Ignorance and arrogance; the two most devastating characteristics of humanity. These two simple traits are the roots to nearly all conflicts, whether a domestic spat between loved ones or in raging wars, the persecution of an entire people, or mass genocide. The astounding and innovative Simon and Garfunkel hit, “The Sound of Silence” has crossed borders of both nations and ideals in its haunting harmonies, resonating lyrics, and its looming sense of doom when describing the fatal flaws that all humanity possesses. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, childhood friends growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Queens in the 50’s, first formed their musical duo as teenagers. “The Sound of Silence” was released on the duo’s debut album “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.” in 1964, which for about two years was unrecognized, until its rerelease in 1966. From then on, “The Sound of Silence” has continued to touch new people each generation thanks to its profound lyrics that are still relevant today.
“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
Within the sound of silence.”
In this first verse, darkness represents ignorance. The speaker has overcome his ignorance and describes how “a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping”. Before this “vision” came, the speaker is described as “sleeping”, a metaphor for his oblivion to all around him. The vision is likely an event that he witnessed or heard of that disturbed his oblivious sleep. Now that the seeds have been planted, the speaker can no longer sleep soundly and ignore the world. Soon he will have to wake up.
“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.”
Now that he can no longer sleep easily, the speaker begins to search for answers. He is alone in a world devoid of meaning and alone in his quest to find what it is that has been missing from his life. Then all at once, his “eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light”. This light represents the idea of what is missing coming to him. He didn’t find it somewhere or in something, but it came to him. One could even argue that it came from within him. We know that this light is the answer because it “touched the sound of silence”. The sound of silence is the emptiness of a superficial world in which all the people are “silent”, or in other words, have nothing to say of any real significance or meaning.
“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 share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.”
The third verse discusses what it is that the light has revealed: the unwillingness of people to “disturb the sound of silence”. “People talking without speaking” and “people hearing without listening” refer to arrogance. People talk, but they don’t speak up in favor of progress or reform because they are too attached to what they are familiar with. Every once in a while, a person might actually come across something of significance – someone calling for help, someone fighting for their rights, someone preaching a radical idea – but they will not think twice or take actions of any sort, even if they want to. “People writing songs that voices never share” are the people who actually do have ideas and think about the world, but are too afraid breaking the status quo or “disturbing the sound of silence” to raise their voices. These people refuse to speak up because they fear criticism of their ideas, even if the opinions of the rest of the world are too superficial to understand. Because of this fear of change, progress can not be made and the world remains the same.
“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”
Now the speaker is trying to reach out to the people who are still under the sleepy spell of oblivion in hope of enlightening them. He claims that the silence that they hold so dear is harmful, both to individuals and society overall. He hopes that by saying he can teach them, they will listen and learn from him. He is no different from the others, however and is ignored by the masses. His words make impact on nobody and simply “echo 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.”
The final verse portrays mankind’s follies by describing our ultimate failure: our tendency to blindly stumble about the world, lost, mislead, and utterly confused when the answer is not just right in front of us but everywhere and all around. People often believe that they have found the answer when they find the most complicated answer or the most glorious establishment. People are most likely to follow the “neon god”, what shines the brightest or appears to be the most grand when in reality the answers we seek are rarely found in flamboyancy. This tendency is further proof of our attachments to superficiality – we naturally associate prettiness or grandeur with “goodness” or “greatness”. In opposition to these thoughts, meaning can be found in the things that are simple and real, not what is dressed up to be commercially appealing. “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”, or in the places that we pass by everyday, taking little heed of. And yet, they continue to “whisper in the sound of silence” because in spite of going unnoticed, the truths behind these overlooked words continue to effect us everyday, waiting for recognition.
It is the things that are powerful enough to pierce the silence that have the most impact on our lives: the tragedies, the uprisings, the rebels, the catastrophes, the rise to power and the downfalls. It is not those who have tunnel vision for one specific purpose who change the world but the rebels, the ones who dare to challenge the status quo and protest the silence. It is these people who have brought our world to where it is and are calling out into the silence, waking up others, and bringing this piece of rock that we live on to a more aware state.
Here is another video of “the Sound of Silence”. It never ceases to amaze me how amazing Simon and Garfunkel perform this song live. They sound no different than on the original studio version.
Thanks so much for reading! See you all next week. Until then, listen for the whispers, or if you are truly daring, shout out into the silence.