Click on a Theme below to go to a summary of the four posts about that Theme.

Silence, from "The Sounds of Silence," a song by Simon & Garfunkel

Subthemes: Contrast to Conversation, Alienation and Depression, Ineffable

The signature Simon & Garfunkel song warns about the value of sharing words and the sickness of silence. In a nightmare about urban alienation and profit infatuation, thousands of lonely people don’t hear each other. They lose the humanity of sharing and bonding with words and in so doing face a cancer of silence.

“The Sounds of Silence," by Simon & Garfunkel

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence

In restless dreams, I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night, and touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared disturb the sound of silence

“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops, fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

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 sound of silence”

Lyrics source

Contrast to Conversation: People who talk with each other improve their chances of building healthier relationships. Or, if they clam up, Simon sings that in staying incommunicado, Silence like a cancer grows. Conversation knits people together. In John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” the wife asks sadly

“How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”

A person who does not share his or her thoughts excludes other people, leaves them uncertain and upset, and encourages malign projections. Exchanging words exchanges trust. So

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared

might just as well be people silent. One-way talk collapse to rants, harangues and noise.

Alienation and Depression: Simon’s lyrics draw on the metaphor of silence between people to convey a broader alienation caused by cities, tenement halls, and “the neon gods they made.” Crowds of commuters, long hours at work, stressed renters in studios, or those who have lost their way in a noisy, uncaring metropolis can withdraw into a protective shell of silence. They cope by not wasting words on others or listening to others. Depressed people often suffer in a silence that matches their desolation.

Sounds of silence is a disconcerting oxymoron. No one has ever touched the sound of silence, nothing has ever echoed the sounds of silence. You can’t touch silence nor does it vibrate molecules. You can’t touch despair or feeling lost in the big city.

Ineffable: The silence of this song conveys a spiritual discontent. The song starts

Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping

That nightmare seed flashes zombies that crowd each other without heeding each other. Bonds between them are missing, as silence is missing sound. Words cannot well describe the sense of loss and isolation as the disease of stillness spreads.

When overcome by emotions, either fear or joy, some people can find no words to express what they feel. They fall silent before the ineffable. The killing of a spouse before their eyes or the fateful words “Sorry, you have terminal cancer” can have that effect. So too does staggering joy take one’s words away, such as the unexpected ring and “Will you marry me?”, the anxiously prayed for phone call that “We found your lost child,” or if your final digit hits on the PowerBall lottery, something inside locks up, control of tongue, lips and air disappears in the tidal wave of emotions.

 

The poetry of this song, complemented by the elegance of the tune, makes a heart-felt plea for people to talk with each other and listen to each other, not shroud themselves in monologue or silence. The song addresses not muteness before greatness or authority or the inward prayer when death tolls out, but the isolation and lack of conversation in urban life.

To consider subthemes of the concept Silence, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview of this project, this article explains Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other rock songs discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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