An Interview With George Prochnik on the Politics of Silence

This is the second part of a conversation I had with George Prochnik, author of The Impossible Exile (Other Press), a biographical sketch of Stefan Zweig and In Pursuit of Silence (Doubleday), an investigation on the meanings of noise and silence. The first part of our conversation focused on the relevancy of Stefan Zweig today, while this part zeroes in on the implications of living in a noisy world.

The occasion for our meeting is the PEN World Voices Festival, happening April 28 – May 4 in New York City. Prochnik will be participating in three discussions.  

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Woman Reading (1953); sculpture by Pablo PicassoWoman Reading (1953); sculpture by Pablo Picasso

SHAUN RANDOL: In your essay on Stefan Zweig for the Quarterly Conversation, you quote Zweig as referring to books as “handfuls of silence, assuaging torment and unrest.”  Do you think reading literature provides a necessary silence for us today?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: I think that’s a beautiful question and I would say yes.

As for Zweig’s quote about books: I don’t have a prejudice against people reading on electronic devices, but when you read on an electronic device it opens you out into a very loud and big electronic universe. When you open a physical book, it’s a containing space. It’s actually a physical space that you feel the coziness of, which electronic books just can’t offer. So I think that reading first of all is very much an activity that flourishes in literal quiet, and also that reading and engaging with literature helps us cultivate a silence that is in very short supply.

When we read silently, we hear our own voice reading back to us; perhaps our own voice adopts the voices of the characters. We hear running water and street sounds and other soundscapes in the story. With all of that sort of “quiet noise”—if I may—going on in your head, is there really silence in reading?

In Pursuit of Silence by George ProchnikIn my book In Pursuit of Silence, I tried to work up a definition of silence and of noise that would hold against certain difficulties in the terminology that have hindered our cultural ability to successfully navigate those two ideas.

To go for a second with noise: One of the problems has been determining what noise pollution actually consists of, because I could be hugely annoyed if there was an HVAC system right here that was not doing any damage to my hearing, but was erasing all of the silence in the space. It’s so subjective, unless you’re talking about danger, infrastructure, transportation, or something like that. I think it’s something that anti-noise activists got hung up on repeatedly. And also the fact that sometimes I want to turn my music up really loud, almost everyone does. So I decided rather than giving a strict value definition to noise, as if noise is negative, that we can think of noise as sound that gets in our head and for the period we are experiencing it, it dominates everything.

And so I came to think of silence as an ecology of sound and quiet that allows us to maximize our awareness of the full tapestry of sounds that make up the world. I would say that the kind of sound that we find ourselves filled with when we’re reading is that balance between quiet and noise that’s conducive to certain kinds of reflective thought.

I use the word “reflection” advisedly, because I tend to think a major peril of this cultural moment is reactive thought. There’s such drive to respond quickly and to respond to the noise that it’s very difficult to engage in these spaces if you’re thinking slowly, if you’re thinking reflectively in ways that push back into the self. I think it’s very, very hard.

Do you think that quiet is a precondition to advancement in arts, politics, science, other spheres of life?

I think quiet in the complex sense in which I am using it is absolutely. It’s something that I am persuaded that we’re having a serious problem with in our culture.

Do you think that today being quiet is a radical act?

Yes. Unequivocally so.

Where does it seem to me radical? When I was writing that book [In Pursuit of Silence] I looked into the history of the “two minutes of silence” as a commemorative event. It turns out to be very vexed question. The first national moments of silence that we know of are in relationship to Armistice Day, so it began in 1919. When this started in England it wasn’t just about being literally quiet, it was about stopping, the cessation of imposing ourselves on the world. Not long after that, this proved so successful that the BBC began broadcasting these two minutes of silence, which is an amazing idea. They would set up a microphone at the cenotaph in the center of London and they would broadcast this; it was a hugely popular broadcast. A BBC commentator was asked why this had become such a phenomenon and he made the point that in fact it’s not quiet: you hear birdsong and rustling leaves and you hear a child, etc. Critically, he said, “silence is a solvent that destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal.”1

There is this great, cultural driver of the fear of disappearing. Rather than thinking we can only be heard by being the loudest, if we allow ourselves to recede into quiet, we end up identifying with, hopefully, a cross-section of the natural world and the human world. So to me, the radical stance of silence is in believing we don’t have to impose our voice over the din to be heard.  

So how do we be silent and yet get noticed?

That’s exactly it. There’s a terrible fear of not being noticed. I believe that if we allow some silence into our lives and the more we listen, the more different voices and different positions will become part of our consciousness and hopefully, ultimately, give us something to say that will be important enough that we will be heard.

