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Erling Kagge on silence

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Erling Kagge, Photo: Lars Petter Pettersen

The Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge published his new book in 2017, Silence: In the Age of Noise, in which he explores the meaning of silence from psychological, philosophical and everyday perspectives.

The theme of the book can’t be more relevant to our current collective human crisis and suffering in the time of Corona. If one were to write a novel about the silence aspect of our crisis, Silence in the Time of Corona, after the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s much celebrated novel Love in the Time of Cholera, would make for a great title.

I read Kagge’s book a year ago and benefited greatly from it. Sometimes, I wonder books, such as Silence: In the Age of Noise, appear on shelves in the Western book stores because of the busy nature of life here and people’s need for a break.

I certainly can’t speak for Norway, but in America, where I currently live, life is difficult for many. Gross socio-economic inequalities force many to take multiple minimum-wage jobs, helping them barely make ends meet.

And then there is the increasing needs and desires, thanks to capitalism. The Internet and smartphone have further taken people away from themselves. Thus everybody is always busy and seldom pauses to reflect on his or her life. Kagge’s book is a perfect reminder for this always-busy lot.

I wonder there may not be many readers interested in the book in my home country Pakistan where life was much more modest and people more laidback. I left Pakistan seven years ago and have not returned ever since, so sometimes I am under the illusion that things must be the way I left them one sunny afternoon years back.

Then there are times when I feel with the age of the Internet, things have changed rapidly in most of the world in the last decade, especially. Time, if there is such a thing, does not wait for anyone. Human behaviors and attitudes change with material changes and with the change in time.

Technology is one example. It has connected the world in unprecedented ways but it has also separated us in ways we never imagined. I believe with all the change occurring globally, the lives of people in most parts of the world are becoming more and more uniformed.

Perhaps life is not the same in the village where I grew up or in the city where my family lives now. Friends and relatives don’t visit each other as they used to because “everyone is busy,” as my siblings tell me over the phone. Young men and women watch shows on Netflix that was unimaginable years ago when I was there.

I wonder then that may be as our lives are becoming similar and our needs and desires uniformed in many ways, Silence: In the Age of Noise might resonate with everyone around the world. Or maybe, I am mistaken.

Maybe the reality is that we need time with ourselves regardless of our culture, place of living or religious belief. Perhaps, silence is an innate human need felt and experienced by all human beings.

The difference might be that people in collectivistic societies may be more engaged with their family, friends and people in general than in the more individualistic Western world where loneliness and isolation drive people to ponder over life and write such books and for people to feel the need to read.

Or it might simply depend on the nature of the individual regardless of who and where they are. For instance, it is in my nature to feel deeply about the inner world and reflect on it to connect better with the outwards. I am sure all humans feel it, but some like to explore more. I am of the latter category.

Anyways, I thought sharing my reflections on Kagge’s book might be of some interest to you, as most of us are quarantining at the moment. Kagge wrote the book in response to three questions asked by students at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland where he was invited to deliver a lecture: What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever? 

The students asked questions about silence because Kagge had chosen to speak to them about the subject. He says, “I wanted the students to be interested in the subject I held so close to my heart.”

Kagge is the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge on foot (the North Pole, the South Pole and the Summit of Mount Everest) and has published six books on exploration, philosophy and art.

Who else can speak better on the subject of silence than a man who spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica?

In the book, the author answers the three questions in thirty-three ways, drawing on the ideas of poets, artists, philosophers and other great men of wisdom such as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Heidegger, Pascal, Fosse and others.

The book is an impressive and deep reflection on the silence that surrounds us and that lies within us, the outward and inward. Kagge emphasizes that silence is a luxury, a luxury that only expands as we add more to it. The expansive luxury of silence is the opposite of the luxury of buying a Louis Vuitton purse for example: The purse can go out of fashion and there will always be people buying better purses than yours.

Silence is free and can be found in our room and anywhere we go. Kagge says that we don’t need to go anywhere to find silence. It is around us and within us. We carry it with us all the time and everywhere. He stresses that silence is essential to sanity and happiness, and we must create it if we don’t feel it.

