Listening In

One of the only things I was ever half good at was listening to intelligent people talk to each other.

Tory Building, University of Alberta
I was formed in this eavesdropping skill during my undergraduate years at the University of Alberta, where it was impressed on me, okay, hammered into me, that before I could arrive at my own opinions on the eternal questions, it was proper to develop a deep respect for the opinions of those with a right to their opinions.

 And, so, it was more enlightening to try to compare what Nietzsche thought about justice to what Rousseau thought about justice, and both to what Plato's Socrates thought about justice, than it was to get worked up by what the Edmonton Sun editorial board thought about justice.

Of course, there was some hermeneutics fictionalizing going on; indeed, how could you ever prove that a conversation across time would have been the conversation in time? But, the reflex has served me and has stayed with me.

And, perhaps, it is why I try always to have at least two books on the go. So that I might overhear, or pretend that I overhear, some unexpected back and froth.

Right now, book #1 is A Death In The Family, part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series. And in it, there among the recitation of life's banality, there on page 10, is this piece of unearthed, radioactive wisdom. I quote without permission. On this equation, I am eavesdropping:

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to keep a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years we strive to attain the correct distance from objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis, and the enemy of meaning.

That is certainly a thoughtful answer to the question, where is the meaning we have lost in knowledge? And it provides a different answer to the lament, where does the time go? Could it be, as Knausgaard teaches, that we are to blame? Could it be that we pave over the obstacles in our lives, fail to search out the very obstacles that make for its meaning, and the slowness we claim to crave?

These are important questions for me, someone in the middle of the "forty, fifty, sixty" tractor beam!

Certeau, et al
Right now, book #2 is The Practice Of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol. It is volume two of The Practice Of Everyday Life. I don't understand much of it, but I appreciate it all and I get a lot out of the portions I do get. Like the tidbit on page 98 that is part of a cultural-studies unpacking of a game, popular in the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood of Lyons in the day, that is still recognizable in our time. It is the game of sticker collecting. Once you had 30 stamps on your monthly house-wine passport card, you received, at Robert's Grocery, a free bottle of superior VDQS-stamped vin.

Mayol uncovers a deep significance in playing this common waiting game, and not simply rushing to the finish vine:

The game is thus a medium of which at least one function is to make the "time of desire" visible. It is constituted as an apprenticeship in waiting, whose contradictory polar tensions it balances by inserting in them the promise of its disappearance. As a result, this game also says, following temperance and economy: "Not so fast! I am the realization of your wait. By shortening the stages that constitute me, you risk shortening your life and tricking your desire by giving it an object other than that which it was expecting, in other words, nothing! Because you don't get anything without the wait. It alone makes real the objects you desire, the good wine you hope for. Without it, more or less, it means death."

This is written in 1994. Knausgaard's in 2009. They appear to agree that this question—who is to blame for the feeling of time's fleetingness?—is a crucial question. That agreement itself is a gift. As is the theory, seemingly embraced by both, that we shorten our lives by not resisting, by not waiting, not fighting.

And as I write this, a gust of wind is caught by the mountain ash tree in the front yard, and, somehow, I sense that nature is making the same point.

My point is that I am a listener by nurture.

That is why I love to read.

I have never accepted the view that reading is just a passive experience, that the meaning of the author is imparted on the reader in the quiet process of following a line of text across the composed page. For me, more is happening when a book is read. For me, reading is sparks, overhearings, echoes, conversations, questions, answers, questions. There's way more conducting, way more improv than the passive-reader model would have you believe.

And there is something more.

My inkling is that Knausgaard and Mayol and their fellow travellers care more about community than those in the community business. Listening to them is where a quiet kind of friendship, more enduring than the Facebook variety, is to be found.

This private path to friendship continues to be the gift of my public post-secondary education here in Edmonton.


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