Kant wrote a treatise on The Vital Powers. I should prefer to write a dirge for them. The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of an opportunity.
-Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Noise,” from Studies in Pessimism
For a few months five years ago I was rendered almost non-functional by an extreme sensitivity to noise. Or not to noise, exactly, but certain very particular and very common noises. The sound of traffic didn't bother me, the screech of the subway was no problem, but for instance the sound of chewing or slurping, or the bass beat from a party three doors down, or the beat barely audible from the headphones of someone sitting across from me at a cafe, or the clatter of typing—sounds right at the border between blank “white noise” and the sound of something—these gave me no peace. If such sounds were audible I couldn't sleep, I couldn't work, I couldn't read. They drew my whole attention. And they were everywhere.
I didn't quite realize at the time, and it surprises me now, looking back, to discover, that such small things could occupy, settle, destroy as much of my time and peace of mind as they did. But really, it was a little madness. I would go to a cafe to escape my upstairs neighbors pacing only to be met by the barrage of pop the barristas were playing and the small symphony of customers' half-audible headphone beats jacked up to compete with it; I'd try to ignore it for half an hour, fail in frustration, and make my way to a university library an hour away. I'd sit down at an empty table, open a notebook and sigh in satisfaction—at last. But no: five minutes later I'd begin to notice how very percussively someone was typing two tables away, and I couldn't un-notice it once I had heard. Earplugs were to no avail; I would insert them, listen very closely to be absolutely sure that it had worked, that I would finally have peace, and just at the edge of inaudibility there would still be something, some beat, some impact from the environment still there. It was exhausting, it filled me with rage and pushed me to the verge of tears, and it was everywhere.
It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that noise, and my attempts to avoid it, and the failure of those attempts, were the dominant theme of my life in the period I'm discussing. They explained how I spent my days, where I worked, what I worked on, what I did and (more often) what I didn't get done. They explained my sleep schedule—it was simply not possible for me to go to bed before 3 AM, because it was never quiet enough to do so. I would walk around Brooklyn for hours, because only by moving could I be sure that any noise I encountered would pass me by. And so on.
The lives of children are full of little madnesses, little “neuroses” that come of their own accord and then go unnoticed. He can’t sleep without this particular stuffed animal, she needs the crust cut off her bread, he’s terrified of pigeons all of a sudden, and that continues for months or years and then it disappears without anyone quite being able to say when it ended. You notice that the stuffed animal was put in the closet at some point and that he’s been sleeping just fine, and that’s it; it’s gone.
I don’t think this sort of thing ends in childhood—it hasn’t for me, at any rate. Little habits, little annoyances, little anxieties pop up and pass off. It’s just that no one notices because the only person whose business it is to notice and adjust is the sufferer himself, to whom they don’t seem strange. They only stand out when they produce a dysfunction which can’t be compensated or hidden.
My noise-irritation was like this, lurking just below the level of noticeability: I knew I was annoyed by noise but I never quite took stock, at the time, of how much I was and how strange that was. From day to day it seemed normal, though looking back now that it’s gone I think it’s only two or three notches below insane.
I realize that this irritation is ridiculous; that I realized at the time. One of the unique torments of this sort of irritability is that it makes you absurd. People afflicted with irritability become melodramatically sanctimonious about the object of their annoyance exactly because they sense that to be so incensed by something so minor is basically laughable. To ask a person in a library to stop typing, or better yet to ask him to stop typing “so percussively,” would be insane—and yet that person was rendering a whole region of possible sanctuary uninhabitable for me and I could have throttled him. To ask politely that he stop typing would be no more socially acceptable than to go over to his table and throw his laptop across the room; I fantasized about doing both.
Schopenhauer, whose essay on noise goes on to demand a legal ban on the cracking of whips, once got into a physical fight with a neighbor because she wouldn't stop chattering; he was required to pay her a yearly indemnity for the rest of her life. My sympathies are all on his side, if I'm being honest: what other option did he have, after all?
To be irritable is to be attuned to the way any effort of attention relies on a thousand inattentions: the space cleared for contemplation is cleared by forgetting and ignoring every other thing. It’s insane what a person can not-hear: I was once told that they have to change the ambulance siren sounds in big cities every four or five years, because people get used to them and stop hearing them. In some sense the ability to understand speech entails un-hearing what it sounds like: rhythms and patterns clearly recognizable in a language you don’t know disappear as you learn the language and begin to hear “past” the sound into its meaning. They come as a surprise when poetry awakens them again.
