Urban Noise - Don't Press Mute
Tanya Schmidt '12
An advertising campaign for an online food delivery service popular in New York reminds me of a character from Ben Jonson’s 1609 city comedy Epicene, or The Silent Woman. The tagline quips: “Over 8 million people in New York City and we help you avoid them all.”
In Epicene, Jonson introduces the character Morose as “a gentleman who loves no noise.” Indeed, Morose dismisses a servant because his shoes creak too much (and then has someone in socks wait on him). He says that he would not mind a wife, as long as she is silent. Morose asserts, “All discourses but my own afflict me, they seem harsh, impertinent, and irksome.” His aversion to noise is humorous, but also reveals a selfish proclivity to mute our neighbors.
In order to read for school while on public transportation, I have learned to construct a bubble for myself. I wish I could say that it is not only when the undercover Broadway cast surprises commuters with a Lion King tune that I do not mind that voices pierce this bubble, but I hate that some mornings the plea of a homeless man feels like an interruption to studying. How did I learn to hear this person’s voice with Morose’s disposition, as noise not to love?
Do we actually engage with the diversity around us, or do we classify some voices as bothersome noise and segregate even more severely into neighborhoods and boroughs?
I joke with friends that I bypass tourist hub Times Square when possible, but I did not move to this bustling metropolis to avoid people. Rather, quite the opposite. Diversity, broadly defined, is a significant appeal of urban life—in New York and, I imagine, in Jonson’s London, which witnessed a fourfold population explosion at the turn of the 17th century. Do we actually engage with the diversity around us, or do we classify some voices as bothersome noise and segregate even more severely into neighborhoods and boroughs?
Of course, uncompromising profiling of people into flat, inhuman types is easier to do when we avoid actually interacting with our neighbors. Unfamiliarity with the homeless, or familiarity to the point that homelessness is no longer novel, might blind us to a relative on the street, as this social experiment video shows. Similarly, the anti-Muslim rhetoric currently circulating might seem justifiable when one has only encountered Islam through the language of terrorism.
When we listen closely, we might find that a neighbor’s voice is a sound to love, and has something worth listening to say.
Morose wants to be the most important voice heard, but he does not get the final word in Jonson’s play. At one point in Epicene, he laments: “O, the sea breaks in upon me! Another flood! An inundation! I shall be overwhelmed with noise.” Sometimes, being overwhelmed by the so-called “noise” of the “other” (whoever that may be) is the only way to shake us out of our shells so that we may hear another perspective. When we listen closely, we might find that a neighbor’s voice is a sound to love, and has something worth listening to say. Who do you regard as noise, and to whom might you newly listen to today?