By Peter Handke, from The Moravian Night, which was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Handke is the author of more than a dozen novels. Translated from the German by Krishna Winston.
The symposium on noise was held in a conference center located on the Spanish steppe, at the foot of a round hill. No settlement in the immediate vicinity, only a few farmsteads, long since abandoned. The road leading to the center was passable only in a jeep. And then no trace of a “center.” The building looked more like a small round hill at the foot of a large round hill, like its baby, so to speak, also matching its coloration, a mixture of rock, lichen, and sand. The construction seemed to be intended primarily as a kind of camouflage, the architecture obviously aimed at durability, as if meant to withstand a worst-case scenario.
The auditor was one of the few observers, and the only one from far away. When he arrived, it was a dark, clear day. He reached the place in a rented jeep. He had a small suitcase with straps attached to one side so it could be used as a backpack. He had pictured the symposium as a sort of roundtable, with movers and shakers, dignitaries, experts, assorted role-players from around the world, all dressed in suits and ties and each with a lapel pin representing some distinction, the tinier the pin the more distinguished. But those who came together at the foot of the round mound under the banner of noise, he soon understood, were victims above all. And whenever these victims spoke, they did not speak of something they had survived, something they had put behind them. They were permanently damaged by the noise, the tumult, the racket; these were people with incurable wounds.
A quieter place for the symposium could hardly be imagined. The attendees’ persisting symptoms and disorders were — as the discussion leader, apparently the only uninjured one, the only healthy one among them, kept repeating — “phantomatic,” but that, as the victims likewise kept repeating, made them “no less real.” One of the participants was a shepherd, or at least introduced himself as such. Another described himself as a troubadour, a third as a former Carthusian monk. The one who had come from America presented himself as an Indian living on a reservation.
The roundtable participants spoke one after the other and more and more all at once about their sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory problems and misfortunes, as well as their fortunate encounters and adventures with noise, sounds, tones, or silence. Probably the most striking case was that of a man from the suburbs who had attacked his “noise neighbor,” as he called him, with an iron pipe (“I could easily have gone after seven to seventeen others; the authorities should issue noise licenses like gun licenses”) and who had been punished by being locked up in an isolation cell for a year.
All of them had become noise-sick, noise-crazed, homicidal. One participant explained that he was ill, all of them here were ill, spiritually ill, maybe even born with a spiritual deficiency, a mysterious one as yet unstudied — and it was as a result of this illness that noise had become such torment to him, to the others. Sounds previously entirely harmless were experienced as noise attacks, just as newborns wince and go into convulsions when their pacifiers fall on the floor — how long had this been going on?
They agreed that for some reason even the most delicate sound could suddenly assault one raucously and that silence itself could swell at times to a roar from which one wanted to take refuge in an actual racket. Just as certain images refused to let one go, even when one was far removed from them in time and space, a noise one had experienced as evil and hostile could persist inside one long after it had fallen silent in the outside world. People no longer experienced silence. The buzzing one had heard all day long continued buzzing during the night in one’s dreams. The clang of metal on metal pursued one into the desert. “The rumbling, screeching, crashing, ringing, banging will never cease,” sang the itinerant musician — whose hearing, in his own words, was “completely wrecked — the noise gobbles up my love.”
Who was to blame for their illness? They themselves — on this they reached consensus — were not to blame. At one time or another, for all of them, perception of what was going on in the world had primarily taken an auditory form: “Listening — hearing — tuning in.” Even as a child, the noise-deranged shepherd had dropped everything to run to the edge of the woods and sit there quietly, listening to the trees rustle, hour after hour, and he would have given up every game and every book for that, and would still do so — if in the meantime everything, including the leaves’ rustling, had not become evil in his ears. “I was intent from head to toe on listening,” the itinerant musician sang.
He, the auditor, found it notable that the group discussed all these things in an almost cheerful tone, not loudly but also not too softly. The voices remained low-key. During the presentations none of the noise sickness was perceptible — except at those moments when the conference center’s own facilitator intervened: at the sound of his voice, obviously trained, sonorous, mellifluous, and deliberately calming, all the participants noticeably cringed, and one face after another lost its composure. Not that they covered their ears. But you could see their knuckles turn white as they struggled to maintain control. Beads of sweat appeared on not a few brows. The facilitator’s voice was torture to them.
