A Translation of the Silence


The title of this post is from a quote by former American Poet Laureate Charles Simic: “Poetry is a translation of the silence.” Of all the many things I use to describe poetry (cribbed from other, better, writers) that feels like the ‘right’ one and it goes a long way to explaining the importance and necessity of silence.

The trouble we have is defining what silence is, because it sure as hell isn’t a total absence of sound. That’s just bizarre. There are sound proof rooms where no ambient noise exists but what people have found is when this occurs you start to hear the noise of your joints moving and your digestive tract squelching and when you are stood in the wilderness far from any habitation or car noise what you hear is quieter but certainly not ‘Silent’: You hear trees rustling, the breeze, birds, your own breathing, etc. In fact the only place where sound would be completely absent would be outer space and you could not survive in the vacuum long enough to perceive that phenomena. Deaf people may be the only people fully qualified to explain the idea of silence but even then it has been pointed out by people with this disability that even they feel vibrations that they interpret as sound but without the refined perception someone with hearing can sense. As such, no one has experienced ‘true’ silence, what we experience is simply the quiet as a juxtaposition of loudness.

Its amazing how loud everyday life is to that end; a constant barrage of sound that it takes a lifetime to filter out. People who were born deaf then given cochlea implants normally have to turn off the device regularly as the overwhelming sensory overload of constant sound can be painful. Equally people with tinitus who are burdened with a constant whine in their ear can find that unbearable. From this sort of anecdotal evidence we can tell that sound is a major factor of human experience, like any of our senses, but it seems to me it is the one we are least aware of. Or at least the one we pay less attention to day to day. Sight tends to be the one we focus on most (pun intended). Why is that?

Whilst it seems like an asinine and obvious observation that “hearing is, like, really important and stuff”, the reason I’ve been thinking about this was that I was house sitting recently for a friend who needed me to look after their dog while they were on holiday. While I was there I didn’t really do a lot except read and write and play a computer game. Now, day to day, I try to drown out the silence of my own life either with music, conversation, the idle prattling of a podcast or the radio etc and I rarely leave the house without my headphones in so my life tends to be ‘aurally dense’ to use a poncey term. But for this week of house sitting for one reason or another I spent the week in quiet. There was no stereo, I had no computer to use, I didn’t want to play around with their radio or anything so by and large just wrote and read in quiet then took the dog out for a walk twice a day. This amounted to almost a week of very little external sound which was actually a little disorientating. Far from being a distraction the sound is normally put there as audio wallpaper to help me focus on things and think, my own thoughts tend to wander and for some reason music in particular keeps me focussed. As such the proverbial Silence that ensued was pretty distracting to me when I was inside the house. On the flip side whilst taking the dog for a walk I had forgotten how nice listening to the sounds of the world was and how stimulating it can be. But it certainly wasn’t ‘silent’, just a lot quieter.

Something else I did whilst I was there was played through the game ‘The Last of Us’ (which I may review in full at a later date) and one of the things it did really really well was sound design. The most jarring difference to most AAA games was the almost total absence of score. With no music telling you when to be sad, scared, pumped, happy or safe you are forced to pay closer attention and in a game where a lot of it is sneaking around and a game mechanic based around ‘listening’ to the movement of enemies, that is an incredibly effective choice. I lost count of the times I was clenching my teeth and holding my own breath as a guard trudged, heavy footed past me. It also extended to quieter moments too, the sound of conversation from another room, the birds in the sky, distant gunfire, rain, wind, all given unique audio that really gives you a sense of space and place. The other game I thought achieved this most effectively was possibly my Favourite Game Ever, Half-Life 2. What this does most effectively is creates gaps, it isn’t just a constant wall of sound, never letting up at any moment but allows pauses for breath and therefore heightens the tension; sudden gunfire or a shout can really make you jump. I also went to the cinema to see a film called Ex Machina which also uses the loud/quiet dynamic very well. It all amounted to reminding me of an interview with one of the sound team from Pixar who described sound as being the part of a film that “enters through the back door”. You don’t notice it but you would if it was done badly or wasn’t there. One thing you learn when making films or videos is that an audience will tolerate a bad picture, they will not tolerate bad sound. Screw up the audio and you lose your audience immediately.

So being a Viner I decided to translate this to social media. My friend Mark Dudlik does a challenge on Vine where he does a 100 day project where he makes 100 posts over 100 days on a given topic/tag. I did a wussy version of this by doing a 60 day challenge which I dubbed 60DaysofSilence. It’s finished now and you can search them all on Vine, a few other people joined in as well. What it proved to me was that absolute silence cannot exist so I simply made the rule that I could not speak. I could only create ‘silence’ by not adding to the sound already existing in the world. This, in turn, scared me, because that is truly what silence is: not allowing someone a voice. So many people are made silent or feel they should be silent in the world today because it is so noisy already but equally we (who make all the noise) should really be listening because as the saying goes “90 percent of communication is non-verbal”. People crying for help or feeling lost or alone are telling us this every day in a variety of ways but because they don’t say it out loud we don’t listen. Ironically you don’t even need your ears for that.

Death is the Great Silencer. No one is more quiet that in death and whilst that is a bleak notion it relates to the previous paragraph because we’ve just seen several migrants (immigrants to many) drown in the sea without rescue. Their pleas for help were ignored and they fled, their voice was silent. Now many of them are dead and just as silent, just as ignored. Yet we can have chitinous, self-luminescent, 12 legged creatures of the deep spewing slugs, worms and bile from her vertical, razor toothed jaw like Katie Hopkins who has the loudest voice writ large in national print heard by thousands and it is this latter shoggoth that we listen to and are most upset and offended by. It would be easy for me to say that Hopkins should be ‘silenced’ but personally I think that thief has more than enough rope to hang herself with if she is allowed to keep her voice. What we should be doing is listening better and using OUR OWN voice, that small thing we have on a piece of paper that involves us in these affairs, to make these plights heard and help create a more attentive and compassionate civilisation. Even if, as most revolutionaries say, “we will not stay quiet any longer” people have to listen for change to happen.

Silence, like everything, is relative, it boils down to what YOU are hearing. If you want people to hear: Be louder (vote). And then, start listening.



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