Ladies and gentlemen, please make some noise for Arthur Schopenhauer!


What a relief it was to read Schopenhauer’s essay On Noise. Apparently I’m not the only one who, on more than one occasion, has been on the verge of losing their mind because of unnecessary disruptive noises. Focusing my mental powers on blank pages that are waiting to be filled and filled pages that are waiting to be read is hard enough without acoustic disruptions.

     Unlike a lot of people, but not unlike Schopenhauer, I’m extremely sensitive to noise when working. The German philosopher astutely anticipated that enough of his readers would be unable to sympathise with his rant about disruptive noises, which led him to write the following: “Certainly there are people, nay, very many, who smile at this, because they are not sensitive to noise; it is precisely these people, however, who are not sensitive to argument, thought, poetry or art, in short, to any kind of intellectual impression.” Although this is a bit harsh, I think he was onto something.

     Having introduced the topic of noise, Schopenhauer advances “from genus to species”, mentioning crying babies and barking dogs, both of which I can sympathise with perfectly well. When I’m working on something at home, it’s usually ever-barking dogs in my neighbourhood that devastate my concentration, sometimes to the point of putting my sanity at stake.

     The only time I ever really notice babies acoustically is on public transport. I have to say, I don’t really mind them crying and being sick and what not. Well, actually I do mind. The noises (and sometimes smells) that emanate from babies don’t have a particularly positive effect on my productivity, to put it gently. But it seems a bit unreasonable to blame babies for laughing, crying, and vomiting. Babies are not being disrespectful. They are simply being babies; blissfully unaware of their surroundings and the implications of their behaviour. So who is to blame? If it’s not the babies themselves then surely it must be the people responsible for bringing them into existence. To be honest, I also have a hard time blaming parents. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to take care of a baby. I’m 21 and I can barely take care of myself. The only thing that really annoys me is if a parent devotes the greater part of their attention to a game of Candy Crush rather than their crying child.

     So according to Schopenhauer, barking dogs and crying toddlers are an “abomination”, but he considered one type of noise in particular the “true murderer of thought”: “the truly infernal cracking of whips in the narrow resounding streets of a town must be denounced as the most unwarrantable and disgraceful of all noises. It deprives life of all peace and sensibility. Nothing gives me so clear a grasp of the stupidity and thoughtlessness of mankind as the tolerance of the cracking of whips. This sudden, sharp crack which paralyses the brain, destroys all meditation and murders thought, must cause pain to any one who has anything like an idea in his head.” Of course horse carriages being a thing of the past, the noises produced by the cracking of whips are no longer a problem, unless you have neighbours who are into more exotic sexual practices, the likes of which can be seen or read about in Fifty Shades of Grey (I should point out I’ve actually neither seen nor read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I presume there must be some whipping involved; otherwise, what is all the fuss about?).

     Let’s stick to the theme of transport, and move on from 19th century horse carriages to modern public transport. Schopenhauer likens the effect that disruptive noises have on a high intellect at work to smashing a diamond to smithereens: both “immediately lose their value as a whole”. I undoubtedly do get annoyed and frustrated by people being unnecessarily noisy on public transport. However, I fear it’s a bit hubristic to refer to myself as the intellectual equivalent of a diamond. For instance, last week I was on the train reading a book entitled Talking Cock, a humorous exploration of modern-day manhood by comedian Richard Herring. Not far away from me sat a middle-aged woman who, to my annoyance, spoke into her phone at quite a high volume. I thought about intervening, but considering my choice of literature as well as the fact that the front cover of the book depicts a sketch drawing of a naked man with quite an impressive phallus, I was hardly going to get up and shout: “How dare you disturb the intellectual efforts of a genius?!”. To be perfectly honest, no matter how important a task I might be occupied with, I would never raise my voice at anyone on public transport. I’m not particularly confrontational, so tutting and moving seats is as far as I ever go. Although that’s a lie as well. I won’t even go as far as tutting. I only ever move seats, cowardly.

     Apart from people making pointless phone calls, the worst nuisance in my eyes (or ears rather) is music. There seems to be a new trend (chiefly among teenagers) to not use headphones anymore when listening to music on public transport, especially on the train. Worse still, some youngsters even seem unsatisfied with the volume that their smartphones’ built-in speakers produce. They require further amplification, and resort to using pocket Bluetooth speakers. An optimist may interpret the teenagers’ eagerness to share their music with their fellow passengers as an act of altruism almost akin to the Feeding of the 5,000 (just with music instead of bread and fish). Given my highlighted sympathy towards Schopenhauer—a notorious pessimist—you can hardly expect me to out myself as an optimist. Actually, if I’m perfectly honest, I don’t have a satisfying answer to the age-old optimist v. pessimist dichotomy. I have a hard time opting for either because my outlook on life heavily depends on the mood in which I find myself. That being said I do tend to dwell on the side of pessimism, if only because it’s so much better suited for comedy. Furthermore, when it comes to matters of respect and human nature in general I often find it very hard to remain optimistic for long. My personal experience tells me that very few things offer as great an insight into the ugliness of human nature as commuting by public transport. I digress.

     Maybe teenagers listening to their music at high volume wouldn’t be such a bad thing if something could be done about the style of music. Mostly what I hear is ethically questionable rap songs. I don’t know about you but I much prefer train journeys during which I don’t have to subject my ears to derogatory comments about the female of the species and the glamorization of gratuitous violence.

     And call me selfish but I don’t feel the need to share my music with anybody else on the train. I’m perfectly satisfied in the knowledge that the only person who can hear my music is me (why would I want others to know that I listen to 1989 on a loop? I don’t really).

     “If you’re upset by other people’s behaviour on public transport, why don’t you just commute by car?”, you may ask. Well, my answer is a combination of environmental concerns and my fondness for reading. I’ve tried reading while driving but found it impossible to concentrate on the content of the book. After a few attempts it also dawned on me that reading while driving could potentially present some safety concerns. And I can’t bear listening to audio books unless they’re narrated by Stephen Fry.

     In conclusion, I think the quality of my life would improve considerably if fellow train passengers developed the ability to suppress at least some of their thoughts, or decrease the volume at which they articulate them. I’m also anxiously awaiting headphones to get back into fashion with teenagers. In the meantime, just like an optimist, I’ll try to focus on the positive: I’ve discovered a philosopher whose writings I very much enjoy. Though to be honest, my enthusiasm for Schopenhauer was somewhat curbed when I read his essay about women. His intentions were laudable I’m sure, but I think it’s fair to say that in our day, his views would be considered politically incorrect to say the least.

     “One need only look at a woman’s shape to discover that she is not intended for either too much mental or too much physical work.” Publish a thought like this on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll be guaranteed to provoke one hell of a backlash. “Different times…”, you may rightfully interject. It is true that in the 18th/19th century, such characterizations of women were not exactly hard to come by. Still, for the brilliant thinker that he undoubtedly was, I thought Schopenhauer’s beliefs about women were a bit of a let-down. Here’s another highlight: “Women are directly adapted to act as the nurses and educators of our early childhood, for the simple reason that they themselves are childish, foolish, and short-sighted — in a word, are big children all their lives”. Not great, is it?

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