A Nation of Noise

The sound of a whirlwind, something like a continuous controlled explosion, is heard from above, and the people of the city rush to the windows to look up at the sky.  A vehicle is “writing” a message there against the blue, while the rider shrieks maniacally.

“SURR-END-ER LIBERTY,” they sound it out.  “Surrender Liberty!  Who’s Liberty?  What does it mean?”

“I’m Liberty,” says an innocent and pretty girl.

Miss Liberty used to grace the obverse of almost every coin in the nation.  No face but hers; but that was a long time ago, if that nation ever existed.

Perhaps it did not.  It is harder and harder to believe in it.

It was a broad shouldered and bustling nation, true enough, but there were wells of healing silence scattered here and there across its vast plains and its accumulated years.  Or so they say.  There was a time, they say, when, between the regular upheavals of the political crust, people went about the serious joys of life, unburdened by the noise and ambition of their betters.

Here is a man arisen in the deep blue of the hours before the dawn.  He is pitching hay on a fork, to toss to the cows in their pens.  Those large slow animals paw the earth and snort, their breath rising in wisps that appear and disappear without spelling a single word to vex the world withal.

Here is a woman with hands and arms floured to the elbows, kneading yeast into some measures of dough, humming a melody to herself, a melody with words, but she isn’t thinking of the words, because the quiet of the afternoon gives her all the words she needs.

Here is a child lying on a grassy hill in the warm sun, reading a book.  He props his head with one hand and splays out the book beneath the other.  The words come to him like messages in a bottle, sent by their author from another world, filled with the silent distance of time.  The songs of the cardinals and the sparrows about him are like a lacework frame for the world he finds in the book.

There was a time, they say, before the industrial manufacture of words.  Surrender Liberty: surrender silence.  I walk into a shop for a quick breakfast.  The screen above me blares and glares.  A woman shouts the news, almost shrieks the news.  “There does not seem to be any space left,” says Max Picard, in The World of Silence, “where there could possibly have been anything but noise.  We take it for granted much as we take the air itself for granted.  Everything begins and ends with noise.”

Lady Liberty: In Paris before being broken down for shipment to New York, c. 1885
Lady Liberty: In Paris before being broken down for shipment to New York, c. 1885

In the beginning there was noise, and the noise was with ennui, and ennui was the noise.

On the screen appears a candidate for political office.  Lest the customers at the counter not be able to hear the political noise for the noise of the cooks and clerks, the screen spells out the words in a caption, one or two letters after another, like smoke across the sky.  It is a shriek for the deaf or the deafened.

The mouth of the candidate is moving, but it is as Picard says: “Nobody listens to him as he speaks, for listening is only possible when there is silence in man: listening and silence belong together.”  But no one in this world, the “real” world, ever bustled his or her way to the heights of glamour and legend by keeping the peace, by listening, by silence.  “Instead of truly speaking to others today,” says Picard, “we are all waiting merely to unload on to others the words that have collected inside us.”

The mouth of the candidate is moving, and her face moves too, a plastic face, assuming the contortions of years of noisemaking, years of burdening the world with words.  “Speech,” says Picard, “has become a purely animal, excretive function.”

The candidate excretes words: America, future, I will, tomorrow, work, fight, we will, better, children, I will, America, win, I will, I, I, I.  An opposing candidate excretes the same.  It is an animal function, or a mechanical function: think of a great pipe extruding liquid plastic into forms.  The candidate, or the system, is the extruder, the words are the liquid plastic, and we are the forms.

An old married couple who love one another dearly need not speak.  Their silence speaks.  He reads a book, she knits.  Their arms brush against one another.

All of law and education, in that world whose existence is harder and harder to believe in, serves only to make it possible for an old man and an old woman to sit near one another in their home, she knitting and he reading a book.  All of economy and technology serves only to make it possible for a child to doze on the hillside, the book he was reading still beneath his hand.

But in the nation of noise it is not so.  Man “has become a mere appendage of noise,” says Picard.  He “believes decreasingly in the reality of his own existence.”  Perhaps that is why there is something so manic, so harried, about the candidate, and about all the others who strut and shriek.  It is as if a moment of silence might plunge them into nonexistence.  They emerge from the noise, and whether they wish it or not, they must vanish into the noise again, for noise they are and unto noise they must return.

What must we do, then?  Many things, alas.  Many things.  Above all, perhaps, we must do as Picard says: “Create silence.”  Be human again.  Visit again that other world, the true one, not the “real” world of restless ambition and ennui.  Give license over: cherish liberty.

“Where silence is still an active force, man is constantly re-created by the word that comes out of the silence, and constantly disappearing in the silence before God.”

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.