We have to accept that we may need to be more patient. We may not have that much to say. We can’t be terrified of that. We have to be willing to listen more. Silence is an enormously educative position.

George Prochnik

George Prochnik at his home in Brooklyn (Photo: Shaun Randol)

I’m less concerned about the individual and more concerned about the disempowered. What form of silence can you use and for how long to make an impact? Or do you eventually have to come out of that shell and start throwing rocks?

Let’s take a specific example: With our understanding of mass surveillance, how can we use silence as a political action to protest or push back against that? One way immediately I can think of is just unplugging and not participating in that sphere, but it’s very difficult to do that in this connected society, whether you continue to use your debit card or mobile phone and so on.

It is difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible. If the pushback that’s desired is against those phenomena you just outlined, I think we have to be willing to do that. We actually have to communicate in other ways. It’s not impossible—it just isn’t.

We can at least severely limit it. What I ended up advocating in the silence book was thinking about all these issues not as a binary choice, but more about how we build a healthier balance between our relationship with noise and silence. Maybe we draw back in all but the most essential ways. Maybe we can partially cut off. Maybe part of the trap we get into is thinking it has to be an either-or situation.

To your question about the disempowered: If we who are not as disempowered are willing to be silent for those populations, I think we become—hopefully—more able to absorb voices and find ways to articulate for the audiences that can really make a difference in those lives, what they would like to say but have been silenced from. Our own silence hopefully makes us porous to their voices. They are silenced in a negative sense. Hopefully what comes of our silence in that enjambment is reflective political positions that actually make a difference and don’t fall into the traps.

Clearly we have a real problem on the Left. We find ourselves saying No, No, No, No in ways that aren’t heard. So obviously it’s not just working to shout. This is a very tricky area.  

Thinking, using your body physically, and your voice, those are probably the three essential mechanisms for letting yourself be known. It can be very difficult to convince someone using their voice because they don’t have other tools to dial it back.

Do you know the art critic Hal Foster? He has a long history of art criticism from the Left and he was talking to me last night about how he felt that many of us had absorbed in our lives—at this moment in time—the freneticism of the economy we are trying to critique. He didn’t say this, but it’s popping into my mind right now: we have a kind of Stockholm syndrome relationship to our captivity within this artificially busy society we inhabit, with so much empty business and such vacuous tasks. All of us are afraid of taking a step backward, that the doors are going to close on us, that we’re going to vanish.

But I’m convinced, and it borders on a kind of faith, that if we can really not be so afraid of having a patient, partial retreat, that there are better odds that we will come to articulate something that we’ll be able to share in a meaningful way. We don’t have to see it as this or that, but we have clearly got something out of whack now; it’s just obvious there’s too much stimulation, there’s too much literal noise, and there’s too much psychological noise. There’s no question. We’re just running ragged.

Reading (1984) by Valerio AdamiReading (1984) by Valerio Adami

Is the right to quiet a human right?

Absolutely. When I started writing that book, the process of thinking about what I was doing was a private one, where I felt unhappy with something that I perceived to have changed. I set out to find whether it was objectively true or a subjective response. As I began to expand my engagement with the issue across different communities, I realized how profoundly bereft of quiet so many particularly underprivileged people are, particularly in this city, let alone in places like Sao Paulo or Mumbai or many other large cities in the world. I’m convinced that all of the things that come with existing in an overly loud environment in both a literal and metaphorical sense—whether it’s about defraction of attention or difficulties sleeping or over stimulation in non-nurturing ways—all of those things are further barriers to social advancement. There’s no question about it. There’s lots of evidence of a lack of meaningful education happening in loud environments and kids that go home to loud homes in loud streets in a loud world have less opportunity to learn and absorb what they’re learning. It starts and is maybe most disastrous with kids.

There were a lot of studies done in the 1960s that found a correlation between noise and aggression, not surprisingly, particularly when there was noise over which people felt no control. One of these studies talks about how in noisy environments people have less empathy. I think that noise is something that both excuses a lack of responsiveness-slash-compassion to our larger environment and for people who are in a loud situation living day in and day out, their inner selves are in fact under attack in ways that become neurologically an irritant, so that you don’t even know that this is happening.

Noise is one more barrier against social advancement among particular communities who would most benefit from a fair deal.

  • 1. There seems to be confusion of who actually said this. Like Prochnik, Pico Iyer, for one, attributes it to that unnamed BBC reporter. References suggest it can be traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Essay XI: Intellect,” with a fuller version of the quote being: “The ancient sentence said, Let us be silent, for so are the gods. Silence is a solvent that destroys personality, and gives us leave to be great and universal.”

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also a member of the PEN American Center and serves on the boards of Nomadic Press, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and Africa Book Link.