The first widely observed national moment of silence occurred in Britain in 1919, in commemoration of the nation’s inaugural Armistice Day. For two minutes, switchboard operators declined to connect telephone calls, subway cars and factory wheels ground to a halt, and ordinary citizens held their tongues. Within 10 years, the somber annual tradition had grown so popular that the BBC began to air the sound of the silence. One broadcaster mused that the communal silence served as a “solvent which destroys personalities and gives us leave to be great and universal.”
While state-sanctioned silence was novel, the sentiment of the broadcaster was not. Silence has long acted as a leveler of ego. From the communal meditation that opens Quaker meetings to the lulling quiet that defines the lives of Buddhist monks, silence is central to various religious traditions. “For many people, silence is the way God speaks to us, and when we ourselves are in silence, we are speaking the language of the soul,” observes George Prochnik, author of a previous book about Sigmund Freud and the American psychologist James Jackson Putnam. In his fascinating new book, In Pursuit of Silence, Prochnik sets out to understand the complicated reasons for silence’s power.
Silence enriches the mental life of humans, but, as Prochnik shows, it ensures the very survival of some in the animal kingdom. By being silent, animals avoid detection by predators, and sharpen their wits. Prochnik highlights the intriguing case of the red-eyed tree frog, whose embryos are capable of distinguishing the vibrations of a raindrop from the movement of a hungry snake. When the vibrations are caused by a snake, the embryos prematurely launch themselves from their jellied clutch and attempt to survive in their underdeveloped state.
The inability to hear (or sense vibrations, a related skill) spells doom for some animals. But the biologically imposed silence of deafness, at least in humans, often results in an acute appreciation of the remaining senses. Prochnik points out that at Gallaudet University, the premier American institution of higher education for the deaf, faculty and staff cultivate Deaf Space, an appealing philosophy of architecture that emphasizes natural light, soft shapes, and colonnades and porches—“space that helps people remain in each other’s visual embrace.”
If silence has so many benefits, why are head-splitting rock concerts popular and iPods ubiquitous? In part because loud sounds have their pleasures. As explained by one partisan of boom cars—which sport subwoofers capable of producing more noise than is audible 30 feet away from a jet at takeoff—the sound he experiences is “sensual.” Yet people also crowd their lives with noise, Prochnik incisively argues, because they are resistant to the virtues that silence exemplifies: contemplation, attention, prudence, and restraint.
Garret Keizer, a contributing editor at Harper’s, tackles essentially the same subject, but from the opposite end, in The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. Perceptions of noise vary, he notes—Swedish and Dutch scientists have found that people lodge fewer noise complaints about wind turbines when they financially profit from their use. Yet he points out that “noise took a quantum leap with industrialization,” and the racket was compounded with the advent of the automobile and the airplane.
The volume in many places around the world is now objectively dangerous (one child in eight in the United States suffers from hearing loss), and Keizer argues that, saddled with poor infrastructure and fewer resources, people on the social margins are disproportionately affected. He acknowledges that when compared to poverty, violence, and disease, noise is a minor environmental issue. But with noise as his cause, he seizes the opportunity to decry America’s “loud” political discourse and climate change stoked by noisy factories.
Both Prochnik and Keizer end their books with policy prescriptions. Prochnik would like to see more pocket parks in cities, while Keizer thinks that we should live closer together to reduce our support of the carbon-spewing automobile industry. These ideas aren’t off the mark, but given how subjective noise is, the idea that we possess the power to shape our own auditory space is strangely missing. One can find internal calm in the cacophony of rush hour, after all, or be plagued with racing thoughts in a tranquil park. A quieter life is not just a matter of listening to our physical environments, but also to ourselves.