Why do people fear silence?

A couple of years ago we spent Easter near Frankfurt am Mein. Holy Sunday is one big commercial crescendo here. The local cathedral, the coronation site of German kings and emperors, was practically deserted. Instead of that, when walking main streets we had to struggle through dense crowds of people who rushed to do their shopping. Now and then the human stream was stopped by buskers, each of different nationality, each performing a repertoire that had nothing to do with the Easter aura. Cool, but… somewhat barbarian.

We keep saying: The Holy Week is a time of calm and reflection. But in fact, for most of us these are only words which are not translated into action. On the contrary: the closer it gets to Easter, the more noisy, crowded and nervous it becomes.

According to tradition, the households chores, those big ones, requiring every fully-fit family member to get engaged should end on Holy Tuesday. In practice, however, they are postponed until the last moment. Unless they are done by “female cleaners”. But all other pre-Easter preparations continue until the ultimate moment when.. you finally begin to eat!

And where is the place for spirituality?

Winning over via the ear

It used to be like this: temples, even those erected along the most crowded streets, allowed to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Churches were not only used for celebrations, they were also a shelter for those who craved – even temporarily – for solitude. To feel, to experience a scale other than the human one. It helped gather one’s thoughts, find oneself.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE When did the change occur? Hard to say. The first time I heard it was about a quarter of a century ago: in a tiny church in Helsingfors, where I was the only visitor, choirs resounded. But where were they? Nowhere. They were played from tape, from loudspeakers placed in many places. I hadn’t known this trick yet, so the effect was there. Over the years, I have come across this type of audio and tourist attractions more and more often. Seemingly discreet, as if well-chosen when it comes to the era and architectural order of churches, but still imposing in terms of sound.

I began to miss the old, less and less present, silence of the temples. Why can’t one enter the House of God and meditate in silence before His majesty? After all, prayer is not only thinking, but also feeling. Is it necessary to get used to the “sanctity of the temple” (the word: premedicate suggests itself) musically? I wonder why win a pilgrim over, more or less accidental, with extras contradicting the nature of the place? The silence of the temples is loud enough to listen to it – and to yourself at the same time.

What are you missing

Shh, hush, hush, time for silence,
Its breath is getting closer,
This is what you really miss,
That’s the one true taste,
Silence like this...

Wait a minute, what kind of silence are we talking about? This song by Budka Suflera was recorded 30 years ago (with excellent words by Andrzej Mogielnicki). Perhaps such needs still existed at that time…. Archaic needs, from a world where the word “was silver and silence was gold”.

Two decades ago, Adaś Miauczyński - the one from “Dzień świra” (“Day of the Wacko”) – nastily insulted the workers who had been disturbing his existence and the performance of demanding intellectual work since early morning, which was guaranteed by: a) getting enough sleep, c) the need to isolate from all undesirable distractions. I’m afraid that today Adaś would be sent to a closed ward. Because someone who craves silence qualifies for psychiatric treatment.

There is a scene in “Amarcord” by Federico Fellini: the grandfather, slightly detached from reality, goes outside the home at the moment when the surrounding world is enveloped in a thick fog. The old man is terrified of wading through the whiteness and silence in which he finds no audible or visual coordinates. “Am I already in heaven? If so, I don’t like it here at all”.

That situation (anniversary again: “Amarcord” was made 50 years ago) seemed comical. Now most of us feel the fear of aural and visual emptiness. It’s not a metaphysical fear when we are overcome by an irrational fear, such as of a storm, when the wind dies down, everything around us quiets down and the tension grows, because we know that it’s going to explode soon! And the world will shake to its foundations. No, modernity has imposed on us such constant noise that we perceive complete silence as ... death?
Inside the Frankfurt Cathedral. Photo: DPA/PAP
A couple of years ago we spent Easter near Frankfurt am Mein. On Holy Saturday we took a walk through “Bankfurt”, as this metropolis is sometimes called. Holy Sunday is one big commercial crescendo here. The local cathedral, the coronation site of German kings and emperors, was practically deserted. Instead of that, when walking main streets we had to struggle through dense crowds of people who rushed to do their shopping. Now and then the human stream was stopped by buskers, each of different nationality, each performing a repertoire that had nothing to do with the Easter aura.

Cool, but… somewhat barbarian. It was like a carnival in Rio, combined with frenzied shopping. This quasi-Easter rave had one cause: commerce. The only modern multi-cultural religion.

When one is silent

Have you noticed how embarrassing even a moment of seriousness, concentration and silence seems to be when saying goodbye to someone who has died with a “minute’s silence”? Surely everyone was able to observe it. Standing still without a word, without fidgeting, without occupying your hands and without staring at the screen of your cell phone turns out to be a huge effort. You don’t know what to do with your hands (looking at fingernails is not very absorbing), where to direct your gaze (after all, it’s not appropriate to stare at others), how to stand (a certain solution is to shift your body weight from the right leg to the left and back). Everyone suddenly gets a scratchy throat (not from emotion at all), requiring coughing and grunting.

Yes – a minute of silence seems to last much longer than the clock indicates and is by no means silence.

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The phonic richness of the alleged silence was used by John Cage in his famous piece 4’33” (4 minutes 33 seconds). This three-movement composition can be performed on any instrument(s) by a soloist or orchestra, as it consists only of rests. There is no sound during the entire duration of the “music”. This “serious joke” by Cage premiered – hard to believe – 71 years ago!

