Full of noises

I read recently in the newspapers the rather surprising news that students in a school adjacent to a rattling elevated train in Brooklyn found their academic accomplishments severely handicapped. Those closest to the source of regular disturbance were a year behind their peers in reading ability; those somewhat removed but still subject to the sound of the passing trains were also behind, though to a lesser degree.

I call this news ''surprising'' because I had been led to believe that the present generation works effectively only when its ears are being assailed by rock music. Evidently today's young people, to a greater extent than they like to admit, are subject to the same laws that throughout history have governed mankind. The incontrovertible scientific evidence of the Brooklyn experiment only corroborates what has long been suspected - that the human mind works best when it is not being battered by outside stimuli.

It is encouraging, perhaps, that the new generation should be found to be so much like the rest of us; and yet the conclusion has its sobering side. For no matter what we may do as individuals, we are surrounded in the modern world by a high level of distraction. Are we not all, as a consequence, becoming poor scholars in the school of life? We may turn off the television, resist the temptation of hi-fi, close the windows and double-lock the door -- still the vibrations of the world penetrate our consciousness. The trains on the Brooklyn elevated track are not more intrusive than the generalized noisiness around us. The murmur of traffic is everywhere insistent and continuous, and its cumulative effect may be worse than spasmodic outbursts.

The problem is not easily dealt with; but one man in recent times has at least made a try. In the 1930s New York's picturesque and irascible mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, took up the cudgels against urban noises of all kinds. Directives were issued specifying a wide variety of offenses, from the keeping of screeching birds to the unnecessary blowing of stationary boiler steam whistles. Penalties were neatly allotted according to the gravity of the breach. The public of that day joined in the crusade, suggesting several other sorts of illegal disturbances, incuding the rattle of trolley cars, the mewing of cats, and the unseemly jests of gravediggers.

Things were going along well and it almost looked as if New York might become the first quiet city in the twentieth century. But unfortunately La Guardia fell into the kind of error which statesmen are subject to when pride and self-confidence take over. He decided to ban organ grinders from the streets. New Yorkers almost to a man (and to a woman) affirmed that the organ grinders made a joyful noise, the kind that ought to fill the streets of a city, especially in the mild days of spring. La Guardia had deep psychological reasons of his own for wanting to get rid of these musicmakers: in his mind they symbolized the degradation imposed on the American-Italian population, evoking disturbing memories of his youth. However justifiable the reason, the ban on organ grinders discredited the campaign against noise and noisemakers. All too soon New York reverted to its blaring, brassy self.

In my mind I link noise with the visual assaults upon the senses which characterize so much of the modern scene. It is certainly logical to speak of loudm images; and indeed it becomes difficult to know whether we are being attacked through the eye or through the ear. To come from a quiet countryside -- quiet in both its sights and sounds -- is to find the great city almost overwhelmingly oppressive. We may adapt ourselves superficially to the clatter and buzz, yet their effect upon the psyche remains profound. G. K. Chesterton has remarked somewhere upon the curious fact that when we want to do a special favor for a friend we invite him to a ''quiet dinner'' -- as if the ordinary dinner were a cacophonic or sensational experience, with the crockery banging together in unison and the silverware jangling like inharmonious bells. At the end of a busy season I myself would sometimes like to be invited to a silent seance or to an incommunicative conference.

It is from silence, after all, that the great accomplishments of the human spirit have been born. The soliloquies of Hamlet, the symphonies of Beethoven, were not simply bigger and better bangs in a noisy world. They were sounds that took form with a vast space around them -- the space of contemplative minds, the largeness of an uncluttered spiritual environment. It is even amid silence, at least a relative and temporary silence, that occur such bright thoughts as illumine the minds of Brooklyn youths. But our own isle, by contrast, seems ''full of noises''; and our minds, too often, are victimized by the internal roar.

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