Erling Kagge Interview | The Norwegian Explorer On Trying to Clear Your Head in a Hectic World
How to find your own South Pole
Words by Sam Haddad
“The brain – is wider than the sky." Emily Dickinson
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Blaise Pascal (both quotes are taken from Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge)
I remember the first time I heard silence. Or what my five-year-old head understood to be silence anyway. I was alone in a room. There was no music, no tv, no video games or voices but I could hear the sound of nothingness so loudly it felt like it was blasting through my ears. I couldn’t handle it; I ran downstairs to be with my family.
For most of my childhood and early adulthood I probably fled from that intense quiet as much as I could. Silence was a void, which both scared and bored me in equal measure. I spent a lot of time in loud places with loud friends. And I always listened to music, while reading, walking, working; even going to sleep. Until I became a parent of noisy young children, I’m not sure I ever sought out silence at all.
"We live in the 'age of noise' where 'silence is a luxury we should seek out, not to mention a crucial rite of passage."
The Norwegian polar explorer and writer Erling Kagge shared that silence-hating sentiment as a child. But he now feels we live in the “age of noise" where “silence is a luxury" we should seek out, not to mention a crucial rite of passage. He says: “When I was a kid, I hated silence. Silence was when I didn’t have someone to play with or I was waiting for something or I was bored, but today as a father to three teenage daughters, they don’t know what silence is. They don’t experience it, unless they’re sad. Otherwise they see it as useless. That’s why it’s more important than ever."
Kagge is so convinced of our need for silence, he’s written a book about it, titled Silence: In the Age of Noise. Originally published in Norway last year, this thoughtful, philosophical read, which interrogates the word silence through quotes from Kant, Wittgenstein, Plato and Oliver Sacks, alongside Kagge’s own observations on life, is now an international bestseller.
Yet, an aversion to silence is increasingly normal today. In his book, Kagge cites a study by the Universities of Virginia and Harvard where scientists left subjects of all ages alone in a room for six to 15 minutes, with no electronic devices or reading material. Many couldn’t make it through the whole experiment. Those that did were then offered the chance to receive a painful electric shock or to sit in silence again for the same timeframe; over half the participants opted for the shock.
Kagge’s definition of silence is broader than just the absence of noise. He says: “Silence is the opposite of noise. But when I say noise I’m not only thinking about sounds, it can also be about other people’s expectations and always being connected. So when you find what you were looking for [online] but then 10 minutes later realising you’re still googling or waiting for someone to reply to a message. Silence has always been quite complicated for humans but the last five years, it has exploded."
Kagge links that to the proliferation of smart phones, of having all that knowledge and immediacy of contact in our pockets, and the dopamine-looped urges to constantly check it. He says: “Everybody feels like they have to be connected at all times but I don’t think that’s right. You can wait half an hour, it’s nothing, give it some time."
In the winter of 1992-3 Kagge hiked alone in Antarctica completing the first unsupported expedition to the South Pole. His sponsors had made him carry a radio but early on he threw the batteries away. “I was walking for the solitude and to not be connected to the world. I thought I’ll just get rid of the batteries. Of course people who do these expeditions now are always connected by satellite phone, but to me, I think it was easier to walk alone to the South Pole without being connected."
"His sponsors had made him carry a radio but early on he threw the batteries away."
Why was it easier not to be connected? “Other explorers, they talk on the phone, their girlfriend or boyfriend back home might be complaining that the dishwasher is broken, or they’re not able to pay the bills, or you’re never home… all this trivial reality. It’s not bullshit, it’s an important part of daily life, but I think it’s easier to walk alone to the South Pole without [that]."
Did he not feel lonely on that expedition with no chance of contact? Or scared? “No I was so excited about what I was going to do, and I was well prepared. But it’s as it was with the performance artist Marina Abramovic [who Kagge mentions in his book] when she first went into the desert, she was afraid and experienced the opposite of silence, she had all this noise in her head. That was the same for me at first in Antarctica but it’s a threshold you have to pass. We shouldn’t be put off by it being difficult."
In Silence he writes: “Antarctica is the quietest place I’ve ever been…there was no human noise apart from the sounds I made. Alone on the ice, far into that great white nothingness, I could both hear and feel the silence."
While walking in the white, with over seven million cubic miles of ice beneath his feet, Kagge noticed abstract shapes formed in ice and snow, and the various gradations in shades of white. “Nature spoke to me in the guise of silence. The quieter I became, the more I heard…I was neither bored nor interrupted," he wrote.
