Nobility and Noise

Does nobility have a place in our noisy land of freedom?  I’m fearful that we’ve gotten so far from publicly valuing nobility that the word doesn’t conjure much beyond knights in shining armor or mustachioed racists striding through fluted columns. 

Nobility–if the reminder is helpful–properly refers to that part of our psyche with desires elevated beyond buying, selling, and getting by.  There’s nobility in our taking pride in the food we prepare or the clothes we put on.  There’s nobility in well-performed actions of courtesy and duty. Nobility flowers when we make something enduring and beautiful, or devote ourselves to a good cause, or contemplate things simply to understand them, or do something memorable and expressive of who we are, like signing the Constitution or declaring our love.  A mind possessed by nobility regards commerce and getting-by as necessities instrumental towards the achievement of higher projects. A noble mind may insist on doing business well; but when the chips are down, power never trumps truth, fame never trumps honor, and money never trumps the music.

Music, in fact, is quintessentially noble. But music, as we well know, can have its natural nobility dulled. Music can be used simply as “entertainment,” in the semi-entertaining sense of numbing us to the boring present, like listening to an iPod while doing data-entry, or being lightly lulled by twenty-year-old pop songs as we stalk the aisles of the supermarket, or singing along to a catchy tune as we barrel down the interstate. Music also commonly serves the necessary but non-noble purpose of being a release valve for the tensions built up by anxious ways of living, like when we turn a song up and sway and flow to it–or thrash and bang–in an effort to melt our individualities into its musical tide.

The opposite of music is not – of course – silence but noise. There’s a wonderful little essay by Arthur Schopenhauer on the topic which begins:

Kant wrote a treatise on The Vital Powers. I should prefer to write a dirge for them. The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people.

He goes on to attack the ceaseless and – in his view – unnecessary cracking of whips to drive horses.

Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the crying of children are horrible to hear; but your only genuine assassin of thought is the crack of a whip; it exists for the purpose of destroying every pleasant moment of quiet thought that any one may now and then enjoy. If the driver had no other way of urging on his horse than by making this most abominable of all noises, it would be excusable; but quite the contrary is the case. This cursed cracking of whips is not only unnecessary, but even useless. Its aim is to produce an effect upon the intelligence of the horse; but through the constant abuse of it, the animal becomes habituated to the sound, which falls upon blunted feelings and produces no effect at all. The horse does not go any faster for it.

Imagine the venom that the blathering of cell phones – 99.9999999% of the time completely useless – would have inspired in Schopenhauer. It would be more than enough to justify the long-held belief that democracies like ours are completely hostile to the cultivation of nobility.

This is why I love that story about Wynton Marsalis and the cell phone, where his wrenchingly melancholy solo is interrupted by a chirping cell phone, so he mimics the sound of the ring on his horn, performs variations on it, and finally resolves those variations back into the melody he was playing. Other people have told me that they’ve heard jazz musicians do the same thing. Such examples show that Schopenhauer isn’t totally right; that the human spirit can not only withstand the degradations of noise but even draw inspiration from them; that nobility is realizable, perhaps even supremely realizable, in our noisy democracy.

[Warning: Ignoble language is liberally strewn throughout the following clip, which is nonetheless a charming example of the all-out war between cell phones and nobility.]

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