There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.
from The Blue Octavo Notebooks
To stage a discussion of Kafka’s aphorism, I need to give some background.
One of my professors from my undergrad impacted me more than he knows. One memory stands out vividly. We were studying Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” and Professor Gutteridge made the following, emphatic, memorable exhortation: “Here, finally, someone is actually listening!” He leaned forward, as he often did to make a point, and both of his hands were poised up by his temples. He had a way of generating a sense of urgency behind his insights, as if we would not be complete until we had a better sense of what he was teaching.
It was one of those moments, as an undergrad, I became utterly bewildered. The poem, itself, was already enough as I had been thinking about its ending—the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is—and hoping Professor Gutteridge would illuminate the koan. But he completely surprised me by what he emphasized: the listener who listens in the snow.
For many years, I thought he may have simply dodged the crux of the poem, but every time I read or taught the poem since, I couldn’t shake the memory nor my bewilderment.
And then, as the years of teaching and reading and studying poetry accumulated, I gained much more of an appreciation for the difficult art of listening. As I have discussed on another blog post, listening is the difficult-to-attain posture at the very foundation of Thoreau’s Walden and W. S. Merwin’s poetry and poetics. A big claim? Oh yeah. But the art of listening—and I mean a fully somatic listening, when you listen with the roots of your hair—is one way we cultivate an attentiveness to all that environs us. It is one way to dwell deeply and profoundly. Such an attentiveness can lead to that existential state where one realizes morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. It’s what Merwin appreciates in Thoreau as he shares in the interview “Fact Has Two Faces” with Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson: the humility before the phenomenal world—and that humility is cultivated through the difficult discipline of listening.
Kafka may not be the first storyteller to come to mind when seeking to cultivate the art of listening, of dwelling, of attentively engaging all that environs us. However, he left us the above aphorism. Some may dismiss it, for at first glance, the speaker calls for a seemingly passive approach toward existence. It is counterintuitive?—most definitely. If I want to be awake, shouldn’t I go out to the woods and live deliberately?
What I love about the aphorism is that it underscores the difficulty of getting into that state where one is awake, alert, attentive, and alive. It takes several iterations of undoing one’s self: several steps backward for each step forward; several cancelations; several erasures—all to unravel the impulse toward inserting oneself. Kafka’s aphorism points toward the discipline of listening, and it can be a profound meditation as one seeks to inhabit a much fuller sense of dwelling in the lives of loved ones, in literature, in the swarming, environing earth never ceasing to writhe in a painful beauty all around us.
To flourish in a new home, in a new bioregion, in a new teaching environment, with new colleagues and new students, I need to maintain the discipline of listening—and mantras can be a helpful way to turn the discipline into an art.
All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://aaronmoe.com.