An Evening with David Whyte: Life at the Frontier: Human Identity and the Conversational Nature of Reality

David Whyte
David Whyte book

Thursday, May 10, 2012
7:30 p
CEMEX Auditorium, Knight Management Center
FREE; no registration is required

The truth is not the truth until it can be heard and recognized, no matter how well it is said, and one of the difficult truths is that human beings arrive at newness, revelation, and understanding through recognition of something already established within them. To tell the truth, therefore, is not to fire off the right ammunition at an established target, but rather to create a live frontier, a field of communion, between a deep internal core and something that, to begin with, looks like the otherness of the world. Living and breathing at this frontier is what most of our religious and contemplative traditions have called enlightenment. Join poet and philosopher David Whyte for what is sure to be an enlightening experience of this frontier through poetry, the imagination at play, and storytelling.

David Whyte
 is the author of six books of poetry and three books of prose. He also holds a degree in marine zoology and has traveled extensively, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, the Amazon, and the Himalaya. He brings this wealth of experience to his poetry, lectures, and workshops. His most recent books are The Three Marriages, River Flow, and Crossing the Unknown Sea.

This program is co-sponsored by The Stanford Storytelling Project and Stanford Continuing Studies.

“Making up the Truth” with Jack Hitt

Jack Hitt
Jack Hitt Poster

Friday, May 4, 2012
Cubberley Auditorium
FREE; no registration is required

In his new solo show, Jack Hitt tells extravagant, almost unbelievable, true stories that take him from his early childhood in South Carolina (where his flamboyant neighbor, a British novelist, became global news as one of the world’s first transsexuals) through his trek to New York (where his apartment super kept a deadly secret identity). “Making Up the Truth” weaves these and other stories together with the latest experiments in cognitive research. Scientists of the mind are now studying the mechanics of how we all narrate our own stories in our brains, and Jack searches them out to answer the question everyone always asks him, “Why do these things always happen to you?” They don’t, the experiments show. We are all making up the truth, often to shield ourselves from what Jack discovers: the uncanny wonders that lie just beyond our brain’s notice. And that tale, it turns out, is another extravagant, almost unbelievable, true story.

Jack Hitt is a contributing writer for Harper’s and GQ. He also writes for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Mother Jones, and contributes frequently to public radio’s This American Life.

Ubiquitous Audio-tastic Material: Learning How to Listen

Ever since I listened to this piece of audio, I’ve been a more informed inhabitant of the modern world. That’s because listening to this piece taught me how to listen to the wide array of sounds that are bombarding me from every direction, all the time.

In “Hearing,”(act II in This American Life’s episode on Mapping) Jack Hitt does something very simple, very well: he gives me the tools to more fully experience something that I was already experiencing, even though I wasn’t yet aware of it.

The piece is about a writer, Toby Lester, who learns how to notice sounds around him. In the piece, Hitt and Lester peruse the inhabited world for the types of sounds that we tend to ignore: air conditioner, refrigerator compressor, microwave beep; and when they find these sounds, they figure out the exact note (on the musical scale) of each sound. They then make chords out of those notes, and describe (using splendidly antiquated vocabulary) the effect that those chords can have on our emotional state.

One great thing about this story is that it’s inherently aural. Hitt and his companion are studying sound, therefore the thing that they study will translate very well via headphones, computer speakers, car stereos, or whatever the listener might be using, to access the thing that Hitt is communicating. I’ve written about this “audio-tastic” quality in another piece.

What’s particularly profound about this piece, though, is that he’s doing more than giving us a sonically rich story, and more than making the sounds the subject of the piece. He is taking us along on a well-informed experiment with the sounds that surround most of us—sounds from things that are in the space you’re inhabiting, right now. By doing this, Hitt moves away from the trappings of a standard analytical argument and pushes us into the realm of experiential learning. As listeners, we know what he is saying is true, because we can identify it within our immediate environment.

Hitt highlights this experience by employing a not-often used trick: radio silence. During an astounding six-second pause, he gives you time to identify the sounds being created by the mechanical things within your hearing distance. It’s as if Hitt is sitting right next to you, listening while you direct your attention toward each little harddrive fan as it clicks on or off, and comparing its frequency to the frequency of the engine of the plane that’s flying overhead, or the train that’s passing through town.

We’re living in a world of sound, and it becomes quite obvious as soon as you start to listen.

Hitt takes his argument to the next level when he addresses the moods that these chords evoke. We’re not usually conscious of these buzzes, whirrs and hums, but the combination of these sounds has a profound effect on how we feel.

It might seem ridiculous when you read it in text (i.e., right now), and this is why you need to hear it for yourself. With the experiential insight that this story brings to bear, you will hear the pitches and chords of the humming, buzzing, droning electronics that surround you, and become better attuned to the feelings that they evoke… it’s funny, but the descriptions really resonate: the sounds make you feel the way that Hitt says they make you feel.

When you listen to this piece (and, by association, to the sounds that occur all around you), it makes sense that we are, as Lester claims, products of our modern aural environment.

Hearing ”, by Jack Hitt
Act II in This American Life’s Mapping episode, originally aired in 1998
12 minutes
Originally suggested by Jonah Willihnganz