The Sounds of Silence

Wikimedia Commons
The Abbé de l’Épée, who founded a school for the deaf in Paris in 1755 and was the first to recognize that they could be taught with sign language

Several years ago, I noticed difficulty hearing; testing showed diminished perception of high frequencies, a common consequence of aging. Hearing aids were prescribed, which helped to amplify sounds but weren’t a complete remedy. Background noise in restaurants made it difficult to discern the conversation of dinner partners, and I often missed muttered dialogue in movies. Most vexing was what Oliver Sacks termed “mishearing”1—I thought I heard certain words, but they were distortions of what was actually said, and my response corresponded to the distortions. For example, recently a scientific colleague told me he was going to a conference in Milan. I heard “Iran,” and replied that he was sure to be hassled at US Customs given Trump’s travel ban. He looked confused. “Since when is Italy on the list?”

Gerald Shea has confronted such difficulties, but in his case they have been more severe ones and present for most of his life. At the age of six, he developed scarlet fever that caused partial hearing loss. In his captivating memoir Song Without Words (2013), he describes how “most consonants and some vowels…faded to softness,” lowering “an invisible curtain creating a quieter world” that isolated him within it. His great challenge was to learn how to decipher what he terms his “lyricals,” the misheard words. For example, he heard “what’ll happen after Nora leaves” as “water happens after coral reefs.” Such transformations “stir the imagination with nonexistent places and people, like the Doubtful Asphodels not found on any library shelves of Nabokov’s prose.”

Shea devised an inner lexicon to decipher such transformations, and was able to attend Phillips Academy (Andover), Yale College, and Columbia Law School, ultimately carving out a career as an international lawyer in the US and France. It was only when he was in his thirties that his partial deafness was diagnosed. Shea wears hearing aids now, but he still struggles to consistently understand speech. While his lyricals may stir his imagination, he does not romanticize them: “in the commerce of necessity they can be a hellish experience. They make of our lives a constant unscrambling of language, punctuated by masquerades of understanding.”

His impaired hearing and struggle to comprehend speech prompted Shea in his new book, The Language of Light, to explore how those with no hearing from birth, whom he terms “Deaf,” express themselves:

I have no fluent understanding of the languages of the Deaf, but the grace and visual clarity of those who communicate in signed languages, which I call…the language of light, are to me a wonder, and I feel a close affinity to it and to them. Theirs is not an unplanned but a natural, visual poetry, at once…

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