote, “The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.”

Sontag also understood the power of silence. In her words, “Writing requires huge amounts of solitude.” Once she started writing, she didn’t want to do anything else. “I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little.”

In that silence, Sontag wrote words that live long after her to nurture the silence of others. We read in silence, yet that silence is filled with words that help us escape, help us think, and challenge us to stretch beyond where we are to a place of possibility where we can become something else.

Conversation Guide


Susan Sontag was a prolific writer, a social activist, and a cultural critic who understood the impact and potential of silence. The commentary cites the example of silence at a shiva house to illustrate how silence sometimes is a powerful response.

What does it mean to be silent? Is silence simply an absence of words or speech, or is it something else entirely?

What forms of communication exist without speech?

Silence can be powerful, but not all silences are the same. Think about a time when people remained silent and did not speak up against an injustice.  What does their silence say?

What about the opposite case, such as a “moment of silence”? In such a case, what does the silence convey?



Each image calls out to us to examine it, to note our thoughts and feelings, and relate these impressions to the quotation. Often clues in the artwork suggest meaning and invite interpretation.

Designer Arnold Schwartzman uniquely illustrated the words of Sontag to add a further dimension to her quotation.

How does the image present the quotation? Was this how you interpreted the quotation without the image?

Why do you think the artist chose to represent the quotation with sign language? What other images might have been used to portray silence?

The hands on the poster are mechanical and artificial. What do you think the artist is trying to suggest about speech and silence by using a mannequin’s hand?

Why might have Schwartzman broken up the word “silence”?   


Copyright© 2012 Harold Grinspoon Foundation

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Masters Series©2012, Arnold Schwartzman, Quote: Susan Sontag,

Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA