In his book Silence, John Cage tells the story of a curious inspiration for one of his compositions. It seems he went to Harvard to sit in an anechoic chamber, which is a room designed to destroy sound—‘anechoic’ means not having or producing echoes—in the hope of finding genuine silence. Instead he heard two sounds, one pitched high, one low. A friendly engineer explained he was hearing his nervous system and the circulation of his blood through the veins and arteries, which was probably nonsense, but the experience resulted in an iconic piece of music, 4’33’’—you know the deal with 4’ 33’’, a musician sits down at the piano and we listen to the sounds in the air: your neighbor clearing his throat, a baby crying in the back row, a shout in the street. 4’ 33’’ may be a lot of things, aleatoric music or an expression of Zen Buddhism—it may be a lot of hooey— but it isn’t something you can’t hear. As a presentation of silence it bubbles with trouble; as a piece of music, only the truly philosophic will walk away whistling. We have a strange relationship with silence; we associate it with something you hear—a sound of silence—and we think it exists. The real problem with this notion of silence is that it may be the province of the dead.
There are a lot of other songs and music that make use of the concept of silence. The Sounds of Silence, Silence is Golden, and Silent Night are a few that come to mind, and of course philosophers are attracted to the idea. There is that Pensée by Pascal: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Wittgenstein also weighs in with his concluding sentence in the Tractatus: What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence. And speaking of conclusions, remember Hamlet’s curtain ringer: The rest is silence… But we are back to the dead.
If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it…?
It seems we need three things for sound, a source of vibration, a medium to conduct the sound waves—like the atmosphere, like the oceans—and someone to be listening, ‘auditing’ in the best sense. The problem comes when we flip over to not-sound—is this silence?
Thomas Nagel raises a parallel issue in his essay Death when he wonders if death can really be a bad thing for the deceased. It’s not that he thinks you’re kissing the angels’ feet in heaven or anything; he presumes it’s over for you as a person, and asks if you are no longer in existence, how can death be bad for you? ‘Dead’ is not a state you inhabit.
The point that death is not regarded as an unfortunate state enables us to refute a curious but very common suggestion about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead. It is alleged that the failure to realize that this task is logically impossible (for the banal reason that there is nothing to imagine) leads to the conviction that death is mysterious and therefore a terrifying prospective state.