William Hogarth depicts a noisy London in The Enraged Musician (1741).
In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the many ways writers have approached the phenomenon of noise. I begin today by turning back to the beginning of the twentieth century with Georg Simmel’s famous 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”
In his essay, Simmel observes how humans’ senses have adapted to specific environments over time. As people moved from the countryside to the modern metropolis, for instance, they had to develop physically and mentally to withstand the city’s constant external stimuli. Simmel explains that the metropolitan’s body gradually builds a “protective organ” that counters “the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it” (12). In other words, the organ literally shields metropolitans from the external city’s innumerable sights, sounds, and smells. This organ is necessary in an environment marked by constant sensory overload, for if metropolitans tried to perceive everything they encountered, they’d quickly become overwhelmed (and certainly accomplish nothing).
For Simmel, the “protective organ” alters the metropolitan not only physically but also emotionally. As the organ grows thicker, the metropolitan becomes more insulated from the external world and consequently becomes more introverted. Simmel opines that this introversion will, as a result, alter a metropolitan’s values: he/she will privilege things like reason and personal pursuits over emotion and interpersonality (a belief still visible in the stereotypes of the reserved, self-interested city-dweller and the hospitable countryman/woman). A metropolitan’s protective organ thus both shelters and inures.
By describing the effects of pervasive noise on a person’s body and psyche, Simmel’s essay illuminates another text on noise, which would come almost eighty years later: Don DeLillo’s White Noise. DeLillo’s novel takes place in a fictional, hyper-modernized American suburb, where external noises of every kind (the sounds of the highway, television shows, radio advertisements) prove utterly inescapable. For the reader and its characters, there’s a constant sensory overload: from the very first page, the reader is bombarded with stuff: “The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts.” Just as the station wagons are overstuffed with materials, so too we, the readers, are overwhelmed by the excesses we encounter in the novel. This satirical description of rampant American materialism isn’t overly exaggerated, either. We’re constantly experiencing the excesses of American life in all its forms (sounds and physical matter), and, as Simmel reminds us, we have to shelter ourselves from it.
DeLillo’s characters similarly have to make their environment into “white noise” to exist as sane, productive individuals. These characters both succeed and fail to block out noise in interesting ways, which I would need more space (and research) to outline, but for now I wish to emphasize how they present an extreme need for their “protective organs.” Because noise, in its many incarnations, permeates DeLillo’s America, his characters require an extra thick layer of protection; they get the Protective Organ Deluxe, to follow one of the novel’s fast-food allusions. Once they are so thoroughly cloistered within themselves, the characters fail to communicate and empathize with each other. And we readers sense that disconnect; the protagonist’s inability to know his family or even himself parallels our inability to know him or the rest of the his family. The “white noise” of the novel thus also interferes with readers’ responses, forcing us to block out the text’s many noises to try to focus on the characters.
While Simmel’s sociological account of early twentieth-century city life draws contrasts between the metropolis and country, explaining that people in the quiet, slower countryside lack a “protective organ,” DeLillo’s fictional, suburban town shows how the sensory overload endemic to the modern metropolis has now infiltrated America’s post-modern suburbs. Now all of America–from its cities to its suburbs–is marked by incessant noise. (Fittingly, White Noise was originally entitled Panasonic, which evokes the inescapable sounds–panasonic means “all sound”–and consumerism that defines American life). And as DeLillo and Simmel insist, such pervasive noise fills our everyday lives far beyond what we merely hear. The greater the onslaught of noise, the less we can feel, both personally and interpersonally. Whether we’re failing know ourselves or to empathize with others, our “protective organ” eventually becomes a dehumanizing presence that stifles as much as it protects.