For those who are especially interested in music and music theory this book will be of great interest. The title was published in the original French in 2002 and this English version has been translated by Charlotte Mandell. This is in no way an attempt at any time of a review or a summary of Nancy’s ideas about Listening. His writing in this book defies any sort of comprehensive analysis or review. The best way for me to approach this particular piece of writing is to glean a few words of wisdom here or there and see where his thoughts take me. Many might disagree with me and be downright annoyed and/or angry at my approach. But this is what I’ve got.
Nancy begins his discussion of language with an analysis of the verbs we use for listening and hearing. In English we tend to used the verbs to hear and to listen interchangeably. When we say, “Did you hear me?” what we oftentimes really mean is “Did you listen to me?” “Are you understanding me?” The verb écouter, to listen, is derived from the Latin verb auscultare (to listen) and the Latin noun auris (ear), so écouter, which is derived from these words means “to lend and ear,” “to listen attentively.” Nancy states:
We listen to someone who is giving a speech we want to understand, or else we listen to what can arise from silence and provide a signal or sign, or else we listen to what is called “music.”
Nancy’s discussion of timbre in music is particularly fascinating. We cannot, through the use of musical notation, indicate timbre, so it is more subjective than other musical characteristics such as pitch, duration, and intensity. The literal meaning of the word timbre comes from the Greek tympanon, which is the tambourine of orgiastic cults. So Nancy concludes,
Timber can be represented as the resonance of a stretched skin (possibly sprinkled with alcohol, the way certain shamans do), and as the expansion of this resonance in the hollowed column of a drum. Isn’t the space of the listening body, in turn, just such a hollow column over which a skin is stretched, but also from which the opening of a mouth can resume and revive resonance? A blow from outside, clamor from within, this sonorous, sonorized body undertakes a simultaneous listening to a “self” and to a “world” that are both in resonance. It becomes distressed (tightens) and it rejoices (dilates.) It listens to itself becoming distressed and rejoicing, it enjoys and is distressed at this very listening where the distant resounds in the closest.
There is a short essay at the conclusion of the book which poses the question of whether or not someone who knows nothing about music can listen to and appreciate music. Can a novice, without knowledge of timbre, pitch, tone, intensity, etc. comprehend or understand the masterpieces of Beethoven or Wagner? This made me think about Julian Barnes’s book The Noise of Time in which the great Russian composer Shostakovich is constantly under attack and scrutiny for writing subversive music. Lenin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and he absolutely hated it. The next day a bad review which labeled the performance as “muddle instead of music” appeared in Pravda and the composer became terrified that this would not only be the end of his music career but also the end of his existence. What did Lenin hear in that music that so repulsed him? Was it the timbre, the pitch, or the intensity of the music that was so offensive to him? How was Lenin’s listening to the music different from others who listened to the piece before him and declared it a masterpiece?
The questions that Nancy poses about listening can be applied, I think, to other aspects of listening besides music. As a teacher I am constantly thinking about listening and hearing and how my students receive, understand, process and react to what I say. If my timbre or rhythm in delivering a lesson are not quite right then I see the results when my questions are met with blank stares or class assessments are poor. I also have to understand that some students are extremely sensitive to sound so when I approach them with the sound of my voice I must regulate my tone, my pitch, even my volume.
And in return I am dealing with an age group that is full of angst but who is not quite capable of properly expressing or communicating that angst or asking for help. I have learned over many years that more than anything else, more than mastering an ancient language or learning anything about the Ancient World from me, they want to know that I am listening to them. At the beginning of every year on the first day of class I ask them what qualities they think a good teacher should have and without fail every year almost every student writes “a good teacher should be a good listener.” But they are so used to expressing themselves in the briefest terms via text and twitter that oftentimes I am left with the smallest scraps of communication by means of which I must somehow be that “good listener.” Nancy’s passage about listening in relation to the self especially resonated with me:
When one is listening, one is on the lookout for a subject, something (itself) that identifies itself by resonating from self to self, in itself and for itself, hence outside of itself, at once the same as the other than itself, one is the echo of the other, and this echo is like the very sound of its sense. But the sound of sense is how it refers to itself or how it sends back to itself [s’envoie] or addresses itself, and thus how it makes sense.
The more means of communication that we have—text, email, social media, Skype—the less inclined we are to actually listen to one another. I see this in my students every day. Not only do their phones and i-Pads distract them from listening to what is going on in class, but these so-called communication devices distract them from interacting with one another, on a human and personal level. I’ve noticed that when they are fighting or disagreeing with one another it is often the result of something that started as a text or a Tweet. And because they are so accustomed to electronic means of communication I fear that their ability to listen, to truly listen will be more and more diminished over time. This thought makes me feel bewildered, overwhelmed and maybe even a little depressed. But the only choice I have is to keep listening.
About the Author:
Jean-Luc Nancy is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. His wide-ranging thought is developed in many books, including The Banality of Heidegger, The Disavowed Community, Ego Sum, Corpus, Anima, Fabula, and, with Adèle Van Reeth, Coming.