Friday, October 23, 2015


What a noisy world we live in!  For instance:  cell phone conversations conducted in public places.  I realize that this topic has by now become a cliché, but I think that it serves as a metaphor for all that is wrong with the Modern World:  not only noise, but also -- in no particular order -- impoliteness, obliviousness, and vacuity.

One would think that an ordinary human being could pass through airport security, sit in the waiting area at the departure gate, and ride a shuttle bus to a parking lot without feeling compelled to carry on a phone conversation in the presence of strangers.  Quite often, that does not seem to be the case. And, thanks to the wonders of technology (Progress!), we have an added attraction:  animated mugging for the video camera during the conversation.  Intimacy.  (An aside:  "All Aboard," a fine poem by Charles Tomlinson on this phenomenon, has appeared here previously.)

I confess:  I am conservative by nature and by choice.  Call me a hypocrite (given, for instance, the technology that I am using at this moment), but I never presume that change is a good thing.  Here is one of my curmudgeonly standards of judgment:  I am skeptical of any technological "innovation" that reduces the time and space available for serenity and reverie.

Calm is the morn without a sound,
     Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
     And only thro' the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground:

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
     And on these dews that drench the furze,
     And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:

Calm and still light on yon great plain
     That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
     And crowded farms and lessening towers,
To mingle with the bounding main:

Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
     These leaves that redden to the fall;
     And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
     And waves that sway themselves in rest,
     And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep.

Alfred Tennyson, Poem XI, In Memoriam (1850).

Lines 15 and 16 are, I think, very moving:  "And in my heart, if calm at all,/If any calm . . ."

Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)

Give technology an inch and it will take a mile.  Technological "advancement" is often sold on the premise that it will be "labor-saving," thus purportedly freeing us up to devote more time and energy to higher human pursuits.  I'd say that this was true of the invention of the wheel.  Is it true of the invention of Twitter or Facebook?

"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience.  Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Blackwell 1969).

Aeroplanes.  Radio.  Twitter.  Facebook.

   On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

John Glover, "Thirlmere" (c. 1820-1830)

I am not a Luddite.  And I do not intend to repair to a yurt out on the windswept steppes of Mongolia any time soon.  (Besides, I suspect that cell phone service and wireless Internet have preceded me there.)  I am not angry with, nor do I consider myself superior to, those who avail themselves of these dazzling technologies.  I simply wonder:  why?  To what end?  Do we realize what we are giving up?

Technology ("information technology" in particular) promotes hyperactivity and distraction.  In contrast, poetry is born of reverie and concentration, and in turn promotes reverie and concentration in the reader.  The choice is ours.

   The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm.  The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).

Benjamin Leader, "Glyder Fawr, Snowdon Range" (1881)

Three variations on the theme of calm.  Alfred Tennyson would like us to know about the calm he felt as he awaited the arrival by ship of the body of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died young in Vienna.  Robert Frost would like us to know about the calm that abides in the presence of those dark interstellar spaces that so often haunted him.  "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars . . ."  Wallace Stevens would like us to know about Imagination and Reality, how they can -- no, must -- flit back and forth in a calm world, in a quiet house, if we wish to be truly human.

Cell phones and Twitter and Facebook have nothing to do with any of this.


Out in the deep wood, silence and darkness fall,
down through the wet leaves comes the October mist;
     no sound, but only a blackbird scolding,
          making the mist and the darkness listen.

Peter Levi, Collected Poems 1955-75 (Anvil Press 1984).  A side-note:  the four-line "alcaic" stanza is said to have been invented by the Greek poet Alcaeus, and is often used by Horace in his Odes.

"Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.  Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself.  For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (Blackwell 1980), page 7e.

John Glover, "View of Patterdale, Westmorland" (1817)


Fred said...


Thanks for this post.

I had been on the computer for over an hour, reading and answering email, checking out various news items, visiting various sites, etc. when I finally worked my way around to my dashboard and found your post. It took three or four tries before I could just read the first poem as I was so jumpy and hyper I couldn't settle down immediately to simply read and absorb.

I'm no Luddite either, but there must be a way to use the good parts of InfoTech and not get wrapped up in it and become hyper every time. I hope it's not an all-or-nothing situation.

Again, thanks for the sanity break.

Anonymous said...

