I hate noise. There is a word for this hatred: misophonia. It’s Latin, and means just that, hatred of sound.
I don’t hate sound. I hate noise. There is a distinction. If I hear a robin chirping outside our window or chimes tinkle in a mild breeze, I’m fine with that. But if I hear something I don’t want to hear, like an edge trimmer grinding against a curb or a dog barking on the next door neighbor’s porch, I go into a towering rage.
I’m not alone. It is said that Marcel Proust would often rent the room next to his when he stayed at a hotel so that he would not have to hear any noise from the adjacent lodging.
“Goethe hated noise,” wrote Milan Kundera in Immortality, “That’s a well-known fact. He couldn’t even bear the barking of a dog in a distant garden.”
Edgar Allan Poe complained of the noise coming from horse-drawn carriages on Baltimore streets (“the street din which is wrought by the necessity of having the upper surfaces of the blocks roughened, to afford a hold for the hoof. The noise from these roughened stones is less, certainly, than the tintamarre proceeding from the round ones — but nevertheless is intolerable still”), and proposed using wooden pavement preserved by “kyanizing” it in Bi-Chloride of Mercury.
Schopenhauer was especially voluble. “The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long,” he wrote in his treatise on noise.
There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of an opportunity.
Noise is a disease. According to Lisa Goines, RN, and Louis Hagler, MD, in “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague,” published in the March 3007 Southern Medical Journal, “Noise levels about 80 dB are associated with both an increase in aggressive behavior and a decrease in behavior helpful to others.”
There is growing evidence that noise pollution is not merely an annoyance; like other forms of pollution, it has wide-ranging adverse health, social, and economic effects. A recent search (September 2006) of the National Library of Medicine database for adverse health effects of noise revealed over 5,000 citations, many of recent vintage. As the population grows and as sources of noise become more numerous and more powerful, there is increasing exposure to noise pollution, which has profound public health implications. Noise, even at levels that are not harmful to hearing, is perceived subconsciously as a danger signal, even during sleep. The body reacts to noise with a fight-or-flight response, with a fight-or-flight response, with resultant nervous, hormonal, and vascular changes that have far reaching consequences.
I admire the initiative of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton to protect what he calls One Square Inch of Silence in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park, a sacred spot marked with a small red stone given to him as a gift from an elder of the Quileute tribe which he placed on a log approximately three miles from the visitors center. He argues with park officials - who are, for the most part, eager to cooperate - about respecting the silence and perhaps using mechanical equipment, leaf blowers and chainsaws and such, that are capable of producing lower decibels when urgent repair work is required. But his real challenge is in writing letters to the airline companies whose jets fly overhead, creating noise that isn’t necessarily loud (45 to 55 dBA on the ground), but is loud enough to interfere with the ambient sounds of the rainforest, sounds that the fauna use for communicating with one another. “From the sound of the water alone,” he writes in his book One Square Inch of Silence, “I’ve learned to distinguish the age of a tumbling stream.”
Older flows, such as those in Appalachia that escaped the last glaciation, have been tuning themselves for many thousands of years. Their watercourses and stony beds, smoothed to paths of least resistance by the ageless cycles of torrents and floods, sing differently. To my ears, they’re quieter, more musical, more eloquent. Youthful streams, with their newly exposed and angular, unsmoothed rocks, push the water aside brashly, with a resulting clatter. In all cases, the rocks are the notes. I sometimes attempt to tune a stream by repositioning a few prominent rocks, listening for the subtle changes in sound.
My struggles with noise have more to do with the wilderness of the written word, the Hoh Rainforest of the mind. I require a modicum of quiet in order to think. I’m not entirely sure what thinking is, but I do know I need quiet to think.
Thought isn’t clay. What rosary pliers are for the jeweler, so are words for the writer. All it takes is one intrusive sound and all is lost. Thought vanishes and one is deposited in the hard, brutish world again.
For years I have tried to develop a strategy to help me cope with noise. There is nothing I hate more than to complain to a neighbor about noise. It begins as an agonizing debate. Does my complaint have legitimacy? Is the music truly at a level that justifies a knock on somebody’s door and the embarrassing grievance, however diplomatically stated, that their music or TV is intruding on your quiet? And what about the thump, thump, thump of somebody’s walking on the upstairs floor? How does one bring a grievance to your neighbor’s ears about something that they truly have little control over? Do you ask them to lose weight? To adopt a more graceful gait? The tension that results from even the first complaint, much less the ensuing complaints, makes those brief encounters in the hallway or parking lot awkward in the extreme. You cease being a cool, liberal, tolerant soul and become that iconic figure of a crabby old woman.
I could tell myself that noise is only noise, just a sound, a sneeze or a chainsaw. I cannot even say what differentiates a noise from a sound or what makes music music or what makes noise noisome.
