The New Statesman Essay - In search of the sound of silence

Only when Ziauddin Sardar endured the maddening racket of the natural world did he grasp the sense i

I hate to say this, but you are going deaf. In fact we are all going deaf. If you ever get a chance to listen, and opportunities are increasingly rare, you will realise that we are drowning in noise - inescapable, unnecessary, insidious noise.

A great deal of this noise comes from machines: aircraft taking off, cars starting and stopping, trains speeding in and out of stations. Televisions, radios, CD players and hi-fis. Traffic, burglar alarms, police and ambulance sirens. Jackhammers, steamrollers, trucks pouring cements on roads that are perpetually being repaired. Cranes, bulldozers, drills and God knows what else on building sites. Washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, central-heating pumps in the home. Lawnmowers, hedge-trimmers and shredders in the garden. Phones and faxes ringing everywhere. Whirrs, throbs, hums, hisses, clunks, clanks and thunks of all regular, calibrated and cyclical varieties. This is the ever-present, Dolby surround sound in which we live.

The city, I am inclined to think, was created specifically to abolish quiet. Quiet is a vacuum state abhorred by planners, devisers, builders and purveyors of every stripe and hue. The city is the abode of the human creative impulse gone rabid or, more poetically, turned Faustian. The bargain with the devil is noise, the very intimation of hell. The city is the antithesis of silence, and its essence is the ghetto blaster. Wherever there is a space, wherever people come together, there must be noise. Who was it who said that hell is other people? Give that man a prize for prescience.

A highly trained, pestiferous breed of professionals exists to find new vacuums and fill them with new kinds of noise. So someone somewhere, and may that someone be abominated beyond the end of time itself, invented background music. It's not enough that a city makes noise just to exist, you have to layer the effect like frosting on an American dessert, inches thick. Background music, by design and definition, is merely a space-filler, a vacuum- preventer. Is there anyone alive who can remember when music was something you sat and listened to intently? When music was a harmonic experience that, by means of sound, transported you to quiet?

Musick, the acronym for what makes you sick, is noise that no one imagines anyone will ever listen to. And people have found whole new vacuums to stuff it into. No longer merely the infestation of plastic hotel lobbies and lifts, it is now, just to raise your hellish experience another notch or two, poured directly down your earholes while you hang on the telephone. The Internet is full of it, as are computers, which bleep, bloop and jingle at any and every opportunity, and video games, which flood their blasting, banging, shooting and walloping with mundane, high-decibel musick.

We are getting used to this kind of noise-layering. Think of the offices that have television sets complete with 24-hour broadcasting from CNN, Sky News or BBC News 24, where you can hear endless background drivel while you wait to watch a live non-event. Worse still is the Bloomberg business channel, where people talk themselves into paroxysms about the second-by-second movement of blips, displayed as the visual-pollution accompaniment to all this noise pollution. A quiet conversation is as extinct as a T Rex. We city types have been brainwashed to think of noise as progress.

Recently a friend and I, bent on earnest discussion, tramped the streets like lepers in search of a haven, trying to find a place where we could have the quiet in which to hear ourselves think about what we were saying. Wherever we went, noise, musick, uproar followed. In restaurants, pubs, coffee houses and hotel lobbies, the hubbub of conversations and dishes, bounced from glass, oak and chrome - materials so beloved of nineties designers - amplified the noise, as people shouted to be heard over others who were also shouting to be heard. It has not occurred to anyone that smooth surfaces and hard wooden floors bounce sound waves back and forth, thus amplifying the noise of conversation and cutlery. When you add musick, the effect is thunderous.

Why do we accept this level of noise? Largely because we are afraid of what we think is the opposite of noise - silence. We associate silence with suffering, oppression, isolation and death. Think of Keats's poem "This Living Hand", where quiet is buried in "the icy silence of the tomb". Or Thomas Mann's equation in which "speech is civilisation itself" while silence is death and isolation. Bernard Shaw saw silence as "the most perfect expression of scorn", R L Stevenson announced that "cruellest lies are often told in silence", and Friedrich von Schiller declared that "great souls suffer in silence". More recently Harold Pinter's comedies of menace have invested silence with nameless intimidation and suffering. Historically silence has been associated with denial, particularly denial of the voice of the oppressed. In prisons the worst possible punishment is solitary confinement, where the prisoner lives in total silence.

We thus live in terror of silence. It has become an enemy that has constantly to be banished. Indeed we have exiled silence to the realm of an abstract idea, an unattainable philosophical goal. So what do those who seek silence and solitude do? They leave the city, the civilised society, and go off into the wilderness.

