A glance back at an old post has caused me to take up a question that drives to the heart of writing and identity once again; to ask it, however, I have to go back to the roots of my own involvement in it, and reflect my current concern here upon the mirror of concerns past.
When I was in college I became interested in the question of “listening,” in relation to both “religious callings” and “poetic dictation.” In some authors, listening meant something like tuning in to the present, into an awareness of God’s voice in reality, of how the divine is “speaking” to humanity. In others, what was at stake was something more like “literature.” But they both shared what quickly became for me the question of the other. The question of listening is a question about the outside, the unfamiliar, the strange and foreign–even if this “outside” seems located in my very breast and head. Listening concerns receptivity to the other-than-self, to that which exceeds the ego and all its representations. In its most refined forms, it always implies becoming an antennae for the invisible, a microphone for the unnameable.
For me, the difference between a religious vocation and a writing practice could never be decided out-and-out: both had too much to do with this question of the other, and, in my experience at least, the other does not allow us to choose one way or the other. But they both also had ways, it felt, of repressing or sidestepping the purity of listening itself. The choice for religion puffed one up one’s own existence; the choice for writing, one’s own voice. They both over-wrote the listening, dramatizing it into an “ordeal” (I’ve done my share of this), whether it be spiritual one, waiting on God’s voice, a literary one, waiting on “inspiration,” or some other mix of amplification disorders and fuzzy signals. (I dispense with the objection that writing is not waiting but work. It’s true, but it is just as true in spirituality. And as much as there is work in writing, it is always a wait. There is a kinship between the artistic Nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line drawn) and the idea of “praying without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17): both imply applying oneself to the failure of representation. It implies erasure or disapplication: to make room in oneself for what is not one’s own, instead to act as a medium for something “excessive,” however unknown.)
What was in question was not the religious or aesthetic interpretation of this phenomenon, but what made it possible. Now, it became clear that every writer had his or her own way of making this clear, and this “way” was the work itself. The relation to the other is never incidental to the identity of the text–no less than to that of a person. And yet it could not be denied that there were overlapping “concerns”; what made this phenomenon possible is what Paul called kenosis and Keats negative capability: something like an emptying of the self for the sake of letting the other “in,” for letting something pass through beyond the filters of cognition. The glorification accorded to authors seemed to mimic that once accorded to Jesus: one is glorified to the extent that one empties oneself to be refilled by otherness. Praise went to those “animated” by the Outside, those passive passionates, and those who practiced best were called saints and poets for whom practicing meant something like a “death.” Something spoke through them, and while it was obvious that it was in no way the same “Outside” calling and shaping them, it was clear that in every case a receptive “being” was called to receive something that was not and could never be its own. (I put “being” in quotes because ultimately it isn’t even that clear.)
Soon, reading took on another function. It was no longer to understand the author’s ideas, to track concepts, to enjoy styles or verses, or even to be inspired by the voice through the intermediary of the text. I no longer heard an author’s voice but simply some relation to an outside, reflected in words. The decisive question became: How much power does this author imagine they have over it? How far do they go in the direction of powerlessness before it? How far do they pull back and reinstate, for themselves, a kind of power–which can always be interpreted as a defensive reaction to their lack of it? And what about those who go the furthest into that lack?
These are the questions that drive to the heart of writing and identity. What power do we have over our own listening? What do we attribute to ourselves, and what do we attribute to otherness? How do we make this attribution, what kind of negotiations do we make? It is undeniable that everyone navigates this question, because the outside always insists. But for better or worse so do we. What can we tell from this–from the insistence or desistance of identity rustled through by otherness–by language and its beyond?
Here is the spectrum I have in mind to help us consider this: it stretches from a total appropriation of and identification with the Power that fills, to the powerlessness that results from a total incapacity or dispossession, the loss of every notion of Powers. We always begin from zero, but we all people the void in differing ways (all imaginary, if we ask Simone Weil), according to the different ways we “find ourselves” capable or incapable of doing so. How does one relate to one’s own “power”? Does one comprehend it as one’s own? Does one consider it a “power” at all? How does one consider “oneself”?
I have–perhaps unfairly–taken for granted that the division between religion calling and poetic dictation was artificially constructed, that there was always something of the one in the other because both have to do with listening. The decisive factor turns out not to be what the author professes in terms of themselves, their own lives, their beliefs, or what they think they are doing. The decisive factor is their relation to the outside: their relation to their own blindness. Who takes care of this blindness and how? Who gives this lack, this non-knowledge, this darkness, its due? And what would it mean to? (Perhaps it would lead us to not say anything. Perhaps it would lead us to Derrida’s expression: pardon de ne pas vouloir dire, sorry for not meaning…)
Our culminating question is a simple one: how presumptuous is our author? Upon affirming that there is nothing to hold on to, how far does one go in trying to hold on to something? A question of conscience: what is the justice of the host for the other?
My hope has been to suggest that there is a continuum between a total presumption and a total lack of one. The one fills up the lack of power with the radiance of a full, sagely voice, a divine presence, which it hears intimately and speaks empowered; the other honors a lack of power through the pain of waiting and listening and hearing nothing to be heard. In my eyes, that could be a criterion of justice, if only it weren’t the ultimate presumption to think that one knew how to tell it. And yet we must try to tell it, however impossible.
