Guest Contributor: Dena Ratner
Plugged into Clinic, your thirty-minute journey to work is colored by the band’s coke-induced fast tracks. What started out as a bleary-eyed trudge is transformed into matutinal elation as you’re gliding down the street past person after person, cars cars cars and building after building, everything is rocking with your aural jubilation As you climb up the stairs and come back forever / Summer’s in the house, untamed it was / Walking with thee / Walking with thee / Walking with thee / Walking with thee until you arrive at work and barely remember how you got there.
By clogging up your ears with mood-enhancing, time-warping melodies, you escape from the world as it is and enter a more self-revolving, cinematic realm. Feelings produced by your music are projected back onto the space around you. Your music becomes a personal soundtrack and what you see is scenery. But life is not a movie. What happened to observing, thinking… eavesdropping?
With open ears, a commute can be an opportunity to conduct research into the current state of the world.
Accelerating at the light, a heavy engine takes several seconds to get up to speed. And I was like, oh my god, and then she was like… A jackhammer beats the sidewalk on the next block. Picking a metal skeleton up off the street a man loudly laments, Oh my god what happened? Such a nice umbrella! Though I shiver in my winter coat, birds sing about a warmer season arriving, soon soon. There are seconds of silence. Then, a pair of high-heeled boots clack clack clack clack. A young girl tries to imitate the sound with her Keds, womp womp womp. She gives up and runs a couple of feet ahead crying Grandma! A man wearing red beads that jangle on his chest hums a bright tune I do not know HM HM HM, hMhMMh. Pop music leaks from an elegant restaurant. The food at John’s has been terrible since it moved from 1st. So I said I’m an actress, not a puppet. Uh huh. You ain done shit but walk to Six Avenue. Honk. Come inside, get your fortune read. Sweet grapes 99 cents. Bells, bells, bells (and the tintinnabulation that so musically wells) chime before a flock of strollers rumbles down the sidewalk. A woman sings to herself: You’re telling me you’re not nostalgic. So give me another word for it you who are so good with words and at keeping things vague… A biker whistles before he whizzes just past me through the red light.
Music, it can be said, is organized sound in time and is the nucleus of poetry. So, if poets wore headphones all day, would their work lack connectedness to coeval noise?
On the sidewalk, a ready-made medley of noise awaits the open-eared writer’s investigation and organization. Imagine if Virginia Woolf had worn ear buds on her walks, she might never have given us:
“The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body…The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined in the same way — to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves — should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey? — the ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fullness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire.” — Mrs. Dalloway
A single car crash briefly disturbed the quietude of an otherwise unremarkable day, only Woolf was receptive to that slight alteration it caused and all that it meant.
There is something about hearing the sounds that occur outside your control that is, as the Mastercard commercial for street-walking would say, priceless. Noises need not be purchased from John Cage. They can be found, without searching the Internet, and they pass, in an instant, out of existence. They are mostly forgotten or never heard at all. So, why do we plug ourselves up to avoid them? Are we simply bored? Or, are commuters, like party-goers holding their cups, unable to achieve comfort without being attached to something artificial?
The iPod not only occupies time and space, it also sends a message to other humanoids: Don’t talk to me, I’m listening. Once, going up the elevator to work, I overheard a coworker ask his earphone-wearing colleague: What are you listening to? The man replied: Actually nothing. The battery died. I just like to wear these.
Humankind, according to Kant, has a tendency toward “asocial sociability:” “Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man…But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish.” Kant argued that the tension between our desire to be the masters of our domains and our ambition to dominate others generated our ascent from barbarism to culture. But is our public isolation through music-listening a sign of cultural advance or degeneration?
In the incipient stage of culture music was, according to Nietzsche, a Dionysian experience. It was shared communally; people got drunk, watched a live band and danced together. With the advent of mp3 players music has been delivered into the cold, sculptured hands of Apollo. It is experienced individually from a mechanical device that supplies songs from disembodied musicians. Though there is nothing wrong with listening to recorded music, habitually using it to block out the world, avoid people, or show off is a misuse of the art and may impede your ability to create art.
If you want to open your ears but you find it too difficult to remove your buds all at once, try uncorking them gradually. First, listen to the street as you walk to work — you may find that you are amply entertained. Next, bring a book on the train instead of your iPod. The book will occupy your time and instruct your poesy but your ears will be free in case you should hear something juicy or dangerous.
Dena Ratner received her Master of Liberal Studies from The New School in New York City. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.