In Praise of Silence
I have long been a lover of silence and quiet about it. It is this same love that is bound up with my passion for books. The writer Stefan Zweig once defined a book as a “handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.”
While the world teems about me, drowning out the sounds of stillness with incessant noise, there is a notion of displacement, as though I wasn’t meant for these times of television sets, ipods, car alarms, cell phones, all day-every day music in stores, restaurants, office buildings, malls, and elevators. Why is it, I wondered, that silence is a diminishing natural resource, so alien to our way of life that its very existence seems to threaten the fabric of our culture? Why is it that we love noise, fear silence and evade a stillness that puts us in closer connection with things that give us happiness if we let them?
It is this concept, one I welcome with hushed gratitude, that forms a new book due to be released tomorrow: In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik.
seems to have made us
fall in love with noise
as a society.
It’s a torrid,
that we are often
in denial about,
or tend to
as a bass-heavy,
summer night’s fling.”
It is a strange and intoxicating premise: to investigate the obscure root causes of our inability to be quiet. Like a form of narcissism, are we becoming consumed with a self-saturation of our own largely uninteresting cacophony? The author believes that we are, and that as we become noisier, we also lose touch with the many dimensions of silence itself, a silence that research suggests is as therapeutic–as essential–to the human animal as antibiotics or uncontaminated food.
Prochnik details with disturbing elegance the idea that Americans suffer enormously from noise pollution; insomnia, aggression, heart disease, even decreased longevity…the side-effects of enduring other people’s noise. It’s almost as if noise itself is a disease, a pathogen. And because of it, silence has become the most precious—and dwindling—commodity of our modern world, more than money, power, even happiness.
As readers of EA well know, I love anecdote. It so clearly explains in story what facts can often obscure. When the author was doing research for the book, he traveled with a police officer who was frequently called upon to intervene in domestic disputes. When the officer arrived, he usually found that the unhappy home was a raging cacophony of radios, TV’s, music all playing simultaneously–layer upon layer of mad noise used to prevent silence from arbitrating between the combatants. The officer tells the writer that in order to restore calm, he would ask the feuding combatants to turn off the appliances. He discovered that the near-homicidal atmosphere dissolved almost at once. They had, the officer explained, been arguing with noise itself rather than with each other.
It doesn’t take a sage to understand that those who have grasped solitude are the special emissaries to the tranquility of silence. Henry David Thoreau for one:
is the universal refuge,
the sequel to
all dull discourses
and all foolish acts,
Photographer: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Untitled, 1940.