A contribution to the sixth installment of the Common Knowledge symposium “Apology for Quietism,” this article explores the possibilities for quietist narrative. Since quietism suggests resistance or condescension to telos, suspense, will, and the kinds of spirituality, politics, and ways of being associated with them, it seems unlikely that a narrative would be written or read by a practitioner of “ideal indifference” or by anyone averse on principle to initiative. But Gilbert White's text of 1789, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne comes as close to being a quietist narrative as is conceivable. Describing the environment of a single English parish, White's text places stillness on exhibit as an indication of commitment to an ethics of self-unregarding attentiveness. But the stillness of Selborne, King argues, is a conspicuous stillness—a practice of being still in face of the natural world. As an Anglican minister, White explicitly demonstrates the arguments of eighteenth-century natural theology. Having stilled his will to interfere, he can observe the activity of God's creations; and White does so in order to understand God better. Thus, White's desisting or withdrawal is in no way based in defeatism, indolence, or aimlessness. Moreover, King argues, White aims to produce stillness as a formal quality of his text and, through it, to produce a like stillness and attentiveness in the reader. Quietist narrative is meant to help the reader still his or her acquisitiveness and develop instead observational capabilities, a capacity simply to admire (or stand apart, in awe), and, above all, patience. To the extent that it fosters in us a principled “do nothing” stance with respect to our natural ecology, King concludes, quietism of Gilbert White's kind may represent the most radical of environmental politics.
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Amy M. King; Quietism and Narrative Stillness. Common Knowledge 1 August 2010; 16 (3): 532–551. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-2010-010
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