“Reading can be traumatic, but then trauma can also teach us how to read.” That thought itself came to me recently as I was reading.
Specifically, I was reading a line by the cantankerous but important and influential eighteenth century German “counter-Enlightenment” figure Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788). My thought of the crossing between reading and trauma was triggered by one line of his that especially caught my attention. In “Miscellaneous Notes on Word Order in the French Language,” at one point Hamann writes: “Readers who see not only what one is writing about but also what one intends to be understood can easily and happily continue these notes . . .”*
Long ago, Aristotle is said to have said of himself that he was a friend of Plato, his great mentor, but that he was a better friend of truth. Well, if Plato wanted the sorts of students who would read him the way Hamann is pointing to in the line above, then in being a better friend of truth Aristotle was being a true friend of Plato. At any rate, I read Hamann himself as wanting such friends for readers—or such readers for friends: it’s the same thing.
When I read the line from Hamann recently, I was also working on my preceding post, “Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (3),” in which I cited a passage from Heidegger’s 1924 treatise, The Concept of Time. No doubt at least in part because of that coinciding, when I read Hamann’s line I also thought of what Heidegger says about friendship in his short preface to that manuscript, which he tells us was occasioned by his own reading of the then-recently published correspondence between Wilhelm Dilthey and Count Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, addressing Dilthey’s great subjects: the nature of history as such, and the essential historicity of human being. At one point Heidegger admonishes his own readers—at least as I read him—that the “proper appropriation” of Yorck’s contributions to Dilthey’s work can only take place by understanding Yorck’s letters “as those of a friend, whose sole concern is to help, through living communication, the one with whom he is philosophizing” to arrive where that co-philosophizer is trying to go in that very philosophizing, and thereby also to help himself to arrive at his own goal beside him.
A good friend is precisely someone who can in a certain important sense see where one is going more clearly than one can oneself. It is someone who, in our communications with her or him, can, as it were, pick up on the pointers we ourselves give as to where we are ourselves most inwardly tending, and help us see it more clearly ourselves. Such a friend literally gives us ourselves.
To do that, a friend—at least one not lacking in what Buddhists’ call “skillful means,” which is to say the know-how not to lose track of her own intent as a friend, and to end up hurting rather than helping the one she has befriended—communicates with her friend through an exchange of what, following psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche (who I also cited in my preceding, 3-post series on “Traumatic Selfhood”), we might call “cultural products.’’ That is, a friend skilled (by gift and/or training) in friendship will receive and respond to whatever communications, written or oral, her friend sends her way, the same way his brother Theo—according to Laplanche in “Transference: It’s Provocation by the Analyst,” one of his Essays on Otherness (London: Routledge, 1999)—received and responded to Vincent Van Gogh’s letters. Theo, writes Laplanche (page 224), was “as much an analyst without knowing it as Fliess was for Freud” (and the knowing reader, even one who never heard of Fliess, presumes from that remark that Fliess was quite a good such analyst for his friend Freud). Laplanche explains that, as the addressee of Vincent’s letters, Theo—although bearing that definite name, well known to his brother Vincent, of course (just as any analyst bears a name known to those who come to that analyst for analysis)—served not as any particular named, but as an essentially anonymous recipient, behind whom, as Laplanche puts it, “looms the nameless crowd, addressees of the message in the bottle.”
The lesson Laplanche is teaching in such passages—the lesson Theo Van Gogh himself seems somehow to have learned: the lesson of how to be an analyst of the very best kind, which is to say “an analyst without knowing it”—is the same as that taught by any effective practice of what, in our pop-psych culture, is most often called “reflective listening.” In such practice one keeps oneself still and silent as one listens to another (or to “oneself as another,” to borrow the title of one of Paul Ricoeur’s fine late books), who says whatever that other says. But, precisely in order to hear what the others says as clearly as one possibly can hear it, one listens to the other with one’s two ears simultaneously cocked in two different but complementary directions, as it were. One listens with one ear cocked to what the other is saying, while at the same time keeping the other ear cocked to oneself—that is, to one’s own emotional response to what that other is saying. One does that precisely to perform a sort of phenomenological reduction on oneself and one’s own responses to the world, as I would put it. That is, one does it just so that one can put one’s own responses, and all the assumptions that go with them, “out of play,” as Husserl liked to say, “suspending” them, “putting them within brackets.” One thereby opens and holds open a space, and holds oneself open in that space, open to receive whatever communication the other has to offer, rather than choking it off immediately with one’s own voice.
True listening requires the listener to open such a space, and to inhabit it, waiting upon the other as that other may communicate. Such a listener waits upon the other to communicate herself as she will, rather than waiting for any particular communication to come from her. The listening is filled with expectancy, but without any expectation, opening to the other the possibility freely to be whoever she may turn out to be, surprising herself along with the listener.
