On Listening

Les Back discusses listening in the work of Primo Levi, Walter Benjamin and others
Primo Levi
The American author and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote that it takes two to tell the truth, one to speak and another to hear. 3 Quarks Daily has published an excerpt from Les Back's recent essay in the New Humanist, extolling the virtues of 'paying attention'. Back refers to numerous writers, poets and critical thinkers, beginning with a reflection on the work of Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi:
You do not interest me. No man can say these words to another without committing a cruelty and offending against justice," writes philosopher Simone Weil. To turn a deaf ear is an offence not only to the ignored person but also to thinking, justice and ethics. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is cursed because no one will listen to his story. The Italian chemist-turned-writer Primo Levi was preoccupied with this fable because of his fear that on returning from Auschwitz people like him would be either ignored or simply disbelieved. Regardless, listening gets a very mixed press amongst critics and intellectuals. There is a suspicion of "wistful optimism" or the quasi-religious appeal to "hold hands" and play priest at the confessional. These qualms miss the centrality of listening to a radical humanism which recognises that dialogue is not merely about consensus or agreement but engagement and criticism. This is something that Primo Levi understood.

Faussone, the hero of Levi's novel The Wrench, is a difficult man. An itinerant rigger, he spent his life travelling the cities of the world operating high-rise cranes. Despite the dramatic nature of his adventures Faussone is not a natural storyteller. The novel's narrator comments on how tempting it is to interrupt him, put words in his mouth and spoil his stories before they have even been told. He comes to realise: "Just as there is an art of storytelling, strictly codified through a thousand trails and errors, so there is also an art of listening, equally ancient and noble, but as far as I know, it has never been given any norm." The quiet patience required to invite the story's telling makes an important contribution to its content. For, as Levi writes, "a distracted or hostile audience can unnerve any teacher or lecturer; a friendly public sustains." The listener's art for Primo Levi is practised through abstaining from speech and allowing the speaker to be heard. Listening is active, a form of attention to be trained rather than presumed.

In his famous essay on the storyteller, Walter Benjamin lamented the loss of attention to stories and tales which could be "woven into the fabric of real life" as wisdom. The profusion of talk and information inhibits social transactions of understanding. Our ears become soundproofed, double-glazed like our homes to keep out the noise of the city.

Levi was arguably the most astute witness to the Nazi holocaust, and his commitment to listening derives from his experience of being a witness and survivor, but it is also an essential part of his skill as a writer. [Read more]

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