For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested, in a clinical way, in silence. When I was a child, and the house would grow unexpectedly quiet because the fans, the person washing dishes, the heaters, and the traffic outside had all unexpectedly stopped at the same time, I would adopt a defensive stance and listen actively, examining the phase change in the environment the way a doctor might examine a patient with a disease thus encountered only in exotic texts. I still do this, though these unexpected periods of quiet happen less and less often. Silence is aberrant. The last time it grew quiet in our house, I described it to my husband as “weird.” We looked at one another across the room as if we were seeing each other’s faces for the first time.
When we use sound strategically—listening to music, for instance, while we read or write or exercise or ride the train—it takes on a new, therapeutic purpose, one we likely rely on a bit too often to drown out all the other noise. It’s less expensive than psychiatry and far less dangerous than cigarettes, but its proliferation as an adaptive crutch is breathtaking. Have I ever seen a child age twelve or older without earbuds dangling, except at sports matches where they are forbidden?
A question that comes up in almost every interview with a writer goes like this: “What do you listen to when you’re writing?” Some writers reveal that they listen to music. They tell us their favorite bands and songs so we can steal some inspiration. These writers are cool—maybe even too cool. I picture big money, big headphones, and small packs of cigarettes on their desks. Some say they can’t listen to anything until they’re deep in the revision process; these writers seem reasonable enough, I guess, and might also be modest, responsible drinkers. The author who is said to require complete silence comes across as saintly and chaste. This writer must have a clean desk, drink tea, and make money very slowly.
What that question actually means is “how do you avoid the distraction of noise so that you can hear your own thoughts?” Writing about how noise disrupts thought has been going on for a very long time. In the 1850s, Schopenhauer published an essay “On Noise” in his larger collection Studies in Pessimism. In it, he wrote about the torment he suffered at the sudden and the static sounds of the city, where he moved in order to be close to the vital stimuli that would provoke his writing. Like the rest of us, philosophers cannot reliably predict the outcome of their choices. All they can do is examine them until everyone involved is exhausted. “Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the crying of children are horrible to hear; but your only genuine assassin of thought is the crack of a whip; it exists for the purpose of destroying every pleasant moment of quiet thought that any one may now and then enjoy.” Yes, you can be sure that Schopenhauer did not like whips at all. (Our modern equivalent must be a car horn.) He goes on:
Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought… Occasionally it happens that some slight but constant noise continues to bother and distract me for a time before I become distinctly conscious of it. All I feel is a steady increase in the labor of thinking—just as though I were trying to walk with a weight on my foot… The most inexcusable and disgraceful of all noises is the cracking of whips—a truly infernal thing when it is done in the narrow resounding streets of a town… That this cracking of whips should be allowed at all seems to me to show in the clearest way how senseless and thoughtless is the nature of mankind. No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought… it must disturb a hundred people who are applying their minds to business of some sort, no matter how trivial it may be.
It’s worthwhile to mention that my reading of the rest of the essays in Studies in Pessimism set off several alarms that are always armed and ready to spring in my contemporary mind: elitism, classism, sexism (as did my recent reading of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo; the dissonance almost lit my brain on fire). For Slate, Katy Waldman pointed out that:
…any “great mind” in Schopenhauer’s philosophizing by necessity belongs to a man. In his 1851 polemic ”On Women,” the thinker isolates rationality as the quality peculiar to men; women “are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children.” Ladies interfere with the exercise of the male intellect, clouding it with the “feminine charms” of “coquetry and mimicry.” In fact, Schopenhauer dislikes women for precisely the same reason he dislikes noise: because they get in the way of great thoughts.
So Schopenhauer kept women in the same category as whips. I am a woman, but knowing this stuff about him doesn’t make me too insecure to agree with him about noise. He’s been dead for a long time, and I don’t think anyone has ever gone so far to accuse me of coquetry; any man whose intellect I’ve clouded with my feminine charms has kept his struggle a magnificent secret.
