On Noise and Racket
In 1937, a 31-year-old Samuel Beckett, convalescing from a spell of "gastric flu (so called)" and his first completed novel, Murphy, wrote to Thomas McGreevy: "When I was ill I found the only thing I could read was Schopenhauer. Everything else I tried only confirmed the feeling of sickness. It was very curious. Like suddenly a window opened on a fug. I always knew he was one of the ones that mattered most to me . . . a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the a priori forms of verification. Although it is a fact that judged by them his generalisation shows fewer cracks than most generalisations." The following mass of cracked and flagrant generalization is excerpted from the great post-Kantian pessimist's 1851 collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena—two volumes much concerned with human suffering and its sources, among them: women, bad poetry, and noise.
Kant has composed a disquisition on the Living Powers: I, for my part, would like to write a dirge and a threnody for them; because their exceedingly frequent employment in knocking, hammering, and clattering has been, throughout my life, a daily source of anguish. Admittedly, there exist an enormous number of people who merely laugh at such things, for they are impervious to noise: these are precisely the same people who are likewise impervious to reason, to ideas, to poetry and works of art, in short, to intellectual impressions of every kind: and this is owing to the density and sturdy texture of their cerebral matter. In contrast, I find lamentations over the pain occasioned by noise in thinking men in the biographies or miscellaneous accounts of personal remarks of almost all the great writers—for example, those of Kant, Goethe, and Jean Paul; indeed, if any of them omits to mention it, this is purely because the context fails to provide an opportunity. For my part, I construe the matter thus: as the value of an enormous diamond smashed to pieces is reduced to that of so many slivers; or as an army, if it scatters—that is to say, dissolves into tiny bands—is rendered impotent; so a great mind is likewise reduced to the commonplace as soon as it has been interrupted, violated, scattered, diverted; for its superiority is conditional on all of its strength—like a convex mirror all its beams—being focused on a single point and object, and precisely in this is it thwarted by clamorous interruption. Thus all eminent spirits have been highly averse to every sort of disturbance, disruption, and diversion, but particularly to violent noise; whereas the rabble finds little objectionable in the same. As a matter of fact, the wisest and wittiest of all the nations of Europe—England—has made its eleventh commandment Never interrupt. Racket, however, is the most impertinent of all interruptions, for it disrupts our very thoughts, indeed, shatters them. But where there is nothing to interrupt, this shattering will not, of course, be especially felt. — Now and again I will find myself afflicted and perturbed by a persistent middling noise for quite some time before becoming consciously aware of it, in as much as I simply feel it as a continual impediment to thought, a stumbling block, until at last I realize what it is.
But now—pressing onward from genus to species—I must denounce as the most unjustifiable and nefarious of rackets that truly infernal snapping of whips in the echoing streets and alleys of our towns. These abrupt, piercing, brain-shredding, thought-murdering cracks must strike anyone with anything even remotely resembling a thought in his head as unbearably painful; every such crack must disrupt hundreds of his mental operations, be they ever so degraded; they sweep, however, through the cogitations of a thinker as painfully and perniciously as an executioner's sword between a head and trunk. And now, add to all this that the accursed cracking of whips is not merely unnecessary, but worse, completely counterproductive. That is to say, its imagined psychological effect on the horse is entirely blunted and comes to nothing, for thanks to the incessant abuse of the whip, the animals have become wholly inured to it: they invariably fail to quicken their pace; as one sees particularly when drivers with empty hacks go trawling for customers, constantly cracking and clattering, though dragging along with the slowest of steps: the slightest touch of the whip would be more effective. The matter at hand must therefore constitute precisely an impudent mockery of those that work with their heads on the part of the poor and laboring portions of society. That such an infamy is tolerated in our cities is indeed a gross injustice and barbarity; and all the more so, as it would be rather easy to abolish by means of a police ordinance requiring knots to be tied at the end of every whipcord. It cannot hurt to call the proletariat's attention to the mental labor of the superior classes: for when faced with all such mental labor they are seized by an ungovernable fear. But that a wretch driving a single nag or a carthorse through the narrow alleys of a city, incessantly cracking a fathom-long whip with all his might, does not immediately merit five passionate strokes of the rod—of this, all the philanthropists in the world, all the societies convened for the abolition of corporal punishment, no matter how sound their reasons, will never persuade me. What, with all of this general solicitousness for the body and its needs, should the thinking mind be the only thing that we fail to afford the slightest consideration and protection, never mind respect? — We can only hope that in this too the more intelligent and sensitive nations will take the lead, and that the Germans will be led by their example. Meanwhile, Thomas Hood has remarked of the latter: For a musical people, they are the most noisy I ever met with.
Now—what of the literature treating the subjects touched on in this chapter? I have only a single work to recommend (though a lovely one)—namely, a poetic epistle in terza-rima by the renowned painter Bronzino, entitled De romori, a Messer Luca Martini: here the torment visited upon one by the manifold dins of an Italian city are elaborately and very wittily delineated, in a tragi-comic fashion. One will find this epistle on page 258 of the second volume of the Opere burleschi del berni, Aretino ed altri, ostensibly published in Utrecht in 1771.
Translated by Aaron Kerner