Mount Helvellyn

“Caliban hears the hum of the world.”

Lawrence Kramer, Professor of English and Music at Fordham University, has written a book about what Caliban was able to hear. What was easy for the son of a witch in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest eludes nearly every human, but Kramer is convinced the hum of the world is very real.

“My own writing on music over a long career,” he writes, “has sought to show that music (in particular, classical music) is rich in cognitive as well as expressive power. Music makes sound revealing; it aims to make hearing a species of wonder. But it should be possible, and the point is the very argument of this book, to extend this enfranchisement of listening beyond music into the spheres of both ordinary life and extraordinary experience.”

Kramer is quite cognizant that his pronouncements in this book are contentious. He contends that “language conceals what sound conveys,” saying the “quest for meaning beyond language” is futile. “For human beings there is no beyond language. I expect to be contradicted on this point, but it is one that needs to be upheld precisely on behalf of nonverbal experience, including the musical experience.”

He extends this analysis to give us a new word, inaudiable, that expresses the hum of the world. “Sound at best plays second fiddle and at worst fades into the pantomime of lively things. This must change.” Things, Kramer asserts, “are never silent. They fall onto an acoustic map and project acoustic space about them. The inaudiable is the sound of the wave before it breaks.”

I will in fact contradict Kramer, even though it may come from the world of science fiction, which is also a human construct that cannot fairly be dismissed. In a 2020 Star Trek episode of Picard, Deanna Troi tells of her son Thad who invented a host of languages. One language had no words, but was based on the wingbeats of a bird. The existence of a nonverbal language, which yet embodies sound from beating wings, surely qualifies as one element of the hum of the world. Here language actually reveals what sound conveys. It may be imaginary now, but if humans can conceive it, who is to say it cannot be made real? and just cogent to his argument as a Wordsworth poem he quotes about Mount Helvellyn in the English Lake District:

What sounds are those, Helvellyn, which are heard

Up to thy summit, through the depth of air

Ascending as if distance had the power

To make the sounds more audible?

Kramer writes that in this passage “Wordsworth represents soundscape as the inversion of landscape and detects the audiable in a sound that inverts natural law.” One might also say of a language with no words that natural law is being inverted.

Another key concept the author evades is that of the ‘sub audiable’, expressed by the ancient Greeks as hypostenazein, literally meaning ‘sighing from under.’ This inaudiably deep human experience, in its most negative aspect a disembodied sonic agony, is just as much a part of nature as the mountain in Wordsworth.

Despite my caveats, this book presents an important way of looking at and thinking about what the author terms “a philosophy of listening.” I will give but two examples. In presenting the image of Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Philosopher in Meditation, Kramer sets the stage by stating “There is a sound of vision and a sight of listening.” This is what he terms a “sensory hybrid” that can bring us to the verge of experiencing what he wants us to hear. “It is a picture of the need for sound, even the faintest or most obscure. The light streaming in and overflowing the window is almost the sight of the audiable that is yet to be heard.”

From the realm of music, he introduces us to the Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis, who created a motet in forty separate parts in 1570. “On three occasions when all forty voices sing together, there is a general pause – a moment when no one sings. At least one of these unvoiced moments opens to the hum of the audiable. Talis has met the spiritual demands of his text by finding a way to compose the audiable into his music.”

A provocative book, which consists of interrelated reflections which can be read in any order, I recommend this for anyone interested in philosophy, music and language studies.

The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening is $29.95 by Univ. of California Press.

Photo of Mt. Helvellyn courtesy of Wikipedia

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Mount Helvellyn