Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, January 25, 2009

the sound of silence

There appears to be no end in sight of essays deploring what Modern Technology is depriving us of. Some of these are right, but not many of them, and the vast majority that are wrong — or greatly overstated, anyway — go awry because of their lack of historical context. Take this essay by William Deresiewicz in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That's 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she's never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she's never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she'll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value.

I don't think this complaint is wholly misplaced — there is a kind of obsessive connectivity fed by our current social networks — but it’s vital to understand that solitude, like silence, have rarely been available to human beings. Try reading Bruce Smith’s extraordinary (though too jargony) account of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England if you’re prone to think of the pre-industrial Western world as a silent one. Especially in cities, the noise — often literally deafening, in areas where blacksmiths and other craftsmen lived — went on twenty-four hours a day; though of course things were quieter in the countryside.

But not more solitary. In country and city alike, whole families slept in single rooms, often sharing those rooms with animals. Only the enormously wealthy could spread out into multiple rooms. (It’s worth remembering that throughout human history the vast majority of couples have had to have sex in the same room, and often in the same bed, with other people.) And all of these noisy and crowded conditions that we see in our studies of the European past are, of course, present-day realities for many people today; perhaps most humans on the planet.

As Diana Webb has recently shown in her new book Privacy and Solitude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space — reviewed here — medieval Europeans in general simply accepted their lack of “personal space,” but others valued it and desired it sufficiently to retreat from the world, as hermits and anchorites, in order to get it. But these were necessarily special cases. Until the nineteenth century in Europe and other economically developed parts of the world, very few people have been able to find either solitude or silence. (Deresiewicz actually acknowledges this, though without seeming to be aware that such facts compromise his argument.)

If our technologies are making solitude and silence harder to come by, they are merely returning us to the condition of our ancestors and many of our global neighbors. Welcome to the human race, then.

I recently wrote an essay for First Things — not yet online — about a movement in contemporary evangelicalism calling itself “the new monasticism.” But it seems to me that such a movement will truly be like the great traditions of monasticism if its adherents are willing to pay a great price in order to acquire silence and solitude.