'I have come close to death'
Adventure and excitement is something that a lot of us search for. Some find it parachuting from a plane, others running a marathon. People like famed Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge are a little different, striving a little further for that worldliness.
Not content with mere everyday experiences, Erling’s CV reads more like a wishful thinking list. He is most well known for accomplishing what no other human in history has done.
In the 1990s he ventured to both the North and South Poles, as well as scaling the heights of Mount Everest, all on foot, unaided and without radio contact. What he found in these remote parts of our world was not a sense of accomplishment nor a fulfilment of his own ego, but silence.
A deep and profound appreciation for that one thing very few of us achieve in a world drowned out by technology and the noise of modern life. Since then he has kept up his addiction to extraordinary experiences, whether it be walking across LA on foot, sailing across the Atlantic alone twice, exploring the sewers of New York, you name it.
He is what some would call a cultural polymath, listing himself as a politician/philosopher/lawyer/art collector and even a Rolex ambassador, but underneath it all Erling is just a man who found that coveted inner silence in the white expanse of the Arctic, which has haunted him ever since. His latest endeavour is a book Silence in the Age of Noise details his remarkable lifelong quest for the simplest yet largely unachievable of pleasures.
When talking about your incredible expeditions in the book, you said, “Here stillness is all-absorbing. I feel and hear it. The sound of space does not feel threatening or terrifying, but comforting.” Can you take us back to that time?
That was 24 years ago. I haven’t really been thinking about it too much since then until I started to write this book on silence. Then I looked at my diary and found this quote. What was interesting about walking to the South Pole alone, which I think actually everyone should do, is that when you start going it is absolutely white and flat all the way to the horizon.
You have about 1400 kilometres to go, everything you need for the expedition on a sleigh and no radio that was working so I was completely left with no one to talk to. You start walking and the days and weeks go by, and you start to realise that it is not completely white after all; you start to see the colours in the snow and ice, blues and reds and greens. Also, it’s not completely flat, you can see all these structures in the ice and snow. You get this feeling that your body doesn’t just stop at your fingertips, it is as if you are extended into nature. You have a dialogue with the environment, not in a literal sense with words, and then after a few days, you start to get answers to some questions that you didn’t even know you had been asking yourself. Of course, all of this leads back to silence.
"You start to get answers to some questions that you didn’t even know you had been asking yourself."
When you say that everyone should go the South Pole, some people might think you are joking, but you say it like you really mean it. Do you genuinely believe that we all have it within ourselves to do it?
This is not something I feel, it is something that I know. I believe that everyone is born an explorer. I look at my kids and they wanted to climb before they could walk, but of course this spirit is diminished. By the time we are 4 or 5 years old it becomes less and less, whether that’s due to expectations in kindergarten, from your parents and friends etc.
Obviously from a practical point of view, the walk to the South Pole is a physical thing, but it is more a mind game. You know, a mouse can eat an elephant if it takes small bites.
When we talk about silence in culture, you hear phrases like ‘awkward silence’, or ‘deafening silence’, or even the practice of a minute’s silence out of respect for someone who has died. But this is not the type of silence that you are talking about, is it?
No. I wanted to write a book about how silence can enrich your life and it can be a positive thing. It is also something that we are deeply missing in society. I look at my daughters and they don’t know what silence is, because they are always connected. They think that silence means nothing, and of course in philosophy you learn that nothing comes from nothing. But I think that is wrong, because silence is something.
"I have to say that out of 50 days and nights, I only missed the outside world for a few hours."
I want to go back to the time of your explorations. When I say silence to you, does a specific moment come to mind for you, like reaching the peak of Mount Everest?
I wish I could say yes, but when you get to the summit of Mount Everest, at first you are super happy, but after about 2 or 3 minutes the next thought you get is how the hell you are going to get down.
So it’s basically a massive come down?
If anyone ever tells you that they would like to climb Mount Everest to enjoy the nature and the environment etc., then it’s not true.
I remember you mentioning in the book that the hardest point of going back to normality was actually talking again.
Yes. Although Antarctica is not completely silent it is a really, really quiet place. So the most interesting part of walking to the South Pole is that you have no distractions. Back home there is always someone waiting for you, or you are hoping that someone is waiting for you, you are expecting a message or you are living through your devices, always distractions.
I have to say that out of 50 days and nights, I only missed the outside world for a few hours.
You spoke with the artist Marina Abramoviç about her experiences of silence. She was in the desert but she heard nothing but noise. Do you think the by-product of silence can be anxiety because we have never experienced true silence before?