Hamlet's last words are "The rest is silence." We come from silence and we return to silence.

We do, as you said, live in a noisy world, most of it trivial, some of it vulgar and crass. It seems that as our culture "progresses" the noise increases. I would not exempt the incessant sound of people texting. Noise diverts us from the mystery and wonder of life. (What are so afraid of that we ceaselessly seek vapid diversion?)

In the end, though, when one stands alone and contemplates the universe, a single self-conscious and mortal creature standing under eternity, the only proper response is silence.

Over the years I have lost my fondness for Whitman, but he wrote passages of great beauty. I find this little poem(see below) of his sums the human condition, shows the only response a keen sensibility can muster when it stands in the midst of an unfathomable mystery.

All the proofs of the learn'd astronomer, the charts, the speculations, cannot match a man struck silent as he looks into the night sky.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, Your opening paragraph is an almost picture perfect description of the university library I spend my working day in. I,of course am old enough to remember the days of a rule of silence in libraries. Now, apart from a designated silent area the library is a cacophony of many mobile phone conversations conducted simultaneously in louder and louder voices as each individual tries to speak over their neighbour, yet seems oblivious of others around them. The content of the conversation itself often betrays this fact. When working on the library desk it is sometimes impossible to clearly hear the questions you are being asked.

Apart from the impoliteness, the worrying factor to me is the reliance people have on their mobile phones. Someone recently said to me in all seriousness " I simply couldn't live without my phone". I suspect I may be more of a Luddite than yourself. Essentially because the frightening rapidity with which people become dependent on technology never seems to be matched by any equal level of ability to become in any way independent of that technology.
Secondly as you say technology so often "reduces he time and space available for serenity and reverie", and that is a true loss.

Basil Willey,a professor of English literature once said in a favourite quote of mine "Solitude, silence, the admonishing presence of grand and permanent forms and the gentle allurements of pure air, flowers and clear streams are valuable in themselves" Though to an increasingly diminishing number of people I fear.

I very much like the selection from Tennyson, this verse is beautiful
, "Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
These leaves that redden to the fall;
And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:

Thank you also for posting another of my very favourite poems of Wallace Stevens. I agree with that poetry promotes reverie and concentration in the reader, though sadly from the evidence of the library shelves poetry is less and less read, and yet as you say if we wish to be truly human. I'll say no more, you have said it yourself in this post with far greater clarity than I can muster at this moment.
Thank you for continuing to with such interesting posts.

Valkrye said...

How much your post resonates with me. Although I would be considered by many to be a liberal in my views I feel my real philosophy is simply composed of common sense, to do harm to none, to extend tolerance ect. Although I am an activist for the environment, animals and those who have no voice, I know I am decidedly 'conservative ' when it comes to much of today's technology which seems to serve no real purpose but to distract and keep humans from observing the world in all it's infinite variety and keeps an artificial distance from interacting directly with other humans but more than anything annoys me beyond all measure. There is so little quiet and true calm in this world that I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy being out in it for so many reasons~ cell phone use and complete lack of consideration for others the chief ones. I have become effectively a hermit and although the natural world has always been my chief source of solace, sanctuary and delight, even that has been encroached upon ~ Traveling which used to actually be a joy for me has long been a kind of torture now for so many of the things you list. I commiserate with you wholeheartedly.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I'm certainly not immune to the conundrum of which you write. I spend much more time on the computer than I ought to, and I'm trying to limit my time on the Internet. To this end, I'm trying my best to wean myself entirely of "news." Thus, I avoid news sites and political blogs. But, as you suggest, the time still gets away. There is an element of addiction versus self-control at work; but I don't think (to respond to your rhetorical question) that it is an "all or nothing" proposition (as in the case of true addiction). One needn't go cold turkey. Otherwise, for example, where would blogging be!

Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your thoughts on silence. I agree that noise-generation and technology infatuation are often symptoms of the avoidance of other things -- something we all are prey to. And as for texting: don't get me started!

Thank you as well for the poem by Whitman. I am not very well acquainted with his poetry, but I encountered this poem years ago, and I have always been fond of it. It goes quite well in this context.

Thanks again.

self-consumer said...