Something else became clear to the auditor as the days passed: the group suffered less from noise and racket than from sounds that at one time had been associated with peacefulness, with reassurance, with healing, with exaltation. Things they had made a point of going to hear when they were children, things that, no matter how remote their location, made them feel connected to what went on in the world, these things they could no longer tolerate: the trickling of water, the roaring of wind and rain, the rustling of snow falling on the branches of wintry bushes. Even crickets breaking the silence by chirping from their holes in the ground now struck them as an attack by the omnipresent harshness (or they experienced the chirping, more innocuously, as the creaking of their own knees), as did the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, now at one’s right ear, now at one’s left, a sound normally inaudible. All it took was words like “trickling,” “rustling,” “rushing,” “rattling,” and the like, and each of them experienced “spiritual anguish” in his own language, not to mention that “murmuring,” from which in earlier times, after neither thunder nor a storm’s roaring had yielded any such thing, had allegedly issued the voice of God. It was not merely that all the sounds that had once been so delicate affected people as soulless; now, instead of having a healing effect, they were actually soul-destroying. The murmuring, of one kind or another, constricted one’s chest and intensified one’s anguish, and instead of the warm feeling caused by a bird’s fluttering or the humming of a lone bicycle’s tires on a country road at night: uncanniness. “Ah, all the reassuring sounds, where have they gone?”
The former monk vowed to silence posed the question. He had left his Carthusian monastery because he could no longer bear the silence, his own and the others’, the communal silence. “Once we had a factory of stillness there, and buildings of silence stood there. But as the years passed, it became a false silence, false stillness. Probably we should not have constantly looked into one another’s eyes. But after a while I no longer noticed the others in the cells next to mine or out in the fields. If I did, it was as coughers, pew-rockers, sandal-scuffers. Our Great Silence was a hoax. Instead of unifying us, it divided us. Instead of helping me meditate, in the end all it led to was a heartless cocking of the ears. More and more I would have preferred the clattering of machines to our pretentious silence, pleasing neither to God nor to anyone else. And do you know where, in my anguish, I sometimes managed to find that other silence, the kind for which I still pine? Less in the kitchen, while I was baking bread, or in the monastery’s vegetable garden, than — how should I put it? — in that quiet spot: the monastery toilets. There, after the worship service with its interminable Gregorian chants that spilled out of both my ears, I could finally take a deep breath and sense a bit of the Veni, Creator Spiritus! I looked forward to the weeks when I was on bathroom duty and would not have minded being the bathroom monk, so to speak, till the end of my days. The rushing there was the old rushing, just as the trickling was the old trickling and the stillness truly a Great Stillness. Has my hearing turned me into a misanthrope? Or into a lover of the world?”
On the last evening, the sound and noise discussants invited the auditor to join them for dinner. In the course of the meal, although initially tongues had clicked and glasses had pinged, a stillness arose in which hardly a slurping or smacking could be heard, let alone a gurgling. To the auditor, it sounded like a melancholy stillness. Everyone around the table would have to return the next day, and each of them alone, to a life-killing world of noise, from which there would be no escape. They would go home to wither away or suddenly run amok. The noise was a system, one that had long since girdled the globe, and the islands of stillness here and there, whether in Europe or elsewhere, were nothing but propaganda, or a commercial offering, a product, or a come-on for a packaged travel deal. Only so long as the sufferers were eating and drinking together were they in safety, albeit a tenuous one.
At the end of the evening meal, there nonetheless arose from the silent, concentrated melancholy a kind of resistance, which spread through the assembled company. It began when the minstrel, or someone, tapped his glass with his knife, perhaps unintentionally. No one was expecting any speeches. No need for anyone to fall silent in the already silent circle. After a while someone, let’s say the former monk, who in any case had involuntarily risen from his seat, launched into a speech, which was then taken up and continued by the shepherd, let’s say, and so forth, until in the end every diner had spoken briefly, each time in harmony with the previous speaker, so that soon it did not matter who was speaking.
This communal speech by the noise-sufferers went more or less this way: “I don’t believe in the Big Bang. But I believe in the Original Sound. For I have dreamed about it. No, that’s a lie. I’ve dreamed about Original Sounds, plural, one and then another. I not only dreamed about them but heard them in broad daylight, and I was perhaps never more awake. The morning opening of window shutters in the neighborhood was one of those Original Sounds. Likewise the rattling and clattering of morning trains and buses passing in quick succession. Likewise distant shouts of ‘Goal! Goal!’ Likewise cries of ecstasy from the next room. The voice of my dying sister on the telephone. The voices of abandoned children in the night. The voices of old men talking in their sleep. Ah, the one sound, the one tone that would silence all the evil ones, that would absorb them, transform them, causing them to fall in step like a marching band. Ah, the days when my hearing could transform the sound of a pinball machine into an oriole’s song. Ah, the time of transformative hearing. Now the opposite is the case: a jay’s cry seems to imitate aluminum foil being ripped, in the call of a magpie I hear my father’s drunken hiccups, and in a blackbird’s trill his embarrassed whistling the next day. When I hear a sparrow, I reach for my telephone, or is the sparrow imitating the telephone? Is it the screeching of a falcon that is imitating a referee’s whistle, or is it I who am? The flapping of wings: a trapdoor being pushed open. Give us this day a different noise, and tomorrow as well. In the current noise I have come close to losing my soul. A single lovable sound, and my soul will be healed. Secrecy: show me the place where you are hidden.”
The following morning, the auditor took a daylong hike through the steppe, a kind of circling and winding up the round mound, his spirals growing smaller as evening drew near.