An unheard-of surprise

Hayley Campbell reviews Gerald Shea's <em>Song Without Words</em>.

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life
Gerald Shea
£17.99, 320pp. Da Capo Press.

“What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears.” – Victor Hugo

When I met Gerald Shea I was painfully conscious of sound. The book launch had been going for two hours, I had arrived late and – after loudly thanking the coat-check lady and trip-trapping my old Cuban heels across highly polished porcelain tiles – found that his speech was already well underway in the carpeted quiet room of the posh Chelsea house. There were glowers, stares, and the overwhelming cloud of expensive perfume hit me with such force it was near audible. I choked. Shea on his pedestal, mid-speech, never wavered. Jokes. Applause. Shea’s recently published memoir laid in piles next to him in a room so quiet I could hear the fabric of a suit as two legs were crossed twelve feet away.

His is a story of a life that could have been completely different, perhaps un-memoir-worthy, had he only known one thing: that he was deaf. By the time he found out he had already made it through Harvard and Yale and became a successful lawyer. He was not profoundly deaf, but partially; not from birth, but the age of 5, when a bout of scarlet fever ravaged the epithelial cells in the lower part of the cochlea, the most complex and vulnerable component of the ear. Most vowels and some consonants disappeared from his world. Before their absence was discovered in a routine test in his mid-30s, he put his failure to understand things down to an intellectual defect rather than aural: he thought he heard the same things that other people heard and they were just better at understanding, that he was slow – a fraud in the world of academia. Girlfriends told him he was a bad listener and left him. They were technically entirely correct. If only he’d listened.

His story is like something straight out of Ira Glass’ radio show, This American Life – one of those episodes where the music stops on the crucial soundbite where our hero says “and I never knew” and makes you cry on the bus. How different would his life had been, what would he have done instead of guzzling Mylanta for stress-related stomach ulcers while looking at his own exhausted face in the public bathroom and saying: “I wish I were dead”? Professionally, he would have done nothing differently – he would still be a lawyer. But he wouldn’t have had to quit in the end and break his own heart.

I’ve had little experience with the profoundly deaf aside from being the only hearing person at a deaf film festival. The crowd was inexplicably noisy: all the sounds that hearing people learn to stifle are there, unmuted. Everything is louder bar the applause, which is a visual jazz-hands style wave rather than anything audible. Sound doesn’t matter here. Being profoundly deaf gives you a separate world to belong to – one with a language entirely of its own – but sound is different in Shea’s world, where being partially deaf casts you adrift between two places, the hearing and the other. Said Shea: “We the partially deaf, are not as well off as those who sign, for we have to combine our dual paths of understanding, our eyes and our ears, to get the message in a medium in which we are not at home.” Everything moves slower in the in-between, where brainpower is devoted to tasks unnatural to it.

In her Harper's Magazine article in 1954 the American writer Sylvia Wright coined a term for the things that Shea would later call “lyricals”. As a child she had misheard a line of the ballad, The Bonny Earl O'Moray: “laid him on the green” had become “and Lady Mondegreen”. She said: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.” Reading Shea’s book you can’t help but agree with her. Lyricals commonly happen to the hearing in the form of song lyrics: kiss this guy, Alex the seal, and, less commonly, a man I know was genuinely confused for an entire childhood as to what could possibly be romantic about the warts on the knees of a woman. He figured it was something he’d understand when he got older when females were no longer an alien species (as it turns out, the wants and the needs of a woman are still as mysterious to him as the warts on their knees). Shea might hear the lyrical “This is summer’s wilting youth in a Moma” where others would hear “Mrs. Sommer will see you in a moment.” Lee Marvin’s line in the old film Bad Day at Black Rock, “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ accusations of disturbin’ the peace” went into Shea’s head as: “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ of today a song of second peace.” Infinite possibilities for poetry and beauty and Edward Lear-ish nonsense lie in the most mundane of daily sentences.

These “lyricals” were how Shea lived his life and studied, too, in a language all of his own: taking notes in lectures (to him, verbatim) and, later, in important legal meetings. He was “freezing the lyricals in time and figuring them out” or in other words: deciphering them late into the night instead of sleeping, slowly killing his relationships and himself.

The book is not his just his own history but also that of the profoundly deaf and partially deaf throughout the ages: he talks about Juan Pablo Bonet in the Middle Ages attempting to make mutes speak simply by forbidding sign language; Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, the first hearing teachers of French sign language in the 19th century; and Helen Keller being made to learn the cumbersome art of fingerspelling instead of her own language of mime. It’s a history of how people find a way – their own way – when one (or more) sense is gone.

Toward the end of the launch I got to speak to Shea, a thoroughly polite and deliberately spoken American man called Gerry who now lives in Paris with his French wife. He wears hearing aids, and as long as you speak to him face-on there is no miscommunication. He talks briefly about hearing birdsong for the first time, the tinnitus locusts in his head replaced by something outside of it: in short, the book spiel, the jacket copy. But then he looked wistful and told me about hearing “the sound of [his] own piss in the john” for the first time. I later wonder why he didn’t put it in the book given it was his most relatable example of hearing loss so far. A lifetime not knowing that piss had a sound?

Humans communicate. It’s not second nature, it’s nature. Without that, what is it like to be human? Shea’s Song Without Words is as eloquent an answer as we are likely to get.

A plate from Gray's Anatomy. Photograph: Getty Images

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game