If Schopenhauer lived today, and became a literary sensation, Bose or Sennheiser could sponsor him with a distinctive pair of noise-canceling headphones, and women could ask, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
The last time I wore noise-canceling headphones, I was on an airplane. It’s been years since I found anyone to talk to on an airplane, and I’m an anxious passenger. To help myself calm down—I don’t like to read on airplanes because I want to be prepared for emergent situations like fires, hydraulics failures, and sudden, rewarding conversations—I usually stare at my watch and reckon how many more times five minutes will have to pass before the plane will begin its descent. I play a game with myself that involves trying to perfect the art of looking down at my watch exactly every ten minutes. Doing this in silence with the noise-canceling headphones I borrowed for the trip was a revelatory experience. I became so engrossed with the operation of my watch that I fell asleep. When I woke up, a flight attendant was near my face asking me to put up the tray table, where I was leaning for comfort. I removed the headphones. The noise of the plane was deafening. It was the worst noise I have ever heard. I couldn’t believe that everyone around me without headphones on was all right, and I looked at every one of them for reassurance, but nobody looked back. The rest of the flight was uneventful, and all I could think of for hours afterward was the terrific roar of the jet engines that somehow didn’t annihilate a single one of us.
Let’s consider a writer who lived in a very noisy place, and gained a lot of fame and too much attention for his stories about communal apartment living: Mikhail Zoshchenko. Zoshchenko was an exceptional satirist; you could even go so far as to say he was a natural, if you believe in that sort of thing, and I think I do. But he lived in the Soviet Union, and because of how he exercised his talents, he lost his worker’s ration card.
In his very short story “More on the Anti-Noise Campaign,” found in Nervous People and Other Satires, Zoshchenko was at his best; he wrote most easily and with terrific appeal, in all his stories, about the things that bothered him the most.
For sheer strength of sound the radio takes first place. Maybe only gunshots make a louder noise. But there is, as they say, a special science against gunshots—ballistics… Now one of my neighbors has a [radio], but I don’t care much about him. You couldn’t call him a great lover of radio. He comes home from work and listens to the children’s hour. And then you don’t hear any more from him. Unless, when he’s under the influence, he turns on some kind of singing for five minutes more. That’s all his radio listening for you. He is a gentle, humane person…
But my other neighbor—he’s something exceptional. He purposely leaves the radio on for long periods. And even, for example, when he goes to the public bath, he leaves the radio playing.
What was our astonishment, agitation, and rage when he went on his vacation and left his radio going full blast! He didn’t turn it off. And he locked his room with an American padlock while he himself, as they say, calmly sailed off to the Crimea for a month. He went there to get a suntan. To the south shore of the Crimea. And we, as they say, had to put up with the noise from his room.
Zoshchenko ends by suggesting, “Perhaps some kind of governor for radio outlets could be invented?”
Writers have not been quite as literal about noise in the 21st century. Noise is so apparent and so pervasive that noise means anything that clouds or robs a person—or a corporation, I guess—of privacy, thought, or even life. Noise in one book is, in fact, Hitler. Take Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. Noise isn’t really Hitler, but the protagonist of this book is chairman of Hitler studies at a university, and DeLillo’s career choice for him is not an accident.
Wrote Diane Johnson in the New York Review of Books in 1985, “White Noise is a meditation on themes of whiteness—the pallor of death, and white noise, the sound, so emblematic of modern life, that is meant to soothe human beings by screening out the other, more irritating noises of their civilization.” And “All the characters are infected by Jack’s high interrogative style. The novel is entirely composed of questions, sometimes ones you’d like to know the answers to: “Were people this dumb before television?” “Does a man like yourself know the size of India’s standing army?” “What if someone held a gun to your head?” “What if the symptoms are real?”
Suppose we answer these questions. DeLillo published his novel thirty years ago. Enough time has passed that we can at least give it a try. Again, as with Schopenhauer, we don’t have to be offended by these questions, or anything they imply. The questions are inert. They come from a work of fiction.
Were people this dumb before television? Yes, but before television, people were mostly hard at work on farms or in factories, or they were asleep, or nursing, bathing, and whipping children, or they were sick or malnourished or dying. In fact, light reading—such as the kind I have done in my bed at night—will instruct you that people from long ago would sometimes decide not to get any better from being sick so that they would no longer burden their families, whose resources may have amounted to very little more than an actual hill of beans. They would instead decide, reasonably, to die. The advent of television and radio largely coincided with the propagation of free time and general wellbeing in the more privileged areas of the Western Hemisphere. Before, people were highly specialized in many things that we cannot and will not do anymore, like cobbling their own shoes or turning the head of an animal into cheese. But that didn’t make them any less dumb. These industrious facts about people from the past have no bearing on their ability to make decisions, which they did as often as we do, and just as poorly.
I often imagine transporting one of these olde people to the present day. They would be terrified of televisions. They would be terrified of office parks, cars, free trade agreements, helicopters, paper plates, and suffrage. I could dazzle any of them with the least noise from my smart phone.
