On Noise

1127397.gif My book Letters from a Stoic — essayistic letters by Seneca — arrived the other day, and I’m reading through the introduction now. But what I want to write about today is an essay from Lopate’s book, Seneca’s “On Noise.” He begins the essay this way:

I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be.

As I’d written about this very subject recently, this opening caught my eye. If what Seneca says is true, then I am wrong and this is a flaw of mine, since I need quite a bit of quiet to concentrate. Seneca goes on to argue that a person with a well-ordered mind should be able to block out distractions:

For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?

He talks about how people often don’t find peace even when it’s perfectly quiet — even when they are sleeping — which shows that it’s not so much outside noise that is the problem, but inside turmoil. To a certain extent I agree with this. I have trouble concentrating sometimes because my mind is often not at peace. I’m not very good at forcing the kind of “self-absorption” Seneca is describing, and perhaps if I practice I could improve. This would be a good thing.

But I also think, particularly when we’re talking about noise produced by people, that distractableness can be a sign of something more positive: it can indicate an interest in people, a quality of tuned-in-ness to others. I can’t shut voices out very easily because I love to eavesdrop on conversations and observe how people interact and how they sound. If I’m continually distracted from my book by the kids playing outside that may indicate my lack of mental calm, but it may also indicate a irresistible curiosity about what the kids are saying as they play their games.

To me, there’s some connection between being good with people and being unable to shut out their voices. By being “good with people” I mean something like being focused on others, wanting to take care of them, wanting to keep things peaceful, wanting everybody to be happy. I often feel responsible (rightly or wrongly) for making sure everybody is content and everything is okay, and listening to people’s voices, even if they’re not directed at me, is a way to make sure that happens.

As much as I don’t fully agree with Seneca, I do, however, like this line from the essay:

The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.

This I can agree with.


Filed under Books, Essays, Reading

12 responses to “On Noise

  1. There is noise I can ignore, and then there is noise that causes me to give it my attention…for whatever reason. I can read almost anywhere, but there are times that the noise breaks into my concentration.

    I love this letter/essay, though, because he makes ancient Rome seem so little different than modern society. His lodgings are over the public bathhouse and his descriptions of the sounds from below make me laugh. He says that voices are more distracting than general noise, and I find that true…voices force you to listen, but traffic noise is just background.


  2. I wonder what he’d make of thumping stereos? I find rhythmic noise impossible to blot out.


  3. I can read almost anywhere, but I agree about noise from neighbours and thumping stereos. I find my curiosity about bits of conversation that come over the fence completely distracts me from reading. We had one neighbour who was a drummer and at times practised for the whole afternoon – terrible. Fortunately he’s moved.


  4. I have to work on my commuter train and have become quite an expert at ignoring noise. But I cannot ignore conversations. When people start talking between them or over their cellphones, my concentration plummets.

    I long contemplated the possibility of earplugs, but it would probably look offending to my fellow commuters. I recently found the remedy: I recorded a 3-minute-long stretch of white noise (you know, the sound of Niagara falls) and play it in a loop from my mp3 player. It does not have to be as loud as music to cover conversations, and it has absolutely no side-effects on my focus (it’s like working on a jet).


  5. I hope you are enjoying your essay project as much I am I enjoying the fruits of it! Love the final quote. I can usually block out most noise, but like Mandarine I have difficulty with people who are on cell phones. And like a number of others, rhythmic thumping is impossible to block out.


  6. Edd

    I like noise or sound of any kind because it lets me know I am alive. When reading and the author writes, “…cattle make quite a noise with all that clopping and mooing,” or at the beginning of a cattle drive, “…as the noise of hooves on hard-packed dirt, of braying moos, of riders clucking and calling filled the air,” the sound, the noise fills my imagination. Sitting in a crowded and a noise filled Airport is exhilarating – I can read a book through it all but do enjoy the occasional eavesdropping on my neighbors.

    But I do like my solitude also, my quiet time after midnight when it is only Shakespeare and me. A must read of fifteen minutes to an hour before bedtime since the age of sixteen.


  7. Edd


    My copy and paste abilities are indeed headed toward the shedder. The following sentence was left out of my comment:

    Dorothy, you have once again shown your extraordinary ability to start your writing off on a high note.


  8. Well, my emotions must be in a turmoil as I need quiet to read. If the noise is quiet–a TV turned down low I don’t mind it. But when the noise is loud or people are talking it is too distracting. People on buses have the strangest conversations and it can be really hard to blot them out. I like Jenclair’s description of this essay, too. I will have to read it–I have the Lopate book, too.


  9. Jenclair — yes, I like that about the essay too, that it feels modern. The essay in Lopate on Scipio’s Villa feels the same way — he’s talking about how older cultures seem so much better, and I forget he’s writing from an older culture himself!

    Sylvia — you do have to wonder what he would make of modern noise — if he’d think it was much worse 🙂

    BooksPlease — oh, that would drive me up the wall! I can’t stand that sort of noise problem.

    Mandarine — that sounds like an excellent solution; if I ever have that sort of commute or a similar noise problem, I’ll keep it in mind!

    Stefanie — I AM enjoying the essay project, and I’m very glad you like reading about it!

    Edd — that’s an interesting way of thinking about noise, that it reminds you you are alive. And Shakespeare every night sounds lovely!

    Danielle — I think you would like it. But I don’t think your emotions are necessarily in turmoil! That’s where I disagree with Seneca.


  10. verbivore

    I am a terrible eavesdropper and it drives my husband nuts when we go out to dinner, he can always tell when I suddenly stop paying attention to listen to another table. A bad habit, I know 🙂

    I love that final quote you’ve included and what it says about serenity being a journey, not a static state. That’s a nice idea.


  11. Eavesdropping isn’t terrible! 🙂 I love eavesdropping and then filling my husband in, because he usually tunes people out better than I do.


  12. Pingback: in the beginning « Creative Nonfiction – UIndy

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