Most of the time and for the most part, we don’t really listen to one another at all. Instead, we just wait for the other to shut up, so we can lip off in turn. In my classes before I retired, I used to ask my students to attend to the difference between two different sorts of “conversation.” The first, which I called “cocktail-party conversation,” was the sort in which some topic emerges in the course of the conversation, and then the parties to the conversation take turns—whether politely or rudely depending upon how many cocktails each has consumed—expressing their opinions on that topic. Often, all the expressing of opinion includes a strong component of attacking one another’s opinions (or ways of expressing them). Such attacks can range from reasoned tweakings of minor points to withering sarcasm that ridicules not only the other’s opinion as egregiously ridiculous but also the other herself for holding such an opinion. Less often, though still frequently enough, it can also include the conversation partners, in whole or in (itself sometimes divisive) part, giving support to one another’s opinions. At any rate, what is involved in such conversation is a matter of informing one another of what one already thinks (or at least thinks one thinks) about a given topic, the point of such conversations always being to have one’s own say—that is, to get one’s turn in the turn-taking so that one can inform the others of what one already thinks, or at least thinks one thinks, or would like others to think that one thinks, or think others would like/loathe one to think, or the like.
Much talking but no actual thinking takes place in such coctail-party conversations. Thinking is not the point of them. Almost always all the thinking (insofar as there is any at all, which is often debatable) has been done before the conversation has even begun, which is to say that all the opinions have already been formed. Even if it turns out that some of those opinions only arise during the very course of the conversation, such opinion-formation is not the point of the conversing. Rather, the point is to inform one another of those opinions. The process is one of exchanging information.
In contrast, there is another sort of conversation, one I will leave nameless, for certain reasons that will soon become apparent to many Hamannianly attentive readers. This second sort of conversation is the sort we might have when, together, we discuss some topic of which none of us already has a formed and cherished opinion, on the expression of which one is fixed. In such a second sort of conversation, the parties conversing do not already know “what they think”—that is, what “opinion” they have—about the matter under discussion. Rather, their conversing together about it is itself the process whereby, together, they “think it through.” Furthermore, the end point of the conversation, that point at which it reaches its goal or purpose, the point at which the thinking through itself is through, is not the point at which the parties to the conversation have at last formed opinions of their own. The end point of the thinking through of the matter under discussion is no “fixation of belief,” in Charles Sanders Pierce’s sense of that expression: It is not the formation of any “opinion” at all. It is more nearly the opposite, namely, the letting go of all opinions and beliefs, of everything one thinks one knows, in order to think together. The goal is not to bring the thinking to rest, so that it can then cease, but to bring it to an every more thoughtful ongoing—or “on-thinking,” an on-going thinking-on about whatever it is that has given itself to be thought about in and through the conversation.
Conversation of that second sort is utterly lacking in value. It is good for nothing. It accomplishes no purposes, achieves no goals, serves nobody’s interests, scores no points, gains no adherents, produces no profits, wins no friends, and influences no people. It is without use to anyone—or at least it is an altogether inefficient means for doing anything that serves anyone’s self interest, and it can be made so to serve only in complete disregard of its intrinsic nature. Of and in itself, it is no more than what Laplanche calls a “cultural product.”
It is conceivable, of course, that someone could try to seduce somebody else, to give one possible example, through engaging in such conservation, either with the same person one was trying to seduce, or with some third party in the presence of the object of one’s sexual interest. One might not even have anyone in particular in mind, or care if it is even anyone one already knows. One might be trying to attract someone—anyone (at least anyone who fits one’s own sexual taste), God knows who—to one’s bed, by engaging in such a conversation all alone by oneself, for example, by writing a book (or a blog post) and then publishing it.
That would be like writing a novel and seeing it into print in a hardbound edition in order to provide oneself with a good doorstop. As I put it myself long ago in my first book, The Stream of Thought** (the second of the three volumes of which is, among other things, a sort of novel, by the way), one would thereby indeed have a novel doorstop! But that has nothing to do, really, either with being a novel or with being a doorstop. Similarly, one might write a novel with the intent of thereby getting rich and famous and going on the Oprah Winfrey Show—or whatever has become the equivalent to that by the time I post this (when, many years ago, I first started using that same line in my classes, I said “the Phil Donahue Show”).
At any rate, Laplanche himself suggests that one might indeed try to write a book of such a remarkable quality and wit that it would make one sexually desirable to some reader somewhere, who would then contact the author and provide the latter with an opportunity to score a sexual conquest. “But,” Laplanche remarks, “what an extraordinary going-beyond it takes”—that is, what unnecessary, uncertain extremes that goes to, in order to get where one is trying, by the assumption, to get! “Going beyond oneself,” he adds, “but above all going toward another who is no longer determinate, and who will only incidentally [if ever!] be the object of an individual sexual conquest.” How inefficient!
