The Language of Light: A History of Silent Voices by Gerald Shea
The Language of Light: A History of Silent Voices by Gerald Shea.
Yale University Press,
266 pp., $26.00
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,
1Oliver Sacks, “Mishearings,” The New York Times, June 5, 2015. and I feel a close affinity to it and to them. Theirs is not an unplanned but a natural, visual poetry, at once both the speech and the music of the Deaf. Though I live in the realm of the hearing, a part of my life, in the form of my search for communicative grace and clarity, is quartered in my understanding of the world of the Deaf, and I feel as if a part of it.
Language of Light is an eloquent and engaging history of centuries of battle between the “natural, visual poetry” of signing and “oralism,” by which the deaf are coerced to mouth words. As with many sustained conflicts, this one has its roots in economics, religion, and xenophobia. The Justinian Code of the Byzantine era denied rights to those unable to hear and speak. In order to inherit, offspring had to be able to speak, so aristocratic families across Europe with deaf children sought to secure their wealth by finding oralist teachers who could instruct them in lip-reading and articulating words. Shea explains that lip-reading allows the deaf to decipher only the simplest words and makes understanding complex concepts painstaking, if not impossible.
But forcing the deaf to utter words was pursued not only for monetary reasons among the rich, but also out of a perverted interpretation of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was made flesh.” Guillaume Durand de Mende, a thirteenthcentury bishop, thought the deaf were “refusing” to hear the word of God, and, as mutes, were “unwilling” to speak it. Shea writes:
Christ himself was at the beginning of the creation a Word—who was with God, and was God, and was later made flesh, and dwelt among us . . . . What then was a man or woman who couldn’t speak, understand, or even perceive the Word—the Bible, the gospels, Christ himself? Who was this individual who lacked the critical human characteristic that distinguished other men and women, made wholly in God’s image, from animals? There is an explicit biblical imperative to protect the deaf that Shea overlooks in his history. Leviticus 19:14 instructs the faithful not to “insult (tekallel) the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” The Hebrew Bible is acutely aware of the cruel impulses in human character that can lead individuals to denigrate and abuse the disabled.2 There is a shared sensitivity found in Islam, drawing on the hadith—“cursed is he who misleads a blind person away from his path”; it is forbidden to ridicule or maltreat the afflicted.3
Perhaps it was the supersessionist theology, superseding or replacing prior religious doctrine, of the medieval church that led it to ignore Leviticus and overlay a malicious reading of the gospel. Since speech was the expression of the soul and the manifestation of divine thought, a man or a woman who couldn’t speak, understand, or perceive the word of God was cast as not fully human. As Shea writes, “Following Christ’s example, depicted in the prayer book of Saint Hildegarde, the priest must, as Shea writes, ‘open the mouth of the Deaf.’”
Typically, the deaf were subjected to brutal “treatments” to force spoken language. These “amounted to trials by ordeal, yielding considerable suffering, illness, and sometimes death.” Hot coals were forced into the mouths of the deaf to trigger speech “by the force of the burning.” Other tortures, which continued into the eighteenth century, included inserting catheters through the nostrils, twisting them through the nasal cavity and into the Eustachian tubes and injecting burning liquids; drilling holes into the skull so as to allow the deaf to “hear” through the openings (trepanation); flooding ether into the auditory canal; applying blistering agents to the neck, scorching it from nape to the chin with a hot cylinder full of supposedly magical burning leaves; applying adhesive cotton and setting it on fire; using vomitories and purgative agents; and injecting hot needles into or removing the mastoid bones. The premise was that drilling, cutting, fracturing, scorching, or poisoning would “open up” the ear and the brain to sounds.
Yet not everyone in the church was heartless or delusional when it came to the deaf. It was a priest, CharlesMichel de l’Épée, who recognized that spoken and written words had no intrinsic connection to the ideas they represented. To teach the New Testament to twin sisters who were deaf, he had to use their native language of signing. In 1755, l’Épée tested the notion that seeing could be substituted for hearing in learning concepts. His discovery
2For a scholarly examination of this sensitivity to the vulnerable in the Hebrew Bible, see Shai Held, The Heart of Torah (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), Vol. 1, p. xxiv, and Vol. 2, pp. 57–60.
3The hadiths and Koranic sources of Islamic concern for the disabled are reviewed at theislamicworkplace.com/ disability-and-islam/.
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