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Washington Diarist: The Night Birds

A few weeks ago I noticed that the dead of night is no longer dead. It is alive with the songs of birds. The nocturnal concert comes from somewhere in the thickets of my garden, a small bucolic refuge in an unpastoral corner of the city. The performance is lyrical and cacophonous, a patterned program of warbles and screeches and trills and whistles, with an occasional phrase that pierces the heart—very Brooklyn Academy of Music. Robbed of sleep by the din, I thought of transliterating it, but old memories of Hopkins at his most ludicrous (“Teevo cheevo cheevio chee”) made me think again. Instead, like all right-thinking people in this age of metrics, I dipped into science. After all, birds are supposed to sing in the daytime. Was not the avian chorus in my garden an inversion of the natural order? Data points! I needed data points! From a publication of the Royal Society, I learned that the riddle of nocturnal birdsong entered the literature as early as 1923. For a long time it was believed that the creatures were tricked into song by the ambient light of the city night, rather in the way that the illumination of streets by gas lighting and then electrical lighting in the nineteenth century provoked city dwellers, I mean the wingless human ones, into the invention of “night life.” But researchers at the University of Sheffield discovered in 2007 that the problem for urban birds is not the light of the night but the noise of the day. A bird in the city cannot make itself heard over the city’s clangor. For this reason the birds sing “when human activity abates” and they can get a chirp in edgewise. They depend mightily on these acoustical signals, not least for the attentions of a mate: the stakes in these sonorities are high. And so “a shift to nocturnal stridulating” occurs “in the presence of diurnal-stridulating competitors.” They sing later and louder.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE not to read these findings allegorically. I have known such beings my whole life. I have been one of them. They want to be heard; they want to be recognized; they want to be loved. They are overwhelmed by the rush of purposes and vanities that comprise a city in motion, by the alienating volume of the infinite bustle. But they will not be busied into silence. They have something they wish to say. Since they cannot find day-acknowledgements, they seek night-acknowledgements. When the sun goes down they re-introduce themselves, and offer what they regard as the most attractive expressions of their yearning. They require, for their seductions, the still of the night. Sometimes their call is rapturous, but they may also sound frantic, relentless, crude: loneliness makes them beg. (From the American philosopher Charles Hartshorne’s wonderful book on birdsong: “A female confronted with two singing males may be most likely to choose the one who is singing most persistently.”) My garden at midnight is not all that different, then, from the bar at the end of my street, except that the bar is crowded with nocturnal stridulating competitors. The birds have it better.

NOT LONG AGO I surprised myself with the embarrassing thought that I no longer know any lonely people. This is an exaggeration, of course: the smart rooms in which I may sometimes be found are not lacking in people who are lonely in society. But they are in society. They are always in society. If they are lonely, they are not isolated. They move in a lively hum of articulateness and good cheer; they have learned how to give, and how to receive, a flattering assurance of urgency and importance; they fortify themselves with the shininess of their surroundings, with the insulations of “achievement.” Their loneliness, if that is what they are hiding, is mitigated by a universe of attractive exteriors. I am acquainted with such people and their high-end sadness. But I am cut off from the ones who are cut off, from the disconnected and the unnetworked (our technology of communications is supposed to have made such marginalizations obsolete, but I do not believe it: our culture is filling up with evidence of the lonely digital crowd), the ones who lead lives of radical solitariness, of aloneness without appeal, with no bonds to console them and no prospects to divert them, who struggle for stimulation and expression, whose beds are deserts, whose phones almost never ring, who march through their difficulties without any expectation of serendipity or transcendence. Their absence from my experience makes me feel disgracefully narrow. A few months ago I was shaken by Lee Chang-Dong’s film Poetry, about an unremarkable older woman, living in modest circumstances in a lusterless city, who looks after a stroke victim, and discovers that her grandson has committed a heinous act, and learns that she has Alzheimer’s, and resolves to write a poem. Yun Jung-hee’s worn, indistinct, questing face has never left me. I look for her sometimes on the street, out of fear that she is right there before me but I do not perceive her. I always pass her by. We say of such people that they lead obscure existences, but they are not obscure to themselves. We make so many people invisible. It is a cognitive expulsion, but we are its victims. We do not expel the others, we expel ourselves. We blind ourselves and then we act as if there is nothing to see.

“IT IS TERRIBLE to carry one’s moral afflictions alone,” the painter Charles Burchfield wrote in his journal in 1936. “There is no more tragic loneliness than this.” Burchfield’s journals, which begin in 1911 and end shortly before his death in 1967, are the most exciting American book I have read in years. They have a genuinely Emersonian force, not least because they, too, are the record of a solitary’s lifelong encounter with the spiritual antithesis of nature and society. Burchfield was of the party of nature. He records the sensations of his eyes and his ears with a mystical intensity. He accepted the loneliness that he described, and blunted its tragic aspect with the cosmic emotion of his art. In 1916: “Yesterday I met a person whose mind was so saturated with blind business that he was an object of unbelievable loathing to me. He influenced my whole day so that at the end of it, frantic, I almost forgot the existence of the sun.” Burchfield’s remedy was to “spend a season of oblivion with nature.” He studied birdsongs, and captured them brilliantly in language, and even transcribed some of them into musical notation. He saw the utility but chose the beauty, and was stirred by the music that is best heard in the dark.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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