The Art Of The Personal Essay On Noise

Story Title: ‘On Noise’ by Seneca.
Source: The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books)
Date Read: 25th January 2011
Afterthoughts: This literary composition from Seneca – in which he muses on the distraction of noise – is more life lesson than essay, but the elements of the personal are certainly there. He begins by describing the sounds that emit from the public bathhouse below his lodgings and how they can potentially be distracting and luring in a negative way. Seneca declares that these noises have, for him, become nothing more than background chatter, or as we like to phrase it in our modern age, it has become ‘white noise’.

Taking a quote from Apollonius’ Argonautica Seneca’s goes on to suggest that we cannot get away from noise; that there is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’. Noise and voices are perpetual and even when we are able to silence the external, noise still lives on within us creating the same kind of distractions.

Ultimately I guess what Seneca is saying is that we cannot escape the voices that lure us in to temptation, and that we should instead endure and resist them with stoic determination. I agree with him and although his advice is very self-flagellant of course, it subscribes wholly to the philosophy of stoicism.

And herein it would seem lies the primary raison d’etre for Seneca penning this and other essays in the first place. In his introduction Philip Lopate tells us that these essays were penned during Seneca’s final exile before being sent in the guise of letters to a civil servant named Lucilius. They were, Lopate says, meant for publication. They were meant to educate and guide Stoics through their own lives.

So perhaps it’s fair to suggest that this example from Seneca’s ‘codex for Stoics’ shouldn’t really have been included in a personal essay anthology? I don’t agree. Not only did Montaigne – the ‘father of the essay’ – look on Seneca as a role model for his own writing, this literary composition does have the essential element of ‘I’ in it, with Seneca not only relating his own experiences with the most tempting and distracting of noises i.e. the sounds permeating his lodgings from the public bathhouse below, but he is also relating in a wholly personal way how he has managed to stoically cope with it.

More significantly however, I also found that this essay illustrates the same kind of discourse and stream-of-consciousness writing habit inherent in Seneca, that Montaigne was to adopt himself in the sixteenth-century. Perhaps fearful that providing his own example of stoic resistance would encourage others to mimic him (thereby putting themselves dangerously in the path of temptation), Seneca becomes randomly impulsive in the closing of his essay and rather comically contradictory. He declares with a certain air of urgency that he must move out of his lodgings as soon as possible, for there is no reason for him to endure the ‘sirens’ of temptation. Hilarious!

In summing up then, a somewhat preachy and dry ‘essay’, but one which remains thoroughly entertaining and readable throughout. The credit for readability? Well that should go to Robin Campbell, who has rendered a wonderful translation.

Notable Quote: “You must be made of iron,” you may say, “or else hard of hearing if your mind is unaffected by all this babel of discordant noises around you”… But I swear I no more notice all this roar of noise than I do the sound of waves or falling water.


This story was read as part of a review of Philip Lopate’s personal essay anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. If you want to find out more about this collection then I invite you to head on over and read my ‘forethoughts’ post for the book, and/or visit the the publisher’s website.

In his introduction to “The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,” Phillip Lopate writes: “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.”

This comprehensive volume starts in ancient Rome with Seneca’s “On Noise” and Plutarch’s consolation to his wife following the death of their two-year-old daughter. Then it arcs through history to include Michel de Montaigne -- credited with inventing the contemporary literary form of essay (named for "essai," the French word for "trial" or "attempt") in the sixteenth century -- Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, Henry David Thoreau, E.B. White, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and many more.

If Lopate’s evocation of that connection between writer and reader sends a chill up your spine, read on to experience what some of today’s best personal essayists have to whisper in your ear.

“Generation Why?” by Zadie Smith

Smith’s characteristically incisive commentary on The Social Network, the 2010 Facebook movie penned by Aaron Sorkin, as it relates to Jaron Lanier ‘s book “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto,” explores her possibly ill-timed dream “of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself.” Originally published in The New York Review of Books, it was later anthologized in "The Best American Essays 2011."

"Drinking at 1,300 Ft: A 9/11 Story About Wine and Wisdom" by Cal Fussman

Published in Esquire on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and honored last week in the James Beard Foundation Awards’ personal essay category, this account of Fussman’s attempt to write "a story that balances the fun I had discovering wine with the horror of 9/11” begins: “We all know the feeling of wanting to do something so well and so badly that we try too hard and can't do it at all. In the end, though, there's no trick to being yourself. So I'm simply going to tell this story the way it happened.” With grace and vulnerability, he connects his musically inspired immersion in wine education at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World Wine School to vivid imagery of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope dance between the two towers to the unfathomable loss of that September morning. How he does it becomes clearer with each rereading of the piece.

“My Tortured Relationship with the New York Giants” by David Kamp

In this poignant account of the 2008 Super Bowl for The New York Times Magazine “Lives” column, Vanity Fair contributing editor David Kamp takes us on the emotional roller coaster of sharing the “New York Giants miserabilist” legacy with his father and son. “My father died that Saturday night, the eve of the big game," he writes. "In my grief, I didn’t want to spend Super Bowl Sunday watching the undefeated New England Patriots dismantle my Giants. But my wise wife insisted that my son and I turn on the game. A game that the Giants, absurdly, won…My memories of that victory will always be tempered by thoughts of my father’s death, and my sadness over my father’s death will always be mitigated by the euphoria -- yes, euphoria -- produced by that victory.” The catharsis he describes should resonate with anyone who's ever been made breathless by a loss or a win.

“Infinite Ache: My First Mother's Day Without Her” by Saeed Jones

Leading up to the one-year anniversary of his mom’s death, which falls the day before Mother’s Day, Joneswrites for Ebony: “…grief is vast. I thought it would be like a river, powerful but with a clear direction. Instead, though, I’ve found that grief is an ocean. There is hell in grief, to be sure, but there is joy too. Now, though I sometimes cry, I more often feel a sense of awe at the depth of my connection to my mother.” It’s easy to be knocked over -- and picked up again -- by the palpable force of love in his writing.

“All the Single Ladies” by Kate Bolick

In this much-buzzed-about November 2011 Atlanticcover story, an essay about changing social dynamics resulting in a thriving population of educated single women, Bolick's voice is loud and clear. Her ambivalence about entering into a traditional marriage leads her to explore her own romantic patterns and international trends embracing unconventional arrangements as marriage alternatives. After initiating a breakup with a wonderful guy because “something was missing," she was torn: “On good days, I felt secure that I’d done the right thing. Learning to be alone would make me a better person, and eventually a better partner. On bad days, I feared I would be alone forever. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life?” Despite not having the answers, Bolick is brave enough to live the questions and share her discoveries with us.

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