Silence: In the Age of Noise
By Erling Kagge
160 pp. Pantheon. $20.
In the 2007 film “Noise”, Tim Robbins plays David Owen, a Manhattan man so fed up with the noise of the city that he takes it upon himself to “rectify” the situation. He soon gains a popular following and a moniker, “The Rectifier”, to go with it. At the risk of giving too much away, Owen eventually comes to the realization that vandalizing every car in the city is a slow way to go about achieving any lasting peace and quiet and instead decides to make some, ahem, noise, by campaigning for an anti-noise ballot initiative.
I thought about this largely forgotten film while reading “Silence” because Owen struck me as the Malcolm X to Kagge’s more “change through peaceful means” MLK (if we were to swap civil rights for the “right” to silence). Whereas Robbins’ David Owen reacts to a car alarm’s interrupting his reading of Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit by going down into the street and smashing up the blaring car, Kagge advocates an active search for silence in the everyday. I say the everyday because Kagge himself found silence on a 50+ day hike to the South Pole, a solution that isn’t likely on the menu for most of us.
How does one achieve silence in the everyday? While Kagge practices meditation, yoga, and going off into nature whenever possible, he also speaks about achieving “silence” while walking Oslo’s busy streets or crawling through Manhattan’s sewer system. I suppose this is some zen state that an experienced meditator can simply drop into. Or, to say it in a way that makes it sound slightly more achievable, simply comes from being particularly practiced in “tuning out the noise”.
“It is possible to reach silence anywhere,” Kagge writes, “one only need subtract.”
Much like his Walking: One Step at a Time, there is a great deal of insight to be found here. One of the things that Kagge focuses on, to my endless fascination, is our discomfort with silence. A discomfort of silence that we’re all familiar when we’re at the dinner table with friends or wrapped up in other social obligations but a discomfort that is quite contrary to the popular employment of phrases like “silence is golden” and associating quiet with peace.
Silence, Kagge emphasizes, is not simply the absence of noise, but a “full emptiness, a stillness of the mind.”
The philosopher and “boredom theorist” Blaise Pascal wrote of our discomfort with silence that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Kagge notes that Pascal wrote this in the 1600s. Which is to say, sometime before the advent of television, social media, and all those other instruments of distraction that exist today. Humanity, in other words, has always had a hard time being quiet.
(Do note that I am referring here, as Kagge and likely Pascal are, to “western” humanity, as I am aware that many eastern cultures and traditions allow for a much larger place for silence than is typically seen in the western world.)
Asked at Hay in May 2019 how his children feel about his ideas on achieving silence, Kagge replied that his daughter “thinks it’s total bullshit”.
Reading this you too might find the author’s advocating for “full emptiness” and marches off into the wild as “total bullshit”. During a walk in the countryside outside of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, Kagge spoke of the importance of walking “without thinking”. That all sounds more easily said than done, I replied. Is it even possible to clear your mind of thoughts?
After a few minutes of walking, Kagge answered that it was worthwhile following trails in the forest, or somewhere similar where the trail wasn’t always clear but full of roots and obstacles that required one’s full attention to avoid stumbling. You’ll be so occupied watching where you step, Kagge’s reasoning went, that you won’t have time to think about other things.
I thought this was excellent advice, and finding a woodland trail or something similar is now much more preferable to me than walking on pavement or flat earth. Not just because it’s more difficult but because it’s harder to think about other things because it’s more difficult.
“Silence: In the Age of Noise” is a book we can all find solace in.