Category Archives: Philosophy

Post-truth, Post-structuralism, and now Post-Pleasure?: My Review of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming

coming-coverIn this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few.

Nancy made the suggestion of using the infinitive, “To Come” for the English title of this book but the translator, Charlotte Mandell, thought that the gerund “Coming” would be a better choice to capture the continual nature of movement associated with jouissance. Included in the edition published by Fordham University Press is a beginning note that Nancy writes himself in which he explains the problem with rendering jouissance into an appropriate English title:

In English, sexual orgasm is expressed by the verb “to come.” This has no corresponding noun. What is shared by both lexical registers is an idea of accomplishment. In French, we say venir (to come) for “reaching jouissance,” but the word is mostly used between sexual partners (“viens!” for example.) In choosing the gerund “coming,” Charlotte Mandell aptly brings out action or movement, something that is in the process of occurring, which, in fact, is attached to jouissance and to jouir; that is, precisely, what remains irreducible either to a state or to an acquisition, to an accomplishment or to an appropriation.

It is interesting to note that throughout the text of Coming, jouissance is simply translated in brackets as “pleasure” or is not translated at all, a constant reminder of the elusive nature of this word that has no equivalent translation in English.

 Defining Jouissance: What the fuck does this French word mean?

Nancy is a master at speaking about the nuances of language and uncovers, unpacks and explains specific French words, with their etymological roots in Latin, that are closely related to jouissance. He begins the discussion with an examination of the French verb Jouir, which means “to enjoy” and “to have an orgasm,” and is derived from the Latin verb gaudere, “to rejoice,” and therefore has no etymological relationship to sex or sexuality. At some point there is a shift in meaning of jouissance from property to sexual pleasure and orgasm. Nancy speculates that this shift begins with the middle French use of joie (joy) which denotes the sensual or sexual feelings of the troubadour poets; these poets have a joy of love that is sensual but jouissance, in the sense of reaching orgasm, is avoided. Nancy exclaims, “One of the ordeals of courtly love even consisted of the knight sleeping with his lady without making love!”

He further explores this shift in meaning by comparing the French words jouissance [pleasure] and joy [joie] and how they are different. Nancy argues that jouisssance corresponds to what Kant called pleasant—when something is pleasant it is something that is felt inside of me because something suits me. Joy, however, is outside of me and carries me towards something else. Nancy goes one step further in the etymological connections of various words to jouissance and explains réjouissance (rejoicing), whose root and meaning are very close to jouissance. Nancy points out that réjouissance is not used very often today and when it is used it describes something that is public such as popular festivities. Nancy concludes about the etymological connection between réjouissance and jouissance: “The idea of festivities, réjouissances, refers to festive excess, to a certain suspension of everyday activities, but also to obligation and finality. That is where we find jouissance, in the sense of joyful acclamations greeting the arrival of an important person, like the jouissance of the people at the arrival of the king.”

We can say, then, that joy and réjouissance are like jouissance in that they all denote an excess. The idea of excess and its association with jouissance will be a topic brought repeated throughout Coming. Jouissance is an experience of excessive sexual pleasure in the form of orgasm which experience we seek over and over again.

Jouissance as a shared experience: Is it possible to fuck alone?

The style of interview works exceptionally well for Coming because not only does Van Reeth adeptly sum up Nancy’s complicated thoughts, but she also asks him precise questions which elicit more of his ideas; Van Reeth is able to challenge Nancy to expound on his positions and she keeps the dialogue moving forward rather fluidly. In this part of the interview that deals with the subject and the object in the context of jouissance, Van Reeth begins: “Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the question of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]? ”

Nancy insists that jouissance has no specific subject because I am not the owner of my jouissance. How can it be possible for a person to own an orgasm if his or her sexual climax involves another person, another body. What I take pleasure from is just as much my pleasure as it is the pleasure of the other with whom I am engaging in a sexual relationship. Nancy brilliantly anticipates his critics who would argue that masturbation disproves the nonexistence of subject and takes his argument a step further by stating that when pleasuring oneself the other is still present in the form of a fantasy. So when we fuck, we are never fucking alone even if there isn’t another physical body in the room.