And we will always be able to see the justice of something in how the other is dealt with or left out of the deal. I cut to the tentative hypothesis: to presume one is listening in for the Voice of Being is the ultimate presumption, is injustice itself. That one would have a direct connection with God or the Law, with the script of History. That one could speak it, tell others what it speaks. To do so, to think that one can do so, does not automatically make one a bad host; but it does show a kind of blindness to being blind. It hides the dissymmetry between the one who speaks and the one who is called to listen. Perhaps even to accept the position of “witness” corrupts the witnessing, sullies it with intentionality, identity, and argument.
Of course, to root the question in one’s own “being” is not surprising: how could I listen if I were not there? How could I keep from saying, “Here I am”? How could we, waiting, not think it was Being’s voice we waited on and for? And yet, if we look closely, it has never been that simple. Perhaps concerns about “being” do not guide but shipwreck listening. Perhaps it marks a failure to listen, a will to forget right where one appoints oneself the bearer of Remembrance. Perhaps its prophetic hearing gets lost in professing what’s been Heard, gets lost giving it substance or power or being. Who would write without this illusion? And yet what great waiting is not shortchanged in falling prey to it! What great injustice to stay hush about the silence, the lack and the uncertainty, about what escapes things and words and human categorizations, to say nothing of the anxiety that nothing may happen, that one may very well be waiting on what will never be there, save in the obligation to listen.
To ask how presumptuous an author is, is to ask what they presume to be. Something always comes to compensate for the hole in hearing, for the torturous ambiguity of an indebtedness where nothing gives.
Let me quickly return to the old post mentioned initially, itself a good example of unjust presumptuousness, Adi Da and the ‘Radical’ Truth. Recalling it sparked a funny thought–that Adi Da’s and Heidegger’s discourse are not so far apart, precisely in connection with their “presumption of being.” My reference above to “listening to the Voice of Being” was meant to call up Heidegger along with the metaphysics of the voice; but it all struck me as best illustrated by Adi Da’s hyperbole, representative for many forms of “speaking as the enlightened.” I quote only a small passage from his spiritual autobiography, The Knee of Listening:
In every apparent conditional state, I remain Aware at the Free “Point” in the bodily apparent heart, unbounded in the right side– non-separate and indivisible. Prior to every apparent conditional state, I remain As the One and Only and inherently indivisible Conscious Light, always already above and beyond all-and-All (and As That in and of Which all-and-All potentially arises). Everything only appears to me– and I remain As I Am. There is no end to This.
I do wonder what Heidegger would have thought of a text like this! which not only claims to hear the Voice of Reality but to speak it, to Be the speaking of It, to be one with the destiny of Consciousness. Here we have someone who burst rights past the doorkeeper of the law and melts without residue into the “Bright” inside: he identifies with a clearing so wide it embraces every heart imaginable; with the Form underlying the conditional; with the one and indivisible beyond the all-and-All, supreme Being; the God of “presencing” itself. Such excesses would not be possible without presumption, which can (and maybe always do) assume guru-proportions. But however crazy Adi Da may sound, doesn’t he show how presumptuous we all can be? Especially if we take ourselves to be messengers–of Being, Beauty, Bliss, Truth, History, Us, whatever? Isn’t the greatest temptation to say, “I am love”…?
I have not meant to ridicule any of the listeners, only to draw up some affinities and differences. Identifying with the voice, “I am love,” only shows how close one feels to the one who calls. So close that we can barely refrain from endowing that caller with being. So close that we fall into that being and feel merged with endless love in responding to the call by sounding love’s claims. I don’t want to discount this experience; I know it is part of the phenomenon of resonating with the other, is its resonance. I only want to follow Lyotard’s analysis (in Heidegger and ‘the jews’) and stake out another claim: that by endowing the other with being, as much as by letting ourselves think that we have actually heard anything, that there is “good news” to shout, we cannot help but slip into a betrayal of listening. That would be the sum temptation: to forget that something remains unheard in hearing. To honor this fact–remembering that one always forgets that nothing is heard–would be just listening.
Back when I was first writing about these questions, I dreamed of a text that would not say anything, but that would be “listening” itself. It would insinuate itself into the reader’s being so deeply as to utterly undo it, to make it hear all the “deeper calls” of itself. It would introduce into the soul a movement of pure diremption, cutting itself off from itself, from every source of being, while calling it back to presence as that which was purely outside of itself. It would achieve a state of resonance with the question of the other (of “alterity”), it would “be” nothing but this question–a kind of written listening meant to simmer in what calls to listen before writing, with a back to all writing. A just summons, before anyone took the stand.
Perhaps what I have learned since then is that this desire to write listening betrays its law. It has to admitted that it cannot be written. Because it is not just something that cannot be represented here; it is just listening. The latter procures for itself no resources over time. It does not encode itself in rhyme, it does not reason. And it does not predicate, it does not inscribe anything in memory. As writing, it is interminable; listening never comes through. As listening, it is instant; writing doesn’t do. And so it remains: just listening.