And maybe that’s why we fear it. Possibly, the title made you think of the silent treatment we give those who’ve wronged us, but that’s not what this is about. This is about the silence of nature and of the cosmos–the deafening roar of an empty house, how its newly cavernous dens and bedrooms (when we find ourselves alone) press in with a sound more profound than any human voice can render, much less a TV or a radio–the dryer drum spinning incessantly with its metal-on-metal crack of blue jean buttons. Silence is a sound made up of no sound (abstraction is the only way to render this), when we stare into the void and it stares back at us.
But the sound is not altogether hostile. Have you ever taken a long walk in the woods with no agenda–no deer to harvest or no mileage to meet before dark–and found yourself pausing to listen. But to what? Not even the birds are whistling. Maybe the occasional whisper of pine boughs lets drop a message you’d swear is only for you. Maybe you honed in on a specific whisper and called it God.
When we listen to silence, she speaks. I’ve believed this for years now, though I don’t always listen. I’m as susceptible to modern life’s distractions as anybody–the television’s drone is a comfort, however superficially, and my Spotify playlists grow ever more tailored to my musical taste, which makes them hard to ignore when I’m driving here and there.
One thing I do have going for me, however, is an immunity to the need to always be talking. Dr. Joel Fleischman of the nineties show Northern Exposure is a New Yorker transplanted to a backwoods Alaskan town as a way to pay for his expensive education by serving as a general practitioner to the town’s eccentric populace. He misses everything his quiet moments try to teach him, because he won’t shut up. You probably know the type. You may even be the type. If you’re a Fleischman, I implore you to face down the terror of your quiet, alone on a trail or in your living room with TVs and radios and oscillating fans turned off. If you’re not a Fleischman, then face it down anyway. It may accomplish nothing, but in our harried world of ceaseless distraction, amid all the noise grasping at our attention, there’s something noble in being stubbornly quiet, in being quiet on purpose. It’s like holding up a middle finger to those homogenizing forces that would have us sequestered like cattle in pens, oblivious to our impending slaughter. Maybe a voice will speak to you out of the silence.
The sideshow influence is highly visible in the realm of celebrity, and in the category of celebrities that appear to share common lineage with freak show performers, there is an unwashed yet attractive quality. To say unwashed in this sense is not necessarily to say unbathed, though that may be the case. Here, rather, the description of “unwashed” has to do with a socially subversive quality, the opposite of which is clean-cut and polite. It is Amy Winehouse versus Donna Reed. It deals with the adoption of an appearance or persona with roots in subculture instead of mainstream culture. Take as example the outlaw motorcycle fabricator, Jesse James (not to be confused with outlaw robber Jesse James, though there may be striking parallels). He is more infamous than famous, a designation that was always somewhat in place but was made concrete by his public headlong plunge into marital infidelity, the victim of which was a perceived “nice” girl, casting James even more solidly as a villain. Yet we watch him anyway. There he is, on a television rerun, with his tattoos, muscle shirts, slicked-back hair, and bad attitude, cracking wise and insulting everyone within tongue’s reach. And the entire time, though amidst a swirl of antagonism and snarkiness, James emits a dark charisma, negativity notwithstanding. There is something electrifying about his presence. There is a feeling that, if any time was to be spent around this guy, I would need him to approve of me, for reasons known only to a therapist. His reference would not look good on a job application, but his acquaintanceship would sure be exciting.
Now consider the much-maligned carnival worker, i.e., the carny. The image that comes to mind will vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume it will be a marginal character, probably dirty and evil-looking (whatever that means, “evil-looking” being a fluid concept that changes from era to era and among the classes). In spite of the sweat-stained seediness of the soiled-jean-and-undershirt-clad, greasy-haired vagabond that I imagine, it must be admitted that, beyond the revulsion, there is a sense of freedom that is very attractive. It may be a thing projected onto the carny from my imagination, but it is there, and the reason why is unclear. Is it attractive precisely because it would be out of character to espouse such a lifestyle? Is it the vicarious thrill of glimpsing a freedom only hitherto imagined? It matters less whether the carny actually feels free. It is the perception of freedom that matters. Like many of us, these scandalites tend to wallow in the grip of one vice or another. The difference is, their shortcomings are on display in a way ours are not. The carny inspires an odd mix of curiosity and disdain that enthralls. So it goes with notorious celebrities, like Winehouse and James (whose names put together that way make them sound like an indie-rock duo). Some accept these marginal figures, some reject them, but they are never fully embraced by the general public in the same way as someone safe, like Tom Hanks, is. Their names tend to come with a caveat: “She’s a good singer, but…”, or “He builds good motorcycles, but…” Whereas a celebrity of Hanks’s status may get an unqualified “He’s such a good actor. I just love him.” Then everyone piles into the minivan and heads home from the movie theater.
By definition, a sideshow happens outside the main tent. The sideshow influence is the observable phenomenon that takes place when the denizens of the freak show begin to surface inside the tent. It is not necessarily a bad thing; the main tent could use some variety. Expand this freak show metaphor to the culture-at-large. In the vast seas of clean-cut, conservatively dressed men and women expanding and contracting according to the rhythms of the workweek, it is becoming more common to spot a figure of James’s or Winehouse’s ilk, and our collective visual palate may be all the better for it. These people remind us that life has a gritty side, which is as integral to the whole enterprise as the urbanity for which so many strive. Chaos is just around the corner, waiting to encroach upon our neatly groomed exteriors and carefully appointed schedules. We can resist it, accept it, or embrace it, but we cannot make it go away. Hardly a character from popular media has expressed this notion better than radio deejay Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett) from television’s Northern Exposure. Upon being asked why he had done something illegal, Stevens replies, “People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable. And at the drop of a hat, they can lose everything, just like that…chaos is out there, and he’s lurking, beyond the horizon…sometimes you just gotta do something bad, just to know you’re alive”(“Spring Break”). Maybe the adopted outsider status and anti-conformist posturing of certain groups of people are the very ways in which those people realize they are alive. Whether it is bad or not, who are we to judge?
Amy Winehouse. Digital image. People. 2007. Web. 11 March 2013. <www.people.com/people/amy_winehouse/0,,,00.html>
Donna Reed. Digital image. Women large jaw. N.d. Web. 11 March 2013. <www.womenlargejaw.com/node/2154>.
Reality star Jesse James. Digital image. San Marcos Mercury. 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 March 2013. <snmercury.com/2012/09/14/reality-star-jesse-james-to-appear-at-thunderhill-races/>.
“Spring Break.” Northern Exposure: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and David Assael. Dir. Rob Thompson. Universal Studios, 2006. DVD.
Tom Hanks On HBO Pics. Digital image. Your Stuff Work. 2011. Web. 11 March 2013. <yourstuffwork.blogspot.com/2011/11/tom-hanks-on-hbo-pics.html>.