Yes absolutely. I like that anecdote from Marina because I think her experience is very common. She went into the desert because she had been longing for silence, she wanted to experience it. She got to a really quiet place and sat down, and of course, she had all of this noise in her head even though it was so peaceful around her.
I think that is very typical, also if you sit down in a room by yourself tonight trying to feel the silence, you will still be thinking. Usually, when we are thinking a lot, it is about the past or the future, and that is noise. So like Marina, you have to learn the hard way – she had to get through all that thinking in order to relax and learn how to appreciate inner silence.
Let’s go back to your childhood, because in the book you talk about being tormented by silence as a young child. I find that an extraordinarily strange thing to remember and to stay with you.
Maybe tormented is too strong a word, but when I would be going to sleep at night, I was the youngest of the children so I had to go to bed earlier and I could still hear some noise, so I couldn’t get to sleep. Time would pass by and it’s not a nice experience to just lay there and wait for sleep to come.
Then, of course, there is the silence when you don’t have anything to do as a child, with no one to play with. I remember my mother telling me that it’s healthy to be bored, but I found it really unhealthy.
But today I have started to agree with my mother. I look at my kids now and they are always doing something so they are never bored in the same way that we were in the 1960s. But they are bored in the sense that they have a poverty of experience because they have too much to do, whereas in the 1960s our poverty of experience was due to having nothing to do. I think it is kind of the same feeling.
Would you say that what your mother told you about boredom has informed the way you live your life? You seem to constantly be searching for new experiences or pursuits, so what is the philosophy behind this drive to always be doing something?
There is no philosophy behind it but I think that it is hard to say why you do something. Life is about fulfilling your potential, and I think that most people underestimate their own possibilities in life.
You mention that you have traveled to all the continents. Do you think that all cultures define silence in different ways?
Absolutely. I am mostly writing from a Western or Norwegian/European perspective, but in Eastern cultures, silence is a much more important thing. If you listen to Japanese people talking it seems to me that the silence in between their words is just as important as the words.
I think what you mention in the book goes for culture as well – there is space and silence in art, music and film, and sometimes those silences are the most profound moments we can experience.
Right. I didn’t write about film, but it is interesting because I read the autobiography of the director Ingmar Bergman, and his ultimate dream was to make silent movies again. He felt that way he could really express what he had in mind. In music, there is a lot of silence in classical music and so people complain that there is no silence in popular music, but that isn’t correct; there is silence in pop music but it is slightly louder.
It’s just like someone making a speech if they know how to use the silence, if you listen to Barack Obama’s speeches on Youtube you can see how he uses silence to capture the audience all the time.
"If someone who died 50 years ago came back today and saw everyone holding their phones like teddy bears, walking up and down the street, they would think we are crazy."
In preparation for this interview, I was looking at this experiment in the US where they had groups of people just staring at each other. They had such a high success rate of marriage after that, it was incredible. Most people would find that idea terrifying, which is strange because it is literally just silence.
This experiment you are talking about was scientific research into what it takes to fall in love. They came up with 36 questions, and you can see them if you search for the 36 Questions That Lead To Love’. They sit them down together and they ask these 36 questions back and forth, and it ends with the couple looking into each other’s eyes, who they have never met before, for 4 minutes. What happened then was that most people fell in love. In fact, most people got married within 6 months after the trial. I actually tried it myself, and it works.
I’m interested to know how a Norwegian explorer became so intrigued by this idea of silence because I thought there was so much silence in your culture already. Am I wrong about that?
No, you’re absolutely right. Where I live, if you walk in one direction for 30 minutes you will find a quiet place. So it is easy to find silence but most people don’t do it. You get up in the morning, go to the office or school and come back home again, cook, watch some TV, check your phone or Google something and 20 minutes later you are still on Google. You end up sitting in your home saying how quickly time passes and that life is too short, but of course it feels short if you live a life like that.
I think this is very common in cities all over the world, so it is not sufficient to have some quiet places close by – you have to find those places. I believe you can find that silence just out on the street or on the runway at Heathrow.
I’m interested in knowing about finding that silence in the distractions of our own culture. Living in London is a terrifying experiences in terms of noise pollution. What are some of the ways in which you think we can limit the amount of noise and distraction in our lives?
My colleague wrote a book a couple of years ago called Norwegian Wood, which became a bestseller in the UK. It’s about Norwegian men mostly, who chop wood, stack it and then burn it through the winter with their family. Of course, the reason most of these men in Norway go out chopping wood is to get away from their family. They get a break for a couple of hours, focusing on one thing. It is the same reason why people knit, play piano or read a book, partly because it is how they experience silence. Sometimes at home I will turn on the music, just to get rid of all the other sounds, and then I can feel it, the silence within.
