May 16, 2005

Unintended consequence of the war against silence

There's a certain peace in hiking to a distant spot amid the woods, or even a field, to a place where the only sound is the wind rustling through oak leaves or corn tassels, accompanied by the quick buzz of a dragonfly on its way to a pond.

Plenty of such locales exist; anyone who says otherwise hasn't spent much time in the Southwest desert, the Rockies or even a roadside in rural Iowa. But such places are becoming increasingly rare. At one time, we could live in a place where other than the shuffle of our feet, the sounds of nature were all that we'd hear for hours on end.

"Soon silence will have passed into legend," sculptor, painter and poet Jean Arp wrote during the early 20th century. "Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation ... "


We are conducting a war against silence - a quiet, secret war, at that. There are the obvious battleships such as interstate highways and housing developments, but these behemoths ironically can bring their own moments of peace, through the noise-free car and a room of one's own that we would not find if thousands of us were forced to bicycle at the same time to and from cramped apartments.

No, the war against silence runs much deeper than those superficial contentions.

Real noise comes from 24/7 cable television reports full of the power-hungry advocating violence and of angry hosts searching for ratings. It comes from flashing ads and pop-up boxes when we log onto the Inter-net. It looms, like a semi-truck speeding from behind, in elevator and shopping Muzak. It interrupts our sleep and meals with telemarketers' phone calls. It is a flyer stuck to our windshield.

It is anything that distracts us from peace of mind by attracting our attention to the irrelevant and meaningless. Unlike a passing dragonfly, its four thin wings fluttering rapidly as the blue body darts past, noise offers no delight.


While our own silence can be appalling and is all too common, being able to take refuge in a world of quiet for at least a few hours a day is a necessity.

We must, for some time, let ourselves reside in the real rather than the artificial promises cast about in noise.

"What is meant by 'reality'?" Virginia Woolf once mused. "It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable - now to be found in a dusty road ... now a daffodil in the sun. ... It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech ... (It) is what re-mains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge ..."


Noise's aim is to wear us down. Like Chinese water torture in which a drop is splashed against our heads over and over and over, we are bombarded with distorted objectifications of political thought, Viagra ads and art devoid of purpose except to fill space.

Such detritus soon becomes dangerously addictive. We hunger to know about the next stupid idea "they" came up with, begin to wonder if we somehow are sexually incomplete, soon believe that if a thing challenges our understanding of the world it must in some way be subversive.

But humans are remarkably resilient. We become media savvy, adopt cynicism to ward against the noise.

And that is the unintended consequence of all the clamor: We lose our sense of intimacy with the world around us. The field and patch of woods becomes dull; the dragonfly's lazy wanderings are viewed as a waste of time unworthy of our attention.

In that dark moment, our world grows increasingly small - far smaller than any new street or row of houses ever could make it.

(originally published May 16, 2004)

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