Towards the end of the book, he humbly acknowledges that it is not possible to fully explain silence in words. Pascal, Fosse or Kagge. None can do it.

“The most important thing, however,” he says, “is not what I believe, but that we each discover our own way.” “Sva marga: follow your own path,” he says. Kagge also reminds us that silence is easier to find than most people think or believe. He concludes that “It feels good to wonder on your own. (And) fortunately, there is no magic spell.”

I have selected twenty-two quotes from the book below, which I found very thoughtful and hopefully worthy of your time. I am certainly unable to do justice to the content of the book in this short post, but I have chosen the most important parts for you. I hope you can enjoy it and benefit from it. And if you feel exploring an idea further, I would encourage you to get a copy of the book. 

Silence is more of an idea. A notion. The silence around us may contain a lot, but the most interesting kind of silence is the one that lies within. A silence which each of us must create. I no longer try to create absolute silence around me. The Silence that I am after is the silence within.

Wonder is the very engine of life.

Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.

Silence can be boring. Everyone has experienced the ways in which silence can come across as exclusive, uncomfortable and at times even scary. At other times it is a sign of loneliness. Or sorrow. The silence that follows is heavy.

Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.

Kagge quotes the philosopher and boredom theorist Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal wrote that “The present hurts. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.”

Pascal believed that our “constant flight from ourselves is a reality so brutal that we try to avoid thinking about it. We would rather think and feel anything else.”

Yes, we fear death to varying degrees, but the fear of not having lived is even stronger. That fear increases towards the end of life, when you understand that it will soon be too late.

The unfortunate thing is to have wasted such a large portion of the chance you had to live a richer life. That you avoided exploring your potential. Allowed yourself to be distracted. Never stopped, but were distracted by noise, expectations and images, instead of dwelling on what you were doing at this moment and what you might do differently. I don’t mean to say that any of this is easy, but it maybe worthwhile.

We exist, but few of us actually live, argued Seneca two thousand years ago. “Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.”

We do have enough time. Life is long, if we listen to ourselves often enough.

If I were President, I would use my inaugural speech to challenge everyone to be thankful every time the sun rises and to show gratitude for all that it does for us.

The idea that boredom can be avoided by constantly pursuing something new, being available around the clock, sending messages and clicking further, watching something you haven’t yet seen, is naive.

Silence is a luxury for every living creature… The silence I have in mind may be found wherever you are if you pay attention; inside your mind, and is without cost. You don’t have to go to Sri Lanka: you can experience it in your bathtub.

“Everyone is the other, no one is themselves,” wrote Martin Heidegger.

Sure, we are part of the same continent, but the potential wealth of being an island for yourself is something you carry around with you all the time.

For thousands of years, individuals who lived in close quarters with no one but themselves around—monks on mountaintops, hermits, sailors, shepherds and explorers on their voyage home—have been convinced that the answer to life’s mysteries can be found in silence. That is the point. You sail out across the sea, but it’s when you make your return that you may discover what you have been seeking is in fact inside yourself.

The ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato spoke of the knowledge of eternity, and with it truth, as Wordless. Plato called it arrheton, “the unspeakable,” and Aristotle aneu logou, which means “without speech” or “without words.” Where vocabulary ends, the two philosophers claimed, is an opening for the possibility of understanding great truths at once.

In knowing oneself you know others. When I read Sacks, I feel that he, like Nansen, by turning his gaze upwards, also turned it inwards, towards his inner silence and uncovered forgotten sides. Into that universe which to me is just as mysterious as the outer space that surrounds us. One universe stretches outwards, the other inwards. To me, the latter universe is of the greatest interest. For, as the poet Emily Dickinson rightly concluded, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.”

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” is the last sentence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

According to Abramovic, the opposite of silence is brain at work. Thinking. If you wish to find peace, you must cease thinking. Do nothing. Silence is a tool helping us to escape the surrounding world. If you manage it, it becomes like “a waterfall in your brain,” she says. The electricity in the air changes when the world is shut out.

I don’t know. But I believe that absolute silence exists more as a dream than in reality.


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