It is during this part of the discussion that Nancy brings up Lacan and his exploration of jouissance in relation to the pleasure principal. Lacan believes that a subject attempts to go beyond, to transgress the pleasure principal and this brings about pain. It is with this excess, with this reaching of pleasure beyond a limit that Lacan defines jouissance. Although Nancy has been critical of modern psychology throughout his career, he credits Lacan with his effort “to try to find the meaning of jouissance, beyond the fulfillment of satisfaction, into a sortie, outside oneself, into exuberance, ecstasy….”

Van Reeth’s importance in this philosophical exchange is underscored in this section as she further presses Nancy on Lacan’s examination of jouissance:

How do you understand Lacan’s phrase asserting there is no sexual relationship? If there is no sexual relationship, there is no sexual jouissance. But wouldn’t it be truer to understand not that jouissance is impossible, but that it is inconceivable? Just as the fact that there is no sexual relationship would signify that there is no thinkable relationship. It would be a way to preserve the space unique to jouissance as experience.

Nancy’s insight into Lacan is a starting point for his thoughts on jouissance as a shared experience and it will also serve as a prompt from which to discuss the links between aesthetic and sexual jouissance in the next section of the interview:

That is probably what Lacan means. ‘There is no sexual relationship’ can be understood in several ways: There is no proportion, no commensurability, no conclusion either. The sexual relationship cannot be written down. The implication is: there is no account of it, no ‘report’ [rapport, which also means ‘relationship]’ But it is precisely to that extent that there is a real rapport, which demands incommensurability and a form of non-conclusion. A relationship is maintained [s’entretient]. It is not completed. A completed, accomplishment is either a breakup, or a fusion. And in fusion there is no longer any relationship. It would be truer to say, then, that jouissance is inconceivable, not impossible.

In sum, pleasure comes down to a matter of shared meaning whether there is a sexual partner or not. At the end of this section dealing with subject and shared pleasure, Nancy makes one of the simplest, yet thought-provoking statements in this entire volume: Where does sexuality begin and where does it stop? He concludes, “Perhaps it begins very, very far from the sexual act itself.”

Aesthetic and Sexual Jouissance: Fucking in motion

Even though Nancy argues that jouissance is never a solitary experience, he also explains that pleasure is unshareable, much in the same way that aesthetic pleasure is a singular experience, unique to each individual.  As he opens his thoughts on the link between sexual jouissance and aesthetic jouissance, Nancy points out that it is Freud who first establishes the transfer of aesthetic jouissance to sexual jouissance. Nancy’s criticism of psychology becomes apparent as he disagrees with Freud on his speculation that there is a specific order in which seduction happens—gazing, hearing, touching, must happen first, Freud argues, and only at the end of this progression does Freud finally come to the genitalia through which the tension in the form of orgasm is released.

This part of the discussion in which Nancy brings his reader to understand the connection between sexual and aesthetic jouissance is typical of his very dense, erudite, and multifaceted writing. He references various texts of Freud, he dissects more Latin words via Spinoza, he mentions the young Chilean philosopher Juan Manuel Garrido, he quotes David Hume, and he reaches all the way back to the ancient texts of Plato to make a point about pleasure. As I carefully read his text which is thick with history, philosophy and literature, I take notes, I read or reread authors whose books are sitting on my shelf to whom Nancy has referenced, I search the Internet for authors unknown to me, which laborious activities sometimes feel like a feeble attempt to absorb the full scope of his genius. But all of a sudden, at the end of a complicated series of thoughts, Nancy composes a short, simple, beautiful, concise paragraph that grabs me so forcefully that I pause my frenzy of research:  “What we enjoy in an aesthetic form is the movement of this form, even though it ends up being completed. What’s more, an aesthetic form is probably never exhausted and, on the contrary, does not stop enjoying itself (jouir d’elle-meme).”

