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Breaking the Silence Barrier

In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise

By George Prochnik

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 352 pages

Price: $26

Review Author: Eric Brende

Eric Brende, author of Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, lives sans car in St. Louis, where he makes his living as a pedicab operator, soap maker, and writer. He and his family use bicycles as their primary form of transportation and otherwise make beautiful music together playing Brahms and Claude Bolling.

In Pursuit of Silence contains the makings of a revolution. We all know that modern life is not in harmony with nature, but author George Prochnik takes this predicament literally. In doing so, and in pursuing the sort of peace and quiet that most people took for granted before the invention of the internal combustion engine, he uncovers what might be the least appreciated reason for present discontent: noise. The aural pollution emitted by all of our machinery, it turns out, does more damage to our health and well-being than particulate pollution. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, it increases the global incidence of fatal heart attacks by 45,000. It might also lie at, or near, the root of mental problems ranging from attention deficit disorder to autism, from anxiety to depression. Even when we think we’ve adjusted to it, it still works its effects on our bodies and minds unconsciously, eating away at our organs and nerves, ultimately reducing both the quality and length of our lives and undermining our very capacity for happiness.

Most of us, upon discovering that high concentrations of dioxin have been detected in our local water supply, aren’t likely to simply shrug our shoulders and mix ourselves another glass of Kool-Aid. We’d probably call up city hall and complain, at the very least. Why, then, faced with the profound physical, psychological, and aesthetic destruction that noise wreaks on our bodies, minds, and living environments — and the fact that it strikes at happiness directly, not indirectly — do we not do something about it? When Prochnik began his quest, everyone he met enthusiastically urged him on. “But if everyone values silence so highly,” he asks, “why is there so little of it?”

We are past the age when battling excess sound is impractical for lack of concrete measurements. Once upon a time, germs and microscopic toxins had free rein because they could not be seen with the naked eye. Then the microscope was invented. The aural equivalent of the microscope is the Audiometer, created in the 1920s by Bell Laboratories to gauge levels of urban noise with precision. This pioneering contrivance has gone through many permutations, culminating in the recent Investigator, made by the Copenhagen firm of Brül & Kjær, a handheld sound meter that breaks down noise into levels and types. It is now used to map “soundscapes” in Europe in order to help urban officials make their cities more sonorously pleasing. Measurements have been codified into decibels, which, like units on the Richter scale, intensify exponentially.

The worst sound ever to occur in history is said to be the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, a volcanic island off the coast of Borneo, which was heard 3,000 miles away and probably came in at 180 decibels. That, Proch­nik suggests, provides a kind of sound ceiling toward which all other annoying noises aspire. Further down on the scale, a jet engine at 75 feet registers 150 decibels — enough to rupture eardrums. Even lower, a thunderclap rates at 120 decibels and is considered physically “painful.”

A freeway full of traffic approaches 80 decibels — considered to cause hearing damage over an eight-hour exposure. Here we get to a revolution-instigating datum: Most of us live near freeways and drive on them frequently, so our exposure far exceeds eight hours. Accordingly, Proch­nik notes, a 2008 Johns Hop­kins study found that hearing loss in the U.S. has reached “epidemic proportions.” One in three Americans suffers from it. We’re living in the aural equivalent of Los Angeles in the 1960s, before clean-air regulations.

Oddly, the worst damage is done not by generalized noise sources like freeways and airports. Personal electronic gadgetry — iPods, video games, and electronic toys — inflict it. Prochnik quotes Dr. Tom Roland of the New York University Medical School: “Any time you can hear some­­one else’s music leaking through their headphones or earbuds, that person is causing themselves hearing damage.” But the appetite for electronic noise is acquired early on: The Tickle Me Elmo doll squeals at 100 decibels, creating “serious” damage in normal usage.

Quirky examples like these are what Prochnik specializes in, and he leaves almost no stone — or sone (a unit of sound) — unturned. The book is a trove of audio-arcana. We learn, for example, that:

·  Thomas Carlyle found the noise of London streets so distracting for his writing (if he only knew what writers have to endure today) that he hired a carpenter to build a completely soundproofed room in his house, and underwent a year’s worth of noisy reconstruction — only to discover that the room didn’t repel sound. It did, however, retain smoke: When he tried puffing on his pipe, he became asphyxiated.
·  The first “sound revolutionary” in America was a woman named Julia Barnett Rice, known as “the Queen of Silence.” She lived in a mansion on Riverside Drive in New York City and became incensed because tugboats spent the whole night tooting at one another in greeting as they passed. To preserve her own night’s sleep she took her case all the way to Washington, D.C., and won, forcing new federal restrictions on “unnecessary noise” on the Hudson River.
·  Members of the Mabaan Tribe in Africa live in an environment so quiet that they can hear each other talk softly at 300 feet, backs turned.
·  Our own ears are so sensitive, they can “detect energy levels one hundred times lower than the energy emitted by a solitary photon in the green wavelength.”
·  Cistercian architecture “derives from the way it conforms to the ratios of musical harmony.”
·  Monastic chanting is so healthy, it reduces blood pressure and “ups the levels of the performance hormone DHEA.”

Particularly charming are some of Prochnik’s findings concerning idiosyncratic ancient beliefs. For instance, that pagan supplicants said their prayers out loud because “the ears of the gods were thought to resemble gigantic human ears, requiring worshippers to make actual sound,” and that the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria thought silence occurred when God contracted into Himself in order to make room for the creation.