I think it is important to keep in mind that the silence I experience is different to everyone else’s. When I talk about the silence within, what you meet there is yourself. To meet yourself is one of the toughest things to do in life and that is also why it is so important, because if you get through all the noise then you also let other people slip through. You are running away from yourself.
Throughout history, there has always been this advice to get to know yourself, and I think any advice that lasts for over 1000 years is advice that should be taken seriously.
I don’t believe you need to go and live in a monastery, which you can do if you want, but I think that we are naturally social creatures. Sometimes you just need to have a break.
There are a lot of philosophical references in the book. One of them is Blaise Pascal from the 1600s, and he said something that I love. He said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.
That’s Pascal’s idea, because we are not willing to sit through the noise in your head. Man cannot stand sitting alone not doing anything. But of course we can, you just have to go to it with the expectation of doing something rather than doing nothing and then you experience the silence. What is interesting is that Pascal saw this problem and wrote about it almost 350 years ago, but in the last 5 years or so we have had so much more noise. If someone who died 50 years ago came back today and saw everyone holding their phones like teddy bears, walking up and down the street, they would think we are crazy. Of course we are crazy.
So there are a lot of people out there searching for nothing, as you say. But in the book you do say that you have searched for absolute silence but never found it, going on to say, “I believe that absolute silence exists more in a dream than in reality”. Maybe explain what that means?
When I started writing, I thought it was possible to find absolute silence.
But, to cut a long story short, I now believe that you will not find a totally silent place. There is this room way underground in the middle of Paris, right by the Pompidou Centre, where there is supposedly no noise at all. So after I finished the book I went there and it was really strange. With no noise, after a while it becomes hard to know which way is up or down etc. But you end up just hearing your heartbeat and your breath, you can almost hear your blood circulating around the body, so even there you have noise.
During your many adventures, did you have any moments where you came close to death?
I think from the outside, if my mother had been watching me, then I would say yes I have come close to death, several times. But when you are there in that moment, I didn’t feel that way, even when I’ve been attacked by a polar bear and have also fallen down a crevasse. But as a consequence of what I was saying earlier about this feeling that you extend into nature, you just relax about what is happening around you and accept it as part of your daily life. I think it’s scarier standing in a taxi rank in Oslo with a lot of drunk people.
Thinking about the future, I read somewhere today that architects in Britain train for 5 years but only spend one day on sound. Do you think that we need to adopt a much more mindful approach to silence?
I think that many people like architects and designers want to have noise. You want a restaurant with good acoustics and to have a system that can play loud music. It’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it brings good business; you want people to come in, to feel cool, eat and drink and then leave after 2 hours. So it makes absolute sense. For architects they need to understand 2 things and those are sound and light.
The visual aspect is also very important?
Yes, there is this very famous museum in Paris, the Louis Vuitton museum that Frank Gehry designed and everyone is crazy about. It’s a great building, but if you look at the light, as an art museum it doesn’t work; it’s more like a warehouse. If you start to build a house you should first imagine the light and how that will influence the space and then go from there.
One of the other things you have done is a walk across LA, which I think is a really original endeavour, as well as walking the sewers of New York. Do you feel that in order for us to find peace of mind and silence we need to plan something that is a bit out of our comfort zone?
Absolutely. This walk in LA was something that almost everybody can do – I just walked from one end of the city to the other for 4 days, walking slowly and staying in hotels on the way. The whole idea was just to see the city from the pavement because in LA hardly anyone walks around.
Didn’t the police stop you?
Yes, they thought it was really suspicious for someone to just be walking around. They said that the only people they saw walking in LA were crackheads, prostitutes, and crazy people.
It was a really interesting trip. We passed the Church of Scientology at the east end of Sunset Boulevard, which I have passed many times in the car but this time I decided to go in. We did one of their personality audits and after 90 minutes they decided that my friends and I had deep personal problems, but they could help.
"When you get to the summit of Mount Everest, at first you are super happy, but after about 2 or 3 minutes the next thought you get is how the hell you are going to get down."
My last question to you would be if you have had any success in teaching your daughters the art of silence?
2 out of 3. Right now they are 15, 18 and 21. I gave them each a copy of the book and the 2 eldest read it, they found it interesting and were very positive about it. They are still on their phones all the time but I think it has had an effect on how they are living their life. I didn’t want to stop them from being connected but maybe just a bit less and to think a bit more. The 15-year-old didn’t get it at all; she started to read it and thought it was a total waste.
I guess critics will always be critics.
All black and white images by © Lars Petter Pettersen
Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge is out now through Penguin