Jodie Noel Vinson
Translated by Becky L. Cook. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2017. 160 pages. $19.95.
“What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever?” Erling Kagge’s Silence, In the Age of Noise, translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook, opens with this series of linked questions. His reply comes in the form of thirty-three vignettes, interspersed with vivid, full-color images, which meditate on the experience of silence: what it evokes, what noises in modern life—such as the internet and social media—threaten to interrupt it, and what value it holds in his own life. A Norwegian explorer and publisher, Kagge has written six previous books on exploration, philosophy, and art. With Silence, he deploys a quiet, inquisitive prose that brings to mind the work of his compatriot Karl Ove Knausgaard as he dives deep into his subject with a singular focus.
Silence can take many shapes. To the insomniac, silence can be an enemy. While the noise of technology and the devices we surround ourselves with can keep us from sleep, quiet can also weigh heavily on an active mind. When he was young, Kagge describes a sleep disrupted by silence. “I lay there in my cot, tormented by silence,” he writes. “It was like having a nightmare and being awake at the same time.”
One reason we fear silence, according to Kagge, is because it can speak. When we don’t want to listen, we tend to engage in activities that keep silence at bay, from texting to turning on the radio. Kagge quotes the Norwegian poet John Fosse, who describes silence “like an ocean, or like an endless snowy expanse.” Those who don’t stand in awe of the sheer majesty of silence fear it. That is why, according to Fosse, “there is music everywhere, everywhere.”
But more often than not, the silence Kagge describes is an elusive friend, a state close to wonder, and something he has spent his life tracking. “We live in the age of noise,” Kagge laments. “Silence is almost extinct.” As an explorer, Kagge advocates a full pursuit of silence. “You must create your own,” he writes.
Kagge’s book is most powerful when he is writing about what might seem, paradoxically, like the noisier parts of life: his adventures as an explorer. Kagge was the first person to reach all three of the earth’s “poles” (the third being the summit of Mt. Everest), and his book describes his adventures in each of these extreme destinations as well as some of his urban explorations in New York City. The author’s experiences allow him to compare the silence at the top of the highest mountain on Earth with that experienced in the depths of New York City’s sewage system.
Outside of the book’s more poignant moments, Kagge’s language at times falls into the trite phrases of the self-help genre—clichés that banish rather than evoke silence. The author runs the risk of writing about a subject so expansive and elusive that it becomes several things at once. When silence is both joy and boredom, self-knowledge and wonder as well as eternity—in other words, when it becomes too many things, or really anything other than itself—then silence, by definition, no longer exists.
Even if it is so tenuous it disappears as soon as we say its name, silence can be experienced in a vicarious sort of way, and it is at the moments when Kagge manages to transmit one of his own encounters with silence to the reader that his book succeeds. He describes the constant noise he was surrounded with while trekking across the Arctic: the rumble of floating bergs, the creak of thin ice that crackles under footstep. When a small plane drops an unexpected box of provisions at the North Pole, the chaos of the natural elements is contrasted with the moment of silence he and his fellow explorer observe before ravenously consuming the fortuitous meal.
Kagge writes simply of his solo ski to the South Pole without a radio, noting “the nuanced hues of the snow. The wind abating. Formations of clouds. Silence.” Later, he envisions a man in the moon peering down on his progress across the ice. Then he imagines the man in the moon observing the bustle of the everyday lives of those further north. To the man in the moon, Kagge’s illustration points out, both experiences are silent, both held in the same gaze. “As I released my ski-bindings that evening to pitch camp,” he writes, “I felt calmer and more content.”
Or consider the scientists and maintenance workers Kagge describes at a South Pole research station, most of whom had been living there for months, isolated from the rest of the world and surrounded by a landscape of snow and ice. Imagine, then, the Christmas that someone smuggled in one rock for each of these workers. Hear the silence that descended as the bits of earth were received. “Everyone sat gazing at and feeling their stone,” writes Kagge. “Holding it in their hands, feeling its weight, without uttering a word.”
By the end of the book, the reader is left wanting more of these tangible evocations of silence and less commentary on the concept. Even the philosophers, poets, and entrepreneurs Kagge draws on to inform his subject, from Seneca to Kierkegaard to Elon Musk, begin to feel like just one more voice in a crowd—in other words, noise.
The simple images of photographs and paintings inserted between Kagge’s meditative essays come closer, enhanced by a passage the author devotes to the silence that visual art can open. “Maybe I stay silent in front of art because I feel that I am separated from something every single day,” Kagge muses, “and art reminds me of that.” When asked to explain his paintings, the artist Mark Rothko refused, protesting that “silence is so accurate.” An accurate representation of silence in a book like Kagge’s is one that applies itself to the reader’s imagination. By engaging the mind in a sensory experience, a book absorbs the sounds of the outside world. We are, after all, living in an age of noise. What one wants, we can all agree with Kagge, is more silence.