Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Great Is Silence?

Years ago I had my hearing tested and was astonished to learn that I had virtually perfect hearing. After decades of loud rock and roll shows and punishing music room and earphone/ear bud sessions, my hearing remains relatively unscathed. I'm grateful and perplexed. It's maybe ironic for someone of such robust hearing and who's written book about noisy rock and roll bands to observe how loud culture has gotten, but we're besieged. I like to choose my own decibels. When I work out at the Y my iPod earphones compete, feebly, against the roar of the gym's multiple speakers cranking Top 40; in the locker room there are a dozen televisions broadcasting, loudly, a half dozen different channels, the smart designer of the room's layout having placed pairs of TVs back to back, so in order to listen to one you have to tune out the blare of the the TV directly behind it. It's rare to find a bar, even of the divey sort, without a TV in the corner. At one of my and my friend's favorite watering holes in Rockford, Illinois—the Oasis—a busted TV hung for years n the corner, black and silent, defeated. Imagine our gloom when we went in one day and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was blaring over our heads. I heard or read once that the average American sees more images in a week than the average Victorian saw in a lifetime. This sounds too good to be true, and anyway I've failed to track down the source, so I might've heard or read it wrong. But it feels right. Baseball ballparks: too loud. Waiting rooms: too loud. Elevators with someone on Bluetooth: too loud.

And I won't pretend that I drive home from ear-splitting shows at the Empty Bottle or Double Door thinking of Seneca, the first century a Roman Stoic philosopher—I'm busy cranking the stereo really loud—but his essay "On Noise" resonates somewhere under my consciousness as I'm zipping along I-88. "You may be sure, then," Seneca writes, "that you are at last 'lulled to rest' when noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you." So deal with it, Seneca says to me, boasting: "For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other."

Of course, Seneca couldn't even cut it, resolving at the end of his essay on noise to move somewhere less noisy. I'll still take beautiful, underrated silence where I can get it:

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