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Silence: An Interview with Erling Kagge

Finding your own South Pole

Erling Kagge

Interviewed by Carina Nicolae, Soren Brown and Mariana Villas-Boas

Erling Kagge is a man of many firsts. He was the first to trek to the North Pole unsupported, the first to trek to the SouthPole unsupported and the first to complete the Three Poles Challenge (North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest). The somewhat bohemian explorer may also have been one of the first to write a book about silence that focuses on its positive aspects. “Quite often silence is about sadness and loneliness and boredom, but so many people have been writing books about that. I wanted to write about silence in a positive sense.” This he did in Silence: In the Age of Noise.

“The universe in your head is just as complicated as the universe around us. It’s true that exploration is very much about exploring yourself, your own mind.”

In its early pages, the Norwegian cites a conversation with the poet Jon Fosse, where Fosse equates silence with wonder. Wonder is one of childhood’s biggest joys – and losses. We could argue adults need silence to learn to wonder like children again. When I asked Kagge about this, he said, “Yes, there is a lot of noise in adults’ lives. Not only sounds, but expectations and distractions from devices. That is one of the reasons why we all need silence.” That is one of the reasons he encourages all of us to search for our own South Pole.

I haven’t climbed any mountains recently, but I’m not one to shy away from a challenge either, especially with curiosity tugging at my sleeve. So, if children have better access to wonder, why not ask for their help in interviewing the explorer on silence? It seemed like too good of an idea to pass up. That is how I ended up speaking with Erling Kagge one sunny afternoon with two young journalists at my side – so young in fact, if you added their ages together, they wouldn’t be able to drive a car.

Carina: You are described as an explorer. What is an explorer?

EK: First, you were born. You wanted to climb even before you could walk. Before you could talk, you walked across the sitting room, through the door, into the world and started to wonder what was hidden behind the horizon. So, in that sense, I think we are all explorers, some more than others, but I’m very in favor of a wide definition of exploration.

Carina: What did Antarctica look like?

EK: When I started, it looked white and flat, but after a few days I started to see that it wasn’t totally flat and not totally white. The ice and snow were blueish, yellowish, greenish. I wondered if Antarctica was changing or if it was me. It was me who was changing.

Carina: Did you hear anything like animals or wind?

EK: No, not when I walked to the South Pole. I was in Antarctica for the first time in 1987, and then I heard birds, walruses, penguins, killer whales, but this time I didn’t see any animal life at all.

Carina: How cold was it?

EK: To the South Pole, I didn’t bring a thermometer, but probably 30, 35 degrees below zero. In the North Pole, it went down to minus 54. That was pretty cold.

Carina: Wow! 

For Kagge, his expeditions are as much about exploring the outside as the inside. “The universe in your head,” he said, “is just as complicated as the universe around us. It’s true that exploration is very much about exploring yourself, your own mind. And for me the best way to do it is to move, to walk, to ski, to climb, to sail and then not only explore nature, but also explore myself.” A screen, he says, is not how we explore the world. More than engaging a search engine, we need to engage our own engines. For him, there needs to be an element of movement. As he says in his book Walking: One Step at a Time, emotion comes with motion. We are moved, in an emotional sense, when we move.

Soren:

EK: Oh, I got tired! I was very fit at the time, but the most important thing is what is happening between your ears. You need to be fit physically, but then it’s a mind game. You have to really want to do it.

Soren: (On his expedition to the North Pole in 1990, Kagge went with a friend, Borge Ousland.)  

EK: I liked the challenge. I wanted to make it more difficult. It is important to make life more difficult than necessary and on expeditions you certainly need to make it more difficult than necessary. Also, I wanted to be the first in the world to do it alone.

Carina: (We know you didn’t speak for the entire 50 days of your tip.) 

EK: I liked it. I’m a very social guy here in Norway, but I thought it would be nice to have a break. I didn’t decide beforehand. I just didn’t feel like talking and somehow nature speaks to you in its own language.

