Speaking with Silence
Book mashup of Silence in the Age of Noise (Erling Kagge) and Consolations of the Forest (Sylvain Tesson)
Early this year, I had the notion of bringing two books I’d recently read to mind and mashing them together. “Mashing them up” means to ponder the lessons of each book in relation to the other book and observe what emerges. Do new insights catalyze as a result of the mashup? Does a book come to have new meaning when compared, contrasted or juxtaposed against the other? Do hidden lessons come to the fore when subjected to reflection inspired by the other book?
In the first mashup, I examined Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes. In this mashup, I appraise Erling Kagge’s Silence in the Age of Noise and Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest.
Overview of the Books
I picked up Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest at Mickey’s, the New Albany, Indiana coffee house-bookstore owned by my friend Mickey Ball this summer and read it almost immediately. The din of modern life rattled Tesson and he sought drastic physical removal from it. He became a hermit in order to transform himself: “I will finally find out if I have an inner life.” He chose an intriguing spot for his mission: Lake Baikal, in the Siberian taiga of Russia, more than 4,000 miles away from his home in Paris. The lake is the deepest freshwater body in the world, more than 5,300 feet deep in places. It is also surrounded by forested mountains, some of which rise more than 6,500 above the lake’s surface. For a trip in which he aimed metaphorically to plumb the depths of his soul and reach new heights of understanding and peace, he could not have found a better situation. Tesson spent six months in his cabin by the lake, reading, chopping wood, tidying his space, cooking, smoking cigars, drinking lots of tea and vodka, and writing in his journal.
Re-reading Silence in the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge makes me wish I had jotted down notes about how I found this book. Amazon, helpfully, informs me that I purchased the book on October 25, 2021. I keep a roughly chronological list of books I read each year. That list tells me the book was the fourth book I finished in 2022. But I haven’t maintained notes on how I learned about the books. I cannot for the life of me remember how I found out about Kaage and his books – now a wistfully treasured piece of nostalgia lost to the ironically silent factoids of my life. Sigh.
Kagge – the first person to reach the “Three Poles” on foot – North Pole, South Pole and summit of Mount Everest – explores silence in a philosophically practical way. He lifts up from the level of tips (or heaven help us, hacks) and delves into the place of silence in our lives today, how we’ve gotten to that place, and why that place leaves a great deal to be desired.
Beginnings: Tiring of the World, and Wonder
Kagge and Tesson come into their subjects in vastly different ways. Tesson had tired of the world. He arrived in Irkutsk, the closest city to the cabin in which he will live and bought groceries:
“The Heinz company sells around fifteen kinds of tomato sauce. The supermarket in Irkutsk stocks them all and I don’t know which to choose….Fifteen kinds of ketchup. That’s the sort of thing that made me want to withdraw from this world.”
He went to the taiga as a deliberate bulwark from civilization. He lives in the taiga, and yet his engagement seems strangely superficial. He trucked in loads of supplies – he took more than two pages to list them all. Then it took him three pages to list the more than 70 books he brought with him. Yes, a man after my own heart, but also a startling contrast with, say, Henry David Thoreau, who brought only a few books to Walden Pond, including the Bhagavad Gita. Thoreau may have lived closer to civilization at Walden than Tesson on Lake Baikal, but his life seemed remoter.
Upon arrival at his cabin on the lake, Tesson takes that supremely modern Western action: he remodels.
“For two days, with Arnaud’s help, I tear off the linoleum, oilcloth, polyester tarp and adhesive plastic papers that cover the walls. We crowbar our way through cardboard panels. Stripped clean, the interior reveals logs pearled with resin and a pale yellow wood floor, like that of Van Gogh’s room in Arles. Volodya watches us in consternation. He does not see that the bare, amber-coloured wood is more beautiful to the eye than oilcloth. He listens as I explain this to him. I am the bourgeois defending the superiority of parquet floor over linoleum. Aestheticism is a form of reactionary deviance. We have brought two yellow pine double-paned windows from Irkutsk to replace the cabin windows, which shed a dreary light. Sergei enlarges the embrasures by cutting the logs with a chainsaw, working hectically, non-stop, without calculating the angles, correcting the mistakes he makes in his haste as he goes along.”
Tesson needs the perfect conditions to seek his peace. A picturesque, remote setting, but with an updated, open floor plan, well-lit abode filled with the savories, sweets and contrivances of his Parisian home, including “Electronic appliances,” vodka and cigars. And he remembered to bring a “French flag for Bastille day.”
