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A History of Silence. By Alain Corbin. Translated by Jean Birrell. Polity; 147 pages; $19.95 and £14.99.

Silence: In the Age of Noise. By Erling Kagge. Translated by Becky Crook. Pantheon; 160 pages; $19.95. Viking; £9.99

A THEME of the age, at least in the developed world, is that people crave silence and can find none. The roar of traffic, the ceaseless beep of phones, digital announcements in buses and trains, TV sets blaring even in empty offices, are an endless battery and distraction. The human race is exhausting itself with noise and longs for its opposite—whether in the wilds, on the wide ocean or in some retreat dedicated to stillness and concentration. Alain Corbin, a history professor, writes from his refuge in the Sorbonne, and Erling Kagge, a Norwegian explorer, from his memories of the wastes of Antarctica, where both have tried to escape.

And yet, as Mr Corbin points out in “A History of Silence”, there is probably no more noise than there used to be. Before pneumatic tyres, city streets were full of the deafening clang of metal-rimmed wheels and horseshoes on stone. Before voluntary isolation on mobile phones, buses and trains rang with conversation. Newspaper-sellers did not leave their wares in a mute pile, but advertised them at top volume, as did vendors of cherries, violets and fresh mackerel. The theatre and the opera were a chaos of huzzahs and barracking. Even in the countryside, peasants sang as they drudged. They don’t sing now.

What has changed is not so much the level of noise, which previous centuries also complained about, but the level of distraction, which occupies the space that silence might invade. There looms another paradox, because when it does invade—in the depths of a pine forest, in the naked desert, in a suddenly vacated room—it often proves unnerving rather than welcome. Dread creeps in; the ear instinctively fastens on anything, whether fire-hiss or bird call or susurrus of leaves, that will save it from this unknown emptiness. People want silence, but not that much.

The fundamental fact, Mr Corbin contends, is that silence is not just the absence of noise. It is something in itself. For some writers it has substance, like sand that blocks the ears or water slipping over the body. For others it is a counter-sound, the “still small voice” Elijah heard after a tumult of wind and storm, or the speaking silence heard by Percy Bysshe Shelley on Mont Blanc. It may also be, as Rilke wrote, a medium through which we enter the hidden reality of things. Through the silence of Keats’s Grecian vase, the reader comes to vanished songs; through the stones that Mr Kagge keeps on his desk, as he explains in “Silence”, he enters a deep mineral existence laid down across aeons of time.

Or silence may open listeners up to the unknown reality of themselves: to a universe within as infinite as the stars. With good reason, that is what humankind may be afraid of. It has taken mystics to brave it: St John of the Cross venturing into the noche oscura in which the soul meets the Lover, or the writer of the Chandogya Upanishad, “meditating on this visible world as beginning, ending and breathing in the brahman”. Like a deep dive, engaging with silence is an act of faith.

For all his academic confidence, Mr Corbin himself sometimes seems reluctant to plumb those depths. Otherwise he would not spend so much time merely quoting writers who use the word “silent” of a church, a wood or a grey Belgian street. He spends several chapters dealing with what might be called “social silence”: the dumbstruck or mannerly holding of the tongue, the practice of mentally removing oneself. The paintings he chooses as illustrations are of this kind of silence, which comes from the remoteness of others: estranged customers in an absinthe bar, lovers lost in thought, or Edward Hopper’s “Gas”, in which a station attendant goes about his work at dusk, mute as the pumps. Mr Kagge, whose own silences are usually quick, self-imposed absentings in the car, in the bath or at family mealtimes, prefers photographs—of the sky, mountains, space—which, instead of expressing silence, reduce readers to it.

Pictures may well do better than words, which silence transcends. As Maurice Blanchot, a French philosopher, puts it in a formulation Mr Corbin cites, the writer tries to build “a sea wall of paper against an ocean of silence”. At times it may be best just to pause. The notes left out, the phrase unresolved, the words left hanging, are often eloquent, but not in a way that can be explained. The best evocations of silence in literature are those in which the word is never uttered—Rilke’s loving descriptions of rose petals laid on eyelids, or the closing sentence of James Joyce’s “Dubliners”:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

In his best chapter, Mr Corbin speculates on silence as the medium from which words come: as light and creation in the traditional tellings emerged out of darkness, or as most people still find it essential to think and write in quiet. On the other hand, as Mr Kagge points out, for both Plato and Aristotle knowledge of the eternal and of truth lay where words stop.

It may hardly seem worth the candle, then, to keep pursuing silence with nets of words. And yet it is therapeutic. To write about it provides the illusion that it is within our control, like breathing; that we can admit it for a while, as in a moment of wordless wonder at morning frost or a blossoming tree, and then return to our blaring world refreshed and wiser. For frantic moderns, silence also seems part of the comfort offered by primitive or eternal things. But it seethes with fathomless challenge, like the unspeaking sea.