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.
Still, if silence remains something of an enigma for you, try going to this website and check out a band called Enigma. They have a song called Silence Must Be Heard; it’s not the greatest song written about silence—both The Sounds of Silence and Silent Night are way better—and I only know about the song because of Robert Harrison who runs a once a week, one hour radio program he calls Entitled Opinions out of KZSU, the Stanford University station. He talks over the song to introduce the show.
Silence must be heard, huh? You could say following Nagel that silence only gets its cachet from our trying to imagine it, that to invoke silence is a lot of pretentious nonsense, and that we’re wasting our time speculating about something that is only bad metaphysics. What’s cool about being dead—or airless?
Tune in to Robert Harrison for a moment: You’re wondering why; it doesn’t sound propitious. I mean, every week his show begins with atmospherics: a song about silence that is not silent, that proclaims ‘silence must be heard’, and that is being talked over by…who? Some loud mouth college kid who thinks he’s entitled to shoot his mouth off on any and all subjects? Entitled Opinions, indeed. Call it Pretentious Opinions. He’s probably going to be playing songs from the Humpbacked Whales or something.
Well, no. Robert Harrison is a professor at Stanford, not a student, and he’s not a loud mouth anything (and apologies to all of you out there at Stanford; I was swinging for the cheap seats). Robert Harrison is, among other things, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford and the author of The Dominion of the Dead, a book I ought to have read—but I haven’t (but I will, promise)—and his one hour talk show is a vast celebration of the intellect, and about as good as it gets on the radio—seriously. You can pick it up via iTunes or go here to get it straight from Stanford. Most of the time he interviews his fellow professors, and other people associated with the University—we’re talking about people like Paul Erlich and Vinton Cerf and Marjorie Perloff and Orhan Pamuk—Harrison grew up in Turkey—and Richard Rorty, just before his death in a grumpy, astonishing interview. I would have liked to hear Rorty’s ideas about silence, but it didn’t come up—and Richard Rorty is now among the mighty dead…and silent.
The interview starts with birds, and a poem from Giuseppe Ungaratti called Agony:
To die like the thirst stricken skylark;
close upon the mirage
Or like the quail who
having crossed the sea
takes rest in the very first hedges
because he no longer
wishes to fly
But not to live on lament
like a blinded finch
Harrison read the poem first in Italian; he recalled for us that birds are descended from the dinosaurs, dinosaurs flying above us in the sky, think about it! He reprised some symbolic, metaphoric uses we attribute to birds. Ravens and crows came up, but we did not get to Edgar Allen Poe. He confessed that his favorite bird was the seagull. If he could take one sound to the grave it would be the cry of the seagull, and he played a recording to prove his point—and he’s right, you know. Think of the Arnold Bocklin Isle of the Dead paintings. Surely there must be seagulls swirling and crying in the minatory distance. Finally, he explained what this has to do with Richard Rorty. Aside from being one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, he was also a serious bird watcher; he didn’t tell us—and presumably didn’t know—that Rorty was dying of pancreatic cancer.
And so, punctuated by fits of coughing and long drinks of water, Robert Harrison and Richard Rorty talk together, two colleagues at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Rorty is polite, abrasive, dismissive, belittling, insightful and brilliant—but not necessarily in that order. Harrison is polite, exculpatory, deferential—this is Richard Rorty, you know—finally exasperated and annoyed.
Towards the end of the hour, Harrison suggests a rereading of Thoreau and a rethinking of a notion of voluntary poverty; Rorty counters that Thoreau and his voluntary poverty wouldn’t mean much to that half of the world that lives on two dollars a day…
No: ‘My dear Dick, I’m not suggesting the poor read Thoreau. It’s rich Americans…’
Rorty was known for waving off criticisms; he waves off Harrison—but the point is made, Harrison’s point–Harrison’s larger point–and it’s a good one: let’s stop finding reasons why philosophy is ineffectual and sterile, let’s use this stuff. Thoreau can still speak to us. Philosophy can speak to us. Harrison does not quote Bob Dylan, but he might have, so I will.
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
Richard Rorty wrote a short piece for the Poetry Foundation before he died:
We are now more able than Plato was to acknowledge our finitude—to admit that we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves. We hope instead that human life here on earth will become richer as the centuries go by because the language used by our remote descendants will have more resources than ours did. Our vocabulary will stand to theirs as that of our primitive ancestors stands to ours.
Donne with Silence
Is it important to understand silence? Will it enrich our life here on earth? Do we need a concept of silence? Do you have to give it some reality…or is it absence, darkness, death? You can’t hear silence. You can’t sing it. Philosophizing about it is full of peril. Yet, one can remain silent in the face of atrocity. One can commune with a close friend in silence. One can lament the silence of God. One even has the right to remain silent—in order not to incriminate oneself. But silence can be damning as well. Silence can speak louder than words…
Well, it’s that time of year again. The sun sends forth light squibs, no constant rays. We celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. He doesn’t use the word ‘silence’, but a nocturne may be the best approach. And so, with out further ado, A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day. Mr. John Donne is speaking.
‘TIS the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.
But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.