Prochnik (Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, 2006) investigates the delicate cultivation of silence and the less-delicate eruption of its foe, noise pollution.
For the author, it wasn’t only that noise itself had gotten to him, but that it robbed him of something precious: silence, that fertile pause offering rest, renewal and a distilled awareness. Prochnik first visits a Trappist monastery, where he comes to appreciate that silence is a radical confrontation with oneself, a nod toward the “idea of an incommensurability between truth and our powers of expression.” Shamans practicing in the prehistoric caves of France and Spain had a different relationship to sound, where noise-making in the underground galleries reverberated and echoed to induce a state of “high emotion and minimal reason.” In an act of participatory courage, Prochnik submits to the decibel madness of superstereo boom cars, which are fast approaching the point where their sheer noise energy will crush the immediate atmosphere to the point of eliminating vibration, and thus—oddly—silencing itself. But Prochnik is here in praise of silence, not sonic blasts (though he finds some boom-car aficionados to his liking). In its pursuit he takes a turn through the evolutionary biology of hearing, the fight against Muzak and the checkered history of noise-pollution legislation. He also visits Gallaudet College, where a student tells him, “[o]ur ideas concentrated in ourselves, so to speak, necessarily incline us toward reflectiveness and meditation,” and immerses himself in a sensory-deprivation tank and the tranquility of a tea-house garden. In championing silence, its workings as mysterious and salubrious as sleep, he calls for “more spaces in which we can interrupt our general experience of noise.”
A lucid, balanced appreciation of silence’s solemn tonic.