The lobster, traffic noise, and the infernal combustion engine

A few years ago, I heard a BBC documentary about lobsters and, as one might expect from a radio programme, a part of the broadcast dealt with the noises these creatures make. It was surprising to me that a solitary lobster skulking under a rock on the ocean floor and, apparently at least, doing nothing at all, could produce such a racket, a string of squeaky, plosive noises a bit like the popping of corn in a bag; and, listening to these oddly telegraphic sounds, I got the distinct feeling that this creature was sending out signals and deep in conversation with a fellow nephoropod,1 but I also wondered if making noises wasn’t simply a way of declaring his existence, and if this need is not common to all living species, including our own.

How can I describe it? The traffic noise I hear from my top floor apartment in Paris combines a deep, low-frequency drubbing sound, which you feel as much as you hear, and a brash composite of higher-frequency sounds like an uninterrupted blast of radio static, or a continuous pouring of wet gravel down a chute; and, rising above this horrible din, come the discrete (but not discreet) contributions of the city’s 2-wheelers which, depending on size and power, either whine like a gnat or snarl like an angry wasp, or in the case of the larger, more boisterous motorbikes, fill the street from end to end with the loud, eruptive roar of a gas-bloated bowel.

That we are stuck with cars and car traffic is an inescapable fact of modern life, the outward sign of social intercourse (and of sexual intercourse, too, when it comes to the sportier models) but this does not mean we are stuck with the noise they produce. Not, that is, if we don’t choose to be. As a little research will show, there are many ways to muffle the sound of an internal combustion engine, so why do we not adopt these technologies?

The first reason found online makes, I have to admit, a measure of sense. In 2013 various campaign groups, arguing that silent cars put pedestrians’ lives at risk, successfully lobbied the European Parliament, and laws have now been passed requiring owners of hybrid and electric cars to have their vehicles fitted with ‘artificial noise devices’!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to tell blind people, for instance, to just look out, I only wonder how noisy a car has to be in order not to pose a threat. Should we expect protests from the stone-deaf complaining that the noise of cars is not loud enough? The question here concerns not so much minimum noise thresholds as maximum noise thresholds, and this latter issue is one that is largely ignored.

I would suggest that the din cars make is the exact measure of their place and importance in our lives since they literally drive the economy, and embody more than anything else the aggressive individualism that our culture holds so dear.2 Our streets, then, are a war zone, and what we hear is quite literally the noise of a battle. It is surely no fluke that car designs so frequently evoke the great helms of medieval knights, and would it be completely surprising if a new car model were launched which, like the aforementioned lobster, was bristling with antennae and armed with pincers and claws?

Aggression, of course, is a part of human nature, and I realize that millions of people are working, interacting, competing and creating, but why, I beg to know, should noise be an index of vitality? Is it noise that makes our cities exiting?

Some would reply in the affirmative. Techno music celebrates it, of course, outdoing it, even, in ear-splitting volume, and some people, unnerved by quiet places, use ambient CDs and lull themselves to sleep to the sounds of rushhour traffic.

Of course, it’s what you’re used to, and even I have grown used to the noise. We shut it out and lose ourselves in our thoughts, and like a low-grade headache, we forget about it most of the time. But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect us,3 and I, for one, escape from the city whenever I can.

When the weather is fine I take a suburban train and head for the Val d’Oise or the Véxin region north of Paris, and in May last year I went walking in the Forêt de Carnelle, a place to which I often return for its lofty beech trees and venerable oaks. The period had been a stressful one at work, and I entered the woods with a keen sense of joy and relief. It was still fresh and early, and as I followed the hiking path through these hilly woodland scenes I soon forgot the conflicts at work.

My peace of mind, however, was soon destroyed when, clashing with the silence of the trees, came the noise of rushing traffic, and, glancing at my map, I saw the fat red line of the N184 cutting straight through the heart of the forest.

With all due honour to the memory of the soldiers, often adolescent boys, who lost their lives in the trenches, hearing this brash sonic swathe tearing through the trees, I was put in mind of the devastation wrought by World War I on the forests of Eastern France, and also of Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto which celebrates in the same breath the “famished roar of automobiles,” and the excitement of mechanized warfare, giddily proclaiming that “there is nothing (…) to admire today but the dreadful symphony of shrapnel.”

On the face of it the analogy I make between the horrors of the Great War and the aural onslaught of motorway traffic, is a tenous, perhaps even untenable, one, but a “symphony of shrapnel,” seems a fair description of the hideous din I describe, and I would argue that striving and aggression are actually engineered into car engines. Indeed, if I understand the image below, through the action of contrary forces the mechanical parts inside an internal combustion engine are contrived to, in a sense, grapple with each other in order to provide forward propulsion, and the motion of crankshaft and pistons put me in mind of wrestling cowboys rolling about in the sawdust in a saloon bar brawl.

