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Kisses Come in Several Kinds: Jean-Luc Nancy Parodies Catullus

Catullus and Lesbia. Nicolai Abildgaard. 1809. Oil on canvas.

In one of his latest collections to be translated into English, Jean-Luc Nancy’s Expectations  explores the topic of literature and how it intersects with philosophy.  The essays in the book are divided into four categories: Literature, Poetry, Sense, and Parados.  Written over a period of thirty-five years, the themes covered in Expectation are some of Nancy’s favorites that he revisits throughout his career—Reasons to write, narrative, body as theater, Blanchot, etc.

My favorite part of the book is the last section entitled Parados, the Ancient Greek word for the piece of a tragic performance which is sung by the chorus as it enters the stage.  Parados can literally be translated as an “entrance” and this is exactly how Nancy uses texts as an inspiration for writing his own poetry.  He says about his compositions in this section of the book: “They arise, in all cases, from a specific request inviting me, directly or indirectly, to engage with literature.  Or to act as if I had.”

Nancy takes as his parados (entrance) what are arguably the Roman poet Catullus’s most famous Carmina,  5 and 7—the “kisses” poems—for writing this little gem I share today.  I have read it several times over the course of the last week and I see and feel something different—various memories are conjured up—every time I read it.  He takes a simple expression like a kiss and, in what is a deceptively simple poem, he calls our attention to such different contexts (cultural, familial, intimate) in which we have experienced this gesture (translated beautifully by Robert Bononno):

 

Let him kiss me with his mouth’s kisses
Thus sings the song of songs
Thus his mouth sings and enchants itself
As his demand so his expectation
Not kisses from another mouth
Except from the one she calls

The mouth of the other who loves her
She alone who knows
How to kiss with the kiss of her desire
For in her mouth is held
Completely breath soul perfume
and from her mouth exhaled
The thought the soft weight
Of clinging of joining of
Drinking eating believing oneself

Osculum the little mouth
That advances and arranges the gathered border of two lips
Perhaps quickly on another’s cheek or lips
Kiss kissed surprise surprised
Stolen stolen in this furtive kiss
So soft from the beign so light
Pulp airborne puff
And touch mouth

Visus Allocutio Tactus Osculum
Traced from the linea amoris
Later coming to Coitus
Gift of mercy
Where all mouths are joined
Kiss and kiss one another
Touch and touch one another
Put to bed and put one another to bed

Kisses come in several kinds
Osculum, Basium, Suavium
Kiss of a friend, child, parent
Kiss of peace, of decorum
Or foamy caress
That swells beneath the tongue

Kisses by the thousand like sand
In Libya or grains of wheat
Scattered to the lines of Catullus.

They resonate in several tongues
Their clicks go Kuss, kiss, kyssa
Κυνεω was the Greek name
Sounds like an adoration
Προσκυνεω
Almost a silent Φιλεω
But always mouth addressed
Exclamation of lip and fever
Breath always scent aroma
Breath moved by the soul
That tastes and breathes your own—
Oh, kiss me with your mouth’s kisses.

*Some notes that might help with the Latin and Ancient Greek: Osculum is the Latin, neuter, singular diminutive for mouth, so a “small mouth” is used for the word kiss; basium is the Latin word that Catullus uses to describe the passionate kisses he wants from his lover;  suavium is the neuter, singular form of the Latin adjective meaning ‘sweet’, so suavium is used for kiss to mean a “sweet thing.”  κυνεω is the Ancient Greek word for “I kiss” and Προσκυνεω, which is taken from the verb “I kiss” is “to worship” with the connotation of a respectful kiss.

The book is really worth purchasing for Nancy’s thoughts on literature and philosophy; unfortunately I have not captured his extraordinary prose in this post.  For my more extensive thoughts on some of his other books take a look at my posts on Coming and Listening.

For my translation of Catullus Carmen 5 please see this post (a warning that my interpretation of this poem is not the standard “Carpe Diem” one that is found in textbooks—I received a lot of comments and complaints about my non-traditional reading of this poem):  https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/12/29/let-us-live-and-let-us-love-my-translation-and-interpretation-of-catullus-poem-5/

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Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Essay, Nonfiction, 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

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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