A recent NYT article cites Schopenhauer, “…nothing disrupts thought the way noise does, Schopenhauer declared, adding that even people who are not philosophers lose whatever ideas their brains can carry in consequence of brutish jolts of sound.”
It is an interesting concept, but then, what is noise? The world is not ever silent, we simply declare some sounds, or perhaps the lack of certain sounds, to be silent.
George Prochnik, in his book In Pursuit of Silence, takes this idea to an entirely different level. The most interesting thing to me, in all of his book, is that he speaks to city-dwelling teens who associate noise with negative events, such as the death of a parent. So they fear silence, rather than see it as a time of beauty and reflection.
Living in a rural area, it is never quiet. The peepers are so loud at night they echo along my walls. We have, humans, I think, a tendancy to consider noise that which we do not like, and and quiet to be that which we do. Even when the quiet is so loud it reverberates in your mind.
Late in the dark evenings, when it is silent, when the peepers have suddenly stop howling, or in the afternoons in the wood, when the birds stop calling out to each other, the silence indicates potential danger.
But for city dwellers, in a world of sound, silence seems a utopia, even though it never is. White noise machines brush like sand paper across my ears. The single sound in a silent room is utterly disruptive. Constant steady state noise, however, allows me to hear nothing, and to focus my mind in the way that Schopenhauer describes.
I can’t think in the strange enforced silence where each noise is a travesty. Think of the click of fingernails on a keyboard in the quiet car of Amtrak. Or the man clipping his nails on an airplane. But in the utter chaos of petanque and chess and city cars in Bryant Park, I can hear nothing but the thoughts in my own mind.
It is the sudden sound, the disruptive sound, the unexpected sound, that breaks the ability to think. Not the steady noises of life whirring along, be they natural or otherwise. And silence, itself, is so unnatural that when you find it, it edges creepily across you, a warning, something to be wary of, not time to wander free, considering the great philosophical questions of your time. That is a time to let instinct kick in, and let the philosophy consider itself. For a bit.