Silence, PLEASE

Theodore Dalrymple | Posted on 05/03/10

It is not only in public noise that modern life abounds; increasingly, people seem intent on enclosing themselves in a bubble of private noise. When I walk down a street now, or travel in a train, I see a significant (and I suspect growing) proportion of my fellow-pedestrians or passengers with ear-plugs in their ears, relaying music so loudly that they are deaf to the outside world. If you address them, which you have to do visually, by more or less confronting them face to face and miming in an exaggerated way, they jump and look startled, as if you were a burglar who had entered their inner sanctum, or as if you were making to rob them.

An Italian writer who had moved from Italy to the west coast of Scotland was asked why he had exchanged his glorious, sunny native land for those melancholy, rainy parts.

"It is simple," he replied. "In Italy, silence is very expensive. In Scotland, it is very cheap."

That silence should be viewed as a commodity of such rarity that it should be affordable only by the rich or the geographically isolated is a commentary on the noisiness of modern life. Italy, it is true, is exceptionally noisy; there is nothing young men there like to do more than roar down a narrow mediaeval street on a motorbike with the muffler removed, the ancient stone walls acting as an echo-chamber. I roar, therefore I am - and you had better acknowledge it!

But other countries are not quiet because Italy is noisy. In large modern cities almost everywhere, the fall of night does not extinguish the wail of the siren, the bass thump of rock music, the shriek of the domestic dispute. And there is no better way to damn a provincial town in the eyes of a modern sophisticate than to call it "quiet."

It is not only in public noise that modern life abounds; increasingly, people seem intent on enclosing themselves in a bubble of private noise. When I walk down a street now, or travel in a train, I see a significant (and I suspect growing) proportion of my fellow-pedestrians or passengers with ear-plugs in their ears, relaying music so loudly that they are deaf to the outside world. If you address them, which you have to do visually, by more or less confronting them face to face and miming in an exaggerated way, they jump and look startled, as if you were a burglar who had entered their inner sanctum, or as if you were making to rob them.

Their look before you disturb them tends to be a little dazed or vacant, like people in a trance, which in effect they are; you might suppose that the world is so horrible to them that they can deal with it only by screening it out of their consciousness. They are like Walter Mitty, but without the imagination to make up their own parallel world, and so they get ready-made noise to do it for them.

There are other signs of a taste for noise. Restaurants aspiring to be fashionable these days are often decorated in such a way as to remove all noise-absorbent materials from their décor. The resultant hubbub is taken as a sign of liveliness, as if the worth of conversation were to be judged by decibels rather than by the meaning of the words that are uttered. Not wit, but volume, is what we value now; the latter is measurable, and in any case makes the former redundant. A witty remark that has to be shouted to be heard, and possibly repeated at an even higher volume, is a bit like a soufflé  that has been ironed flat.

Many young people behave as if silence disturbs them in a way in which noise disturbs me. They tell me, for example, that they cannot concentrate unless there is electronic stimulus of one kind or another in their background. The bright, idle, mindless vulgar chatter of pop radio stations, or equivalent, not only does not destroy their concentration (they say), but is essential to its exercise. They do not mind, or notice, that there is more than one kind of such stimulus: cacophony is not a category to them.

I first realized this in a hotel in America some years ago. The restaurant was contiguous with the reception area, and each had its own music. One such stream of music would have irritated me sufficiently; but two was like a fight between cats that lasted for hours. When I pointed this out to a waitress, she replied cheerfully, "Oh, we don't mind it, we don't even hear it," as if she thought I was complaining on her behalf rather than my own. One of the effects of noise is to make solipsists of us all.

When you ask for electronically-produced noise to be stopped in a public place such as a restaurant (even if you are the only customer in it), you get one of two responses. You are told that it is either technically or administratively impossible to do so; or, if control of the noise is possible, its volume is reduced infinitesimally. As to the former response - that it is technically or administratively impossible to stop the noise - it suggests that it is not noise that needs to be produced artificially, but silence; that the default setting in nature, as it were, is rock music.

To me it is curious that environmentalists have concerned themselves so little with noise pollution, since noise is so important a component of our environment. There is, of course, the interesting question of political philosophy as to whose will is to prevail if there are six people in a public space, five people of whom desire noise while the sixth of whom desires silence. By analogy with cigarette smoke, I would say the latter; although, of course, the proponents of noise might say that, provided that the noise level is not such as to damage hearing (which it quite often is), the desire for silence is only an aesthetic preference, and therefore majority rule should prevail.

But is a taste for silence an aesthetic one only? Does silence really have no moral qualities, no intellectual advantages, no significance for the deepening of character? Of course, every person is inclined to indulge in special pleading on behalf of his own tastes, such as mine for silence; that is to say, to think that his own tastes are conducive to some higher end or good. But after making all due allowances for the fact that I am approaching old age, an age that prefers quietude, and in any case have never much gone in for the idea that music is exciting in proportion to the ringing in the ears that it produces afterwards, I cannot but lament the death of silence.

I know that many people now claim that they cannot concentrate unless there is a television flickering in the background and rock or rap insinuating itself into their ear; but I would not be telling the truth if I said that I believed it. It seems more likely that such people do not know what to concentrate really is.

More than the effect on concentration, however, I fear the effect of constant noise on the development of human inwardness. I find it difficult to believe that those who live in constant noise can ever reflect very deeply upon anything. Their taste for noise, that becomes almost a physiological need for them since they grow anxious without it, seems to me to bespeak a fear of being left alone with their own thoughts.

I am not for total silence; noise has it place. I am certainly not an enemy of music or talking (though my wife often tells me that I don't do enough of the latter). But a world in which silence is neither obtainable nor desired will be a world of very shallow people.

 

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