Letters of C. G. Jung: Volume 2, 1951-1961

Carl Jung on Noise in Modern Times:

Carl G. Jung [September 1957]

Dear Professor Oftinger:

Unfortunately I am so old and tired that I am no longer able comply with your wish. You maybe assured, however, that I have every sympathy with your project and understand it only too well. I personally detest noise and flee it whenever and wherever possible, because it only disturbs the concentration needed for my work but forces me to make the additional physic effort of shutting it out.

You may get habituated to it as to over indulgence to alcohol, but just as you pay for this with cirrhosis of the liver, so in the end you pay for nervous stress with a premature depletion of your vital substance. Noise is certainly only one of evils our time, though perhaps most obtrusive.

The others are gramophone, the radio, and now the blight of television. I was once asked by an organization of teachers why, in spite of the better food in elementary schools, the curriculum could no longer be completed nowadays.

The answer is: lack of concentration, too many distractions. Many children do their work to the accompaniment of the radio. So much is fed into them from outside that they no longer have to think of something they could do something from inside themselves, which requires concentration. Their infantile dependence on the outside is thereby increased and prolonged into later life, when it becomes fixed in the well-known attitude that every inconvenience should be abolished by order of the state.

Panem et circenses-this is the degenerative symptom of urban civilization, to which we must now add the nerve-shattering din of our technological gadgetry. The alarming pollution of our water supplies, the steady increase of radioactivity, and the somber threat of overpopulation with its genocidal tendencies have already led to a widespread though not generally conscious fear which loves noise because it stops the fear from being heard.

Noise is welcome because it drowns the inner instinctive warning. Fear seeks noisy company and pandemonium to scare away the demons. (The primitive equivalents are yells, bull-roars, drums, fire-crackers, bells, etc.) Noise like crowds, gives a feeling of security; therefore people love it and avoid doing anything about it as they instinctively feel the apotropaic magic it sends out. Noise protects us from painful reflection, it scatters anxious dreams, it assures us that we are all in the same boat and creating such a racket that nobody will dare to attack us. Noise is so insistent, so overwhelmingly real, that everything else becomes a pale phantom. It relieves us of the effort to say or do anything, for the very air reverberates with invincible power of our modernity.

The dark side of picture is that we wouldn’t have noise if we didn’t secretly want it. Noise is not merely inconvenient or harmful, it is an unadmitted and uncomprehended means to an end: compensation of the fear which is only too well founded. If there were silence, their fear would make people reflect, and there’s no knowing what might than come to consciousness. Most people are afraid of silence; hence, whenever the everlasting chit-chat at a party suddenly stops, they are impelled to say something, and start fidgeting, whistling, humming, coughing, whispering. The need for noise is almost insatiable, even though it becomes unbearable at times. Still, it is better than nothing. “Deathly silence” – telling phrase! – strikes us as uncanny. Why? Ghosts walking about? Well, hardly. The real fear is what might come up from one’s own depths – all the things that have been held at bay by noise.

You have taken on a difficult task with much needed noise abatement, for the more you attack noise the closer you come to territory of silence, which is so much dreaded. You will be depriving all those nobodies whom nobody ever listens to of their sole joy in life and of incomparable satisfaction they feel when they shatter the stillness of the night with their clattering motorbikes, disturbing everyone’s sleep with their hellish din. At that moment they amount to something. Noise is their raison d’etre and a confirmation of their existence. There are far more people than one supposes who are not disturbed by noise, for they have nothing in them that could be disturbed; on the contrary, noise gives them something to live for…

Modern noise is an integral component of modern “civilization,” which is predominantly extroverted and abhors all inwardness. It is an evil with deep roots. The existing regulations could do much to improve things but they are not enforced. Why not? It’s a question of morality. But this is shaken to its foundations and all goes together with the spiritual disorientation of our time. Real improvement can be hoped for only if there is radical change of consciousness. I fear all other measures will remain unreliable palliatives since they do not penetrate to the depths where the evil is rooted and constantly renewed.

Zola once aptly remarked that the big cities are “holocausts de I’humanite,” but the general trend is set in that direction because destruction is an unconscious goal of the collective unconscious at the present time: it is terrified by the snowballing population figures and uses every means to contrive an attenuated and inconspicuous form of genocide. Another, easily overlooked weapon is the destruction of the ability to concentrate-the prime requisite for operating our highly differentiated machines and equipment. The life of the masses is inconceivable without them and yet it is constantly threatened by superficiality, inattention and slovenliness. The nervous exhaustion caused by the tempo leads to addiction (alcohol, tranquilizers, and other poisons) and thus to an even poorer performance and the premature wastage of the vital substance-another effective weapon for inconspicuous depopulation.

Excuse this somewhat pessimistic contribution to one of the less delectable questions of our time. As a doctor I naturally see more than others of the dark side of human existence and am therefore more inclined to make the menacing aspects the object of my reflections than to advance grounds for optimistic forecasts. In my view there are more than enough people catering this already.

Yours sincerely, C.G. Jung