Carina: 

EK: When I was your age, I thought silence was sad and boring. Today, I think it can be boring sometimes too, but it’s more enriching, a relief, and also expands my mind, because in silence you get to know yourself. It felt good on my trip to the South Pole most of the time. Not every hour. Sometimes you don’t feel happy, but in general I had a good time by myself. I think most people would have a good time, because it’s nice to have a break from conversation. All humans are born to be with other humans, but for 50 days it was really nice to not be with any other people.

Carina: How did it feel like coming back to the noisy world?

EK: You adapt to circumstances really quickly. After a few days at home, I started to get used to it. You get home, you need to go to the store to buy food, you need to bathe, you need to pay bills. Life often goes back to normal quick and fast. But you’ve had the experience, that’s the big difference.

Soren: What was the hardest part of your trip?

EK: Getting up in the morning every day. Because it was cold and I was tired. Just like you.

Soren: Do we have to go to Antarctica to find silence?

EK: No, you can find silence anywhere and the most important silence is inside your head, the silence within. In your body and in your mind, that is the most important silence. You need to find your own silence. You can’t wait for silence to come to you. You need to find your own silence where you are. That silence is inside you just waiting for you.

Soren: My sister Annika is 5-years old and also asked a question.

EK: In a way I did, but on the other hand, I didn’t. You feel Santa Claus is there. You feel his presence, but you don’t really see him.

Kagge is not shy about being dyslexic and has not let the fact hold him back. In addition to his impressive accomplishments as an explorer, he studied law and philosophy, runs a major publishing company in Norway, wrote 7 books and is often engaged in public speaking events (including a Ted Talk) – all text-heavy endeavors. “I could not pronounce my own name before I was 10-years old. I couldn’t say dyslexic before I was 20. So, I was very dyslexic. I had a hard time speaking, writing and reading. Of course, that felt bad at the time. Terrible. The good thing is, if I hadn’t been dyslexic, I wouldn’t have done all of those things you mentioned, because the good thing about being dyslexic is you learn to question authority. The teacher tells you something and it works for everybody else, but it doesn’t work for you. You need to find your own paths in life. You learn to think a little bit differently and that also has a very positive side. So, it is a negative thing to be dyslexic, but it also has a good side. I know many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and they are almost all dyslexic. The Norwegian prime minister, she’s dyslexic. Somehow, it could be a good thing. It’s very good for creativity. It’s tough to be dyslexic, that is something you have to respect, but something good could come out of it. You could become the Prime minister of Norway.”

If you read Kagge’s books, it becomes clear there are two important threads in his practice of silence: art and movement. Kagge is an avid art collector and you find quite a few art reproductions in his books. (He’s even penned a how-to book for aspiring art collectors: A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art.) “To appreciate art, you generally need some silence. You need silence to reflect on art and you need contemplation. Also, quite often artworks are silent. No noise. So, I think silence is important to appreciate art.”

Walking, a common practice among writers, also comes into play as part of Kagge’s practice of silence. It is scientifically shown to unleash creative juices, although no one is sure why. Somehow, thoughts coalesce and we connect with a deeper part of ourselves. Kagge quotes the philosopher Merleau-Ponty in Walking: One Step at a Time saying, “I am just as immediately in the tips of my fingers, as in my head… my soul is as whole in my whole body, and wholly in each part.” In addition to walking a great deal, Kagge is also known to walk up a flight of stairs backward, just to give himself some head space in the middle of a busy day. “I find walking is very concrete, while silence is a bit more abstract. But walking and silence are about inner silence. I can find inner silence when I take a shower, when I do the dishes, but to walk is a fantastic thing, also in terms of silence. As I write in the book, it’s all about finding your own South Poles.”

Erling Kagge was featured in the StoryLab on 7 April at the Johan Jacobs Museum on the topic of silence. His most recent books are Silence: In the Age of Noise and Walking: One Step at a Time, both of which we highly recommend. Both Carina and Soren were present at this StoryLab.

Our sincere thanks to our young journalists Carina Nicolae and Soren Brown.

Carina Nicolae is 8-years old. She loves science and her family moved to Zurich one year ago from England. She has a little brother.

Soren Brown is also 8-years old. He is American and his family originally came from Norway. He has a little sister who is very curious about Santa Claus.

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