I would go so far as to suggest that, issues of demographics and urban planning aside, the internal combustion engine itself is the principal motor, in a literal sense, of the “road rage” phenomenon.4 Particularly, I would suggest, where non-automatic cars are concerned, since the wrenching of gears and pumping of foot pedals allow drivers to work off their stress while propelling a 3,000-pound hunk of metal through densely populated urban areas.

Cars, some might argue, citing On the Road or the adventures of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, can also offer freedom, and the means to escape from our urban lobster pots, but what, in this instance, do we mean by freedom? Is freedom merely an aspect of mobility?

I remember devouring On the Road as a teenager but its protagonists, of course, do nothing but drive, day and night they drive, are never not driving, in fact, but tear across the continent from coast to coast and back again for the sheer hell of it, or for reasons that, in terms of story-telling at least, make little obvious sense, and I remember coming away from the novel less with a feeling of release than one of senseless striving, and less with a sense of boundless possibility than of entrapment, as though its characters, far from being free in any meaningful way, were merely, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “prisoners of the white lines on the freeway…” I am reminded too of Monte Hellmann’s existentialist road movie Two-Lane Blacktop which has more revving of engines than actual racing and conveys throughout an oppressive sense of inertness.

It has been too long, on the other hand, since I read On The Road so I cannot say whether a similar interpretation is the one Kerouac intended, however it re-occurred to me when I read The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test last year, and stumbled on the following passage: “Off to one side is a guy about 40 with a lot of muscles, as you can see because he has no shirt on… and he seems to be in a kinetic trance, flipping a small sledge hammer up in the air over and over, always managing to catch the handle on the way down with his arms and legs kicking out the whole time and his shoulders rolling and his head bobbing, all in a jerky beat as if somewhere Joe Cuba is playing… Cassady never stops talking. But that is a bad way to put it. Cassady is a monologuist, only he doesn’t seem to care if anyone is listening or not. He just goes off on a monologue, by himself if necessary, although anyone is welcome aboard. He will answer all questions, although not exactly in that order, because we can’t stop here, next rest area 40 miles, you understand, spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions, all punctuated by the unlikely expression ‘you understand-’”

This Cassady, of course, is none other than Neal Cassady – some ten years down the road – who was Kerouac’s model for Dean Moriarty in the novel.

In the few accounts I have read (bar this one) Cassady was far from a moron, and Wolfe – who clearly didn’t take to the man – captures none of the magnetism and charm that made him such a vital personality on the counter-cultural scenes of the 50s and 60s. Locked into his manic thought and behaviour patterns, an obsessive body-builder and conversational spastic, the Cassady we meet here could pass for a mental patient in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but whether or not this portrait is accurate or fair, the passage serves my argument well, since he seems to mimick the pounding cycles of an internal combustion engine, as though he sought unconsciously to become one himself, and to embody thereby his own alienation.

My point, I suppose, is this: we think we drive our cars but it is they that drive us, or, as Schopenauer, once put it: “Man can indeed do what he wants but he cannot will what he wants.” If I understand the great misanthropist, Man, then, is not free, but controlled by a higher Will for which he is merely an agent.

That we are FREE, however, is the principle tenet of consumer capitalism, its pitch to the masses, and the automobile, surely, is its most emblematic product? We can be anything we want, have anything we want, and, last but not least, we can go anywhere we want, and how often, indeed, have we seen the same ads? The smug executive types at the wheels of their cars – Audis, Volvos, Saabs, or Mercedes – cruising the Outer Hebrides to the strains of Beethoven or Bach? But how often, on the other hand, have we seen the same cars stalled in rush-hour traffic with a thousand others exactly like them, or creeping along, bumper to bumper, like a gradually cooling river of lead.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

I’m not slagging off ordinary motorists, struggling to get by in a less-than-perfect world, I’m just pointing out that freedom cannot be bought and sold, and wish to denounce the false promises and phoney ideals propagated by the advertising industry – shallow fictions on which, consciously or unconsciously, we model our lives and behaviour – as consumers, of course, but also as responsible citizens – and which pollute not only the collective consciousness as a whole, but also the air in which we live and breathe, filling it with noise and toxic gas emissions.

Do we have to live this way? is the question that begs to be asked, or are we merely slaves to our drives, and entirely subservient to some higher Will beyond our own? Listening to the noise of the nationale in the Forêt de Carnelle, I’m sorry to say that this second hypothesis appeared the most likely…

Were you to single out an individual motorist bombing past with all the others he would probably deny such a notion, protest indignantly that he was going places in both the literal and figurative senses, and proclaim himself master and commander – and I’m not denying that he is, from his point of view at least – but I cannot escape the sense that we are all compelled to this busyness, caught up in this headlong rushing, and swept ever onwards, as it were, down the river of time. From a distance, indeed, one might easily mistake the sound of motorway traffic for the roar of a torrent, devoid of meaning and in essence non-human, a natural phenomenon odedient to the laws of physics alone, just as water is bound to flow downhill and find the shortest path to the sea.

