Silence: In the Age of Noise

I do not follow modern day explorers, and so the name Erling Kagge meant nothing to me until I picked up and read his beautiful prose, punctuated by art, in Silence: In the Age of Noise.

Kagge’s book is a reminder that observation is key to living well, and silence is key to observation. That is not to say silence in the most literal sense, necessarily; Kagge reconciles the silence of isolation, of trekking to the far reaches of the Earth, and the silence of the city, the silence of an individual in a crowd.  Silence of a sort can be found in the midst of noise, if you are willing to observe the moment.

But to say that literal silence is unimportant would be to misrepresent the book entirely. Certainly I have felt inundated by the traffic, the congestion, the constant pressing of others onto personal space, the ubiquitous noise of televisions, radios, and the whispers of headphones deafening the wearers day by day, the periodic pinging of a phone, a watch, an impatient microwave. I have often felt that it is impossible to be self-aware without periodic silence. With noise it is too easy to lose yourself in the cacophony of stimuli, to never have to face the innermost workings of your mind, to never slow down enough to experience poetry.

I am grateful to have discovered Rolf Jacobsen, whose poem The Silence that Follows is excerpted as below; it is well worth reading the whole poem:

The silence that lives in the grass
on the underside of each blade
and in the blue space between the stones.

Kagge also reminds us of the classist nature of society through the lens of noise. We live in age of noise and few people have the luxury to escape to the quiet of remote nature. I once lived in my tiny trailer by a railroad and the popular exit of a highway; the noise could suffocate you, if you let it. The freight trains came at night and enveloped your body in the vibrations of their passing. It was the worst area of town, the part of town people tell you to avoid because the air quality is atrocious, the homeless encampment (the regulars almost exclusively composed of veterans) is next door, and your neighbors are bike thieves and drug dealers. But I was still lucky, because my neighbors were also hard-working immigrant families who gave me fresh eggs, ex-drug dealers who had decided to be responsible single parents, itinerant ER nurses, and young men who dreamed of being physical therapists because, they said, they knew so many people in physical pain who could not afford treatment. And because the time I looked sad and weary, carrying a hiker’s backpack and a guitar in the relentless heat, the veterans on the corner asked me if I needed help. And because my commute offered a sudden escape from the noise, an arboretum with a water body that passed as a creek. I walked to work sometimes because to bike meant less silence.

And when I left my job, I was even luckier, because I was privileged to have unending days of silence on the road.