Monday, February 02, 2009

Reflections on Silence

"Silence is golden" -- so the saying goes. Well, I'm not so sure. Not real silence, anyway. Real silence is lonely, alienating, and full of despair.

Think about it. When have you heard real silence? I mean the absence of all sound. I can't say that I have ever heard real silence; but I think I got pretty close to it.

I remember in the first few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, after having snuck back into the city sometime in mid-Sepetember of 2005, I took a drive out to New Orleans East with some friends. We went to visit St. Gabriel Church and the neighborhood where it sits. We drove up in front of the church and got out of the car. We were the only people around for miles. The first thing one noticed upon getting out of the car was the silence. It was enough to stop you in your tracks. I was almost hesitant to breathe for fear of making too much noise. I had never experienced quiet like this.

There were no engines running, no horns beeping, no zooming sounds from passing traffic.

There were no air conditioners humming, no traffic lights switching on and off, no electrical power lines buzzing.

The lack of such mechanical sounds was to be expected, though. But what really sucked the life out of me was that there were no other sounds of life.

There were no other people walking, talking, whistling, what have you.

There were no birds chirping. No cats roaming through the bushes. No dogs barking.

As far as I could tell, there weren't even any flies or mosquitoes buzzing about.

Nor were there leaves rustling. Nothing. There was just silence. And when someone spoke, it was like a rifle shot -- so sudden, so startling, so out of place. I could see how silence could engulf someone.

If one closed his eyes and listened intently, the only thing one might have been able to hear (and I don't even recall hearing it myself) was the breeze blowing. I guess, if the sun burning would have produced a sound, one might also have heard that. But that would have been it.

And I remember feeling great sadness at the lack of sound, or, perhaps better said, at the presence of such profound, lifeless silence.

If given the choice between blindness or deafness, I think I might choose blindness.

I came to an understanding that hell, or what some might call simply "the absence of God," is utter silence. One might find God in silence, but one still has to hear God in the silence -- and that still requires hearing something. Imagine hearing nothing, not even the voice of God. Utter silence.

I prefer at least a whisper.


Eric said...

Great post, Huck. You strike here upon one of my favorite themes in literature, the acoustic coloring of different places (Samuel Johnson penned a lot of great quotes about the hustle of the city vs. the austere silence of the countryside). Dead silence in the middle of a city would be unnerving. However, take that same acoustic space and move it to the middle of a snowy country hillside in the middle of winter, and it is one of my favorite environments... nature's blank slate; the kind of blankness where anything you do, even just breathing, leaves a discernable imprint on your surroundings.

There is type of congitive discipline, I think, that is required to align one's mind with dead silence (just as there is a discipline required to quiet one's mind in the midst of hustle and bustle... something that is increasingly difficult for me). Dead silence creates a sort of existential panic in us; an effect which I imagine would be amplified if the silence was contrasted against an urban background. When we first moved to our home in the country, I was surprised to find I couldn't sleep at night because it was too quiet. We had been in a fairly secluded house before, but it was close to a lake, sort of in the woods... and it was teeming with sounds at night. Here in the crosstimbers, with fewer trees and more spanning open spaces, it can get truly silent at times (especially in the winter). Sort of like Eskimo's and their 200 different words for snow, there are a lot of nuances to the type of silence one might experience sitting on our patio at any given time, but "dead silence" is certtainly the most distinct. I enjoy it now (actually, most of the time, I take it for granted now), but it did take some adjusting to.

I know a few well-seasoned old men around here who will, on a whim, spend a day sitting on their back porch in silence just conteplating things. I think they prefer dead silence to any other kind... chirping birds and crickets just break their train of thought. They are sort of like redneck zen masters to me, and I am fascinated by them.

Anyway, I enjoyed this post. I know you didn't mean it to be a contrasting opinion piece between the rural and urban frame of mind, but I think it has some significance in that context. Thanks.

Huck said...

Thank you, Eric. For leaving such a thoughtful comment. I did think on the rural/urban dichotomy. I've spent time in the quiet countryside, but there was always still something to hear there - some noise in the house, some creaking in the cabin, etc. But, then, you kinda expect silence in places like those. I guess what really struck me about my experience right after Katrina was that I was standing in a place where the silence was completel unexpected. Imagine standing in Times-Square on New Year's Eve and not only not hearing anything, but not even seeing anything around you alive that you could imagine making sounds. That was the shocker for me. It drove the point home that silence is, in a way, the absence of life. And that was a sobering and sad thought.

D-BB said...

If you don’t mind Huckster, I would like to remind everybody that as bad as our economy is, as bad as our crime is here at home and with all our differences, few if any of us truly understand what is it like to go to bed hungry. Please visit and then look at your kids and drop to your knees and than God.

Please consider sharing your blessings with those less fortunate.

Eric said...

Huck, yes, I get a little unnerved just thinking about the silence you are talking about in the middle of a once-bustling city.

"It drove the point home that silence is, in a way, the absence of life. And that was a sobering and sad thought."

Perhaps it is the Randian streak in me, but whenever I am confronted with those feelings in the midst of desolate silence, there is always a follow up thought: "And yet, here I am."

*beats chest*

mominem said...

I experienced real silence in the days after the flood when I was alone at night in my trailer as the only person for blocks.

George "Loki" Williams said...

I've been roughing out a piece about this very subject. While not as completely quiet as the NO East area, uptown was eerie and disconcerting as well.

We got back just before Halloween, and the silence was deafening. The same lack of any sound punctuated every couple of hours by some nimrod doing 80 mph down Napoleon or Prytania.

The sudden roars of engines, as shattering as they were, would fade in moments leaving the unmarred silence in their wake. The counterpoint between the two was reminiscent of the more disturbing "suspense" sections of many modern zombie movies.

Michele said...

A very thoughtful post, Jimmy, especially coming on the heels of the Superbowl (the very antithesis of silence).
Have you read "Silence" by Shusako Endo? I think you would like it.

Daisy said...

I coudn't have said it better my self! I have been thinking lately, about so many things, and have been trying to explain it to people, and that is just the way I want to express it. Full of descripitons, and good reference to our Father.