Hear and Now

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   September 10, 2020

The 1964 Simon & Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” must seem redolent of an ancient era to many of my younger readers – but the haunting melody, combined with its poetically poignant words, resonates as powerfully today as when the song was born. To me, the part which has always been most meaningful proclaims that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.” This has had personal significance in my life, because, not more than three years later, it was my own words (usually on colorful cards) which had begun to appear on walls and halls – at first in San Francisco, but then spreading to many parts of the world.

When asked to explain the intellectual origins of the type of very short writing on which I eventually built a whole career, I’ve always cited three major influences: First, my parents. My mother, Amelia Brilliant, seeing utility in my verbal talent, encouraged me, from an early age, to make greeting cards for our family. And I was also influenced by my father Victor Brilliant, and his great love of jokes and wordplay.

Secondly, I offer credit to the masterly wordsmiths of the advertising industry, by whose creations we are constantly surrounded. I have much in common with them, e.g. in trying to pack power into a limited number of words. But the main difference between us is that, unlike me, they are always trying to sell something – while I have nothing to sell but myself.

Thirdly, as recognized by Simon & Garfunkel, I have derived uplifting inspiration from the anonymous but industrious perpetrators of graffiti, those “prophets” to whose sometimes very imaginative works most of us have been exposed, often on the walls of very small rooms which provide considerable privacy both to the original inscriber and to the subsequent reader and student.

But what most people probably remember most inescapably from that anthem of the 1960s was its enduring title and theme: “The Sound of Silence.” And indeed that sound that once so prevalent, has become a precious rarity in our era. Scientists with sensitive instruments have traveled the world in search of truly quiet places, with disappointing results. For the sake of practical needs such as recording or broadcasting, it has been necessary to construct special spaces which are “sound-proof,” in the sense that sounds from outside cannot be heard within. Individuals who want to sound-proof themselves are now confronted with an array of merchandise, ranging from little plugs, of wax or rubber, made for insertion into the ears, to various kinds of apparatuses, like radio headsets, to be worn over the ears. Unfortunately, one drawback of all such devices is that, while providing a certain degree of protection from noise (as measured in decibels, and usually printed on the package) they have no way of distinguishing between unwanted sounds and others, which may be wanted.

Problems with hearing are among the most common accompaniments of aging, and, because governments do not always recognize such ailments as deserving of treatment under any state or national health-care system, a huge, and no doubt highly profitable, hearing aid industry has developed. The fitting, wearing, and maintaining of these devices themselves, however, present such formidable complications that many people who suffer some degree of “hearing loss” prefer to continue hearing imperfectly, rather than going through that whole technological process.

Unfortunately, the ears, unlike the eyes, are not yet as easily operable upon to improve their functioning. And another area in which technology is still surprisingly lagging is noise-suppression. Those of us with hearing loss can still be bothered by noise; in fact, to many such people, the noises become more bothersome. Ironically, there are also situations in which diminishing customary noise has itself become a problem – as in the case of the newer electric cars, which are so quiet that pedestrians who are accustomed to hearing a car coming now face a new danger. In consequence, those cars may be required to make an audible sound – just as the otherwise odorless but poisonous gas we use for cooking has to be given an artificial warning smell.

But the ultimate irony lies in the fact that great songs like “The Sound of Silence” are brought to us through the sonic medium of music. Beethoven, living in silence, was able to write music he could not hear. But he could feel it. Indeed, he was the perfect exponent of the silence of sound.


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