Three books about silence were recently reviewed in the New York Times: Zero Decibels, The Quest for Absolute Silence, by George Michelsen Foy; The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, by Garret Keizer; and In Pursuit of Silence, by George Prochnik.
Now, I haven’t read these books, but that won’t prevent me from writing about silence and its opposite. (Does a blog count as noise? Probably.) The opposite of silence and silent contemplation is the cell phone. Wherever there is a cell phone, there seems to be ceaseless activity.
Furthermore, it’s no fun eaves-dropping anymore. Everyone hears. You don’t even have to pretend to not listen. Cell phone speakers know you can hear them. They want you to hear them. It’s kind of insulting because they seem to think you are interested in hearing them.
But it’s only interesting when they don’t want me to hear. Besides, I can only hear half of the conversation. How am I supposed to get the story straight if I don’t know what the other person is saying?
I ride the Greyhound. One rainy afternoon about two years ago we were at a scheduled stop in a little town in Nebraska. Anita, Nebraska, I believe it was. The stop wasn’t actually a bus terminal but a small, brightly lit restaurant on Main Street.
A woman across the aisle from me had been reading to her little boy. In the whole bus no one was using a cell phone. The sounds of the engine and windshield wipers were rhythmic and comforting. (Is it possible that engine sounds bothered our grandparents and great-grandparents, who were used to horses’ hooves and wheels, as much as electronic sounds bother me?)
There were no video games. No mindless dialogue of a mindless movie. No electronic beeps.
Out the window, one of the passengers I’d talked to at an earlier stop, a teenager from Germany with a violin case, got off and walked toward the restaurant. It was then I noticed eveyone inside had come to the door. Several people stood in the rain, waiting for the driver to pull the boy’s luggage out from under the bus.
Was he an exchange student being welcomed by the town? A young musician giving a concert that weekend? A relative here for a visit? The nephew of the mayor, maybe?
The moment was charming and old-fashioned. I think of it as a Willa Cather moment. (Cather was from Nebraska). If you’ve read The Song of the Lark and other Cather books, you’ll recognize the rural Midwest.
True, the young violinist was carrying his violin case away from New York, while Thea Kronberg travels east as her singing career develops; but it was Willa Cather, all right.
It’s a great pleasure when a scene in front of you is enriched by reading, memory, and contemplation. You need some silence for that.
Here’s Thea Kronberg experiencing silence: “. . . she wandered for a long while about the sand ridges, picking up crystals and looking into the yellow prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens. She looked at the sand hills, until she wished she were a sand hill. And yet she knew that she was going to leave them all behind some day. They would be changing all day long, yellow and purple and lavender, and she would not be there. From that day on, she felt there was a secret between her and Wunsch. Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something. They hid it away and never spoke of what they had seen; but neither of them forgot it.”
Silence. Thea and Professor Wunsch weren’t talking on cell phones.
Babbling recedes. The good stuff is there, waiting to be recognized.
SPEAKING OF SILENCE . . . I’m working on my current novel in the mornings (Cross-Country Flying) and revising an older one (The Limestone Wall) in the afternoons. The silence is awful when a sentence or a character has died. The two often go hand in hand. The right language can bring to life the person who’s gone dead on the page.
There’s also the deadening silence of predetermined fiction. Be surprised by what you write, says Josh Henkin, our writing teacher at Brooklyn College MFA.
I’m aiming for the silence that throbs, not the dead weight of no sound.