Jerome Groopman

The Lan­guage of Light: A History of Silent Voices by Ger­ald Shea

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jerome Groopman

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 the­is­lam­ic­work­ 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

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