15 05 2010

The Man of Noise

Milan Kundera

Another stay in Bohemia: in the house of another friend, from the library I take at random a book by Jaromir John, a Czech novelist of the Twenties and Thirties. An author cultured, refined, forgotten since then. I read this novel, “The Monster of Explosion”, for the first time in 1992.

Written around 1932, it tells a story that takes place ten years earlier, during the first years of the Czechoslovak Republic, born in 1918. Mr. Engelbert, a forestry adviser in the former Hapsburg regime, moves to Prague after his retirement, but when confronted with the modern aggressiveness of the young republic, he is beset by one disappointment after another. The situation is nothing new.

However, what is unprecedented — that which defines the modern world, that which will become the Engelbert’s nightmare — is not the power of money or the insensitivity of the nouveau riche (although all of this also contributes to his disappointment), but the noise; the new noise, that of the machines and the devices embodied primarily by cars and motorcycles: the “monsters of explosion.”

Poor Mr. Engelbert: he first moves into a house in a residential neighborhood; there, the cars for the first time he discovered the existence of the evil sound that will turn his life into an endless flight. He moved to an elegant house in another neighborhood, delighted that on its street cars are prohibited access. Unaware that the ban was only temporary, he panics the night he hears the monsters of explosion zooming by under his window.

After that he takes all sorts of earplugs to bed, and understands that “sleep is the most fundamental human longing, and that death caused by the inability to sleep must be the worst of deaths.” Seeking (in vain) silence in rural hotels, in the home of former high school classmates (in vain), and ending up spending the night on the trains, which provided, with their gentle, archaic sound, a relatively peaceful sleep

However, while I can allow myself to imagine Engelbert as a real man who had written his autobiography, I bet that his confession did not seem like the writing of a novelist. Recognizing that the noise of cars had changed his life more than the independence of their country, so long desired, would be for the old man a shameful confession! Because (like all of us) he lived in a pre-interpreted world.

Freedom, national independence, democracy (or viewed from the opposite angle, capitalism, exploitation, social inequality), are very serious notions, sacred, capable of explaining human behavior. This needs to be made any serious biography. Noise can only occupy a marginal position, in footnotes, like a dull discomfort and, ultimately, rather funny.

However, instead of taking seriously the pre-interpretation of the world, the novelist concentrated on the concrete life of a concrete man and arrived at a proof at once modest and enormous: modern man is living in a world deserted by silence, or more precisely, in a world where the old relationship between noise and silence has been reversed: noise (including music) is no longer exceptional, but silence is.

A significant discovery, because what changed, marked, and remodeled the life of Mr. Engelbert was not the birth of the independent republic (with Mr. Engelbert being a great patriot), or the technical inventions that make life easier (airplane, telephone, telegraph) nor the democratic regime (which had to contrast with the monarchy that had preceded it), what changed  his life from beginning to end is the inversion of the relationship between noise and silence.

The multiple consequences of this inversion could be called existential: a different relationship with nature, with rest, with beauty, with music, also something I think is exceptionally important: the other place given to the word.

The omnipresence of noise not only causes an allergy to noise (which is a medical finding), but also (which is an existential surprise) a need for noise; from this evidence it follows, for example, that on the radio the word is usually broadcast accompanied by background sound, whether music or real sounds (a factory, a street, etc.); for whoever listens, the word becomes doubly mistaken: for the ambient noise of the room where the radio is located, and for the sound produced in the studio.

Therefore, not only do they hear words more poorly, but the word, in general, as such, no longer occupies the privileged place that it had in the world of sound; now it doesn’t encourage careful concentration; the word is now merely one noise among others.

*Translator’s Note: In the original title, “Cuba” is inserted into the middle of the Spanish word for listened, “escuchaba”, so it reads “Escubachaba” – a word play that doesn’t survive translation.

Translated by: Tomás A.