Tag Archives: night

Upon this wintry night it is so still, that listening to the intense silence is like looking at intense darkness.

—Charles Dickens, Bleak House, chapter 58, “A Wintry Day and Night”

When I was a boy, maybe eight or nine, I could wake up early on a winter morning and know instantly that there would be no school that day — it was quiet. Overnight snow had left the landscape eerily silent and I could hear that silence even before I looked out the window. It was a palpable silence. A silence that filled up the air. 

Later in the morning, there would be the scrape of the snowplow on the street pavement, the glee-screaming of kids on their sleds and, if a sunny day, perhaps the sound of dripping meltwater from the eaves. But for that first moment, a signal from the natural world that the day was different. 

We may think of silence as an absence of sound, but when paid attention to, silence is a presence. As “there” as the sunlight or the children. 

Silence is something we largely miss in the busy world. When I wake up now, normally I hear distant traffic noise or the sound of an industrious neighbor on her mower shaving her lawn. This morning I opened the front door to hear the rattle of a woodpecker and a crow’s caw-caw. The world is noisy. And that’s not even counting the TV that fills the air with its constant carnival barker reminding us of the world’s clattering presence. 

Silence lets us hear our own thoughts. It is the reason Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, and Moses and Elijah both sought solitude on Mt. Horeb, the Buddha spent five years alone in the forest, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra shunned human contact in his cave. In several Native American cultures, a part of growing up was to leave the community and spend time quiet and alone until you had your vision. 

Silence is the midwife of spiritual or intellectual awakening. It needn’t be the desert or woods; it might be a library, that other source of quiet. 

The quietest I ever remember was a press tour to the Karchner Caverns in Arizona when they were first opened to the public. A group of a dozen or so journalists, both print and TV, were taken into the cave and shown the wonders. And at one point our guide asked us all to stand several feet apart and be quiet. She had all the lights turned off and we were a hundred feet underground with no light and no sound. 

Even in the nighttime, there is light from the moon and the stars. City lights, no matter how distant are reflected back off the clouds and make nighttime at least a dull glow. If I wake up at night, my eyes adjust to the darkness and I can still make out the shadowy shapes in the room. 

But in the cave, there was no light at all. Utter and complete blackness, so that you had to trust your vestibular system and proprioception just to remain standing upright. And in that blankness, no sound intruded. The black nothingness was the visual equivalent of the utter silence.  It was as if you could have a memory of your own death — or your existence before you were conceived.

The Buddha said the only response to the “14 unanswerable questions” is a “Noble Silence.” 

Twentieth Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said (breaking his own admonition): “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

And the Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi, said, “The only language able to express the whole truth is silence.”

John Cage wrote in his book, Silence, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time.” It is the thought behind his most famous or infamous composition, 4’33”, in which the pianist sits in front of a piano and doesn’t play anything for the designated amount of time.  

For the unthinking, this is a stunt, and further, proof that modern art is a fraud perpetrated on its audience by slick snake-oil salesmen. But for those who understand what is being offered — like the lotus the Buddha gives his student — it is an offer to hear the genuine music of the world — a direct connection with the now. No concert hall is completely silent, but we ignore the extraneous sounds while the piano is playing. If the piano remains tacet, we can — if we are aware — hear all the buzz of reality that is actually filling our ears. 

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” he wrote in Silence. “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.”

(Cage was not alone. Several serious composers have written silent music, including Georgy Ligeti and Irwin Schulhoff, although most of these were written at least a bit with tongue against the cheek. And in popular music, Wikipedia list more than 70 songs made of empty air, including by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but also Wilco, Soundgarden, Brian Eno and John Denver. There have been whole albums, too, including the 10-track Sleepify by Wulfpeck and a 1980 “spoken word” album called The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan — Side 1 is “The Wit” and Side 2 is “The Wisdom;” both sides completely blank. But none of this has the serious and meaningful intent of Cage’s 4’33”.)

When we think of silence, it is usually of the soundless variety. But there is also a very noisy silence, made up of an unconsidered attempt to fill emptiness with meaninglessness. When I listen to most TV news, I hear very little news and a great deal of jabber about the news, a chewing of the cud, so to speak — this is noise to fill space and time and is, in essence, another manifestation of silence, or at least a filling of time and space with nothingness. 

I make a distinction between a silence of avoidance and a silence of engagement. Distracting noise — much of modern culture — is really an avoidance technique so we don’t have to deal with the often uncomfortable realities around us. But the silence of the monks and zen masters is a silence that engages directly with the most meaningful portions of existence. It is a silence to be sought after. 

Such silences are not identical. There is the silence of paying attention rather than speaking; the silence of the pause in the business of living; the silence of spiritual seeking; and silence of finding the center of one’s self. The idea comes up often enough: There’s the silence of God; the Silence of the Lambs; Omertà, or the silence of the made man; there’s the Blue Wall of Silence on the other side; the Silent Majority; the Sound of Silence; a deafening silence; an embarrassing silence; a moment of silence; the right to silence; radio silence; the silence of the grave. 

In some forms of meditation, the purpose is to quiet the mind so one isn’t thinking of anything: silence of thought. Our minds tend to idle at 2000 rpms, with ideas, images, tunes or emotions running random through the braincase, like so many maenads dancing in the woods. It can be hard to get them all to shut up. But the silence achieved is revelatory. 

