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I always find New York in September overwhelming. It’s a busy enough city but right now it seems busier than at any other time. Thousands of people flock into town for New York Fashion Week, Climate Week, United Nations events, and the renowned Armory art fair. If it’s possible to imagine, the streets in certain districts feel more crowded, the restaurants more full and free cabs much harder to find. Overall, everything and everywhere seems five times noisier.
By their very nature, cities are cacophonous places. But then everywhere, it seems, one must contend with an increased level of noise in public spaces. These days it’s rare to enter a café or store without being bombarded by loud music on top of all the chatter. Maybe because I live in New York, and because I also happen to be a writer who struggles to work well in noisy environments, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of quiet spaces. Very few of us would deny that we would benefit from dialling down the volume in our lives — but to what end?
The French painter James Tissot is mostly known for his figurative work depicting 19th-century high society. He later turned to religious and spiritual themes but “The Creation”, painted between 1896 and 1902, is best described as an abstract landscape. In this work, a billow of cloud and vapour envelops a body of water, parting to reveal a small eddy. There is no sign of human or marine life but the scene still feels animated, and there are beautiful patches of golden light.
I am captivated by this painting. Amid the churn of mist, water and sunlight there is an aura of serene quiet. To gaze at it has a calming and meditative effect, yet there is nothing recognisably ordered or definable in the formless void. In creation myths this state is often referred to as one of chaos, and in our regular lives we frequently interpret the language of chaos in negative terms because it suggests a lack of control. But it does not have to be seen in this way. Often, when we are unable to control or predict what occurs, the edges of what is possible expand. In the quiet chaos of this painting, we sense the nascent stage of something forming. Creativity taking hold.
When we speak of needing space to clear our head, we are seeking ways of ordering the chaos within. I am someone who reads a great deal, and who listens, and looks intently at the world. It is part of my nature, but it is also part of what feeds my work. Often I feel full of loose thoughts, burgeoning ideas and observations: sentences and concepts that seem meaningful to me swim about my head without necessarily being tied to anything. It is a chaos of good things. And I need quiet spaces to allow my mind to make connections and draw conclusions of its own accord. As the painting suggests, from the chaotic void, new creation is always possible.
In contemplating the benefits of quiet spaces I spent time with “High Tide, Étretat”, a painting from 1884 by the American artist Daniel Ridgway Knight. Here, two women are reclining on the debris-strewn sands of the oceanfront. There is no blanket underneath them to protect their clothing. And from the way they are dressed, in full skirts with aprons tied around their waists — a pair of woven baskets nearby — they appear to be labourers taking a break. If this painting had a soundtrack, we might hear the foamy sea crashing against the banks and birds overhead. Maybe the women occasionally speak to one another. Though both are staring at the sea, one woman has positioned herself headfirst towards the undulating waves and is gazing out lost in thought. I imagine her listening as the ocean speaks into the quiet.
I was drawn to this piece because it reminded me that quiet spaces are not the same as silent spaces. The reduction of sound is different from the absence of sound. And sometimes what a quiet space does is make us more cognisant of the sounds we want more of in our lives as well as those we want less of.
I recently spent a few days sequestered away in a cottage in the middle of the country trying to get further on a writing project. One day I took my lunch outside to sit in the quiet. It took me a while to realise that the air was filled with the reverberating hum of hundreds of insects. There were no other sounds to drown them out. It was an illuminating reminder that nature is always speaking even if few of us can access the quiet spaces in which to hear it. This got me thinking, like Ridgway Knight’s painting does, about the ways I could be a better steward of sounds in my everyday life. What would it look like to make a daily sound inventory, and to note the ways we might eliminate certain noises so that others might increase in our lives? This might actually mean more radical changes than we had planned.
“After Breakfast” by Finnish painter Elin Danielson-Gambogi is on the long list of my favourite 19th-century works. Danielson-Gambogi was one of the first group of Finnish women artists to receive a formal art education. In this 1890 painting a young woman lounges at an uncleared breakfast table, casually holding a cigarette. She is staring off into space as she coolly blows smoke into the air. She appears to be thinking something through or sitting with a particular thought. The scene evokes that beautiful line by writer Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If we want quiet spaces then perhaps we are going to have to figure out how to carve them into the routines and commitments of our daily lives, even if it looks like taking 15 extra minutes at the breakfast table.
I also like this painting because it’s a reminder that whether we escape to the mountains or the country or the seaside, or stay right at home, we may only truly feel the benefit of a quiet space if we have figured out how to be comfortable with ourselves. We are not always ready to receive or confront whatever a quiet environment may prompt within us. I’ve had the experience many times of travelling to a beautiful, peaceful location, only to find myself restless during the day or up at night with my same old fears and anxieties. It’s a humbling thing to discover that we take ourselves wherever we go, and that we must make peace with our own company before we can expect too much of our external environment.
To look at this painting is to invite our own considerations of where we make spaces for quiet in our cluttered lives. And also, perhaps, to consider the more difficult but equally necessary question: if and when we find that quiet space, are we prepared to dwell in it?
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Source: Financial Times