But, paradoxically enough, were we to choose one sound to characterize our species this, alas, would have to be it. This, in our time, like it or not, is the noise our species makes. Forget your favourite piece of music, the cheerful murmur of a provençal market, or the happy cries of children playing on a beach, – the sum total of all of our doings resolve, sonically at least, into this, this aural surf or ‘white noise.5

But the clamour produced in my head by this thinking was now as loud as the traffic itself, and I was polluting myself just as these trucks, cars and motorcyles were polluting the environment. And who in heaven’s name did I think I was? I cut, I knew, a foolish and pathetic figure, alone in the woods, effing and blinding as, heedless of my bootless cries, oblivious, indeed, of my very existence, the World roared past me; so I took a different path, away from the noise, and as it diminished and faded, and the cheeping of birds could once more be heard, pealing out bright and clear in the wakeful stillness of the forest, my misanthropic anger cooled and subsided, yielding instead to niggling self-reproach. I remembered a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintainance: “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”


Irony aside, I honestly believe this, that I had demeaned the Buddha, and was myself demeaned. The idea is an unusual one, but could it not be that, like the wheel of samsara in Buddhist philosophy, the thudding cycle of the internal combustion engine could also afford an occasion for release, for the attainment, that is, of true freedom – not freedom of the sort the advertisers would have us enslave ourselves and slog our guts out for, but freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death, and from ceaseless becoming to a state of pure Being? Who, indeed, among us has not experienced those moments on motorway journeys when, cruising along with other cars, it seems as though we were scarcely moving at all, as though Time itself were suspended, and we had entered a new dimension, one, however, which isn’t foreign at all, but which, no matter how far we have ranged from our postal addresses, is our one true home, a dimension (for want of a better word) where, cars and passengers alike, we all reside together, in the stillness, as it were, at the hub of the wheel…6

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not proposing that we all jump in our cars and clog the roads in search of enlightenment, nor that we enlarge our carbon footprint even further by jetting off to the Himalayas. Eastern philosophy, on the contrary, invites us to stay put for a change, and if we embrace wholeheartedly the here and now, we might just discover that what we seek is present already, or would be if only we allowed it to flourish, since mindfulness, which is also no-mind or emptiness, is the wellspring of creativity. “Don’t just do something, sit there!” proclaims a Zen meditation manual, inciting us, instead of striving compulsively after things which are outside and beyond ourselves, to re-create our lives from within. Stillness, however, is abhorrent to the Western mind, a kind of death; and we fear it because – like silence – it shifts the focus onto us and challenges us to BE, so we surround ourselves neurotically with noise and agitation.

This fear of ours is not unfounded. Suppose, if you will, that the jarring noise of car traffic should suddenly cease and silence surround us, imagine, in that improbable event, how weirdly foreign our cities would feel, and how eerily exposed we would be to our fellow human beings, the untold millions with whom we live in such close proximity, and share so much of our lives. Deprived collectively of this aural carapace, we would feel unsettled at first, but would we not learn, in the process of time, to know each other better, and trust each other more? The cancellation of traffic noise would bring about a radical shift in focus, and change completely the feel and texture of our lives, creating, in one fell swoop, a new kind of urban environment, one that would be more peaceful and humane, but no less exiting and dynamic, and certainly not less alive. On the contrary, the life around us would come into magical relief, and the natural rhythms of speech would replace the numbing throb of the internal combustion engine, meshing, instead, with the swish and sigh of rubber on asphalt.

1) According to the latest lobster science females lobsters are bigger chatterboxes than the males

2) Although, paradoxically enough, the noise of individual cars, – of individual car owners, that is, all of whom are vying for attention on our streets, – merge into a single monotone roar, which not only grates on our nerves but crushes our spirits with its hideous, mind-numbing sameness.

3) Can there be any doubt that it wears down our nerves and deadens our spirits – when it doesn’t directly translate, that is, as verbal or physical aggression?

4) Is it accidental that so many expressions for rage are car-related? We fume, for instance, when things don’t go our way, and get hot under the hood when something fuels (or ignites) our anger. The list goes on…

5) It is worth pausing over the meaning of this term. Just as white contains all the colours, human life in its infinite diversity or, in this instance, the infinitely various sounds that it makes, are dissolved into this no-thing, this blankness or nothingness.

6) I cannot help pointing out, on a peevish note once again, that the inside of a moving car is perhaps the only place in our cities where peace can be found, the only refuge, in other words, from the noise of car traffic. I am reminded, in this regard, of Gustave Eiffel’s quip when asked why he always dined at the top of the Eiffel tower. The Eiffel tower, he replied, was the only place in Paris where he couldn’t see the Eiffel tower.