Debussy said that music was the silence between the notes. And music is certainly what is found in the silence: It grows from out of the silence into what can express what words cannot. 

I remember a late-fall camping trip to the Kittatinny Mountain ridge near the Delaware Water Gap and waking up in the morning to find the tent sagging under the weight of the night’s heavy, wet snow, and the familiar silence of the woods. The snow makes an anechoic landscape very like an empty recording studio: The quiet muffles the ears. 

Now, in my senescence, silence is especially hard to come by, not only for societal reasons, but because there is always a slight tinnitus ringing in my ear, and even when that quiets down and it is otherwise silent, I can hear my own heartbeat. 

Silence is a great seasoner of thought. When it is quiet, you can hear yourself think, and the thoughts flow uninterrupted by extraneous disruption. Silence is worth a great deal, all the more for its scarcity.


This is an expanded and rewritten version of a posting that first appeared Nov. 1, 2021 on the Spirit of the Senses website. 

paris night 01jpgThe first time my wife remembers being aware of the night was when she was a little girl and thought the darkness was a liquid, a flood tide overtaking the world.

“I was afraid I would drown in it,” she says.

If she wasn’t careful, it might seep under the window sash and fill her bedroom while she night 02x

My experience was different. I grew up outside New York City, and for me, night was an empty container to fill with light. It wasn’t night that flowed, but rather the lights that were like opened faucets draining into the darkness, to be diluted by it. The view of the Manhattan skyline at night, seen from the New Jersey Palisades, was the most beautiful thing I knew. It glowed like embers. paris night 03x

Either way, night was something poetic, although we would never have used the term. When you are a kid, when everything is new, and everything is poetic, there is no humdrum, no banality, against which the poetic, the beautiful, can be offset. It is just the way things are.

Now, as a grown up, chastened and wary, night is the black velvet on which we place the emerald ring, to show off its brilliance. And night is the time that gives the day its mythic resonance. We do our work during the day, so that night can work on us. paris night 04x

I go walking in Paris at night, because that is when I feel most completely there. Paris becomes itself when the streets are dark, with storefront windows and the streetlamps pour forth their fluid light, diluted on the curbs and parked cars. I am washed in that thin light. paris night 05x

One feels most deeply the difference between Paris and New York. At night, Manhattan seems just as busy as it was earlier. Traffic is dense, pedestrians fill the streets. You can ride the subway at 2 in the morning and still see a car full of night 06x

But, Paris at night is oddly empty, and what people you see are clustered around the steamed windows of cafes and bistros, or on the front steps of the opera house as it lets out, or waiting to get into the disco. It is almost as if these were the campfires that draw the bodies turned from the darkness. paris night 07x

You can walk down the streets and peer into the shop windows, with their wares lit and forgotten, as if the Rapture had occurred last week, and left behind the kitchen furnishings, or the bicycles, or books, and behind the glass, there is a humanless simulacrum of the world we know. paris night 08x

Or you follow some old man in a long coat as he turns the corner and walks down a dark street toward the next streetlight.

Paris is made more magical by the night. In October there is the slight bite to the air, and the rain makes pointillist mirrors of the pavement, redoubling all that dissipating night 09x

You wander into a Turkish souvlaki restaurant, a cheap storefront halfway down the street, and the man behind the counter is on the phone speaking some language you don’t know — it isn’t French — and he smiles at you as you sit on the molded plastic chair with the rocking table between you and your wife. The wall is bright yellow behind the glass counter, with garish purple writing offering the usual fare, lit with a glare. Gyros, souvlaki, pilaf. It is warm inside, and humid and the food is night 10x

Even the sound is different at night. Like the campfire, the sound is huddled, localized. In this restaurant, the sound is held in by the walls and front window. Outside it is silent once night 11x

There is cheer in the contact, and when you leave, there is an alive aloneness in the night street. paris night 12x

When I think of Paris, I think of it at night. I hear the voices and see the maitre pulling the Stella Artois from the tap. Most of the seat are empty and those filled are on the way home after a night at the cinema or theater. They may stop at the 8 a Huit for a pack of cigarettes. (Say it like “wee-a-wee,” it is the French equivalent of a 7-Eleven, only tighter packed and with one wall covered with wine bottles. The man sitting by the cash register is Algerian and tired after spending 12 hours in his shop.)paris night 13x

Compared to anything American, Paris is small. You can walk almost anywhere inside the Peripherique, and all the familiar signposts of the city are visible — Montmartre lit by floodlights on the hill, the Eiffel Tower turned into a fireworks display, the Palais Garnier pinned down by its own lights in the darkened city. paris night 14x

I love to get out into that night, and walk those streets, nodding to the proprietor of the flower shop as he stands by the door, stopping by the patisserie for the last pain au chocolate of the day, and finally passing the concierge of my hotel as he sits behind the desk, reading an Arab newspaper and drinking a small glass of Kirsch, not noticing me as I go through the lobby. Up the elevator, hardly bigger than a phone booth, and flipping on the timed hall light that busts open the darkness on my way to my room. paris night 17x

Out the window when I draw back the curtain, the city street is black, with highlights drawn by the lamps and the trees beneath my room shimmer in the light. paris night 18x


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