According to Seneca, the need for absolute quiet as a prerequisite to serious reflection signals that one's thoughts and emotions, not environmental conditions, are in turmoil. Seneca lived above a Roman bathhouse and was, one assumes, daily (and nightly) serenaded with the sounds of splashing water, the snapping of wet towels, the emetic gurgling of drains—and probably a few other things. I would hazard, though, that even the foulest downtown villa of Seneca's age provided its dwellers with a zone of aural calm, assailed with less distracting sonic amplitude than that seeping into a modern apartment, even an apartment beneath a storm shelter at the back of a desolate farmhouse on an unmapped cul-de-sac in Serenity Valley, Utah. Or, more personally, a villa of Seneca's day would have been more sonically tranquil than the series of rat holes that I—and, perhaps, you—inhabited for far too many years of my/your life.
I don't suggest Seneca was just gassing on so-called noise—or that the man was a self-important punk. He probably thought the echoing splashes and gurgling drains of the local toilets were very distracting—and he imagined, as a superior being, that he was handling the situation admirably. As a stoic, he simply applied to this everyday aggravation his simple and sustaining credo: "Life stinks. For example (speaking of stinking), my apartment is a noisy little toilet. (In this town, a 'one-bedroom' always means a studio.) I'd complain, but I'd probably get fed to a lion. Anyway, what I'm saying, friends, Romans, countrymen, probably your apartments are noisy little toilets, too. My advice to you? 'Shut up and get used to it.'" Seneca's unstated corollary, as with all philosophical statements, "Accept these well-meaning, stoical words as truth, Romans, so that, if nothing else, we at least may have the sustaining misery of each other's spiritual company."
However, whether you are Seneca, The Who’s sound guy, or merely a modern apartment dweller, noise, as opposed to sound, is defined subjectively. Cultural, economic, vocational, and other factors temper our assessments, applying filters to seeming objective sensory input. Pastoral, brook-like toilet splashing bothered Seneca. For me, it’s squalling, purple-faced toddlers, yapping rat terriers, and window-rattling bass lines emanating from cars lingering too long on the street corner.
If you’d inhabited one of my rat havens of yore—for example, the micro-studio with the mold wainscoting and the hole in the "living" room ceiling—you would have, after a long workweek, eventually dragged yourself to the local coin laundry. In such a paradise, and in such an exhausted, aggrieved state of mind, perhaps you, like me, would have muttered about the "yowls" (not "endearing coos") of the "brats" (not "adorable lil' tykes") who clogged the aisles of that cursed (not "anthropologically rich") locale. But impose a new vocational perspective: An obstetrician, detecting the identical high-pitched screams of red-faced infants, invariably shouts: "Eureka! With the successful delivery, and spanking, of this youngest of customers, er—of lil' tykes—I have just earned another $75,000! Friends, colleagues, entrepreneurs, to the saloon!"
A middle-class suburbanite is annoyed when hard-working, sunburned roofers play their AM country radio a little too loudly for his taste. Would this hold true if this same suburbanite, trapped in a garage's waiting room, heard the mechanics blasting Tchaikovsky on a Bose? No, that would rank as an interesting, maybe even pleasurable, experience—plus, provide an anecdote to share with fellow Yuppies. Maybe, though, the country-versus-orchestral music comparison centers on locale, not occupation, class, or sound/noise sources. Maybe the roofers' blasting radio would be perceived by the homeowner as an imposition on the neighbors. (At the garage, it is understood, the customer is the imposition.) But class certainly would be operative in another setting: it might take only a half-starved matchstick girl's soft singing of heartwarming spirituals to irritate a Wall Street captain of finance. (More irritating still would be the former colleague, with his cries of "Apples—five cents! Apples—five cents!," which wouldn't just be noisy, but pushy—not to mention repetitious, and as friendly attorney-acquaintances would concur, seditious and actionable.)
Now, a gun blast is always disconcerting, I think, whether you are curled, fetus-like (and wearing earplugs) in your rat hole or you are simply sipping your third latte in the surgeons' lounge and quietly updating the deposit column of your checkbook. However, a figurative gunshot also is unsettling: a stifled cough in a strictly run library inspires a rain of muttered curses. And sometimes, too, the absence of sound/noise, real or figurative, is disconcerting. If you were former governor Sarah Palin, for example, the absence of a loud KER-BLAM!! when you pulled both triggers of your sawed-off shotgun would be, if you were eye to eye with a frothing, feral moose, unsettling.
Then again, maybe real, or figurative, noises have more to do with the definition of, and appreciation of, contrasting silence. So, "noise" is, by extension, not so much about temporary acoustical distraction but about sonically integrated closure. The satisfying BOOM!! ... BOOM!! of both barrels, pointed at the left-leaning moose (shot in its so-called, now literally bleeding, heart) signals the silent demise of the cleverly disguised, low-flyin’-Piper-Cub Ruskie bovine. The newborn’s squalls represent the obstetrician's first, and final, payment on the swimming pool—a ceramic holding pen for his own obnoxious, unplanned, and yowling offspring. (For the good doctor, then, baby screams represent... serenity!) And the steady BLANG! BLANG! TUH-BLANG! BLANG! BLANG! TUH-BLANG! of the starter home's out-of-kilter clothes washer? I’d say that represents an imperfect, but perfectly acceptable, ending of future coin laundry visits.
So, perhaps, the best approach to ignoring so-called noises is not to ignore them. If noises are classified, real or figurative, they can be controlled, even embraced. Once the sounds of twangy radios, screaming infants, imploding clothes washers, jabberin' ex-governors, and other auditory irritations are classified, they truly can be ignored—potentially benefiting every citizen of this so-called “noisy” universe.
Chris Sumberg's writing has appeared in The Guardian, Urbanite, Chronogram, American Writer, OrionOnline, PopPolitics, and other magazines. He currently resides in Tennessee.