There's a French New Right thinker called Guillaume Faye, whose book "Archeofuturism" advocates for the synthesis of traditional society with legitimate technology and provides a cogent critique of western liberalism. You may be interested.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments. First, it is discouraging to hear about the state of affairs in the university library: I would have thought there would be a designated cell phone area, rather than a designated silent area! But I cannot say that I'm completely surprised, given the way of the world these days. Second, I agree that the dependence upon cell phones (and other technology) is, as you say, what may be most worrying. As I mentioned in my response to Fred's comment, there is an element of addiction involved in the use of technology. I confess that I am not free of it. But I think there is a lack of awareness as to how these things can subtly change our lives.

Thank you for the wonderful quote from Basil Willey, which is new to me. He hits the nail on the head.

Yes, that stanza of Tennyson's poem is wonderful; in particular, as I mentioned in the post: "And in my heart, if calm at all,/If any calm." As you know, Tennyson is not the most emotionally demonstrative of poets, but I think those lines reveal what could lie within him. I wish he had let his guard down in this fashion more often. My favorite passages in his poetry are those in which he surrenders his reserve, however briefly.

As for Stevens's poem, it is one of my favorites as well. Although, as is often the case with his poems, I've never been certain that I "get it." Which is fine. It sounds beautiful.

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Valkrye: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Your point about technology distancing us from the natural world and preventing real interaction with other human beings is an excellent one. It fits well with my first quote from Wittgenstein about "aeroplanes and the radio": is technology indeed a means for effecting "the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture"? Like Wittgenstein, I'm skeptical. And, like you, I see a distancing element. Not to mention, as you say, how annoying the use of technology can be.

Of course, I use the word "conservative" in a philosophical (if that doesn't sound too highfalutin'), not a political, sense. I try my best to ignore politics -- left, right or Martian. I believe that you and I agree on what "conservative" means in this context.

Again, thank you very much for your comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

self-consumer: I've never heard of Faye. After receiving your comment, I read some excerpts from Archeofuturism that I found on the Internet. I don't think that he's my cup of tea: too political; and, although I've only seen excerpts, his views (political or otherwise) seem pretty extreme (downright scary, in fact). But I do appreciate your bringing him to my attention.

Bruce Floyd said...

In what I think is the penultimate paragraph of "The Great Gatsy," the narrator, Nick Carraway, says,

"Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

When one finds something commensurate with one's capacity for wonder, one's only response is silence. The Dutch sailors hold their breath. In the presence of unsurpassed wonder one can say nothing. Words are inadequate. To try to exclaim on the ineffable is to sully the thing of wonder. One can only stand silent.

Keats was stunned by the beauty of Chapman's translation of Homer. The only way he can measure the depth of the effect of the poetry on him is to compare his reaction with men who, after hacking their way through an almost impenetrable rain forest, come out of the forest, make their way to a peak, where, in "wild surmise." On this peak, the mighty Pacific tossing in front of them, they stand "silent."

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
On the Grasshopper and Cricket

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your thoughts on silence, and for the passages from Fitzgerald and Keats. Calm and silence are natural partners. As a long-time reader of this blog, you may recall that I have quoted on more than one occasion this statement by Wittgenstein, which is a touchstone for me: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7 (Pears/McGuinness translation).

Thank you for visiting again. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Fred said...


"The greatest revelation is stillness." Lao-Tse

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you. Very nice. This sort of wisdom has been around for ages, but we each need to rediscover it over and over again for ourselves. (This is in the nature of an admonition to myself, definitely NOT a claim to possessing any such wisdom.) We are fortunate to have it available to us. But we need to constantly remind ourselves. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

The Holy Silence--Silence as the cornerstone of character

From an article on the Sioux way of life.

The first American believed profoundly in silence — the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. The man who preserves his selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence — not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the surface of shining pool — his, in the mind of the unlettered sage, is the ideal attitude and conduct of life. If you ask him: “What is silence?” he will answer: “It is the Great Mystery!” “The holy silence is His voice!” If you ask: “What are the fruits of silence?” he will say: “They are self-control, true courage or endurance, patience, dignity, and reverence. Silence is the cornerstone of character.” “Guard your tongue in youth,” said the old chief, Wabashaw, “and in age you may mature a thought that will be of service to your people!”

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing this. It goes well here, and provides further evidence of the timelessness of this sort of wisdom. Thanks again.