Does the silence frighten you?

And is it an analogue for being alone?

In a new book, George Prochnik explores silence, and the New York Times reviews it:

The underground chapel at the Trappist New Melleray Abbey south of Dubuque, Iowa, is so quiet that visitors sometimes find themselves physically unable to remain there. Mr. Prochnik embraced it, wanting “to remain and sink deeper into it.” The silence allowed him to acknowledge “the limitations of our grasp on what lies within and without us, the knowledge that there’s something beyond the self.”

It’s an elegant and eloquent observation. But can you experience total silence in the presence of another person? Mr. Prochnik, who was with a guide, doesn’t address that.

He traveled far and near in his pursuit of silence: to Copenhagen to learn about “noise mapping” in urban areas, to a Zen garden in Portland, Ore., to a neurobiology lab in upper Manhattan, to one of New York’s vest pocket parks right around the corner from his office. . . .

In the end Mr. Prochnik goes back to Brooklyn, where his search for silence began. He has a new appreciation of the noise lovers, and also a new understanding that our priorities about noise and silence need to be reordered. “We spend all this money making noisy places a little less noisy,” a noise expert tells him. We need to create quiet places, the expert says, small contained areas like those vest pocket parks, at a cost far less than that of reconfiguring the urban infrastructure. We’ve made a start. In the middle of our cacophonous cities, Mr. Prochnik writes: people are making “oases of quiet in which sounds that nurture our sense of peace, compassion, and imagination — like falling water, rustling foliage, and birdsong — become audible again.”

I suppose we go to noise to keep the silence out: “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” But maybe that thing we call the devil has something for us, something to say to us, and we’re not listening.

Keep busy?

Maybe. But it could also be that silence is a way of fleeing something in the noise. In other words, maybe the noise is trying to tell you something as well. You can’t run from God (says Jonah).

Or is it the fact that there is no God?

What is that ultimate truth that we are sublimating and fleeing from into noise—or silence?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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