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SUNDAY READING

The Sounds That Prevent Sleep : 'For My Father, Night's Murmur Is a Call to Return to the Soil He Once Tilled . . . '

June 15, 1986|MARK C. TAYLOR | Mark Taylor is a professor of religion at Williams College.

As I approach 40 and my father approaches 80, we both have become obsessed by sounds of the night. These strange sounds make sleep impossible. At first, I thought the sounds my father and I are hearing were different; now I am no longer so sure. The uncanny congruence of sounds heard by a man near the middle and a man near the end of life are suggested by the haunting words of French writer Maurice Blanchot: "Night, the essence of night, does not let us sleep."

Since retiring, my father has been writing long, reflective letters. Last fall, he wrote that the night before the first heavy frost, he had gone for a long walk to listen to the sounds of night. He often takes such walks. But he knew this walk would be the last of the season, for frost kills insects and chases birds. What he did not say, at least not directly, was that when one is almost 80, one cannot be sure there will be another such night.

In his letter, my father confessed that for many years he had wanted to write an article or a book about the sounds of night. But this longtime science teacher had always been frustrated, for he could neither distinguish nor identify distinct sounds and could never figure out how to conduct research on what he could hear but not see. His wife, an English teacher who professes a love of Emerson, told him that it was not bugs he was hearing but something else, something he could never identify, classify or define. She explained with a poem by Mary Oliver: "I heard the small kingdoms breathing / around me, the insects, and the birds / Who do their work in darkness. All night / I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling / With a luminous doom. By morning / I had vanished at least a dozen times / into something better."

Several years ago, when I was living in the South, it was not the heat but the ceaseless din of invisible creatures that kept me awake. But I quickly learned to close out the sounds of night and was able to sleep undisturbed. We can do that when we are young.

The night sounds I hear now are not the sounds of insects or birds. They are the sounds of silence. The silence that is the essence of night is a silence beyond the absence of sound. It is the silence of death; death, never as distant as we think but always nearer than we admit.

I have long been convinced that the so-called mid-life crisis has as much, perhaps more, to do with death as with sex. What we dread is the loss of possibility. No longer "a young man on the rise," one discovers that what lies ahead is but the outworking of what lies behind. At this moment, one realizes that to have arrived is to have no place left to go. Changes of life in mid-course are desperate efforts to deny the constriction of possibility. The loss of the possible is the loss of the future itself.

The final limit of possibility is, of course, death. The silent approach of death exposes our impotence. Paradoxically, this impotence is often experienced in the moments of our greatest contentment. In middle age we begin to suspect something that in youth seemed impossible: Satisfaction is death--the death of desire, which is the pulse of life. One night we suddenly awaken to the nightmare we are forced to live when our dreams come true. My mother, an English teacher whose soul is possessed by Melville, once explained this to me with the words of poet Wallace Stevens: "No, this physical world will not be satisfactory. The mind will become hideously hungry and empty. In fact, people who are content with this world become more and more colorless each year, resembling nightgowns." These gowns of the night reflect the unnameable whiteness that Melville names "the Whale," and what Blanchot describes as "the white night."

The sounds of the night that make sleep impossible for my father and me are the sounds of death. For my father, night's murmur is a call to return to the soil he once tilled as a Pennsylvania farm boy. As life comes full circle, that beginning returns as his end. Having grown up in suburban New Jersey, I never tilled the soil and I am not yet ready to make this return. So I struggle a while longer--struggle not to arrive but to remain dissatisfied. I am, however, saving my father's letters and my mother's poems, for I know they are trying to teach a lesson I will have to learn some night.

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