Alain Corbin (1936) is a French historian and a specialist of the 19th century in France and in microhistory. Trained in the Annales School, Corbin's work has moved away from the large-scale collective structures studied by Fernand Braudel towards a history of sensibilities which is closer to Lucien Febvre's history of mentalités. His books have explored the histories of such subjects as male desire and prostitution, sensory experience of smell and sound, and the 1870 burning of a young nobleman in a Dordogne village.
In 2018 was published his book, translated in English by Jean Birrell A History of Silence, From the Renaissance to the Present Day, (Cambridge: Polity, 2018) offering different perspective that the famous study about noise and silence written by Hillel Schwartz. Despite its title, it is not in any recognizable sense a history: it contains a great deal of interesting historical material, but this is heaped together in what seems an almost random way. Corbin catches the psychological nuances and contexts of silence, from monastic silence to the silence of intimacy (Proust: "The air of [this room] was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter … without a sort of greedy enjoyment"); from the discipline of silence in education to its tragic manifestations (Maeterlinck: "Of how many ordinary friendships may it not be said that their only foundation is the common hatred of silence!"); from silence as a tactic to silence as a form of speech (Blanchot: "Silence—it alone has the last word"). Attitudes toward silence range from terror (Pascal's "eternal silence of these infinite spaces") to desire (John of the Cross: "In the calm and silence of night and in this knowledge of divine light, the soul discovers … a certain correspondence with God").
"Silence is not simply the absence of noise. It is within us, in the inner citadel that great writers, thinkers, scholars and people of faith have cultivated over the centuries. It characterizes our most intimate and sacred spaces, from private bedrooms to grand cathedrals – those vast reservoirs of silence. Philosophers and novelists have long sought solitude and inspiration in mountains and forests. Yet despite the centrality of silence to some of our most intense experiences, the transformations of the twentieth century have gradually diminished its value. Today, raucous urban spaces and a continual bombardment from different media pressure us into constant activity. We are losing a sense of our inner selves, a process that is changing the very nature of the individual. This book rediscovers the wonder of silence and, with this, a richer experience of life. With his predilection for the elusive, Corbin calls us to listen to another history."