Sounds of Silence, as few other songs can, gives one a genuine scare regarding modern life. It is like pages out of Spengler, or Rousseau, condensed to a poetic moment.
How does it do this? I’m sure much could be explained by the ominous melody, and the way the cherubic voices are contrasted against it. But the lyrics are the most decisive factor, and they gain much of their impact by means of an old poetic tactic, the reporting of a vision. Simon and Garfunkel become seers who tell us what our future, if it gets more modern yet, will be like.
After the opening, we learn that the narrator has had seen a vision in a dream, and its report brings us right into it. In this restless dream our narrator walks alone through an urban environment of loneliness-and-anonymity-evoking imagery; it is like a scene out of film noir:
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp,
When my eyes were stabbed by a flash of a neon light…
From later references to subways, tenements, and a neon light placed high above a crowd, we see that the associations lean in a New York City direction—fittingly, for it is the archetypal modern city. Interestingly, NYC is also Simon and Garfunkel’s “home place” in both the literal and literary senses, a place they sought to poetically celebrate and thus make more livable, such as in “59th St. Bridge Song(Feelin’ Groovy),” and in whose park they played their famous concerts.
But back to the vision. What the neon light reveals is a crowd of many thousands, so that the sense of walking alone in empty streets is exchanged for the experience of being in the lonely crowd. The description of this crowd is the song’s key lyric:
People talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening,
people writing songs that voices never shared,
disturb the sounds of silence.
Our narrator tries to intervene here in a manner that is perhaps Bible-evocative, but with a content that is medical—society is diseased:
Fools, said I, you do not know,
that silence like a cancer grows,
He also tries to intervene by reaching out his arms, saying that I might touch you. Now, his words fall like soft raindrops that make no impression, and while we are not told about the outcome of his effort to physically touch these people, presumably it fails too. As in many dreams, in this one you cannot touch what you try to, and there is no sound when you try to speak.
Let us stop here and interpret a bit. The song is saying that modern life tends to make us hesitant to even try to connect. And we have reason to think no-one would really hear us if we were to try. Worse, many of us talk without any expectation of or desire for connection. We utilize small-talk and half-listening to keep our distance from others. The song indicates that life in the modern city encourages this, but it is speaking of much more than certain conventions that those who regularly negotiate the crowds of NYC find they must to some extent utilize. The sense is rather of a growing sickness of the soul, a growing inability to talk with sincerity or listen with receptiveness. Oppressed under this, we nonetheless remain human–we are distinctive individuals having “songs” within us, but these are not shared. So it is not the mundane details of how to behave on a crowded subway that matter here, but what writers like Rousseau and Freud tell us about modern civilization’s tendency to make us act inauthentically. This gets theorized more simplistically by therapeutic pop-sociological writers, so from them it can seem that if we could just get “un-hung-up” from things like our isolating “other-directed” outward conformity, all would be well. Still, the basic set of ideas are captured well by Rousseau’s famous words towards the end of the Second Discourse. I adapt them slightly here to give them a 1965 and Rock Songbook resonance:
…[modern metropolitan man and woman], always active, sweats, agitates himself, torments himself incessantly in order to seek still more laborious occupations; he works to death, he even rushes to it in order to get in a condition to live, or renounces life in order to [be big in the eyes of the world]. He pays court to the [administrators, producers, lawyers] whom he hates, and to the rich whom he scorns. …
…the savage lives within himself; the sociable man, always outside of himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others; and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence.
…everything being reduced to appearance, everything becomes [conformist] and deceptive…we have only a deceitful and frivolous exterior, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.
Modern metropolitan men and women actually talk quite a bit, but the “Sounds of Silence” is saying it is conducted in this deceptive spirit. Only connect the modern novelist E.M. Forster said, but modernity’s march is making it harder and harder. On the stage of life, one sees the likes of the Mad Men displaying their “success,” but behind the scenes, in the manner of a film like The Apartment, one glimpses many more myriads of lonely losers with their lives of quiet desperation. And unlike in happy film endings, they are not able to connect or even commiserate.
If that makes us feel sorry for the crowd, the logic of the song indicates that the apparently “successful” are also among it. What is more, this entire crowd is a profane people; they have chosen their degradation and seem not only deaf to the poetic narrator, but hostile to his values:
And the people bowed and prayed,
to the Neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning,
in the words that it was forming,
and the sign said “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls,
and tenement halls,
and whispered, in the sounds of silence.”
