The Longform Guide to Silence

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
July 13 2013 7:30 AM

Silence!

The Longform guide to meditation, famous recluses, and the quietest square inch in America.

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People meditate atop the Sun Pyramid during a ceremony for the new Sun at the Teotihuacan archaeological site, state of Mexico.

Photo by Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

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Kathleen Dean Moore • Orion • November 2008

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A trip to one of America’s quietest places with a man who has dedicated his life to keeping it that way.

“On Earth Day, 2005, Gordon marked the site with a small red stone, and this tiny space of silence he vowed to defend. He has asked Congress to designate a square inch of silence in ten other national parks as well. ‘Think about finding one place in a park that you can visit, where there will be no trucks heard, no planes flying over, no man-made machinery, no human noise,’ he says. ‘Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?’

“It’s a powerful idea. As Gordon knows, sound travels. If he can protect the silence of even an inch, he calculates that, in effect, he will be protecting the natural soundscape of approximately one thousand square miles of surrounding land. It’s a first step toward his goal of preventing the extinction of silence.”

J.D. Salinger: The Man in the Glass House
Ron Rosenbaum • Esquire • June 1997

A pilgrimage to Salinger’s New Hampshire home.

“Just being here, at the bottom of the driveway, just beyond the verge of the property line, feels like a trespass of some kind. This is not just private property. It is the property of the most private man in America, perhaps the last private person in America. The silence surrounding this place is not just any silence. It is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of renunciation and determination and expensive litigation. It is a silence of self-exile, cunning, and contemplation. In its own powerful, invisible way, the silence is in itself an eloquent work of art. It is the Great Wall of Silence J.D. Salinger has built around himself.

“It is not a passive silence, it's a palpable, provocative silence. It's the kind of silence people make pilgrimages to witness, to challenge. It's a silence we both respect and resent, a lure and a reproof. Something draws us to it, makes us interrogate it, test it.

Solitude and Leadership
William Deresiewicz • American Scholar • April 2010

A speech on the value of being alone with your thoughts, delivered to the plebe class at West Point.

“Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?”

The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Michael Finkel • Men’s Journal • August 2012

A trip to India for total silence.

“These are my final words: ‘Why a camp chair?’ I speak them to a man named Wade. Wade from Minnesota. I'm in line behind him, waiting to enter the Dhamma Giri meditation center, in the quiet hill country of western India, for the official start of the 10-day course. Wade tells me that this is his second course and that he learned a valuable lesson from the first. ‘I'm so glad I have this,’ he says, indicating the small folding camp chair tucked under his arm. I utter my last question. It's never answered. One of the volunteers approaches, puts a finger to his lips, and the silence begins.

“Not just silence. I have— we all have—signed a pledge to observe what's called "noble silence." This means no speaking, no gestures, no eye contact. 'You must live here,' we're told, 'as if you're completely alone.' There is also no exercise permitted, except walking. No cellphones. No computers. No radios. No pens or paper. No books, pamphlets, or magazines. Nothing at all to read. There will be only two simple vegetarian meals a day. My suitcase, with my phone and laptop, is locked away in the meditation center's office. I have just a day bag, with a couple of toiletries, a med kit, and a single change of clothes. I'm wearing sandals and sweatpants and a loose T-shirt.

Searching for Silence
Alex Ross • The New Yorker • October 2010

John Cage’s art of noise.

“On August 29, 1952, David Tudor walked onto the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, sat down at the piano, and, for four and a half minutes, made no sound. He was performing ‘4'33",’ a conceptual work by John Cage. It has been called the ‘silent piece,’ but its purpose is to make people listen. ‘There’s no such thing as silence,’ Cage said, recalling the première. ‘You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.’ Indeed, some listeners didn’t care for the experiment, although they saved their loudest protests for the question-and-answer session afterward. Someone reportedly hollered, ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!’ Even Cage’s mother had her doubts. At a subsequent performance, she asked the composer Earle Brown, ‘Now, Earle, don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?’

“This past July, the pianist Pedja Muzijevic included ‘4'33" ’ in a recital at Maverick, which is in a patch of woods a couple of miles outside Woodstock. I went up for the day, wanting to experience the piece in its native habitat. The hall, made primarily of oak and pine, is rough-hewn and barnlike. On pleasant summer evenings, the doors are left open, so that patrons can listen from benches outside. Muzijevic, mindful of the natural setting, chose not to use a mechanical timepiece; instead, he counted off the seconds in his head. Technology intruded all the same, in the form of a car stereo from somewhere nearby. A solitary bird in the trees struggled to compete with the thumping bass. After a couple of minutes, the stereo receded. There was no wind and no rain. The audience stayed perfectly still. For about a minute, we sat in deep, full silence. Muzijevic broke the spell savagely, with a blast of Wagner: Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from ‘Tristan und Isolde.’ Someone might as well have started up a chainsaw. I might not have been the only listener who wished that the music of the forest had gone on a little longer.

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy
Joshua Foer • Esquire • October 2008

Silent since a car accident nine years before, Erik Ramsey prepares to speak again.

“When Erik thinks about puckering his mouth into an o or stretching his lips into an e, a unique pattern of neurons fires—even though his body doesn't respond. It's like flicking switches that connect to a burned-out bulb. The electrode implant picks up the noisy firing signals of about fifty different neurons, amplifies them, and transmits them across Erik's skull to two small receivers glued to shaved spots on the crown of his head. Those receivers then feed the signal into a computer, which uses a sophisticated algorithm to compare the pattern of neural firings to a library of patterns Kennedy recorded earlier. It takes about fifty milliseconds for the computer to figure out what Erik is trying to say and translate those thoughts into sound.

“This is the hardest work Erik does all week, and after three hours he's fading. Despite the dissolved Provigil capsule that he ingested through his feeding tube at the beginning of the session, his eyes are starting to close. Kennedy promises him that if he can do one more round of testing, he'll play the Headbangers Ball CD, one of Erik's favorites. This seems to reenergize him. He tries uh-ih again, and this time guides the cursor precisely from hut to hit. The deep Southern drawl that fills the room is actually a digitized sampling of Eddie's voice. (Kennedy and Guenther figured it was as close as they'd be able to get to Erik's own.) Nobody would ever mistake these simple vowel sounds for language, but they're just the first steps. This fall, a new decoder that Guenther is developing will allow Erik to form consonants as well. The goal: full sentences within five years.”


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Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.