2010 Archives

Sunday Essay: Silence is to be treasured amid our daily din


The following is from the December 27, 2010, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Willard Spiegelman is the Duwain E. Hughes Jr. Distinguished Professor of English in SMU's Dedman College.

January 4, 2011

Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Where has all the quiet gone? Author Willard Spiegelman explains why it's essential - and almost impossible to find.

A couple of years ago I gave a lighthearted speech to SMU  honors students, readying them for the abundant clichés they would receive at commencement one month later. My first suggestion was: "Never go anywhere without a book." Not a computer, a DVD player, an iPod or even a Kindle, but an old-fashioned bound book, which will never fail you.

My second commandment was: "Never go anywhere without earplugs."

I've come to think that Rule No. 2 should become No. 1. Our lives are suffocating in noise. Silence, like the star-studded nighttime sky now unavailable to virtually everyone, has become a lost commodity. We must retrieve it. Privacy and slowness, equally in short supply, are its cousins, in need of cultivation. Public life, communal activity and noise dissipate our energy.

Thoreau had it right: "Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts." Where do we, especially those of us who live in cities, find it? Why do we need CNN in airports, or music in restaurants? Without entering a Trappist monastery, or otherwise taking a vow of silence, how can we effect noise reduction in our daily lives?

If you have the good fortune to live on a vast property, you may have momentary respite. But few people can, or wish to, remain agoraphobic forever. We live in the world. Nature – a park, a lake, a desert, even the backyard – can offer momentary solace, although the hum if not the roar of traffic exists everywhere in a metropolis.

I have tried for years to find tranquillity in four kinds of urban venues. You used to be able to have a civilized meal in a quiet restaurant and have serious conversations in what our mothers called "indoor voices." No longer. With few exceptions, all restaurants, regardless of cuisine or cost, have sound-enhancing rather than sound-deadening properties. They install such apparatus to make customers think they're eating where the action and the smart set are. They pump up the music, which increases the din. Consequently, diners must raise their voices in order to be heard, and if the people at the next table are talking loudly, you will, too.

Restaurants are out. So, for the most part, are libraries. Gone are the stern, shushing, schoolmarmish figures who held sway with an iron hand in the libraries of my youth. The main reading room at any university library is liable to sound like an extension of a dormitory.

What does this leave you with?

Until they became theme parks and mini-malls, museums offered a ticket to solitude. Before the Age of the Blockbuster, courtesy of the late Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum, before gift shops and restaurants rather than the art treasures on the other side of the turnstile made museums hot destination spots, you could wander in at lunch time (many museums had free entry), look at a favorite picture or two, and leave refreshed.

Art is supposed to soothe the soul, to calm as well as stimulate the mind. How can this happen when you have to ignore not only the bodies of people between you and what's on the wall but also, and more irksome, their often loud, outdoor voices, as well?

In October and November I paid two visits to the Dallas Museum of Art, taking advantage of its monthly, third-Friday "late night" jamboree, when it keeps its doors open until midnight and supplements its raison d'être, looking at art, with a larger menu of delights. My excursions opened my eyes, as well as my ears, to the problems as well as the pleasures of populism.

If you think you can look at art in peace and quiet when the museum has become a party, think again. Noise, not quiet, tends to predominate. "The Mourners," the sublime show of forty alabaster figures from the tomb of the 15th-century Burgundian ruler John the Fearless, required a heroic will, or earplugs, to experience, owing to ambient traffic and clatter. A student of mine who'd seen the exhibit five previous times said he'd never heard so much noise around the figures as during our late-night foray.

The festivities produced a strong sense of incongruity. In November a jazz combo in the atrium could be heard throughout much of the building, even in the mysterious, tomb-like Meadows Galleries that house the Arts of the Americas. Most of the picture galleries were empty. People tended to congregate where the action was, down below. Frederic Church's magisterial Icebergs was matched by the rising sounds of cool jazz, but for the most part, the music seemed inappropriate. Whenever it stopped for a moment, I felt that a toothache had abated.

My ideal is to sit in silence in front of a single picture for an hour, with no one to disturb my solitude. Babies in strollers at 10 p.m., noisy toddlers, a rock band (in October) in the atrium: It's probably a fine party, but it defeats the purpose of having a place set aside for the absorption of art.

Whether the party atmosphere, a marketing ploy adopted increasingly by many museums, will actually work to increase revenues and memberships remains to be seen. Bonnie Pitman, the Eugene McDermott Director of the DMA, replied to my request for information by saying that the Friday soirees attract between 2,000 and 4,000 visitors. And the various late-night programs cover their own costs.

An article last summer in  The New York Times  about comparable populist gestures at the Brooklyn Museum of Art presented the pros and cons of such efforts. Among the former: diversification of audience and of exhibits. Among the latter: charges of dumbing down, or Disneyfication.

Wherever you fit along the spectrum that runs from exclusiveness to openness, it is clear that even on an ordinary day a museum may not provide the tranquillity you most desire. Even without the hordes, you still may subject yourself to school kids or grown-ups talking as though they were sashaying through their living rooms.

 Many Amtrak trains now advertise a quiet car, where cellphones and loud conversations are forbidden, and where attentive passengers maintain hawklike vigilance to protect their ear rights. Maybe we could encourage museums to restrict certain hours for people trying to maintain similar levels of quiet. Pitman's e-mail to me pointed out that "the DMA offers many occasions when the museum experience is reflective and quiet – and yet at the same time fully understands the need for diverse programs and experiences in the galleries."

Choose your entry times accordingly.

Have I reached curmudgeonhood? The DMA open house serves a noble purpose: to get people inside the building and perhaps to interest them in art. It's also a great public relations gambit. But I value solitude in an age of mass entertainment, and I cherish silence in a time of noise.

 I am not alone, nor is my problem of recent vintage. In the last century, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes recommended silence as a cure "for the blows of sound." Aldous Huxley said we live "in an age of noise," which he called "an assault against silence."

John Connell, a British civil servant, founded the Noise Abatement Society in the U.K., which led to the 1960 noise abatement act that regulated noise from vehicles, noise from loudspeakers and noise from burglar alarms. In 2004, New York City received 1,000 daily noise complaints on its citizens' hotline.

Thoreau again: "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." He wasn't entirely right. The fourth venue of what I have called tranquillity is, traditionally, religion. An empty chapel encourages contemplation. And people also gather in the company of like-minded believers for organized worship, in which silent prayer often plays a part. Even those of us without strong religious leanings sometimes find sustenance in religious settings, through artistic performances or the rituals of weddings and funerals. Sometimes we need to test the waters of our own inchoate yearnings for spirituality.

The problem with religious services is, of course, language, and the human speaking voice. It's not just the blow-dried preachers with pressed hair, bad plastic surgery and permanent tans; I'm thinking of clergymen who, with all the best intentions, are full of palaver and piety.

People like me, who work with words, know what language can and cannot do, and often we want no more of it. When I want silence-in-company I go to a Quaker meeting. There is no doctrine; there is no glamour; there is no shouting.

One day last fall, at the Meetinghouse in East Dallas, I sat with 16 other people, a total of seven men and 10 women. Meeting begins at 10 a.m. Sunday. Some people filtered in late, the last at 10:20. Everyone sat upright, most with eyes closed, some leaning forward. The next thing I knew it was 10:55, and the leader asked for people to share "their joys and concerns," which four of the congregants did. At 11, the leader said "Good morning" to the person on her right, thereby initiating a series of "Good mornings". Never had an hour passed so quickly.

And the silence was music to my ears.

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