There are many (it bears repeating) sounds that I do happen to like. I like the sound of time concocting mud in Utah, the rustling of cellophane, the mouth of a geisha, the lumber of the imagination and the way it smells which is a noise for the nose. I like the sound of sidewalks when no one is walking or running on them but the rain, the rain making puddles, which is the noise of the sky reflecting back at itself, and is a sound similar to the inner life of an automobile tire, and the air inside, which is an uncanny silence contrasting so brilliantly with the sound of air at the center of a tornado that the mind flashes the jewelry of vowels in the consonants of a bowl of philosophy. I like the sound of philosophy. I like the sound of ornamentation on a Christmas tree, which is the noise of color and light and the spirit of prodigality.
There is no logic to the sounds I do not like, sounds which (since I do not like them) qualify as noise. Noise is any sound that I do not like. Which is a car door slamming. Which is the sound of people talking outside my window. Which is the grind of an edger against the cement of a sidewalk. Which is the roar of a leaf blower. Which is the piercing cries of children from a city park. Which is the barking of the beagle on the porch of house next door. Which is the boom! boom! boom! of hostile rap from an Escalade’s woofer passing by. Which is someone doing dishes over my head at 12:30 a.m. when I’m trying to sleep. Which is someone’s heavy footsteps thumping on the hardwood floor above our apartment, especially when they continue long into the night, inviting speculation about what the fuck the people upstairs are doing, going on a long hike in circles? Moving bric-a-bric from one shelf to another? Laying a table for a dinner at one in the morning one spoon at a time? Playing badminton? Dusting?
People who do housework in the middle of the night, a phenomenon I find very common, are annoying in the extreme. I cannot abide doing anything when someone is fussing about in a room. I’ve eaten at restaurants when an employee will bring out a dustpan and go to work raising dust when you’re trying to relax and enjoy a meal. This drives me crazy, but is a topic to pursue at another time. Suffice it to say, the noise of someone doing housework in the upstairs apartment at two in the morning is enough to keep me from sleeping, but the ensuing rage fuels me with enough misanthropic bile to power a 70 ton Abrams tank for a full month.
For Schopenhauer, it was whips:
The most inexcusable and disgraceful of all noises is the cracking of whips… No sound, be it ever so shrill, cuts so sharply into the brain as this cursed cracking of whips; you feel the sting of the lash right inside your head; and it affects the brain in the same way as touch affects a sensitive plant, and for the same length of time… With all due respect for the most holy doctrine of utility, I really cannot see why a fellow who is taking away a wagon-load of gravel or dung should thereby obtain the right to kill in the bud the thoughts which may happen to be springing up in ten thousand heads — the number he will disturb one after another in half an hour’s drive through the town. Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the crying of children are horrible to hear; but your only genuine assassin of thought is the crack of a whip; it exists for the purpose of destroying every pleasant moment of quiet thought that any one may now and then enjoy. If the driver had no other way of urging on his horse than by making this most abominable of all noises, it would be excusable; but quite the contrary is the case. This cursed cracking of whips is not only unnecessary, but even useless. Its aim is to produce an effect upon the intelligence of the horse; but through the constant abuse of it, the animal becomes habituated to the sound, which falls upon blunted feelings and produces no effect at all. The horse does not go any faster for it. You have a remarkable example of this in the ceaseless cracking of his whip on the part of a cab-driver, while he is proceeding at a slow pace on the lookout for a fare. If he were to give his horse the slightest touch with the whip, it would have much more effect. Supposing, however, that it were absolutely necessary to crack the whip in order to keep the horse constantly in mind of its presence, it would be enough to make the hundredth part of the noise. For it is a well-known fact that, in regard to sight and hearing, animals are sensitive to even the faintest indications; they are alive to things that we can scarcely perceive.
I don’t wonder for an instant that had Schopenhauer still been living to this day it would not be whips but the pounding of woofers that would’ve driven him crazy.
The most singular instance of noise is when the noise consists of music. This can be music I enjoy. The Beatles, Mozart, The Rolling Stones. Doesn’t matter. If I’m at work trying to write I need quiet. I can listen to the Stones or Beatles or Eine Kleine Nachtmusic whenever I like on Youtube, or loudly in the car. But if I don’t want to hear music, then music, even music I like, becomes an instrument of torture. Of course, if it isn’t music I like, say rap or heavy metal, heavy metal rendered poorly, than the effect is worse. I become Attila the Hun.
Noise invariably feels like an assault even though there is no malignant intention, or at least none that is evident. Generally it’s people being utterly oblivious to how the sound they’re making might affect someone else. And in American culture, it’s rare to find people who are bothered by sound. America is a noisy country. No one is ever satisfied. It’s all about quantity. Owning more and more and more and more. Bigger engines, bigger houses, bigger this, bigger that. Unless it’s a cell phone or some other form of electronic toy. “The consumer cannot, and must not ever attain satisfaction, observes Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life, “the logic of the consumable object demands the creation of fresh, false needs… What is more, wealth in consumer goods impoverishes authentic life, and this in two ways. First, it replaces authentic life with things. Secondly, it makes impossible, with the best will in the world, to become attached to these things, precisely because they have to be consumed, which is to say destroyed. Whence an ever more oppressive absence of life, a self-devouring dissatisfaction.”
