Just Listening

When I was in college I became interested in the question of “listening,” in relation to both “religious callings” and “poetic dictation” (“Pneumatology as Listening” was the name of my major). 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 implies becoming an antennae for the invisible, a microphone for the unsaid–or to put it more religiously-poetically: to feel the spirit in the breath, to hear God speak in presence.

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 up “one’s own being”; 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 a 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. As much as either works, it waits. 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 a failure of representation to establish the connection between self and other. Both recognize that any sure link is impossible, that love demands work (writing, prayer), demands erasure and spacing: to make room in oneself for what is not one, not “one’s own,” to act instead as a medium for something “excessive,” however unknown, to grant the One+.)

It was not a question of 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–because it makes it possible. And yet, among them all one found certain overlapping “concerns”; what Paul called kenosis and Keats negative capability: something like an emptying of the self for the sake of letting “in” the other, 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 the saints and poets for whom practicing meant “death.” Something spoke through them at an exit of themselves, and while it was obviously in no way the same “Outside” calling and shaping them all (for the void is multiple), it was clear that in every case a receptive “being” was called to receive something that was not and could not ever 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. It was that other that I longed to hear, that other other. The decisive question became: How much power does the author imagine they have over it? How far do they go in the direction of powerlessness before it? How much do they pull back and reinstate, for themselves, a power? Should we interpret this grab as a defensive reaction to a 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–to the heart of any listener. What power do we have over listening? What do we attribute to ourselves of what we hear, 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 so do we, however uncertainly. What can we tell from this friction–from the insistence of an identity rustled through by otherness, by language and this outside that resists it?

Here is the spectrum I have in mind to help us consider all this: it stretches from a total appropriation of and identification with the Power that fills (thus endowing it with being), to the powerlessness that results from a total incapacity, dispossession or non-hearing (thus losing of every notion of the 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 comprehend it as a power at all? How does one consider “what one can”?

I have–perhaps unfairly–taken for granted that the division between religious calling and poetic dictation was superficial, 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, but their relation to the outside: their relation to their own blindness. Who takes care of this blindness and how? Who gives this lack, 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? It is here that writing and prayer are irreversibly merged.

My hope here 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 can tell the justice of something by how the other was dealt with or left out of the deal–oneself being only a host. A host for what? The other.

And now is where we have to say: an other that may not be. The other is never there like something to grab hold of, to see or to hear. The other that we listen for is not known as present. Nothing is ever there to guarantee it. Otherwise, it would not be other, but only “some other” in our intersubjective space.

And so, to cut to my tentative hypothesis: to presume that one is listening in for the Voice of Being, that one would have a direct connection with God or the Law, with the script of History or with the will of the Muse–all this is much too much for the other, over-writes everything and makes way for every injustice. This implies believing in the being of books and authors. To do so, to presume any being whatsoever, does not automatically make one a bad host (we all do it, obviously); but it does show a kind of blindness to being blind. It covers up the dissymmetry between the call and the one called, forces too much about the relation, such that even to “bear witness” risks corrupting the witnessing, risks sullying it with intentionality, identity, argument–presumptions to be, to be “in the know.”

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 we were waiting on the Voice of Being? How could we, responding, not think we responded with “our own voice”?

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 prophetic hearing always gets lost in professing what’s been Heard, gets lost giving it substance or power. Who would write without this illusion? And yet what great waiting is not foregone when we fall prey to it! What an injustice to stay hush about the silence, the lack and the uncertainty over what escapes things and words and human categories, 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, in the listening itself.

To ask how presumptuous an author is, is to ask what they presume and presume to be. We are all presumptuous, then. Something always comes to compensate for the hole in hearing; in a way, it is the writing itself. What we have here is a kind of indebtedness that can never be remissed; or as in Kafka’s story, a law of listening where no law is ever given. A door of listening has been opened for you alone; only when you have heard everything that there is for you to hear will it close. And so there is no way to get your way past its very opening–listening, no doubt silently, or in prayer.

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 whole metaphysics of the voice; but it 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 at one with the destiny of Consciousness. Here we have someone who burst rights past the door 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-like 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–to remember 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”) and would “be” nothing but this call–a kind of written listening meant to simmer in what calls it to listen before writing, with its back to all writing. A just summons, before anyone takes the stand.

Perhaps what I have learned since then is that this desire to write listening betrays its law. It has to admit that it cannot be written. Otherwise, it couldn’t be written. Because it is not just something that cannot be represented here or there, but anywhere ever, because it is just listening, which procures for itself no resources over time, does not once encode itself in rhyme, and does not reason. It does not predicate, cannot inscribe in memory anything.

As writing, it is interminable; listening never comes through. As listening, it is instant; writing doesn’t do. It is not there. It waits.  And so it remains: just listening.

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