This is how silence officially invaded the world of music. In fact, it was in the temples of Polyhymnia that it was always possible to find it – full of tension before the concert, before the musicians got to work and after it, if the piece captured the listeners and still resonated in their memory. However, Cage’s greatest merit was proving that our earthly, human silence is full of sounds. And that the authors of these uncoordinated “concerts” are us and our surroundings.

Marina Abramović, a famous artist of Serbian origin, reinterpreted the idea of an American avant-garde musician in her own way. In 2010, she presented the performance “Artist is Present” at New York’s MoMA. Viewers had the opportunity to interact with her directly, at a close distance across the table, eye to eye. The time was not limited, but any distracting gestures or sounds – strictly forbidden!

Not everyone who wanted to “have the honor” of participating in the action was able to withstand the pressure. Some ran away quickly, others seemed to be deeply moved by something/someone. She, Marina, was able to remain silent and still, except for one case when her ex-partner Ulay sat vis a vis…

And when Abramović ran workshops that were extremely difficult to get into, her first condition was to throw away one’s cell phone and learn how to concentrate. Like in a monastery – but under the auspices of great, fashionable art.

Do you know who easily adapted to the rigors of Abramović’s “monastery”? Lady Gaga was the best.

Because when one is silent, silent, silent/ then the ravenous appetite for poetry grows, which perhaps lies dormant in us – wrote (and sang) Jonasz Kofta, whose 35th death anniversary is coming soon, on April 28.

Not only his “Song about silence” dealt with a state in which we are rarely allowed to find ourselves. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” should be considered the most famous tribute to the sound void (?) – (my favorite covers are the Disturbed and Pentatonix versions).

As probably everyone knows – this song is about the inability of people to communicate in the emotional dimension. Let me remind you that “The sound of silence” sounded for the first time in 1964, when interpersonal communication at a distance was made possible by the landline phone.
Barbara Sołtysik jako Kitty rozmawia przez telefon (analogowy) w sztuce „Sprzężenie zwrotne” wystawionej w 1966 roku na Scenie Kameralnej Teatru Polskiego. Fot. AP/Mariusz Szyperko
Who remembers this epochal invention of Bell? And what did this wonder look like? In our apartment, there was a black, bakelite one in the big hall, between the door to grandma’s room and the bathroom. It served all residents, so “hanging on a cable” was forbidden. The limited time of use meant that conversations had to be controlled – self-controlled, without eavesdropping. I was suffering from agony when some sweetheart called. Tenderness had to be translated into a date in real life. And then – silence together, because body language expressed more.

Sonic drug

Now about the reverse of silence. About the cacophony. We live in it every day, we townspeople. We are surrounded by a constant roar emitted by all mechanisms, from vehicles to devices that facilitate home and garden work. (Horror – neighbors mowing grass early on the weekend or doing farm repairs).

We also add music, listened to individually or in groups. Finally, our own voices come in, closer and closer to shouting – you have to raise your voice to be heard in this din.

Children were used to be reprimanded for talking too loudly – now they have to scream to get someone’s attention.

No wonder: the street noise alone is about 65 to 100 decibels. At home, the TV or radio is constantly playing, but that’s not all. Many of us apply an additional dose of noise individually, in headphones – which is often over 110 dB. A party at a disco or a rock concert – it’s a hit of sounds that often exceeds the endurance of the human ear.

All audiologists, i.e. specialists in hearing disorders, trumpet (nomen omen) about the fact that it threatens us with sudden or gradual deafness. Worse, it’s not just this sense that is affected. Our whole being, subjected to long-term overstimulation, begins to experience various ailments: hypertension, susceptibility to a heart attack, difficulty falling asleep, distraction – these are just some of the negative effects of frequent exposure to loud sounds.

I remember the years when the rapidly modernized media editorial offices liquidated closed rooms for journalists, replacing them with open spaces. After a couple of hours of work, I left much more tired than before, with worse results.
Today we no longer notice it, we do not think about the cause of frustration. We take the din as a matter of course. Worse – when nothing plays, does not pound, does not rattle, does not growl – fear, fear, ye gods! End of the world or what? We are used to living in noise and do not notice the negative sides of phonic aggression. On the contrary, we see silence less and less as psychological comfort, as a balm for the mind. More and more often it is perceived as ... oppressive!

During holiday trips to the open air, to the sea or other places, some people, instead of “communicating” with nature, with its diverse and rich sound, put on headphones. They separate themselves from nature with music. It’s even worse, when these unwanted sounds are offered to unintentional listeners.

Why are modern people, especially younger generations, afraid of silence? Firstly, the excess of sensory stimuli is addictive, similarly to stimulants. The state of arousal can be pleasant, the adrenaline rushing to the head allows you to soar to the heights of mobility and creativity, but after such an effort you should let your body rest.

Secondly, there’s a lot going on in silence on a nuanced level, and that forces you to pay attention – while the noise creeps in at all pores. If you doubt, watch the scene from Marek Piwowski’s “Rejs” (“The Cruise”), when engineer Mamoń plays the “boredom” of Polish films in such a fascinating and comical way that the alleged “nothing-ever-happens” becomes its own contradiction. Maybe it takes the talent of Zdzisław Maklakiewicz (or other outstanding actors) to rediscover the value of silence?

Or maybe… try to remain silent, be in silence, listen to yourself? For the sake of experiment. Because “between silence and silence, things sway”, as Grzegorz Turnau sang. I recommend it as a pre-Easter training.

– Monika Małkowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

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