Laplanche insists on what I already remarked above myself: all that has nothing to do with the “cultural product” itself at issue in such cases. It has nothing to do with the novel, essay, or other communication that one writes as such. No matter how novel my imagined novel doorstop might be, it leaves unaffected how novel the novel itself might be as a novel: I can just as well use a copy of a schlocky romance pot-boiler as of Anna Karenina to prop open my door, if that’s all I’m looking for, but that says nothing at all about the literary heft of either novel.
As Laplanche points out: “Modern studies of language have clearly shown that communication [or, if I see what Laplanche’s intends to be understood here, at least the sort of communication that occurs in what I call a cocktail-party conversation—though far from only there] is a pragmatics: to communicate is to manipulate, to produce an effect on someone.” But, he immediately goes on to argue, by addressing itself to a “no longer determinate,” anonymous other (even if that other, at no expense to such anonymity, is known and spoken to by name, as Vincent Van Gogh wrote his letters to his brother Theo), “cultural production,” and therefore the sort of communication which is such a thing, “is situated from the first beyond all pragmatics, beyond any adequation of means to a determinate effect.” A bit later, he adds that it is “a constant proposition in the cultural domain” that “[i]t is the offer which creates the demand.” He expands and explains: “The dominance of human needs, undeniable but truly minimal in the domain of biological life, is completely covered over by culture. The biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural,” which breaks into and breaks apart all pragmatics. As chipmunks are not for anything, save for chipmunking itself, so are communications as “cultural productions” not for anything, save communicating. They are in no way dependent upon any “pragmatics.”
As “cultural production,” however, communicating, we might say, is co-mund-icating, from the Latin mundus, “world”: Communicating with one another, we share, and in sharing build, our world, a human place to dwell, which—“dwelling— is itself, in turn, keeping on communicating.
So understood, communication as such has nothing to do with the transfer of information. It is solely a matter of speaking and listening to one another, for no other purpose than just to keep on doing ever more of the same. Or, rather, it is a matter of speaking together with one another and listening together with one another to what is being said in our talk, using that talk to give voice to itself. In that process, we refuse to reduce ourselves, as parties to the conversation, to anything we may know—or think we do—of who we are. Eschewing such presumption, we share a friendship that clears an opening for each of us to be whoever we may chance to come to be.
To return to reading (in fact, we have never left it, as those of us who read as Hamann would have us read will already have read): Reading is a form of listening to another—an always anonymous, unknown other—attentive not only to what that other says but also and above all to what that other intends to be understood by what she says, as Hamann puts it. It is to leap ahead of the other, and help clear the way for the other to get where that other is going—even if that does not occur “this side of the grave,” by the way, to borrow a phrase from Gregory Bateson. Reader and writer go hand in hand together to wherever it may turn out they are going together. That is even and especially so when the going just keeps on going, generation after generation, as it will with reading anything worth reading (even if nobody ever reads it).
As with all listening, the challenge in reading is to become and remain an equally nameless and unknown friend to a nameless, unknown other whose writing one reads, which is to say to whom one listens. In turn, the challenge in becoming and remaining such a friend lies in steadily refusing to care one whit for whomever it may be who authored whatever one is reading—that “cultural product” of communication written to no end other than that of communicating.
To put the same point personally, the best way to read what I write is not to give a fig about me (to substitute a euphemism for a certain, oft-used, scatological phrase). If you think you already know me, and that you can somehow help me to see—and to be—the same “me” you think you see when you look at me, then you are not going to read me. At most, you’ll be involved in some pragmatic enterprise of coercing things to come into agreement with your own preconceptions, cutting everything (yourself included) down to a chosen idolatrous size of your own.
If you really want to do some “going-beyond,” as Laplanche puts it (at least in the English translation), then just read, which is to say listen. Read/listen, and do nothing else—even and especially when you write/speak in turn yourself. If you do that, then you will be open to hearing what itself goes beyond anything that may be said, to what is there to be heard in what is said, sounding through it. You will hear not only the sounded speech but also the silence to which the sounds of speech give voice by breaking it, like a bell ringing out in the night.
If your reading becomes such listening, you will have become a Hamannian kind of reader, which is the very best kind.
* The translation is that of Kenneth Haynes, from the volume he edited of Hamann’s Writings on Philosophy and Language (Cambridge University Press, 2007), page 29.
** To my chagrin, when The Stream of Thought was published in 1984 in a hardbound edition in New York by The Philosophical Library, it did not sell enough copies at its market price of $27.50 to make me rich and famous and put me on television talk-shows, as I had, of course, hoped it would. Though it long ago went out of print, I still have some authors’ copies of it left, which I’d be happy to sell today for the bargain-basement price of $14.95, plus shipping expenses of $5.17—it’s a big book—for a total of $20.12. As a special bonus offer, for the first five book-lovers who send me their checks (I think I still have that many left somewhere), I’ll even include my autograph inside the front cover. Just let me know if you’re interested, by emailing me at email@example.com, so we can arrange payment and you can get your very own copy. (It makes a great doorstop, I should mention, in case you don’t want to read it.)