Yet they will not find pure silence there. I have spent some time living in the wilderness in South-east Asia. I realised that what we city-bred types think of as silence is a mere absence of man-made noise. The actual entity, silence, absence of sound, when contemplated in a tropical clime, reveals itself to be a philosopher's fancy.

My idyllic retreat was an apartment that nestled close to a dense secondary forest, a long way from city noise, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. When I moved to my hut in the wilderness, I was adopted by a cricket I lovingly called Jimmy. Every night he would launch into a violent chorus of chirrup, chirrup, chirrup. So Jimmy taught me what nature lovers never tell us. An unrepentant, unrelenting, unsilent insect can drive you to distraction just as much as a jackhammer rearranging the roadways on a bank holiday. What is more, while one can rely on union regulations eventually to terminate the intrusions of the jackhammer, nothing can cease the chirrup of a Jimmy.

By the time my pesticides had managed to nuke Jimmy into extinction, I was a chastened and changed man. No more ecological sensitivities, no more nonsense about primeval quiet and contemplating natural beauty. An entire civilisational tradition of venerating the peace, the silent beauties of nature, had been revealed as a cruel joke.

There you have it: the natural world is just as noisy as the city. It is a sound-filled arena of flashing neon signs with intermittent oscillating current. Every living thing behaves like a ghetto blaster, sounding off to show it exists. They cheep, chirp, chirrup, rasp, grate, rustle, nustle, clack (ever heard a stand of bamboo in a breeze?), thunk and occasionally thud and they all have their own distinctive sounds of display, despair and daily routine. The sea is never silent - it's a kind of perpetual generator. The forests or woods, tropical or temperate, are never silent: there's always some activity going on amid the foliage, if only the effect of a breath of air; even growing roots signal their displacement of soil if you listen for long enough. The more you listen, the more you clear away extraneous noise, the more sounds you hear. Islamic teaching holds that the natural world is full of signs, signs of God and His creative power. Well, what else does an effective sign do but jump up and down and say: look at me. Most noise, natural or man-made, is a form of advertising.

The day Jimmy ceased I had one of those mystic highs that yogis must experience transcendentally. It was not a case of the absence of sound. No, the silence I experienced as seraphic splendour was the removal of irritant sound that had become noise pollution. So silence turns out to be a state of mind. It is a means of slowing down, of becoming aware, and opening oneself to a reality greater than our so-called civilised world. It is a condition of being in harmony with the background and foreground. Silence is an acceptance of sound, in which no irritant intrudes to disturb the balance. It is an act of will.

When my children were small they were what is politely termed in medical handbooks "hyperactive". As a writer, I developed an ability to filter out their noise. It was no special talent, it was just part of the parents' life-support system we all develop. Or, thinking more precisely, it's an innate gift of self-absorption we are all equipped with. Have you ever tried to make a child listen to you if it has something more interesting to think about? It will filter your words out through an act of will, a self-absorption that renders everything else silent. We all have it and we all learn how to apply it, to envelop ourselves in our own silence. Mystics call it meditation; most of us call it just switching off for self-preservation, tuning out the overburdening noise to catch a quiet breather.

The greater the noise, the more difficult this act of self-preservation becomes. Modern life is disturbed not just by external noise but by inner noise. We are constantly chatting to ourselves: the natural quietness of our minds is disturbed by a barrage of useless information and by an endless stream of worries, irritations, memories, deliberations and plans. Every sound, every piece of information starts a whole new chain of thought to occupy our overactive minds. Our minds are perpetually restless, our attention is always distracted, so wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we are never completely there. In short we are not truly conscious of anything, including our own selves.

So I would say that noise pollution is making us unbalanced and unhappy people. If we are to switch off into sanity and silence, we need, in our society, an enormous act of will. And what happens to such a society? Well, it goes deaf. It cannot hear anything, including the dissatisfaction of its own self or the ripples of its own thought. It is so exhausted, so desperate, so out of sync with itself that it cannot really think at all.

It worries me that the generation now being born will never experience true silence. They will probably find Shakespeare incomprehensible: "Please, sir, what does 'the rest is silence' mean?" They will certainly find it difficult to think, because genuine thought requires total presence, a conscious awareness and contemplation of the world. Can harmonic sound transport to silence from a base of hard techno rock? What will conversation mean to people weaned on discos where it is impossible to hear anything?

A civilisation that knows no silence is the logical end of a society that tries to offer everything instantaneously and simultaneously so that they all make noise concurrently. New-age rebels dream of becoming anchorites and stylites, in imitation of old-age mystics. But the old mystics had it easy. They could contemplate a world of sound and concentrate on its harmonies until they invented the idea of silence, a quiet in which they could think improving thoughts and enjoy the calm in which to communicate them. Today we have talking books. Need I say more?

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war