Let’s hear it for silence

 

 

THE FIFTH COLUMN

You have to travel far to get away from the noise people make. Have to really uproot yourself. “Go live on a farm if you don’t like the noise,” I was told, but even on a farm are barking dogs and diesel generators. So where is one to go in this world? What is there to do? Float in the ocean on a plank? Commit a heinous crime and be sentenced to solitary confinement?

Some people like noise. “Make some noise!” MCs often shout to get a crowd going. “Let’s hear it for so and so” — the “it” invariably being noise.

I believe that people on large motorcycles buy the machines purely for the noise they make. I’ve heard people say they can’t stand silence. I’ve heard others talk loudly in libraries. I’ve heard cars vibrate.

I’ve also heard that noise is a part of the rhythm of life, and this seems to ring true. On Sunday mornings the collective effort of the people who buy large motorcycles “flattening” the uphill expressway close to my house is deafening. Before sunrise on weekdays I hear the empty Golden Arrow buses fight their way up the same road.

The word “noise” comes from the Latin word “nausea”, the Romans apparently very wisely seeing no difference between wanting to die and hearing three people speak at the same time.


Like the word, people have changed, and the modern human seems to somehow have developed a stomach for noise. Sledgehammer operators can sledge away for days on end; millions walk the streets of cities without so much as a dry heave.

Some of us appear to be stuck in the past with a noise-sensitivity that harks back to ancient times. The condition, I’m sure my ilk will agree, is not so much a case of supersonic hearing across the board, but rather the selective ability to hear some things much clearer. The sound of an electric fence shorting, for instance, is like that of a cracking whip; a dripping tap echoes throughout the house in many phases: the drop breaks the surface of the water, the water above the drop closes.

I have a fantasy in which a salesperson knocks on my door. I open the door and they open their briefcase presenting me with silence for an hour, a day, a month. The silence is said to be absolute — dead silence — but comes at a very high price.

I’ve realised over time that the salesperson may just as well have been selling noise-cancelling headphones and so went out to buy one: an entry-level device with limited cancelling ability. For that reason, the silence is not total (“deep bass” filters through), but at least I can hear myself think. The music I listen to is a 15-minute track of white noise mimicking the sound of ocean waves breaking on the shore. I have it on repeat, the only break in the waves a softening towards the end mimicking, on its turn, falling asleep. I listen to the white noise at top volume. It’s bliss. Second only, I’m sure, to floating on a plank in the middle of the Pacific.

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Hans Mackenzie Main
Hans Mackenzie Main
Writer/Columnist at Mail & Guardian

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