"The quieter I became, the more I heard…I was neither bored nor interrupted"
Though it wasn’t all thoughtful pondering and meditative pleasure, Kagge suffered serious frostbite along the way. When he eventually reached the South Pole, he arrived at the US science and research base. I ask if it was weird to suddenly speak again? “Really strange as I hadn’t even spoken to myself for 50 days and nights. The first guy said: ‘How do you do?’ So I said: ‘Like pig in a shit,’ and we had a laugh."
In the book, Kagge tells a good story about a Christmas at the same Antarctic base when someone had smuggled in 99 stones, one for each of the residents. “Nobody had seen stones for months, some for over a year. Nothing but ice, snow and man-made objects. Everyone sat gazing at and feeling their stone. Holding it in their hands, feeling its weight, without uttering a word," he writes.
“I’m an art collector, I buy things but to have a stone on the table gives you so much more than another plastic bag from Louis Vuitton," he tells me. “It’s timeless and reminds you of your place in the universe."
"Walking in a forest and checking your phone all the time, it’s still really nice to be in nature but this experience is very different."
Kagge is of course not suggesting we need to head to the South Pole to experience silence, though he does concede nature is a great facilitator. “I’ve just spent four days up in the mountains, it was very powerful but also very peaceful."
“We need nature for peace and quiet. But if you’re walking in a forest and checking your phone all the time, it’s still really nice to be in nature but this experience is very different. I think the best way is to leave the electronics at home and walk in one direction until you find a peaceful place and stay there for three days and nights and walk back up again."
Kagge prefers to find silence through walking, climbing or sailing away from the world. But if he can’t do any of those things he’s learnt to shut the noise out anyway, wherever he is.
“Silence is rare," he says. “It’s always nice to have peace around ourselves but most important of all is to have silence within. It’s easy to underestimate the possibilities you have to experience silence, it’s more difficult to experience than noise as noise is about living through other people and devices, that’s the easiest option. And that’s why people, myself included, prefer the easiest option but sometimes you should choose a more difficult option."
"Sometimes you should choose a more difficult option"
“You can find silence on the tube or bus in the morning, or you can jump off a station early for a walk. I’m a father of three teenage daughters but I can find silence at home. It’s possible everywhere. You don't need course in relaxation to be able to pause, you just need to pause."
I picture silence as white, like a field of snow, though that’s perhaps as I notice it the most in the mountains, especially when splitboarding away from ski resorts and crowded pistes. Does Kagge think silence has a colour? He laughs and says: “I would think white but green is also a very peaceful colour, it’s very much in the eye of the beholder."
And when I hear my voice in my head, busily thinking its thoughts as it does, can that still count as silence? “There are degrees of silence. Often it’s relative to the din that was happening before, and you may never get 100 per cent deep silence, but you can still experience something in just five minutes sitting in a chair."
It’s interesting to note that not all countries shun silence. In Japan, silence is a big part of culture, and the spaces in between words are just as important as the words themselves in ways that can seem unusual to a chatty British person like me. I ask Kagge if silence is important in Norway. “We are more like the UK than Japan in that sense but the difference between Norway and the UK is that we are five million people in the same space as you and closer to nature, so it’s easier to get connected to nature."
Finally, I ask Kagge why we need silence anyway? “To lead a truly rich life," he says, “and to get to know ourselves better." But he also thinks we need it for creativity. He quotes Mark Juncosa, who works on Elon Musk’s space programme, as saying: “A normal work day at best contains eight hours of meetings, a few hours to respond to emails. It all blurs together. The only time to shut out the world is when I exercise, surf, take a shower or sit on the toilet. That’s when new solutions surface."
Kagge also tells a great story of a Norwegian guide called Claus Helberg, who took a group hiking from Finsehytta, a famous Norwegian cabin and spectacular starting point for hikes. The panorama was breathtaking but before they had the chance to speak Helberg handed them notes, which said: “Yes, it is totally amazing." He wanted them to enjoy it without words creating a boundary or bringing too much distance from what they were actually experiencing. Which they did. Through the beauty of nature they embraced an inner peace, but such an experience might not work, nor even be practical, for you.
In our search for silence Kagge believes we have to find what works best for us. Our own notional silence. "You have to find your own South Pole," he says.