The power of silence in an always-on world
Explorer and writer Erling Kagge’s latest book was inspired by a solo walk to the South Pole
Erling Kagge: “People say I have three kids and a demanding job, so how can I expect to get any silence – that’s not correct: if you do the dishes after dinner, you will get silence as no one is going to interrupt you.”
Erling Kagge has led a life so staggeringly eventful and impressive, it almost verges on parody.
Already a successful lawyer in his native Norway, in his late 20s he embarked on becoming the first person to conquer the so-called “three poles”, North, South and the summit of Everest. Having achieved this at the ripe old age of 31, he returned to the working world to co-found Oslo-based publishers Kagge Forlag, now a successful imprint releasing more than 100 titles a year. He’s also documented his travels in a series of successful books of his own and, in whatever spare time he can conjure, works as a Rolex model.
In short, he’s the kind of maddeningly heroic character you can imagine Seth Rogen’s high school sweetheart marrying in a Judd Apatow movie.
As if to stress his range, Kagge begins our conversation by remarking on a recent trip to a slightly less perilous locale.
“I was walking in Howth just a while ago,” he says as we sit down for a chat in London’s Groucho club. “It was with a friend I did some long sailing trips with in the 1980s. I got an email from his wife who said he was getting Alzheimer’s, so she asked him, ‘is there anything you’d like to do?’ He said ‘yeah, if you can get a hold of Erling, and get him to Dublin, it would be nice to take a walk together’. So I flew over and I did a walk.” Not that his visit was, he assures me, necessarily a strictly athletic pursuit. “Well, he’s not supposed to drink too much alcohol but, of course, we got pissed as well.”
He is now an extremely youthful 56. I ask how these impulses toward adventure first presented themselves.
My goal was to be the first person to walk alone to the South Pole
“I think we’re all born explorers, from the time we learn to walk. My kids were like everyone else, they tried to climb before they could walk . . . you’re born with that spirit. I think everyone could walk to the South Pole. But then of course, when they get three, four, five years’ old, they start playing with all these rules. ‘No, don’t do this, we should do this’ and they slowly turn into a human with less dimensions. This spirit of exploration will never go away, but is becoming weaker, or more diminished.”
Kagge’s new book Silence is a meditation on stillness, and of taking time to disconnect from the swirling noise of the modern world. It was informed by his insistence on doing his 1992-1993 solo walk to the South Pole, without a radio. Although his backers insisted he bring one along for safety, he removed the batteries while flying to his starting point, and carried its lifeless 11lb weight the entire way of his 800 mile, 50-day journey through the Antarctic.
“My goal was to be the first person to walk alone to the South Pole,” he explains. “Before my expedition, all the people who attempted it were doing it “connected”. And there’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but for me it was something important to be isolated. It would still be interesting to walk alone to the South Pole, but if I was going to talk on the radio every evening, or even once a week, it would be a total distraction, not only the talking but the thinking about it – “oh tomorrow I must make sure to be ready for the radio” and so on. In any case, what people tell you on the radio is not interesting. Maybe they tell you about world events, and that can wait, or they tell you that the washing machine has broken down or that you haven’t paid this or that bill. For 50 days, you don’t really miss anything.”
As someone who regularly exits Twitter on my desktop, only to reflexively open it on my phone in case I’ve missed something in the time it’s taken for my laptop to close, I confide I find it absurd someone would seek disconnection on a death march across the swirling, Antarctic wastes.
“Well, I’d already made a choice first to go the South Pole” he says, “so doing that alone is already an absurd thing to do. For the first couple of days of silence, you still have noise in your head, even though it’s quiet around you. But after a couple of days, you get rid of that noise and it becomes a really comfortable, pleasant place to be. You start by thinking that everything around you is white and flat. Then hours, days and weeks pass by, and you see there’s small variations; greens, blues, yellows. You start to learn to appreciate small bites, where back home it’s all these big mouthfuls.
“Now, if I go hiking in Ireland, as I’ve done in Howth, but also in Cork, I can get the same feeling. But when by yourself, for a longer time in a place like Antarctica, it’s just that much stronger.”
For all his derring-do, it might seem more miraculous still that he finds time for soul-salving moments of silent calm with a heavy workload and three teenage daughters.
“Well,” he laughs, “people say I have three kids and a demanding job, so how can I expect to get any silence – that’s not correct: if you do the dishes after dinner, you will get silence as no one is going to interrupt you.”
For their part, his daughters have had varying experiences with the book itself. “The two oldest liked it. They’re ‘connected’ all the time, of course, but could identify with the insanity of it all. But the 15-year-old, all she wants is to be online. She read a couple of pages and felt it was a total waste. For her, silence is boredom and sadness. At her age, I was the same, I didn’t see any possibility for enrichment in silence. Perhaps when she’s 17 she’ll have a different view.”
I admit that, in my early teens, I was hatefully oblivious to the Donegal wilderness that lay metres from my doorstep, and would have poured concrete over every last moss-strewn hill if I thought they’d build laser quest centres in their place.
Some Sherpas are proud of having been to the top of Everest, some several times
“I think you see this all over the world,” he says, likely discounting the specificity of my laser tag reference. “I used to sail a lot, and if you sail into a fishing village in Chile, the fisherman just wonder “why on earth do these people go out and sail voluntarily?” If you go to the Himalayas, even, these old Sherpas say “what’s the point, climbing a mountain?”. Today it’s changing, some Sherpas are proud of having been to the top of Everest, some several times, but I think it’s quite common, that feeling. You come from somewhere, where everything is boring to you but, on returning home, you see the richness of what you left behind. I suppose that’s why so many books are about that experience.”
Silence itself is less a weighty, high-falutin’ tome and more a collection of micro-essays on subjects around the value inherent in reflection and calm. Compact and beautifully designed, it runs to just 18,000 words, split across 32 chapters that share thoughts on family, relationships, exploration, philosophy, as well as input from the likes of Marina Abramovic and Elon Musk.
Silence around you is good but silence within is most important
“I don’t mind self-help books” he says, “but I don’t think of this as one. I just wanted to write deeply and personally about something that’s important to me. I spent 18 months writing Silence, but made it short because I wanted it to be a book you can read in one evening.”
For Kagge, the secret to a successful appreciation of quiet moments, is less in set routines and prescribable activities, than in assessing the mental habits that go with the modern age.
“Meditation, yoga, mindfulness is all very good, but there’s been so many books written about those techniques, I wanted to talk about a different way. Silence around you is good but silence within is most important. It’s there all the time, and the reason I think people avoid it’s easy. To live through the noise of TVs, phones, and all their distractions is much easier than reverting to silence. Sometimes you just need to stop, if even for 10 minutes; stop relating to everyone else and try to relate to yourself.”
“In those pauses, you will meet yourself, and sometimes these are the toughest meetings you can have in life.”