Silence: In the Age of Noise

Beautifully translated from the Norwegian by Becky Crook, this touches on a lot of issues I have been struggling with lately: how to attain and maximize silence, how to simply sit thinking, wondering how much  technology impede us, how much of a luxury item silence is.

I was enjoying the book until a realization crept up on me. This is written by a man who has little respect for women, including his three teenage daughters whom he belittles at the beginning of the book for wanting such silly items as Louis Vuitton purses and for being teenagers who are stuck in their world of screens (phones, tablets, TVs). Kagge tosses around the usual ragtag list of powerful male minds to let you know how smart he is, how much he gets it—Pascal, Kierkegaard (for some reason specifically called out as a philosopher—does he think we’re too dumb to know this?), David Foster Wallace, Seneca, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Oliver Sacks, Wittgenstein. Beethoven and Thomas Edison get shout outs. No ladies, aside from a seven-word quote from Emily Dickinson: “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” When I think of all the women who could have been referenced who also have insightful, poetic, perfect thoughts on silence (Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, too many others), my mouth gapes. For all the talk about the Nordic world being heaven for women, it sure seems that the literary men have their heads up their asses just as much as in our world. (See also all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work).

But the worst comes in a section where he openly idolizes Elon Musk. Kagge’s adulation is stunning; he hangs on Musk’s every word, he erroneously credits Musk with inventing the idea of a reusable space shuttle (“NASA scientists were always convinced that space shuttles could only be used once, which was a tremendously expensive accepted truth that had lingered since NASA’s early days. This continued all the way up until the moment when Musk informed them that there was no reason not to build a shuttle that could be launched multiple times into space…”) which is mind-mindbogglingly incorrect. He’s so in love with Musk that he digresses into a tale about coming up with the idea to create his own publishing house while washing the dishes, much like how one of Musk’s engineers comes up with his best ideas on the toilet. Ah but, “I am not so stupid as to compare myself to Elon Musk.” Yet he is so stupid enough to worship him.

Now that I’ve released the steam from that valve, here are the parts that I did enjoy, taken with the grain of salt that I question his scholarly chops and extremely lightweight notation style.

    • Being uncomfortable with stillness and silence didn’t arrive with the television, internet or iPhones. Pascal in the 1600s said “all of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But our opportunities to be interrupted have increased dramatically. Silence is almost extinct.
    • On the subject of news, in 1984 he sails for eight months and has no access to newspapers or radio. When he gets back, he realizes that people are still talking about the same old things. “When you’ve invested a lot of time in being accessible and keeping up with what’s happening, it’s easy to conclude that it all has a certain value, even if what you have done might not be that important.”
    • “Another form of luxury is to be unavailable. To turn your back on the daily din is a privilege… You have fought your way into a position where you couldn’t care less if someone wants to contact you.” This reminds me of the NYT piece that alternately fascinated and enraged me, the rich white man who put up a blockade so he wouldn’t hear any news after the disastrous 2016 election.
    • One of my favorite philosophers, Seneca, has some great things to say about life and is quoted in this book:

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.