Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Even in the West, Writers Must Make Friends With Silence

Artists rescue quiet in a culture where loudness equals success.

In America we live in a culture of noise. Business, sports, and warfare are our chief pastimes. All three thrive on loudness.

Cash registers beep, jet fighters scream, Superbowl crowds roar—all three sounds mean we're making money.

Our political culture is adversarial, loud. Those who talk at high volumes and without pause are seen as can-do, energetic, gung-ho. Studies show that people who stay silent in America, who allow pauses in speech, are viewed by their fellow Americans as shifty, suspicious. Possibly even French.

Other cultures—particularly some Eastern and certain tribal cultures—place value on silence. This is often because they are founded on consensus-based decision making, where they have to listen to each other.

Does this difference imbue our writing too? Here's a line from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest:

"There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It's not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us—these are just the hazards of being free.”

Hard-hitting, almost aggressive statements, one breathless after the other. Contrast this with a haiku from the 16th century Shinto priest Moritake:

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"Fallen petals rise—

back to the branch—

I watch: Oh! Butterflies!"

Not only is this haiku based on receiving sensations rather than firing off affirmations, the different sensations are separated by gaps in calligraphy, fields of white space, pauses that mark a shift in perception. Visual and auditory silence.

But we'll see in this blog that Western writers use silence too. They have no choice.

Through writing a book on silence I found that silence in life, in thought, in art, is not a negative. It is not dead air, or wasted space. It is not even absence of noise.

It is something that is fully as vital and crucial as sound. (Next post: What silence enables in art)

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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