Whispering at the shouting taxi driver

by Brian Harper

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One of the words most closely associated with experimental composer John Cage is silence, which is an odd word to identify with a musician. His most famous work --- "4'33" " -- involves the performer sitting with an instrument, never playing it, and only occasionally making seemingly non-musical sounds, like clicking a watch or closing a piano cover.

For Cage, there was something happening in that silence.

"There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time," he once said. "There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot."

Cage's ideas about silence extended beyond his art, representing something like a philosophy:

I noticed in New York, where the traffic is so bad and the air is so bad … you get into a taxi and very frequently the poor taxi driver is just beside himself with irritation. And one day I got into one and the driver began talking a blue streak, accusing absolutely everyone of being wrong. You know he was full of irritation about everything, and I simply remained quiet. I did not answer his questions, I did not enter into a conversation, and very shortly the driver began changing his ideas and simply through my being silent he began, before I got out of the car, saying rather nice things about the world around him.

My notion of how to proceed in a society to bring change is not to protest the thing that is evil, but rather to let it die its own death. I think that protests about these things, contrary to what has been said, will give it the kind of life that a fire is given when you fan it, and that it would be best to ignore it, put your attention elsewhere, take actions of another kind of positive nature, rather than to continue to give life to the negative by negating it.

We are living in a time ripe with Cage's disgruntled taxi driver. On any given day, the trappings of life can coalesce into a perfect storm of fury-inducing misadventure. Traffic, weather, work, personal demands … it is not hard to become "full of irritation about everything," particularly when the object of our ire is another furious cab driver. Just look at the effect the major presidential candidates have on so many of us.

It is also easy to justify the noise of our rage -- or even just the noise of our modern existence -- when we convince ourselves we are making it in defense of some righteous cause. Some injustice -- like a presidential candidate mocking vast swaths of the American public -- vexes our sense of decency, and we feel an impulse to do something to address it. So we react in kind. Then, our opponent shoots back, and we do, too. Soon, we are all irate together.

We do not see many people respond to today's taxi drivers the way Cage did to his, because it feels like a non-response, as though we are ignoring a problem.

But I think this brand of silence is distinct from the silence of apathy. It is not turning away from trouble, nor is it the indifferent silence Elie Wiesel described as enabling cruelty. Rather, it is recognizing, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did, that evil is not defeated by its double.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," he said. "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

For those who are like me and struggle to envision how Cage's process would look or work in practice, revisit the great scene in "12 Angry Men," in which silence quiets a man's bigotry in a way hours of arguing could not. Witness Jesus' path, described in Andrew Sullivan's fantastic New York magazine article, "I Used to Be a Human Being": "Jesus, like the Buddha, revealed as much by his silences as by his words. He was a preacher who yet wandered for 40 days in the desert; a prisoner who refused to defend himself at his trial."

Even when silence is impossible, when egregious untruths and acts of cruelty simply demand a response, we can at least operate in the spirit of Cage's law. We can answer tantrums with tranquility, confusion with clarity, and violence with peace. Responding to disgusting speech with disgusting words about the speaker helps no one.

Silence. In the face of so much vitriol and violence that are worthy of our protest, have we given silence its moment to breathe? Maybe we fear doing so will allow all that is wrong in the world the final word.

But if Cage is right, and there is always something going on in those silences, we may begin to discover what Elijah did in 1 Kings 19:11-13 -- a voice of truth that is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the "still small voice."

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. His writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the National Catholic Reporter, and various other publications. You can find his work at brianharper.net.]

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