The Sound of Silence
October 2008

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

There comes a time when enough is enough. A phrase I learned at the age of 16 years says it: "I am replete. Anything more would be a superfluous abundance." The saying refers to how it feels to be completely stuffed after a meal, but it's a good metaphor for how many of us feel about today's discourse and communication as well. The image of foundering due to overconsumption could also apply to an economic obesity that has exploded like the gourmand in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," but in the context of this article, I'm specifically referring to national conversation. It may go against one's natural desire to discontinue a lively discussion, but at the point where it degenerates into nothing more than manipulation and insults, it may be better to say nothing more.

Sadly, our airwaves have become a cacophony of sound bites, divisive talk, and bitter, cartoonish exchanges rather than genuine discourse about important topics that affect us all. The policies of recent years, over which most of us have absolutely no control, have spawned acrid and brutal verbal warfare in a fierce battle for hearts and minds. When I first heard there was a campaign to win "hearts and minds" I assumed it was for winning the support of passions and intellects. However, it seems the prize of hearts and minds has become not passions and intellects in the positive sense, but the negatives of hatred and confusion. And now, the contest for the presidential election is following the same paradigm of obfuscation and derisiveness, while confusion in both houses of Congress abounds and theatrical output from the executive office has turned into black humor of the most cynical kind. In the mainstream media, the loudest and most manipulative among us seem to dominate while those searching for rational, more temperate discourse find scant venue.

It goes without saying that the loss of human life, limb, security and peace of mind are the most devastating results of traditional war, i.e., one waged with guns and bombs. A reminder of the horrors of war that surfaced last month is "The Blood of Dresden," by Kurt Vonnegut, excerpted from posthumously discovered papers in a new book, "Armageddon in Retrospect," published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. The compelling Times Online piece is Vonnegut's unabashed memoir of the firebombing of the city of Dresden, Germany, which killed 100,000 civilians between February 13 and 15, 1945. Vonnegut was a POW sequestered in Dresden with fellow prisoners in a meat locker when the city was attacked. His experiences during and after the bombing inspired the novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." Vonnegut left us with the belief that we haven't learned anything except how to wage even more heinous war on larger stages on grander scales. Watch Anton Withagen's "Raid on Dresden," a 4-minute video clip about the firebombing of Dresden found on Internet Archive by clicking here:

Aeschylus wrote that of the many casualties of war, truth is the first victim. The absence of truth has a corrosive effect that renders moot any contest for hearts and minds, and instead promotes misunderstanding, fear, and chaos. The eventual shredding of the fabric of decency and respect for one another in a polarized society is another of the sad results of contentious politics, secretive policy and a deeply controversial war, even if it is fought "over there." Truths withheld wage a domestic psychological war that has a shattering effect right here at home. As our national conversation has become more and more heated, the noise from it all has become louder and louder. What to do?

Following the custom of monks through the ages, seekers among us find a way to reestablish inner harmony by going on a silent retreat. Some accomplish this by turning off the TV set, taking a break from regular activities, and by fasting. Retreat can be undertaken anywhere, whether in one's own home or by changing location. Several hermitages in the U.S. offer a refuge for practicing voluntary silence for anyone wishing to truly get away from the stress, din and disconcerting noise of society. As a formal agenda, one can contemplate whatever one might in silence, uninterrupted for days on end—something difficult to achieve in the midst of daily life.

Photography workshops often refer novices to "Zen and the Art of Archery" to describe the walking meditation of the profession, which is fundamentally a contemplative practice. There is a great silence in eliminating all but the visual, which is one of the reasons many are attracted to photography in the first place. I would argue that a retreat of any kind has potential to yield a hotline to the heart, which may explain the power of the silent photograph to arouse deep feelings of compassion or despair. Just as photographers who silently witness the most brutal truths do a noble service for the rest of us, so do those who photograph beauty from a unique perspective. The hotline to the heart established by these types of images can arouse great positive emotions of inspiration and hope.

Exploration photographer George Steinmetz, frequently published in National Geographic and Geo, is a perfect example of one whose work inspires the peace of mind that comes from contemplating marvels of humanity and beauty in nature. Steinmetz's stunning, silent portraits of nature, landscapes and culture provide a perfect retreat from the non-stop polarizing effects of current woes of the world. It is good to be reminded of all things good, bright and beautiful, and Steinmetz's work does just that. Click on this fascinating photo of camel shadows crossing desert sands to enter an archive of his images. Be sure to read the menu item "flying" to discover how he photographs aerial views from a paraglider, and then check out the forthcoming book, "African Air."

In line with silent contemplations, one of the most interesting and awe-inspiring sites on the entire Web is NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. It's difficult to view any photograph in the archive without feeling profoundly moved, as each image quite literally underscores our place in the Universe. Click on this photo of NGC 346 in the Small Megallanic Cloud to explore more in NASA's APOD archive.

With so many breathtaking events taking place in the natural world and in human events, I find an antidote in turning down the volume and looking at beautiful images. Max Ehrmann wrote the poem "Desiderata" in 1927, the first line of which could have been the subtitle to a photographer's manual: "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." Interestingly, Ehrmann wrote "Desiderata" the same year Fritz Lang made the dystopian film "Metropolis." Lang's silent sci-fi film is about social crisis in a capitalistic society that is polarized into elite planners and thinkers who live in luxury skyscrapers above ground vs. workers whose entire lives are lived underground in servitude to the privileged. I can't help but ponder what inspired Lang's nightmare vision and why in the same year Ehrmann wrote one of the most enduring prescriptive poems for achieving happiness and peace of mind ever written. I wonder if they knew each other.

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© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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