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Listening Essays - Jacob Voorthuis

Jacob Voorthuis
6 min read
16 Jan 2023

For a series Listening Essays, STRP invited artists from her network to reflect on this year's theme (The Art of Listening) and explore new perspectives, raise interesting questions, give personal interpretations or share ideas. Read the next essay by TU/e professor Jacob Voorthuis below!

Let’s begin with emptiness, the kind that hollows out the space around you from the place where something should have been… but isn’t, perhaps because it normally is, or simply because I wish it to be. It is that emptiness in which listening directs itself to the missing object. In this voluminous emptiness, which is full of me, like a hot-air balloon inflated in an empty church, I listen to the sounds that my empty home makes: the teapot landing on the countertop, the spoon playing in the cup, the plastic bag rustling as it falls to the floor and crackling as I pick it up to put it in the bin, the eternal fly —my bad conscience— the ponderous, slow footsteps up the carpeted stairs, the sinuous click in my aging knee, the comfortable clunk of the door. These sounds —symphonic of my solitariness— craft the emptiness in fine detail. I am listening for a key to turn in the front door. When I hear it, I rejoice within myself, quietly and without fuss, and turn to her flushed face that is full of her day. I listen to her story of that day, all of it, and try not say too much. The sounds of emptiness have all withdrawn, folded back upon themselves; the house is full to the brim now, full of deed and purpose. (Let her talk, just listen, I fold my face to her words, not too pensively and above all I try not to frown. No judgement. I suspend my thought as I’ve been taught, I leave it detached; my soul is emptying itself and ready to be filled by her; I hold her in my mind, within reach of my thought, but somewhere just below it, not yet touching my small, uncertain treasure of knowledge and my wobbly life’s experience.
I listen as if suspended and work hard to hear. There is no spontaneity in this listening, it is a deliberate art form, requiring much practice, rigour, and precision. And then, when it counts, I respond with the full force of what I have harvested in her words, the melody and rhythm, her supporting gestures, all her meaning. But I do not respond thunderously. I am no god or messiah. No. I respond like a light summer breeze but with a conceptual heft to my response, so that it is right, of the right weight and of the right force and substance. And as I give that response, I look at her, which means that I look into her eyes with mine, generating an infinite depth). In listening to her, I make myself. Not subservient, not superior, but with care I make myself her equal.
Her equal? Yes, listening attentively is the very substance of equality. There is no justice, no fairness, no equality, no dignity even, without the art of listening. Listening is an art that you can learn and practice. It demands that you understand what you hear or be prepared to confess that you do not, and that you are prepared to do the necessary work. The world is so full of information. Listening helps us direct ourselves within that plenitude and turn that information into something resembling knowledge. Knowledge is information understood in terms of its implications. And those that have listened fully, can respond, and even take responsibility: they know what to do. Blessed are the listeners. To say that listening is an act of generosity is true, but its truth is the self-imposed and unnecessary tragedy of our world. See them around you: people starved of listeners, who shout into the emptiness; people who themselves have not learnt to listen, forcing what they have to say on the helpless who so want to tell their story; people who have nothing to say but keep on talking, babbling, endlessly; people who talk to themselves, or someone else deep within them, because they have given up talking to others as no one listens anyway; people overhearing others and picking up fag ends and on their shaky evidence build grand theories of conspiracy, fear and threat. The art of listening attentively is the necessary and sufficient condition for justice and equality, for dignity. It is what a full human being is capable of, creating a full, rich world.