The art of listening


The art of listening is in perilous decline. Bombarded by information from all directions, with a swirling mass of issues competing for our attention, and a constant stream of messages, notifications, news items and tweets filling our eyes and ears, the modern person scarcely has time to stop and listen, let alone listen carefully.

What might be a cure for this modern malaise? Public readings. I suggest this because of a recent experience. On Friday night last week, I watched an audience ‘tune in’ to a public reading of Homer’s Iliad. Fifty or more visitors were comfortably settled into the ANU Classics Museum, surrounded by cabinets brimming with beautiful antiquities, and they were listening. They were both captivated and moved. Why? Firstly, because this was a recitation from a great epic poem telling the climactic story of Achilles killing the Trojan prince Hektor. Secondly, because this recitation was being artfully delivered in ancient Greek and English by a group of dedicated students.

In antiquity, an audience would have sat for three days and nights, listening to a professional bard recite the entire 15,000 line epic from memory from beginning to end. No doubt, there would have been moments when audience attention lapsed or when breaks were required but I have no doubt that the audience was listening: they would have been paying close attention not only to the story but how it was being told. How do we know this? Because Homer’s epics were a foundation stone and reference point for ancient Greek culture and society (to not know Homer, or only know one line of Homer, was to be ‘uneducated’) and even to alter one line of an epic poem was a cause of great controversy.

Watching a modern audience being ‘read to’ is powerful. People were concentrating, following the storyline, soaking up the imagery and the poetry, relishing the drama and the beauty of the language. For a moment, a group of strangers were unified by a common experience, and for the readers too, the experience was a powerful one. The magic of oral storytelling, a tradition that is thousands of years old, filled the room and the audience responded warmly and positively to the experience.

Public readings are wonderful for community building and social bonding. It draws us out of our individual thought bubbles and puts us back into contact with each other. To attend a public reading involves tacit consent to put aside other distractions, to stop for a while, and focus on a shared and marvellous experience. So many texts benefit from being read aloud and performed. Recitation forces us to slow down and focus, whereas private reading so often involves skimming, fast-tracking or phasing out.

We need to re-learn how to listen, to ourselves and each other, and to listen with care and attention. Ancient societies have given us a precedent and a means to do this: all we need is a place, a time and a willing presenter.

[This blog is dedicated to the ten wonderful students who participated in the global festival of ancient literature known as the Festival Européen Latin Grec, which was celebrated on Friday 22 March in the ANU Classics Museum. Bravo and long live Homeric poetry!]

Image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).