“[Samuel Beckett was] very attentive to what everyone said, sometimes to their discomfiture; made me realize again how people aren’t used to being listened to so literally—because they themselves don’t listen, but discount half of what’s said and extract the general tenor. Not Sam. There was no general tenor and every word counted.”
So writes Beckett’s friend of thirty-five years, Anne Atik, in How It Was (2005). Her Beckett is a thoughtful, attentive, doting companion to children and adults, fond of reciting Dante, Johnson, Keats and Yeats, but it’s Beckett’s literal listening that impresses and shames me. In his Dictionary, Johnson defines “to listen” as “To hearken; to give attention.”
Life is lost nodding my head to choruses of talk. Not everyone deserves to be listened to. We’re obliged to ignore the pompous and self-impressed, but boredom, manners and selfishness get in the way of always listening as though “every word counted.” Some words don’t, depending on speaker, eloquence and honesty.
Tuesday we attended our almost-eleven-year-old son’s “graduation” from the fifth grade. A slide show, funny hats, a rousing hymn to “diversity, with unity,” a principal whose commencement speech quoted Dr. Seuss at length. Seated in the gymnasium bleachers, I worked hard at listening and keeping my mouth shut, and mostly succeeded. Beckett writes in The Unnamable:
“Listening hard, that’s what I call going silent.”