And a bit further on in the same discussion: “In jouissance, they [bodies] become almost formless. Which is radically opposed to that call to eroticism, in advertising or movies, always summoning beautiful, perfected forms. Whereas in eroticism, in eros, these forms become undone.”

Nancy reveals in these two simple yet erudite statements that in art there is no formula for what is considered beautiful. Furthermore, we can carry this over to jouissance in which there is no formula to be followed; each person experiences beauty, art and sexual jouissance in his or her own unique way, this experience is impossible to share—everyone fucks differently and experiences orgasms and pleasure differently.  In a relationship there are no accepted forms or defined forms of beauty, these forms are uniquely decided by the persons within a relationship.

The Creative Power of Jouissance: Is There an Art to Fucking?

Nancy’s discussion of the link between sexual and aesthetic jouissance, with a particular emphasis on the art of writing, is the most accessible and interesting piece of this interview. Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again. “The artist,” he argues, “is in action in his work, and he also takes pleasure [jouit] from being in the process of working. He suffers too, it’s always laborious.”

Nancy is a prominent and well-known contributor to the studies of art and his cultural writings have covered the topics of literature, poetry, theater, music and film. Nancy has written books on the subject of art and has also written pieces for international art journals and art catalogs. He has a text from a lecture given 1992 at the Louvre displayed with the painting ‘The death of the virgin’ by the Italian painter Caravaggio. It is fitting that Fordham University Press has used a Caravaggio painting for this edition of Coming thereby reminding us of Nancy’s interest in the Italian painter.

In order to lead Nancy into elaborating on the similarities between the pleasure of art, specifically the art of writing, and sex, Van Reeth reads a passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in which the author asserts that writing and sexuality bring about the same pleasure. In a letter dated April 13, 1903 from Viarregio, near Pisa, Rilke writes:  “And in fact artistic experiences lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.”

Nancy picks up on the idea that Rilke is speaking of writing as working toward the unknown, without a goal, which is also true for artists who work with music or paint. The art passes through the artist to the spectator who experiences the work of art through a plethora of senses. In the end the artist has no real understanding of how his or her work is received, of the various ways in which someone experiences pleasure through his or her art. The pleasure that is experienced by the spectator as a result of interacting with his work is unshareable just as the experience of sexual jouissance. When we speak about sexual pleasure and orgasm, is there really a word or phrase that captures a good fuck? How can we truly and accurately describe the best fuck we’ve ever had? The experience is unshareable when we make any attempt to put it in words.

The true brilliance of Nancy’s dissection of language comes with his elaboration on the verbal similarities of art and sex. Artistic media such as color and rhythm are used to describe both art and sex. Rhythm, for instance, is present in an art’s use of color and can also be applied to the lover’s caress of the body. The best sex is enjoyed when lovers find a rhythm and Rhythm is a coming-and-going, a constant movement a repetition. Nancy concludes about rhythm: “Rhythm in general is born from what is never definitively there, from what does not stay in place and causes us to return, what leads to jouissance. Rhythm is fundamental for humans, bur for nature as well; think of the rhythm of the stars.”

Art and sex cannot exist without movement. It is the seduction, the process, the rhythm that leads to artistic and sexual jouissance

Suffering and Fucking—Christianity’s Influence on jouissance

The fourth part of the book, dealing with Christianity and its influence on jouissance is the shortest and the least stimulating part of the dialogue. Nancy has been interested in and critical of Christianity throughout his career and we get a cursory survey of his thoughts in this section. Throughout their dialogue on pleasure, Nancy and Van Reeth both tangentially bring up the close relationship between pleasure and suffering. Nancy sites the works of de Sade as an example of jouisssance being the result of pain inflicted on another or on oneself. Pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful. Van Reeth uses the example of Proust’s narrator who, in the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe, describes the very noisy sexual encounter between Baron de Charlus and Julien as akin to the sound of a man having his throat split. The narrator concludes, “if there is one thing as loud as suffering, it’s pleasure.”