If there’s one consistent phenomenon in life, it is this: dissatisfaction is noisy. Dissatisfaction is revved engines, power saws ripping the air, hammers pounding. Angry rap lyrics spitting from Hummers in downtown traffic, people frozen in gridlocked angst as time and life pass them by. They sit, seething with road rage, barely disguised seething tempers, ready to explode. An explosion would be excellent. An explosion after which, when the dust settles, silence, authentic silence, would answer the blazing gold of the afternoon sun.
Noise is political. Noise is intrusion. Noise is the symptom of a constant overpowering dissatisfaction of a lost soul. It is the need to find proof that one exists by filling the natural serenity of air with the boisterous clamor of one’s insatiable desolation, the emptiness inside that is the result of an endless cycle of shopping and hyper-consumption. It is the yearning to find meaning by imposition, by gimmick and encroachment, no matter who gets in the way. Look out, here I come with my tool belt and hard hat, emperor of all I survey. I exist! I exist! Can’t you see? Can’t you hear? I may be empty inside, but outside, I’m all power saw and hammer and here comes my shiny new patio deck as further proof of my sad, pathetic existence.
The other qualities that make a life, and they are qualities, not things that anyone can buy, consume, engross, monopolize, those treasures of transcendent thought, those deep caverns of the soul in whose labyrinths we penetrate in silent meditation, that zone in which we become one with the universe, in which our skin acquires the sensitivity of ears and we can hear the music of the world in the feeling of grass and cloth and paper, are phenomena that can only be obtained (if obtain is the right word, which it is not, but I can find no other momentarily because I am in a rush to get this written before my neighbor intrudes on me with his leaf blower), by withdrawing from the world and its noise and discovering a realm that isn’t bound by walls or property or even skin. Skin itself becomes a phenomenal wonder, a cocoon of nerves and warmth and blood and periphery where sensations of touch and feeling open our being to the world of texture. We find ourselves enveloped in a skin that doesn’t divide, but connects, brings us into intimate contact with the rough and the smooth, the bristly and the silken, with hot and cold, with essence and weave, a universe of touch that doesn’t merely impress or insist on our tactile attention but permeates our being, percolates through us like music. Like air.
Can it be that this place, this realm of the mind, is a danger to the capitalist spirit of endless acquisition and is brought down by noise? Is it conspiratorial? As long as there is noise, no one is able to reminisce, ruminate, think. And as long as no one thinks, muse the moguls of agora, we have a nation of oppressed, chronically dissatisfied, but passive, infantile beings. As long as we have a population of grasping, envious, covetous people, people eternally undeveloped and superficial and empty, we have a population eager to buy our products and make us money. As long as no one is able to think, we have a population of people easily distracted by gimmickry and toys. We can get away with murder. Literally.
Perhaps I go too far. It is eminently possible that I attach too much meaning to noise, invest it with too much power, take it too personally. This is true. The antidote for this would be as simple as amending my attitude. Believe me, I’ve tried. Again and again. I’ve tried convincing myself countless times that noise is just sound waves, frequencies and oscillations, vibrations in the air that have as little to do with me as the rings around Saturn, or the whine of a back lift on a garbage truck dumping the contents of a metal trash bin into its hopper, but it does little neutralize my emotions. The attempts at neutralizing these irritations themselves become irritations.
Emotions are noise. My tinnitus is noise. The cosmic microwave background assumed to be the residue of the fabled Big Bang of cosmology is noise.
Noise is ubiquitous. Noise is primordial. Noise is wasps and X-ray scattering and particles rippling through vast regions of space.
If I’m out in the public, sitting at a coffeehouse or bar or restaurant with a lot of chatter and loud music and other assorted noises I’m not really bothered. It’s when I’m at home that I’m bothered. Especially if I’m trying to read, or write, or sleep, or just stare out the window, even a slight noise, the slightest of all noises, a sound so faint you can barely hear it, a sound so light and tenuous it dies in the ears before it can even register as a decibel or micropascal, that kind of noise drives me crazy. Puts me in a rage.
It’s largely a matter of context. Attention.
Everyone knows what attention is, said William James. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
That’s what noise is: Zerstreutheit.
When I hear a noise, I brace. Stiffen. My attention disperses. Scatters. I become tense. I fill with dread. My muscles tighten. I go on the alert. I ready myself for fight, or flight, as the psychologists describe it, describe anxiety. That fire in the blood. That external pollution of the world that breaks the sweetness of our trance and the work at hand, ode, sonnet, bells of chiming prose on the landscape of the metaphysical, dissipate, disappear. The world becomes brutish and I fill with rage.
I thought of the sadhus of India meditating in the noisy crowded streets of Calcutta and Bangalore. If they can do it I can do it. What’s their secret?
Meanwhile, until I find what it is that gives people immunity to noise, the drone of a neighbor’s fan or bang of a car door slamming is enough to set my nerves on edge.
I am a Van de Graaff generator shooting megavolts of raw irritability.