Forms of Not Listening

youre_not_listeningIn my previous post, I discussed the intense activity of listening–but what are the dangers and losses of not listening? Before addressing this question, one must identify the various kinds of “not listening.”

There’s “not listening” where you willfully plug your ears. There’s also the kind to which I am prone: where your mind wanders, and you lose track of what the person is saying. Often a person’s word will trigger a thought, which in turn triggers another thought; before I know it, I have gone far away in my mind. Usually I catch myself quickly, but sometimes not.

There is also the kind where the words go “in one ear and  out the other”–that is, where you make no attempt to assemble or remember them.

But the kind I will focus on today is perhaps more insidious than the others: where you decide, in advance, that you know what the person is going to say, what the piece is going to sound like, etc. When you listen, you hear what you have already set out to hear; you exclude what does not fit. This includes listening to silence; you cut it to your own prefabricated interpretation and ignore the range of possibilities.

Anyone is capable of this kind of error; what’s more, we often commit it unawares. It is all too easy to fit a person’s words (or lack of words) into our existing models. This is the essence of prejudice; we sum others up and shut out what doesn’t fit our summations. Or, if we are listening to a piece of music, we shut out its uniqueness, or the particularities of the performance; it becomes “just another” Romantic work or what have you.

The danger lies not only in the reduction of others, but in the accompanying hubris. To listen badly in this way is to place oneself above listening: it isn’t worth my time, the non-listener thinks, because I already know what it will bring or else don’t need to know.

Now, some of this is inevitable; we have to filter the sounds and speech that come at us. We can’t take it all in; sometimes we have to make quick sense of it and proceed from there. Also, to listen to something well, we must shut out other things; the very act of selection requires not listening to everything. Still, we can recognize the incompleteness of the gesture, the existence of something more.

Listening to silence, or near-silence, challenges everything in us; we rush to make sense of “nothing.” We are terrified of the expanse of “nothing”–the possibility that it could mean thousands of things. I think of–and question–the ending of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet):

Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?

This passage has puzzled me for years. Yes, everything depends on our interpretation of the silence around us–but is it correct to interpret it according to our own “needs and desires”? Is it right to expect others to do so? The narrator hints at something beyond these words: that a reply would be false at this time, and that time itself has a role to play. But that differs from interpreting the silence according to one’s needs and desires. The narrator’s own expression has flaws (which propel us into the second book of the Quartet).

To listen to silence is to know that one does not know what it is. To box up silence is to presume oneself above it, folding the flaps and tying the strings. Pride consists in packaging the infinite.

Image credit: “you’re not listening”  by Jesslee Cuizon.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it.

The Wobbly Words of Morning

morning-snow-1This morning I went walking in Fort Tryon Park and saw a long ribbon of snow. It seems to have fallen off the top of the bench but stayed intact, even sagging.

I thought, as I walked, about how, when you wake up from dreams, the words don’t fall into place immediately. They wobble for a little while. I wondered whether that might be part of the role of dreams: to detach us, even momentarily, from the utilitarian function of words. If, for a few minutes each morning, we lack ready-made phrases, maybe we can think about things in a different way. I was thinking about a book I had just finished rereading. Eleven years had passed between the first reading and now. As I walked up the hill (before this photo–this was on the way down), it occurred to me that I did not have to say anything about the book. I could keep my thoughts to myself until I wanted to say something. In the meantime, the world would do just fine without my review.

Day after day, we are urged to cast our instant reactions in words and numbers. To withhold an opinion is to risk offending the automated deities. morning-snow-2But look beyond all that clatter and chatter, and there is the possibility of silence. I don’t mean that silence is always better. Each of us makes distinct choices about when and when not to speak. The point is that one can choose.

So I walked past these benches and this near-infinite tree, whose branches stretch into smaller branches, which stretch into brushes of twigs. I heard my boots crunching in the snow. Up here, I was all alone. But there were ski tracks, dog tracks, footprints from earlier, maybe from yesterday. In my mind, these turned into sounds of gliding, crunching, and frisking.

The sun came up, the snow fell in ribbons, and phrases shone on the ground. I returned home and revised my twelfth chapter.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.