Listening as work

by Terence MacNamee

The young Rimbaud said in a famous letter: “Je est un autre”, that is, “I am (or is) somebody else”. He was referring to the realms of the unconscious which are still part of the self, even though we may not be aware of them.  In the same letter, he went on to say: “J’assiste à l’éclosion de ma pensée : je la regarde, je l’écoute…” that is, “I watch the opening up of my thought – I look at it, I listen to it.”

Rimbaud thus affirms the plurality of the self and consciousness, but this opens up the possibility of “s’écouter” – a reflexive verb, here meaning to listen to that Other which is oneself. It sounds like work. And it is. In Rimbaud’s case, it is the work of the visonary poet.

Listening to the Other is a term that can also be used for listening to other cultures. This too means “work”. Especially if the culture in question is profoundly different from your own, you will have to listen very hard in order to understand what is being said. Now, you will only do this if you think that the speaker from the other culture is an individual identity like yourself who is worth listening to, worth taking trouble over. You have to recognize this Other as an “I”.

So whereas Rimbaud broke new ground by saying “Je est un Autre”, we need to break further new ground by affirming that “l’Autre est un Je”.