Does a man like yourself know the size of India’s standing army? As I mentioned earlier in this essay, I am a woman. But because I know how to use a computer, many things are possible. This question is interesting insofar as it is obsolete. These days, the type of men who can and will rattle off the kind of statistics that would have once amazed a woman but would have failed to impress anyone allowed inside an officer’s club are frowned upon. Such men are viewed as absurd caricatures, relics of a time gone by so recently that some, like cobblers, are still around.
I have looked up the size of India’s standing army. The IA contains 1,129,900 active personnel, 960,000 reserve, and 109 aircraft. Everything else you might want to know, including the color of their uniforms or the type of tanks they use (Arjun) or the names of their armored regiments (Poona Horse, Deccan Horse, 20 Horse, and so on), is abundantly available in the Wikipedia article.
In the year 2016, this question is less about knowledge or the quality of men and more about how we choose to spend our time. Lately, people who play fast and loose with statistics and facts—instead of just quietly settling an argument on Wikipedia like the rest of us do in polite company—are being called “mansplainers.” While it may be fun to laugh about them on the Internet, I think they are misunderstood. They haven’t chosen to value plasticity and fluidity of thought and knowledge. They still think a volume of factual knowledge is equivalent to a currency unit of thought. They could, at any moment, change their minds. But what interests me is that mansplainers—who are not only men—are found in abundance in loud places, and they are often seen emitting facts very close to people’s faces: people who do not seem thrilled about receiving them. Maybe there’s no hope for mansplainers after all. They thrive in loud arenas: militaries, concerts, bars that are brightly lit and have not been kept hidden from college students, lobbies, lines at coffee shops, city sidewalks, fallow acreages where dogs are barking. They would not agree with me, or even with the absurdly sexist ghost of Schopenhauer, about distractions. They would produce a statistic that argues in favor of keeping your mind alert or of multi-tasking, which light reading in bed at night has assured me is a fruitless way to engage my mind.
What if someone held a gun to your head? This is definitely the worst of the questions I suggested answering. I would rather write about anything else: any of the pop stars my daughter can name, office parks, red meat, childhood, armies. Five years ago, my cousin’s boyfriend shot and killed her and both of her young daughters. He used my cousin’s own gun, a Glock “safe-action” pistol, to do this. She was twenty-nine years old. Her daughters were both in elementary school.
For much of my childhood, my cousin, whose name was Jamie, was my only friend. Though I had only spoken with her a handful of times since we graduated high school, and though my relationship with that half of my family—all of whom live in West Virginia and are quiet and would never dream of explaining anything more than a recipe to another human being—is defined by silence, I loved her. I say immediately that I loved her if the subject of gun ownership comes up when I’m around. I find I have to explain the importance of our relationship: a familial tie between first cousins and a friendship that spanned the generation we spent in swimming pools, gardens, and dark flash-lit bedrooms and yards. Otherwise, the reaction to her death and her daughters’ deaths is the same reaction people might have if I announced that the grocery store no longer carried my favorite cultivar of apples. “It’s terrible that they’re gone,” they say. To keep my mind from catching on fire, like with Nietzsche, I close my eyes and imagine my favorite apples. Honeycrisp.
My cousin’s death and her daughters’ deaths are not shocking to my American friends. Pew Research says, “Gun ownership is one of the hardest things for researches to pin down,” which makes me imagine researchers trying to turn a seam on a delicate piece of lace. I decided to search, with Google, for “How many Americans”—I didn’t have to type the rest. “How many Americans own guns” is a popular search these days. How many American women own guns?
I don’t own a gun. My husband does. It’s a shotgun, and I’ve never touched it, but I looked at it once. He bought the shotgun before my cousin’s boyfriend fired the Glock “safe-action” pistol into both of their daughters’ heads, and then into the back of her head, and then into their son’s head, and then into his own head. Their son, a toddler, was sitting in another room, watching cartoons. The bullet glanced off his right ear and landed in a wall. He survived the ordeal I have described and then went on to live with an uncle. I am given to understand that he “doesn’t remember anything” and that he is doing fine. But this seems unlikely. His parents are both dead, and one was a murderer.
When I opened the long rectangular case and looked at the shotgun, Jamie had been dead for almost two years. I took the gun off the shelf where it always is. That is, it has always been on a shelf in each of our three houses. With every move, we faithfully carried the case in our own car. No movers were allowed to handle the shotgun or the locker that protects, under key and combination, the ammunition that would enable the shotgun to destroy an intruder’s face before he could destroy our faces or steal our possessions, which amount to a modest wealth of electronics, jewelry, Star Trek memorabilia, and clothing, as well as two children, a cat, a dog, and several musical instruments, and many other things like books and paperwork and photographs that an intruder would probably not look at twice.