The people idolize modernity. The biblical references are threefold: 1) they are like the crowds before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, 2) they are like the Hebrews who make a golden calf, and 3) prophetic words flash out, from walls, as occurred at Belshazzar’s feast. Could Simon and Garfunkel actually be calling them to return to the worship of the true God?
The meaning of the neon sign’s message suggests otherwise. It is saying, “It is not I, neon modernity, that will show you your future; rather, your doom is being heralded in the anonymous and pathetic bids of individual importance seen in the obscure places of your great city.” (We must remember that the more sporadic phenomenon of urban graffiti had a difference resonance in 1964, one that evoked, at least from intellectuals, a kind of pitying contempt more than it did a fear of crime or a solidarity-with-the-underclass approval.) So the future is one of songs unshared, or debased to crude scribbling, of ever-creeping isolation and anonymity.
Sociological doom is thus pronounced, unless the vision’s call for sincerity, connection-seeking, and poetic self-expression, posed against a (conformist) faith in modernity’s progress, is somehow heeded. This sociological message is couched in biblical language to increase its impact, but its “prophecy” is of a totally modern kind. No messianic hope is offered. The only connection to the biblical point of view is a repudiation of progressive hope in modernity, a hope accused of being like idolatry.
So while the song makes an effective bid for theistic sympathies, its own answer is not to return to God. We should also notice, in contrast to That’s Not Me, that its own answer is not to return to the rural or suburban “home.” You grow up in NYC, and you glimpse the thoroughly modern life that seems likely to arrive everywhere, where you won’t really have a home to return to–others will be renting that apartment now. The cancer of inauthenticity will spread everywhere anyhow. We can be thankful that Simon and Garfunkel adopt a more typical and sentimental perspective in other songs, “Homeward Bound” in particular, but in their role as sociological seers, this is what they see.
So we are left with having to place our hope in songs. They are the most vivid examples of, and calls to, self-expression, personal connection, and conformity-breaking “silence”-overcoming. But by the logic of this song’s lyrics, the silence of the crowd can become impervious to a singer’s effort to break through. The narrator has nightmares about his song becoming lost in a well of silence, so that he will wind up speaking to no-one, but only to what he speaks to in the beginning: hello darkness, my old friend.
The only witness against this fear is the very power of “Sounds of Silence” as a whole to break through and arrest us, we not-yet so-modern folk of 1965. And there, Simon and Garfunkel’s fear proved happily unfounded—the song did break through, becoming a hit even. Enough of us proved ready to rebel against modernity’s isolating conformist reticence. Poetry won.
To some extent the fear and the call of the song remain relevant, and salutary. My quoting of Rousseau reveals that conformist inauthenticity an old problem, even in some ways older than modernity itself. (Rousseau, never says the problem belongs to modern man alone, as my adjustment implied, but says it belongs to the citizen. )
But in other ways, the song seems to belong to another age. For soon after its call for everyone to dare to express their inner-selves, to cast off conformist reticence, the 70s saw the dual extremes of “Feelings” and “I Wanna Destroy.” Like plagues upon Egypt, broods of sensitive singer-songwriters, and then of cussing punk bands, successively covered the land. And yet more was to come—one critic said that while punk’s message was “F*&# You!,” Joy Division and post-punk turned this inward, into “I’m f*&#ed!” And so there became absolutely no aspect of the psyche we did not expect our rock artists to delve into for exorcism or just imitation: sensitivity, lust, anger, despair, suicide, madness, everything. In this respect, Tocqueville’s predictions about the poems of democracy proved correct: …they wished to illuminate and enlarge certain still obscure sides of the human heart.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of crap in our hearts, and there is a lot of conformity in how we understand what we find there, and so now the crudest expressions of our whims, whines, and maladies are found everywhere we look. We are no longer much worried about people keeping their feelings to themselves. By 2010, one of our finest artists, the novelist Marilynne Robinson, was going around college campuses saying “I miss civilization.”
Nor are we much worried about a conformity that isolates us. The individualism exhibited by the Hugh Grant character in About a Boy , for example, is not one that represses inclinations, and only dares to whisper them to others. For the Grant character, it is hello, telly, my old friend, and he couldn’t care less about what the world thinks of him. Yes, he fits the profile of a “Sounds of Silence” character by not daring to connect, and in not listening to others, but in his total lack of self-repression for conformity’s sake, he doesn’t fit the overall portrait.
So how is that “Sounds of Silence” could feel so hauntingly right at the time, but now, despite in certain ways still speaking to us, it elicits a bundle of qualifications and hesitations?
To understand that requires a detour, which the Songbook will take next time, into considering the stages of modernity, particularly the 1918-1965 stage I will be calling intermediate modernity.