Much of the emphasis in placemaking today is about creating liveliness, public spaces that attract people. I fully support that goal, especially in cities and in neighborhoods that have been dis-invested and dormant for decades, as so many of our inner city communities have been. I am proud to be part of the grand team of people who cherish robust city markets, squares, and so on. We need more of them.
But, for me at least – maybe it’s an introvert thing? – the places of quiet retreat are every bit as important, and especially so in large, busy cities and dense neighborhoods.
Slamming doors, banging walls, bellowing strangers and whistling neighbors were the bane of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s existence. But it was only in later middle age, after he had moved with his beloved poodle to the commercial hub of Frankfurt, that his sense of being tortured by loud, often superfluous blasts of sound ripened into a philosophical diatribe. Then, around 1850, Schopenhauer pronounced noise to be the supreme archenemy of any serious thinker.
His argument against noise was simple: A great mind can have great thoughts only if all its powers of concentration are brought to bear on one subject, in the same way that a concave mirror focuses light on one point. Just as a mighty army becomes useless if its soldiers are scattered helter-skelter, a great mind becomes ordinary the moment its energies are dispersed.
And nothing disrupts thought the way noise does, Schopenhauer declared, adding that even people who are not philosophers lose whatever ideas their brains can carry in consequence of brutish jolts of sound.
Readings of C.S. Lewis will recognize Lewis’s sympathy with Prochnik’s argument. From The Screwtape Letters:
Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell – though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express – no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.