Listening

Creative writing often focuses on the visual. “Beautiful imagery” is one of those go-to compliments for a work of lyrically written prose. Text is funny, though. It’s sort of a visual medium, but it’s just as much–if not more so–heard. I.e., if I type the word mellifluous, you probably don’t just see the word mellifluous. You also hear it.

There’s an emphasis in Frankenstein on the visual. Long before he becomes monstrous, the creature is rejected for his physical appearance. His creator finds him so repulsive he abandons him. The people he turns to for shelter attack him. But, marvelously, he learns to speak.* Not just halting syllables; he learns to speak well. He sounds intelligent. Sympathetic. Human.

There are clear parallels to the sort of sensory education Rousseau describes in Emile (which will be fun to write about). Each sense, he argues, deserves our consideration and cultivation, which Mary Shelley was clearly reflecting on when she wrote Frankenstein. It’s striking, though, how bad we still are at listening. Because we pre-judge; we hear not what’s being said or expressed, but presuppose the intentions behind it in order to best plan our response. When we’re thinking about what we want to say, we’re not listening.

It’s not a helpful way to approach each other. In graduate school, both times, it struck me how bad we can be at really hearing each other. The second go-around in particular made this obvious because there was such an emphasis on conversation and rather more, I think, intellectual baggage. You can’t really listen when your ears are full of presuppositions. Listening is a learned thing. An activity. A skill. In some contexts, an art.

Men, in my experience, are less practiced at it. (For all that cultural stereotypes imply women are unnecessarily chatty, men talk a lot.) And if we return to the notion of education, this is through no specific fault of their own. No one teaches them to listen. No one emphasizes the development of that skill for them. As always, the inequalities of the system harms all of us.

Because good listening isn’t selective. It’s not just listening to your boss or your best friend. It’s about listening to people with very different perspectives from yours. It’s about listening to people who culture or social norms have established as not important. Sometimes listening takes a lot of conscious effort.

It’s a gorgeous day today so I’ve had the windows open all afternoon. I can hear pretty much everything happening on my street. Birds and dogs. Cars going by. My neighbors greeting each other. The men working on the house behind ours. Mostly I just dismiss it as background noise. I play music. But every once in a while, I stop and listen to see what I can hear. To no particular end, really. Just to practice.

*It is inexpressively tragic how many film adaptations neglect this point.

 

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