I was surprised by the shotgun. I had expected a sparkling, polished weapon suggestive through its very name of immediate and violent death, but what I found was a neat, matte-finish device that was smaller than a sword but bigger than my violin, which is the only other thing I’ve ever kept in a black case on a shelf. The shotgun case is lined with what looks like clean, gray Styrofoam, and it has two double-action clasps. I knelt on the floor with the case open and stared at the gun until I was satisfied that I had examined its overall aspect properly. I decided that it could definitely kill anyone who might also open the ammunition locker, and I put it away. My fingerprints are all over the case, but not the gun.
Here is what I have learned about shotguns from Wikipedia. Compared to handguns, shotguns are heavier, larger, and not as maneuverable in close quarters, but they do have the following advantages: they are generally much more powerful; the average shooter can engage multiple targets faster than with a handgun; they are perceived as more intimidating.
For a year, I had dreams of my cousin’s face being ripped apart by the rapid expulsion of shot pellets from a slug. Later I realized that the Glock, which is a pistol, had not destroyed her face. My aunt reported that her face, like her young daughters’ faces, was made up, and that Jamie looked beautiful. Jamie was blonde, with green eyes, and weighed one hundred and ten pounds. She resembled a number of movie stars who earn millions of dollars a year. Instead, I started to dream—in a high, blue-and-orange, cinematographic way—of her Hollywood face, the way it appeared a decade before in a Glamour Shot that hung prominently in my grandmother’s house, her face falling away piece by piece, as if it had been cut up with a comparatively harmless pair of scissors.
According to research, “females who live in a home with a gun are nearly three times as likely to be murdered than those without guns in the home.” As I mentioned, no one has ever seemed surprised by the fact that my cousin and her daughters died because of a gun. But when I say that I loved her, I get a longer and slightly more engaged audience, and I try to say something that could lead them to think differently about owning guns, all while a gun is hiding in my closet like a tranquilized panther chained to its ineluctable, deadly awareness. No one who owns a gun wants to speak openly with a stranger about the gun itself, but the idea and the divine right of the gun, divorced from the potential energy ready to rip and bristle in its chambers, is discussed at will. If someone held a gun to my head, I, having imagined the sound of it going off at close range in a thousand dreams, would be ready to take a bullet in silence. I am sure that I could not speak anywhere near a gun.
What if the symptoms are real? We’re fucked.
In the New York Times, Jayne Ann Phillips examined White Noise in greater depth. As far as I know, she didn’t answer any of these questions as I have done, but her discussion convinces me that if noise is fatal to a writer’s concentration, the memory of noise turns out invaluable observations.
White noise includes the ever-present sound of expressway traffic, ‘‘a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream.’’ Television is ‘‘the primal force in the American home, sealed-off, self-contained, self-referring . . . a wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages . . . like chants. . . . Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.’’
In a yield of lexical circumstances that is hanging too low for me to ignore, I’ll indulge myself by pointing out that, weeks before her death, Jamie obtained licensure the state required to operate a forklift. She spent the last working month of her life moving pallets of Coke and other soft drinks from place to place.
Like so many before it, this essay is going to end with David Foster Wallace. Here is part of Wallace’s introduction to 2007’s Best American Essays, ”Deciderization 2007: A Special Report.”
… a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.
Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.
The treatment of noise expresses itself here in scattered, urgent prose that could really almost be said to attack itself. Except here, it attacks itself in a severely exaggerated way. Now, “noise” is information, and there’s so much of the noise around that the writer has actually left his argument in the essay for us to look at.
I don’t think anyone could disagree that the prevailing style of the past decade’s prose has been dominated, as in Wallace’s essay, by fiction and nonfiction that have overwhelmingly shown a hand full of self-aware, pro-nervous commitment to getting everything—all the noise and all the uncertainty the noise reveals—into the story. You can do that kind of work from a quiet place, but you have to spend a lot of time somewhere loud first, listening to everything.
Information, the conduit to wealth and free time, is supposed to unchain us from noise and confusion. But what it really does is drive us into a quiet place perfectly suited for recall and association, a place to bear the thunderous burden of everything we know. Silence is not exempt from the illusory nature of wants and desires. I wear a pair of headphones when I write, and I listen to all sorts of music. They’re open-air headphones; they don’t cancel out any noise. They actually encourage it.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.