Kagge begins at the beginning of all philosophy – wonder. “Questions and answers, questions and answers. Wonder is the very engine of life.” Kagge does not seek silence or peace in distant lands. He ponders them in the here and now, and finds them already waiting for him. He writes that he asks questions about silence “more for myself than anyone else.” True, but he engages with himself and the world – his inner life and external reality – as he asks and answers. He starts this engagement with stories of re-introducing silence to two audiences: his daughters and a lecture he gave:
“Not long ago, I tried convincing my three daughters that the world’s secrets are hidden inside silence. We were sitting around the kitchen table eating Sunday dinner….The girls looked at me sceptically. Surely silence is… nothing? Even before I was able to explain the way in which silence can be a friend, and a luxury more valuable than any of the Louis Vuitton bags they so covet, their minds had been made up: silence is fine to have on hand when you’re feeling sad. Beyond that, it’s useless….For once there was silence around the table. One of our mobile phones pinged with an incoming message, but none of us thought to check our phones just then. Instead, we filled the silence with ourselves.
“Not long afterwards, I was invited to give a lecture at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. I was to choose the subject myself. I tended to talk about extreme journeys to the ends of the earth, but this time my thoughts turned homewards, to that Sunday supper with my family. So I settled on the topic of silence….I began the lecture with a moment of silence. You could have heard a pin drop. It was stock-still. For the next seventeen minutes I spoke about the silence around us, but I also spoke about something that is even more important to me, the silence within us. The students remained quiet. Listening. It seemed as though they had been missing silence.”
Both Tesson and Kagge write of silence as a luxury. For Tesson, it is a luxury for him to escape civilization and seek his peace. After all, how many people can retire from life for six months and move to the faraway Russian taiga? But Tesson must make the trip in order to purchase this luxury. Kagge understands something nuanced about luxury that sheds light on why Tesson brought so much stuff with him to Lake Baikal:
“I believe silence is the new luxury…silence is also an understated luxury. The pursuit of luxury is first and foremost about attaining something by continually adding to it. More, more. The dopamine in the heads of customers means they constantly crave more. Silence, on the other hand, is about taking away, subtracting something.”
Curiously, Kagge can find silence in distant lands, but he has learned that he need not pursue silence elsewhere. Indeed, it is with him anywhere, anyplace:
“Whenever I am unable to walk, climb or sail away from the world, I have learned to shut it out. Learning this took time. Only when I understood that I had a primal need for silence was I able to begin my search for it – and there, deep beneath a cacophony of traffic noise and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snow ploughs, it lay in waiting for me. Silence.”
Tesson needs a big wind-up to attempt to attain silence. In Kagge, it is available here, now. A curiously abundant luxury, if we see it as such.
Life on the Surface
For someone seeking solitude, Tesson seems to have plenty of visitors. He hikes to see them and they travel to see him. In one sense, what a potent commentary on humans as social creatures – even at a distance of dozens of miles away, the “neighbors” reach out for one another. In another view, these visitors clearly disrupt Tesson’s silence. The gathering often results in feverish drinking sessions:
“Sergei cuts the engine and we down a glass in the humid silence. We’ve been drinking for hours and are soused. Sprawled over the gas cans and fishing nets, sucking on my cigarette, heading through fog in a boat with a drunken captain, I feel reassured. Having lost my lover, I have nothing more to lose. Misfortune casts off ties. Happiness is an obstacle to serenity. When I was happy, I was afraid of unhappiness.”
The drunken boat ride becomes an analogy for this missed moment in Tesson’s life and a prominent theme of the book. He skirts along the surface, oblivious to the wondrous depths right below.
Kagge quotes the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse:
“Perhaps it’s because silence goes together with wonder, but it also has a kind of majesty to it, yes, like an ocean, or like an endless snowy expanse.”
Silence has a majesty to it – like an ocean or endless snowy expanse – or like one of the world’s largest lakes surrounded by an expanse of snow-covered mountains.
“And whoever does not stand in wonder at this majesty fears it. And that is why many are afraid of silence (and why there is music everywhere, everywhere).”
Reading Tesson in the light of Kagge, I viewed vodka in the place of music. It pervades Tesson’s life by the lake. Ultimately, Tesson feared silence and solitude. The book ends on ideas polarized from notions of peace and silence: machined noise, living at the surface and dread:
“The morning has the taste of death, the taste of departure. The dogs look up. A faint rumbling, confirmed: the boat. A dot grows larger and larger on the horizon. One last time.”
In the end, he writes that he found peace in his travels, but the reader does not perceive peace. There can be no peace with fear.
My dominant thought in this mashup is that Tesson would have learned a great deal from reading Kagge, but Kagge little from reading Tesson. That’s ungenerous. Put more kindly, Kagge appears as Tesson’s older, wiser brother – thoughtful and quiet, as befits the subject matter. Perhaps, though, like Tesson, we must pursue the luxury of silence in our own way to begin to come to the lessons of Kagge.
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