Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Aldous Huxley authored one of the most widely cited statements on music: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The popularity of this maxim has long outlasted any general interest in the collection of essays from which it originated, Music at Night (1931). That the phrase resonates with many readers is evidenced by its frequent and usually context-less appearance on websites and books devoted to useful quotations. Some might reverse the hierarchy, placing music before silence, but the substance of Huxley’s comment remains the same: these acoustic phenomena communicate something beyond the limits of language.
It is fruitless to venture an elucidation of what Huxley meant by “inexpressible.” As the term indicates, the things expressed cannot be justly or fully described. Nevertheless, we can presume it refers to a category of experience variously called emotional, non-rational or spiritual. These ineffable sensations, while universally desirable, are not arrived at easily in our noise-saturated world.
Huxley’s thoughts on the subject are fleshed out in The Perennial Philosophy (1944), a compendium of mystical insights from sages of the world’s religions. In his chapter on silence, Huxley includes instructive excerpts from the writings of religious figures like Lao Tzu and William Law. His own remarks are hardly reserved.
The first barrier to silence he identifies is frivolous speech: “Unrestrained and indiscriminate talk is morally evil and spiritually dangerous.” Huxley claims that most words thought or spoken during the course of the day fall into three main groups: “words inspired by malice and uncharitableness towards our neighbors; words inspired by greed, sensuality and self-love; words inspired by pure imbecility and uttered without rhyme or reason, but merely for the sake of making a distracting noise.”
The other impediment to silence Huxley cites is incessant ambient noise. Writing toward the middle of the twentieth century, he diagnosed a reality that has only been exacerbated in the intervening years. As Huxley astutely notes, “the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.” Most damaging from his perspective is the still-ubiquitous radio, which “penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions—news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas.”
As is apparent from the passages above, Huxley’s praise for the non-material rewards of silence is matched by his disdain for unfiltered and unrewarding sounds—whether of our own making or mechanically produced. Quietness of mind and environment is, for him, the most effective path to emotional ease, psychological calm and spiritual awakening. Next on his list is music, which cuts through jumbled noises, diverts distractions and communicates directly with the realm of affections. Music combats noise not by eliminating it, but by organizing it. In this respect, Huxley would likely give preference to instrumental music, which is free of the potential contamination of linguistic assertions (like of the “sentimental music” he condemns).
For Huxley and the many admirers of his famous phrase, expressing the inexpressible is a lofty and virtuous aspiration. It implies reaching a level of awareness obscured by the trappings of ordinary existence. In the materialistic landscape of the modern world, meaningless words and noisy devices are among the obstacles blocking our way to a deeper experience. And for the reasons discussed, silence and music are perhaps the best antidotes.
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