Word! The Language Column
On listening

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Until now, Nora Gomringer’s column has been devoted to translation. Now she is devoting it to the various pathways to language. She starts with listening. Her essay features a bathtub, porcelain cups and microphones.

By Nora Gomringer

My first experience of reading was not reading myself; it was intermediary reading. In the evenings, my mother would lie in the bathtub in front of me under a blanket of bubbles. The bathroom, like a bower, was one of the few heated rooms in the old farmhouse in Upper Franconia. I would sit cross-legged in front of the tub or lie on my stomach over the radiator to listen. I was little then; physically, too, just a family particle stretched as big as necessary and possible by then. My mother smoked a cigarette inserted in an elegant black horn tip and read to me from the book in her other hand, interrupting herself at regular intervals to draw on the tip.

My mother’s voice

Friedrich Rückert’s Autumn Breeze became real as she recited the poem softly, in shallow breaths. She belted out many a Heine verse and gave different voices and personas to the fairy creatures and dwarfs in the ballads and in Bechstein’s and Grimms’ collected fairy tales. Her reading aloud was an important ritual, but was also part of her teaching practice. She rehearsed reading aloud to me for her pupils and memorised poems with me that were either anticipated in my lessons or part of her curriculum. When we drove in the car, Martin Held resounded from a cassette, citing Heinrich Heine and I soon knew the longest ballad, Wood Solitude, quite well by heart. Even today, I recite it for audiences. Listening to my mother’s voice, devoted entirely to the recital and inviting me to share that time with her, was a jealously guarded, exclusive experience. I associated being read aloud to with feeling special, with beauty – my mummy’s, fragrant in the bubble bath – as well as with the exclusive shared hour of a woman and child in the cosy warmth, in short: with pleasure.

Chirping giants

At many other hours of the day, my mother was invisible to me, like my father was in any case. They worked all the time, travelled a lot and I was a constant guest at the neighbours’. Some of the villages in northern Upper Franconia have close ties to the porcelain industry, and during the transition from active farming to eight-hour factory work, the various companies in Selb attracted farmers and their children. Throughout my childhood and half of my youth, I would sit under or at pub tables surrounded by gruff, taciturn but kind-hearted giants. But as soon as coffee was served in a new cup, a well-designed cup, the men would talk over this cup, practically in a pitter-patter, their voices like chirping birds. The brushstroke, the base of the handle, the fine workmanship; almost tenderly they discussed and commented on every detail amongst themselves. Whereas they had just been shuffling stones about the table, in these few minutes of consultation, butterflies fluttered about these men. I will never forget the sound of that.

Ricocheted thoughts

Listening is always also subject to illusion, or better the illusion of manipulation. I know old people who will sometimes answer questions they were asked far earlier in the course of a conversation. Having noticed this, I imagine that hearing can be mapped like a rough planetary surface in space and time. Thoughts, responses, associated emotions and memories seem to form the atmosphere around this landscape and then only become visible, palpable or otherwise present when, after all the readily discernible response particles, the arduous, larger ones emerge. Delayed answers indicate delayed listening, like ricocheted thoughts, lending the delay phenomenon a seductive component. In the delay of sonic perception there is room for change, partial transmission of the message, error.

Seductive force

We live in a world where machines are hard at work, listening closely to us and able to repeat our words. They spy on us and divulge our secrets, are everyday partners and as such ofttimes irreplaceable. Microphones that record sound, melody, voice, make them technically malleable, are always also distributers. People must have been moved when they saw Walt Whitman walking through the streets of New York and heard him asking his questions of human society aloud, proclaiming into the now invocations of all demographic groups to poetic world unity. Voices are seductive. It’s no wonder then that audiobook platforms and podcasts, above all – still – the radio, radio plays, live readings, poetry slams, stand-up monologues, arias, choral songs, spoken commentaries, funeral orations, pop songs, father-of-the-bride speeches and oral pleas in court have society-building potential. When listening, it is always possible to fall in love fully, spontaneously or for many years to come. And who hasn’t become a faithful follower of a person, a culture, a language through their love for them?