Scott Russell Sanders is the author, most recently, of “Dancing in Dreamtime” and “Stone Country: Then & Now.”
How many millions of words have been spoken or written in praise of silence? In this slim volume, Norwegian adventurer and philosopher Erling Kagge adds his voice to the chorus. On the opening page he tells of trying to convince his three teenage daughters that “the world’s secrets are hidden inside silence.” The daughters greeted this fatherly advice with skepticism, counting on their smartphones to reveal any secrets worth knowing.
Soon after that exchange, Kagge found a more receptive audience among a group of students in a Scottish pub. “What is silence?” they wanted to know, and “Why is it more important now than ever?” Brooding on the questions, he came up with 33 responses, which are laid out in these pages in as many numbered sections. The final section is a blank page, a gesture reminiscent of the Zen master who, when asked how to achieve enlightenment, gazed at the questioner with lips firmly sealed.
The filled pages that precede the empty one offer a miscellany of memories, reflections, aphorisms and quotations bearing on Kagge’s theme — the search for silence amid the clatter and clutter of our frenetic world. The authorities quoted range from Emily Dickinson to Elon Musk, from Martin Heidegger to John Cage. We hear about a soccer star who blocks out the roar of the crowd when he takes a shot on goal, about a performance artist who stares at visitors for hours without speaking, about people in psychological experiments who choose to suffer an electric shock rather than sit alone in a room with no entertainment except their thoughts.
Although Kagge has spent much of his career indoors — writing, practicing law, running a publishing company, collecting modern art — he is best known for his outdoor adventures. He was the first person to reach the “three poles” on foot: the North Pole, the South Pole and the peak of Mount Everest. He has crossed Manhattan through sewer tunnels, crossed oceans in sailing ships and trekked for months at a stretch in remote lands. He has written about these exploits in previous books, four of which have been translated into English, including “Philosophy for Polar Explorers.”
In this new book, “Silence,” he sketches his “extreme journeys to the ends of the earth” to illustrate the restorative impact of withdrawing from the human cacophony into the wilds. “Nature spoke to me in the guise of silence,” he observes of his 50-day trek in Antarctica. “The quieter I became, the more I heard.”
Not all of his journeys have been so arduous. He tells of flying from Norway to Sri Lanka “in order to relax, eat healthily and practice yoga in lush surroundings. It was fabulous. At the same time, it felt strange to travel halfway around the globe to disconnect.”
Recognizing that few of us can indulge in serenity tourism, and fewer still can spend months walking or sailing to the ends of the Earth, Kagge reassures us that “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.”
Like a fair number of passages throughout the book, this one sounds trite and plodding in English translation, however it may sound in Norwegian. Consider the opening of Section One: "A lot of things in daily life boil down to wonder. It is one of the purest forms of joy that I can imagine. I enjoy the feeling." And consider the book's closing lines:
“It feels good to wonder on your own. Fortunately, there’s no magic spell. I had to use my legs to go far away in order to discover this, but I now know it is possible to reach silence anywhere. One only need subtract. You have to find your own South Pole.”
There is little to object to in such passages, and yet, even allowing for what may be lost in translation, there is also little fresh insight to be gained from them. Literature extolling the virtues of silence has been accumulating for millennia, in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, in sayings of Christian hermits and mystics, in teachings by modern yoga adepts and meditators.
Kagge refers to this body of wisdom only in passing, perhaps because he does not share the view, common to this tradition, that cultivation of inward stillness is a way of escaping the small self of the ego and experiencing a transpersonal reality. He remarks that he doesn’t regard silence “as a renunciation or something spiritual,” and later he explains: “I tend to think about silence as a practical method for uncovering answers to the intriguing puzzle that is yourself, and for helping to gain new perspective on whatever is hiding beyond the horizon.”
It’s hard to imagine that such bland claims would have satisfied the curiosity of those Scottish students or motivated Kagge’s teenage daughters to take a break from their phones. As for those of us who long for refuge from the clamor of messages and machines, we might find more inspiration in recent works that draw on traditional wisdom, such as “Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise” by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, or Patrick Shen’s meditative documentary “In Pursuit of Silence.”
The yearning for relief from human chatter may be as old as our capacity for speech. There will always be more to say about the benefits of saying — and hearing — less.
By Erling Kagge
Translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook
144 pp. $19.95