Nancy begins the section by arguing that Christianity was the calming solution to the disintegration of the theocratic regimes, the loss of which political system caused great anxiety and unrest. Christianity brings to mankind the idea that life is simply a passage to another spiritual side, a passage that is marked by suffering. It is the Passion of Christ that provides us with a redemptive kind of suffering and suffering is specifically attached to life on earth. One must pass through suffering in this life in order to attain salvation. As a result there is a definitive break and distinction between heavenly joy and human joy. Because of Christianity’s condemnation of the flesh, earthly pleasures such as human joy and jouissance become evil and separate from heavenly joy and jubilation. It is fitting that their discussion on Christianity and suffering, even in relation to jouissance, is the most somber part of Van Reeth and Nancy’s dialogue.

From Consummation to Consumption: Do we give a fuck about anything anymore?

Nancy explains that Christianity was an attempt to organize people into one community, but the appearance of a modern state served to divide individuals until the invention of capitalism. “which would insert the individual subject into the circuit of a new jouissance: no longer the jouissance of excess, but that of accumulation and investment. It’s a jouissance that can no longer bear that name.” Van Reeth asks Nancy what, exactly, has changed to cause the meaning of jouissance to shift once again.

It was Communism, Nancy argues, that provided the connection between jouissance and profit, which political theory believed that everyone’s hard work will produce profits that can be equally shared by all –this sharing of profits would be a source of jouissance. But nowadays, people are working harder than ever and the profits are accumulated by a very small percentage of the upper classes. Nancy argues that jouissance has now come full circle to be associated with its legal meaning which is that of possession and acquisition.

Today, jouissance has become confused with and associated with profit as well as property.   Excess has now taken on a quantitative definition in that we must possess the greatest possible number of things that we can. Nancy concludes: “It has left heaven, joy, to land again on earth.” With the ubiquity of things that we consume that push us to the brink of addition—little blue pills, a plethora of opiates, internet pornography—jouissance today has evolved into a kind of greedy consumption in which excess has become the norm. With the disappearance of excess what is left that gives us pleasure? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? Have we landed in an epoch of post-pleasure?

In this final part of the dialogue when Nancy brings up modern ideas of consumption and their relation to jouissance he shows that he has continued to think about philosophical topics and how they can be applied to current social and political situations. Orgasm, masturbation, sexual pleasure, addiction, and jouissance itself are topics that seem more fitting for the field of psychology and have not been explored by philosophers. Despite his years of suffering through grave illnesses and his advanced age, Nancy proves in the publication of Coming that he is as relevant and progressive as ever in his field.

Although Coming is a short book, some might be intimidated by the breadth and depth of Nancy’s thought. It is, however, an excellent and thorough introduction to the wide range of ideas on which Nancy has expertly written and a scintillating discussion of pleasure, sex, orgasm, fucking, desire, pain, and how we experience these things with our bodies. The interview style of the text in which Van Reeth summarizes Nancy’s main points and propels the conversation forward with her questions makes Coming one of his most accessible and fucking enjoyable books.

 

My review first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Numero Cinq

You can also read an excerpt from the book translated by Charlotte Mandell here

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Philosophy

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Sacrificed on the Altar of Truth: My Review of American Philosophy—A Love Story by John Kaag

laocoon_and_his_sons_vatican

Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail.  The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city.  Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*

After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby.  The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse.  But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:

Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.

Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.

John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions.  When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years.  As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum.  Kaag reflects on the story of  Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:

This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest.  Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought.  My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal.  I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.

Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed.  Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..

Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”

To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.

*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

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Reflections on Jean Luc Nancy’s Listening

listeningFor 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:
nancyJean-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.
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