As he moves into metaphysical areas, however, some of the weaknesses of Prochnik’s approach become more apparent. For example, he leaves out what could be the most central example from Judeo-Christian tradition: God’s first act described in Genesis, which is to break the silence and say, “Let there be light.” Notice that, in the hierarchy of events, sound comes before sight: God spoke first and the light came afterward. The theological implication here is that sound is more fundamental in the architecture of reality. If so, it is no surprise that unpleasant noises can be more unsettling to us than unappealing visual phenomena (e.g., a freeway sounds worse than it looks). Cacophony jostles a deeper layer of our being.

In the same vein, Prochnik never once mentions Marshall Mc­Luhan or his protégé, Walter Ong, S.J. (both devout Catholics), even though both argued famously that the ear’s role in shaping culture and understanding, through most of history, outweighed the eye’s. Before the invention of the printing press, culture was primarily oral and people perceived the world around them more by hearing it, or about it, than by seeing it. (Interestingly, in the animal kingdom, auditory organs develop earlier than visual ones.) It was because of Johannes Guten­berg’s printing press, McLu­han and Ong asserted, that the cultural emphasis shifted from hearing to seeing. Even so, according to these scholars, hearing remains the sense more closely tied to the essential human experience of reality. Thus again, it makes sense that disturbances to hearing are especially discomfiting, and harmonious happenings especially soothing.

Perhaps most inexplicably of all, Prochnik never once mentions String Theory, the leading contender today for a “theory of everything” in physics. String Theory postulates that, at the lowest level of sub­atomic particles, what appear to be particles might actually be tiny strings, resembling little rubber bands, but vibrating like guitar strings. Depending on the frequency of the vibration, the strings manifest themselves as this or that “particle.” What appears to be the solid reality all around us might really be a kind of unfolding musical improvisation — even at the deepest level of organization. Interestingly, the only music-theory paper ever published in the journal Science used math from String Theory to explain why some sounds please the human ear and others don’t. All this, in turn, makes the seemingly poetic notion more plausible that God’s voice — doubtless the most beautiful music of all — could not only call the universe into existence but also continue to direct its events. And yet because of the flexibility of these “strings,” room would be left both for free will among human beings — i.e., improvisation — together with the fluid relationship between body and mind. (That precise relationship has dogged philosophers since Des­cartes.) This fluidity is dramatized by music therapy, which, in the hands of specialists, can be used to help cure, or assuage, seemingly intractable physical illnesses by producing felicitous psychological vibes.

Prochnik himself repeatedly notes that, for him, the pursuit of silence is really the pursuit of pleasing sounds, not utter, dead quiet. He defines silence as “the particular equilibrium of sound and quiet that catalyze our powers of perception.” String Theory, which is also about an equilibrium of vibrations, com­ple­­ments his notion nicely. True enough, String Theory usually pertains to “music” that occurs below the audible level, and the theory hasn’t been proven to the satisfaction of most physicists. But this still doesn’t excuse Prochnik’s failure to mention it. And this brings us to what is perhaps a deeper problem in the book.

Prochnik’s approach is scatter­shot. This is a book that everyone should read, but few will see to the end. The text jumps around somewhat randomly and fails to sustain a larger narrative arc. Perhaps this is because of a tension hinted in the title itself: To “pursue” silence is, in one sense, to defeat the quest before it begins. By darting from topic to topic, from place to place, Prochnik leaves the reader feeling a bit unquiet. Ironically, he himself supplies the reason why: The word noise derives from the Latin word for nausea, which in turn can arise from spatial disorientation. His erratic journey foments symptoms of the very disease he would cure. The book doesn’t exactly come off as noisy, but it does seem busy. The reader easily loses his train of thought. It would have been a more rewarding read had the author closed in on his quarry by degrees. The most captivating scenes of monastic silence, for instance, were plopped down near the beginning of the story. These would have worked better at the end, as the grail, the climax of the whole endeavor.

Even so, one can’t but respect his effort and the staggering volume and creativity of his research. His prose is spare, precise, yet frequently poetic. The book is best read as Prochnik wrote it: in small doses, and perhaps by candlelight before going to bed.

No matter how one approaches the topic, the question lingers: Why isn’t more being done about the greatest environmental pollutant of our time? Prochnik suggests more than one reason. Noise, first of all, has proven much harder to filter out than, say, sulfur dioxide, and its neutralization would require the virtual dismantling of our whole industrial civilization. But efforts are being made: A “silence machine” has been patented that, when “fired at any troublesome noise source,” generates a “counter wave sound exactly out of phase” in order to create a “personal sound shadow” for the user. But could such a “silence machine” ever become high-powered enough to neutralize noise over larger areas?

Attempts in Europe to mitigate urban cacophony using noise maps mandated by the European Union have gained little traction. In the absence of a miraculous advance in “Silence Machine” technology, major reductions in sounds would require major redesigns of the cities themselves, at prohibitive cost, so urban planners have contented themselves with less drastic, more aesthetic sound “shaping” measures. One measure, in Trafalgar Square, London, entailed rerouting traffic to one side of the circle so that visitors standing on the steps of the National Gallery could hear the sound of the square’s fountain. Apart from the space between the fountain and the gallery, however, the traffic noise was as loud as ever. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s hardly a revolution.

That we are out of harmony with nature is a circumstance that arises not merely from noise per se, but from the instruments that make that noise. If we want to mitigate that noise, we’ve got to throw out the car along with the electric guitar, to learn how to strum the spokes of a bicycle, so to speak. Most people aren’t ready to do that. Cost and technological momentum aren’t the only hindrances to the greater cause of clobbering noise. Prochnik points out that, in social and political settings, another way to counteract environmental noise is by sounding off about it. To that degree, the pursuit of silence becomes peculiarly pointless.


Sidebar Quote:

“People today are frequently bombarded with answers to questions they have never asked and to needs of which they were unaware. If we are to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions, then silence is a precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive…. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images, and sounds.”

Pope Benedict XVI

January 24, 2012

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