Irritability is the incapacity for a necessary form of inattention; noise is its proper object, since noise is simply the sound you’re not listening for, the sound you’re trying not to hear.
The need for not-hearing reminds me of Nietzsche’s encomium to another sort of negative capability: forgetting. In a beautiful passage in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche shows how necessary such negative capability is: the “breeding of a creature who can make promises,” he observes, is all the more remarkable because, while to promise is to (promise to) remember, humans can be present, to themselves and to the world, only through forgetting. If the mind is, in the old Platonic metaphor, a wax tablet, forgetting is the heat that melts it smooth, preparing the way for new inscriptions. Anything, even dead matter, can take a mark: you can engrave a record of the past into cold stone. What makes a mind is its capacity for constant erasure. Memory comes later, and only on the basis of forgetting.
For Nietzsche, the inability to forget was the formula for madness: the man who enters the marketplace carrying a lamp to announce that “God is dead, and we have killed him” is a madman because he doesn’t know another sun has risen, because he hasn’t yet forgotten the night of the world. This formula for madness was prescient, or influential: for Freud, too, madness would be unforgetting. And what else is the “trauma” that obsesses our own culture than a pathological memorization?
Irritability is a related kind of madness: the inability, not to forget, but to ignore.
The opening lines of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”:
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
To hear all the things—the prospect makes me shudder. This madman goes on to tell how he was living with an old man and decided to kill him, not for profit or out of hatred, but because he could not stand one of his eyes:
I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
He kills the man, very carefully, very quietly, and hides the body perfectly under the floorboards: no one will ever know, he is safe. When some policemen come by, saying someone heard a scream in the night, he lets them in without a second thought; he has been too careful, they’ll never catch him. But as he chats with the police, making a great show of insouciance, something strange happens: he begins to hear the beat of the old man’s heart. It becomes louder and louder, unbearably loud, until at last he can stand it no longer and confesses the crime just to make it stop.
Lacan’s formula for psychosis: “What is repressed in the unconscious returns in the real.” It’s not hard to guess what might be repressed here: the murderer seems to possess no conscience, to feel no remorse, and yet right from the beginning it was the eye that bothered him. A broken, glassy eye, of course; prophets are blind for a reason. The eye which can’t see anything doesn’t cease to be an eye, so what does it see? The madman comes to fear, perhaps, that that eye can see everything (as the superego can, or thinks it can); the conscience, repressed, has returned in the real. And so it must be killed there too, and that’s what the madman does; but because it never really lived in the real it can’t be killed there either. It returns again, as the beating heart, and brings down on the madman the punishment he un-knows he deserves. The beating heart is his cruel superego, his “better” self. It takes the form of noise, the sound you’re trying not to hear.
The strange thing about Lacan’s formula is that in another sense it’s true of every psychoanalytic symptom: to the sufferer, the symptom always seems to approach from the outside and as if by chance. Thus if your unconscious desire is to marry your father, you’ll always find just the wrong guy to date so that (without your intending it) it’ll never work out; if your secret desire is for punishment by an authority figure you’ll always find a way to be on terrible terms with your boss. And your friends might observe that you weren’t totally innocent of this, but you’ll protest that you don’t go looking for this stuff—why would you?! It’s just your luck. But unconscious desire masks itself in precisely these contingencies, in order always to deliver what it wants, which of course is just what you want but don’t want to want. The unconscious makes the real into its accomplice and then leaves it holding the bag. It’s very good at disavowing agency; that’s what it’s there for, after all.
It’s obvious that my irritation was a symptom, and from this perspective it was a very useful one. Noise prevented me from working, and noise was never lacking: I live in New York City, after all. Thus whatever it was I was not-wanting, I would never fail to not-get it, since the real would always come through for me. This isn’t a bad way of understanding irritability: irritability projects a subjective, but disavowed, unwillingness or incapacity into an objective disruption, then disavows the projection and so absolves the sufferer of an unwillingness or incapacity he’d rather were not his. No one is more annoyed by the noise from the party downstairs than the insomniac who couldn’t sleep even in total silence.
What, then, was this unwillingness or incapacity? That’s an essay in its own right. But the best way to interpret a symptom is often to see where it lands you, what it results in: that’s probably what it wanted all along. In my case, I had just moved to New York City to become a writer and scholar; because of my symptom, I read little, wrote less and took very long walks. Perhaps that’s what I wanted; certainly I enjoy it now.