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.




Food Fights, Barbecuing, and Community

I rarely read one book at a time—and in an attempt to avoid the sunk cost fallacy I sometimes opt out of finishing books—so I thought perhaps I’d review books as I am reading them.A cat on the book!

Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste, by Tom Nealon, is a delightful book by any measure, but most of all from the viewpoint of aesthetics. I can’t imagine this book was at all cheap to produce, as it abounds with hiqh-quality color reproductions of art and historical advertisements, many of them courtesy of the British Library. The writing is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but enjoyably so, at least if you don’t mind irreverent references to cannibalism of “inadvertently delicious” corn-fed Aztec lower classes.

My favorite chapter from the book is on the history of barbecuing; here the tone diverges sharply from humorous to political. The contrast between traditional barbecuing (community affairs involving whole animals  and fire pits) and the commercialized, modern version of restaurant take-out and backyard grilling, is placed in the context of dwindling freedom of assembly. Nealon points out that in many areas of the United States, at least, fire pits are forbidden or at least require a permit, and are generally frowned upon at public parks, although apparently—to my surprise, anyway—barbecuing used to be considered acceptable on public land.

Personally I hadn’t realized the distinction between “barbecuing” and “grilling”, or considered how neatly the backyard grill fits into a capitalist paradigm of individualized consumption, a co-opting of a once inexpensive and widely accessible form of community-building and social discourse. To the extent that barbecues can still be held today, they likely require the privilege of land ownership and the privilege of a permit. Which is to say, if you have the advantage of a place and permission to barbecue, you should pay heed to Nealon’s concluding paragraph:

It’s not the world’s biggest surprise that corporations and governments have been destroying barbecue culture to further nefarious agendas. No, it is as it should be: barbecue has been forced out of range. Attempts to co-opt and commodify only prove the point: humanity and barbecue need one another. It is up to us to exercise some self-control the next time we have a hankering for some ribs: to build a fire instead of ordering in, to dig a pit, invite our friends, acquaintances, and one or two enemies, and stir up a sauce, a marinade, and a rub. As our lives become ever more full of flickering lights, ephemeral sounds, and unmoored notions dancing in our peripheral vision, it becomes more important than ever to take a moment, a breath, a mouthful. Every day we are enshrouded in a digital chaos so complete that is has become a sort of order, and I submit that what it screams for, more than anything else, is a properly made pulled-pork sandwich. All you vegetarians out there, don’t think you are off the hook: catch yourself some root vegetables, perhaps a great woolly radish, a tremendous turnip or an outrageous rutabaga. Find yourself a pumpkin the size of a space hopper and barbecue some soup — but take it slowly. S-l-o-w-l-y.

I’d probably add that you should invite some random passerby, too. And perhaps consider barbecue-as-protest.