Wednesday, October 15, 2014

`He Could No Longer Hear the Birds Sing'

The tests for hearing loss nicely recapitulate the effects of incremental deafness. One is placed in a box, a shed-like room within another room. The walls, covered with perforated sheet metal painted institutional green, are baffled for sound. The audiologist is visible through a small window. He works the controls and is partially obscured by a computer monitor. The patient is seated in a barber’s chair and given a controller to press when he hears the tones transmitted through a head set. Sometimes the tones are masked by the sound of wind or radio static. Sometimes words, over-enunciated in a strong male voice, replace the tones, and one is asked to repeat them. One decrypts fragmentary sounds. The effect of isolation and bafflement is convincing. Next week I’ll be fitted with a hearing aid in my left ear, the one on which a mastoidectomy was performed forty years ago this month. I don’t wish to be one of those imperious old fools who won’t acknowledge his hearing loss, barks at others to speak louder and dismisses anything he can’t hear as unimportant. 

Jean Hartley was the publisher, with her husband George, of Philip Larkin’s first mature book of poems, The Less Deceived, in 1955. In her autobiography, Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me (Carcanet, 1989), she writes sympathetically of the poet’s encroaching deafness, one of fate’s cruel pranks: 

“Since his illness in 1961 Philip had been rather hard of hearing and over the years this worsened. He was quite open about his disability and he knew that his increasing deafness was a barrier to conversation. He always shuffled round until he got you on his good side – the left – but eventually he had to use two hearing aids. Having lived all my life with a mother who was left with defective hearing after a childhood illness, I knew how isolated he must feel. People are inhibited from saying to the deaf many things that cannot be said at the top of the voice but need a subtle interplay of tones before they can be broached. He said that he had first noticed his deafness when he realized that he could no longer hear the birds sing.”

As an infant, Dr. Johnson was cared for by a wet nurse whose milk was tubercular. W. Jackson Bate describes the results as “disastrous.” The baby’s face and neck were permanently scarred. He contracted scrofula, a disease that left him blind in his left eye and with limited vision in the right. He was deaf in one ear and his hearing in the other was impaired. In Samuel Johnson in the Medical World (Cambridge University Press, 1991), John Wiltshire reports: “Johnson was certainly rather deaf in the last twenty years of his life, often unable to hear the sermon when he went to church and notoriously disabled by his deafness from any enjoyment of music.” Boswell said his friend was “very insensible to the power of musick.” In Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), when recounting a visit to a “college of the deaf and dumb” in Edinburgh, Johnson describes deafness as “one of the most desperate of human calamities.”

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