"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Sound Of Absolute Silence–How Perceptions Of Noise And Its Absence Define Identity

There was always the politics.  No Easter dinner was ever without them.  Uncle Harry, ambling to the table like a cowboy because of his bunions, had barely put his napkin in his lap before he started yapping on about the Democrats, socialism, and the decline of the white majority.  Leona always sat him at the far end of the table, considerably far from her since there were always at least fifteen for her antipasto, ziti, ham pies, roast lamb, corn fritters and cheesecake; but not far enough.  His barking became worse the more Lambrusco he drank, and even though Leona had seated ‘coolers’ on both sides of him – cousins rewarded by special Easter gifts of crisp new $20 bills in  holiday envelopes cut out so that the portrait of Andrew Jackson, shock-haired and eagle-looking showed through – Uncle Harry kept it up  through the last of the lamb when he was too drunk to make any sense and too spent to continue on.  The cousins helped him to the sofa in the study where he slept until his brother Joe woke him and took him home.

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Perhaps it was those dinners which, to the dismay of her parents, had attracted Angie to the Order of Saint Jeanne de Chantal in the Adirondacks.  It wasn’t so much the life of silent prayer which had drawn her to the sisterhood, but the idea of silence itself.  ‘Silence is golden’, her mother had always said; but Aunt Leona’s Easter dinners were nothing compared to her own family meals – two older brothers, a whiny, spoiled younger sister, a father more loud and obnoxious than Uncle Harry had ever been, and a frustrated, depressive mother who only sat dark, brooding, and glowering at the wholly unpleasant, rude, and mannerless family she felt she had created. 

It was just like Angie to overreact. There were more ways out of the grossness of her family than a convent.  Marriage, for example.  She had been told many times by her mother that she had good legs and a good future if she played her cards right; and there was no want of boys from the neighborhood whose families would be delighted to have Angie as a daughter-in-law.  Despite what her mother thought, the Grillos were a step up from the rest of the families in the East End who never made it far from Wooster Street, the old Italian ghetto of New Haven now gentrified and diverse but in its day, except for cold winters, little different from the poor neighborhoods of Sorrento and Amalfi from which the first immigrants came in the 1880s.  The tenements on Wooster Street all smelled of coal oil, mothballs, and garlic; and dinners were not what the old folks recollected – lovely summer evenings outside on terraces overlooking the Mediterranean – but cramped, angry, noisy affairs that always ended badly.  No, the Grillos always had money, enterprise, and English; and left far more of the old neighborhood behind than any of the neighbors.

Little of this mattered to Angie, a sensitive, intelligent girl who saw the whole kit and caboodle as a noisy, ugly affair and wanted to get as far away from it all as possible.  She entered the convent at 18, remained a novitiate until 19, never took her vows, and left after little more than a year’s internment – the term she used for that awful place of brutish nuns and lesbians who got on her nerves more because they abused the cover of silence to sneak into her bed at night than what they did among themselves.  Sister Mary Joseph, the Mother Superior of the convent was a petty autocrat; a sadist who was as far as possible from Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, or Mary, mother of James, or any of the other Marys in the Bible let alone the Virgin Mary herself.  She was a a nasty, mean-spirited cunt who liked punishment. 

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Silence became for Angie a worse fate than the noisy dog kennel in which she had been brought up.   After those silent, penitential months with Mother Superior and the greedy lesbians of the Order of Saint Jeanne de Chantal, she was happy to go back to the East end, consider marriage, and get on with life.  Yet the welcoming celebration for her return – a drunken, brawling, grossly overfed affair complete with balloons, ribbons, and a band – made her wonder if there was any way out.  Life simply couldn’t be quite so black and white, so rude and unwashed on the one hand and so perversely silent on the other. 

Her mother and father were grateful for her return; but only loosening the traces would work.  Despite their wishes for her to remain in New Brighton, get a job on Main Street, and move into an Arch Street duplex which they would buy for her, she demurred, and went to New York, ironically the noisiest city in America; but one where the incessant noise became silent.  The individual sounds of delivery trucks, jack hammers, car horns, police sirens, subways cancelled each other out.  Staccatos, glissandos, legato, and portamento disappeared and the silence was more complete than any other.

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There have been psychological studies done on ‘loud silence’ and how, for example, a busy cafeteria can be more conducive to concentration than a library.  Background noise seems to be a sealant, isolating thought and enabling concentration.  The ticking of a clock in a silent room, although unobtrusive, and barely audible, becomes a distraction and an irritation.  One hears only the clock and not one’s thoughts.  A cafeteria’s cacophony hides the clock, the individual and sporadic rattle of dishes, a loud patron’s laugh.

Into Great Silence is a film about Carthusian monks who live in an Alpine monastery in complete silence.  In the ordered and regimented routines of the day, there are no extraneous activities and no disturbance.  All monks engage in silent prayer at the same time.  There is no other activity.  Yet their concentration is disciplined and undisturbed because their silent prayers become audible only to them.  The repetition of practiced prayers occludes the distractive element of complete silence.  The monks have found the same compromise as Angie did in New York.

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‘The silence is deafening’, says the New Yorker on his first trip to the country.  Silence is as disconcerting and disruptive as the noise of the city to a newcomer.  Silence and noise are relative concepts, each with a spectrum of possibilities.  The loneliest place in the world, it is said, is a big anonymous city.  The noise becomes an irritating reminder that a person alone makes no sound, contributes nothing, exists without connection and context.  Long periods of complete silence in an isolated, hermitic existence can cause confusion, anxiety, and madness.  Complete silence is deafening because the sound of blood rushing through the ears is relatively as loud as Niagara Falls.

Angie’s need for silence was a need for social distance.  It wasn’t the din; it was the people making it – her boisterous brothers; her loud uncle; her incoherent teachers; Father Brophy’s interminable sermons; her mothers’ bridge club.  Her irritation at noise, her need for silence, and her months in the convent were all tentative, temporary stops on the road to sorting herself out.  A New York silence – an incorporation individual noises so complete that they became indistinguishable and uniformly loud like the sound of rushing blood heard in a perfectly silent space – was real and metaphoric.  People were insignificant as individuals and even more insignificant as part of the city; but she could pick and choose.  She could make them relevant.

The city was an inseparable and undifferentiated thing until she tired of uniformity and willed a part into being.

She went back to New Brighton for Easter dinner at Aunt Leona’s.  Nothing had changed – the corn fritters, lasagna, ham pies, and nougat candy were as good as ever.  Uncle Harry was as loud and offensive as ever; and the Lehman brothers just as insufferable; but this time she made their noise go in and out of focus like the random banging of New York.  Neither uncle Harry nor the Lehman brothers mattered, nor did Leona, her Easter table, the Broxton twins, or the dog across the street.

Out of curiosity she returned to the convent for a visit.  She was welcomed by Mother Superior who barely recognized her; and was encouraged to join her former sisters in silent prayer in the chapel.  The scent of incense from the eleven o’clock high mass still lingered in foyer and near the altar; Father Brophy and the altar boys could be heard changing in the vestry; but gradually silence grew as the novitiates took their seats and knelt to pray.  After a few minutes and after the nuns had settled, the silence was deafening.

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