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

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Serena

    These words, so beautifully knit together, inspired in me a memory of great hope: I was once that child, reading on that hill. In my state of innocence, I could feel the presence of God—but that communion was possible only in that silence.
    You have expressed an essential truth. Thank you.

  • Michael Dowd

    Excellent observations Anthony. I find it most helpful getting up hours before dawn. In silence much is accomplished especially by you and God. And doing this requires going to bed early which also avoids lots of distraction.

  • Stanley Anderson

    And associated with it is the loss of, well, “visual silence”, I suppose, in the very movies we watch that are filled with 1.2 second action-filled cuts to other 1.2 second action-filled cuts, lest the screen lose our attention (never mind that we have fairly lost our ability for attention in the first place.) There was a time when people could look up at the stillness of the sky and notice in that stillness that the sun and moon and stars don’t just move across the sky every day (without even needing to check their cell phones for the time), but that they also move across the sky in the other direction through the year in a delicate dance of intricate interaction.

  • Jim Thunder

    Just a short time ago, I used to be able to greet co-workers in the elevator as we came to work. But now they always have headphones in. I used to be able to walk down the street and, if a person was walking alone, he or she wouldn’t be talking, but now they talk and louder than they would be if they were talking to someone next to them. I walk to work and a monitor on the outside of a building (National Geographic Society) blares out images and music. The barbershop, the restaurant, the airport waiting areas -all have TV monitors on all the time. I was in a hospital waiting area while a family member had surgery. I rebelled, stood up on top of a table and turned the TV off. On a Saturday morning where my car was undergoing repair at a dealership, and I was the only one in the room, an employee turned on the TV, loud, and quickly left. I got up and turned it off. He came back through the room and was incensed that I had turned it off. Call me a Trappist.

  • Beth

    Thank you for this essay. I crave silence which to me is the sound of God. With a houseful of noisy, chattering children, I have said more than once, “You only have so many words to speak in your lifetime, at this rate you will use them all up before you are ten!” A joke that they all have come to ‘get’. The truth of the matter is more “You only have so many important words to speak in your lifetime, save your vocal cords for those words.” I am teaching silence in our homeschool.

  • Richard A Imgrund

    I have a different – not different, additional – vision. A bunch of boys, maybe eight to thirteen years old, playing baseball in a meadow (it’s always upstate New York, although I grew up in a small town in Michigan) as the setting sun turns the sky red behind them. There are no uniforms and no adult coaches. If a dispute about the rules arises, they will ask their dads and tomorrow they will play the game a little better because now they know. The prospect of walking home a mile in the near dark frightens neither the boys nor their parents, who know, more or less, where they are and what could possibly happen?

  • KM

    Extremely well written! I believe that God, in His great mercy, is going to give us all a MUCH greater opportunity for silence in the very near future.

    • JoeAnon

      Are you forecasting a massive solar mass ejection knocking out electrical systems in the near future?

  • Bill

    Thank you.

  • Patti Day

    What a beautifully written piece that left me feeling something other than the outrage which accompanies so much of what I read today.

  • Arden Abeille

    Mr. Esolen, you are quite a poet (in the best senses).

    “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
    Here, you have put your finger on something very important. This is a great fear, especially in our young people. They cannot STAND silence; they fear it (watch students leaving class, where they are required to abstain from their pocket distractors; the INSTANT class is over–sometimes BEFORE–they MUST turn them on, must be immersed in noise, whether visual, auditory, or both). It is, indeed, “as if a moment of silence might plunge them into nonexistence.” “Be still and know,” we are told. They cannot stand stillness, and therefore know almost nothing (indeed, they believe it is impossible to know anything–and perhaps, without stillness, that is correct).

    “Visit again that other world, the true one, not the “real” world of restless ambition and ennui. ”
    This, too, hits home. “Reality” is now a word that means “fake” (e.g., “reality” TV). What those living upside down call the “real” world is a place (actually, a way of being) in which a healthy person should live as little as possible. Our true kingdom is where we need to strive to be as much as possible, and it is “at hand” for us, our Lord promises–but God help us, because we sure do need the help to keep close, to walk the borderlands and not get lured ever-further from the kingdom where our true home is.

  • Bro_Ed

    You are so right. A few years ago, I heard a homily by a newly ordained, young priest. He and a friend were out for dinner and sat next to an older couple who spent their entire dinner saying but a few words. My young friend bemoaned their loss of opportunity for communication. I smiled. After 50 years of marriage, I thought: “Son, you missed the whole point. Sometimes long relationships don’t require communication just in words. A few words, yes, but also a smile, a nod, a gesture, a shrug – whatever – can be as eloquent as any words.”

    As my grandmother used to say years ago, when she sat me in a chair to calm down: “Now, we’ll have a Quiet Time.”

    • Arden Abeille

      What I bemoan in restaurants is couples who sit at the same table but spend all their time on their separate devices. They might as well be miles apart; psychologically, they are. Now that IS a missed opportunity for real interaction–verbal and nonverbal; being PRESENT with each other, giving FULLY of their time and attention (every person’s most valuable resources).

      • Bro_Ed

        Nowadays, you just can’t tell: They may be texting each other.

        Yes seriously, they are in a world of their own – unaware. A few years ago I went to a Super Bowl game. There were some 50,000 people there, yelling and screaming. I remember thinking this must be what it sounded like at the Coliseum. A few feet away from me sat a “richly dressed” young man, with a cellphone against his ear trying to hear a call.. After a few minutes of non-communication he stood up and screamed at the crowd: “People! I’m on the phone here!” The nearby football fans who heard him laughed heartily..

        • Arden Abeille

          Even if they are texting each other, it is sad. They are right there, together, and if their attention is focused on their electronic screens, they are not actually TOGETHER. The vast majority of social and emotional communication is non-verbal, and they are missing all of that. I can’t imagine a more impoverished form of communication than texting. Giving another person your undivided ATTENTION–focusing upon them directly; looking, listening, touching–is the greatest gift you have to give them. Without enough of it, children can literally fall ill and die. Without enough of it, adults fall ill, too, although the process of eventual death isn’t usually as obvious as to the cause.

  • VP Mary

    I am now going to sit outside in the peace and silence of my garden. Thanks for the inspiring article Professor Esolen!

  • Chris in Maryland

    Silence…to hear the tiny, whispering voice: “Elijah, why are you here?”