On Going Deaf


In the early ’60’s, as preadolescents (alas there were no “tweens” back then), we’d play a game in which our 11-year-old-selves would pose questions that featured awful binary alternatives: “Which would you rather do: slide down a razor blade into a pool of carbolic acid or kiss [insert name][1]?

Sometimes someone might pose a less silly question like “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” We’d seriously contemplate the awful alternatives, argue back and forth, weigh the good cons versus the bad cons.

Now that I’m practically deaf, I can assure you blindness is preferable. The sounds “deaf” and “death” are indistinguishable to someone losing her hearing.  Once it is altogether gone, you’re trapped in a silent wilderness of mirrors.

Bedrich Smetana

Bedrich Smetana

In September of 1874, the Czech composer Bedrock Smetana’s ears started ringing.  It worsened, crescendoed, went from high-pitched shriek to ocean roar, which eventually led to total trapped-in-a-mirror deafness, a sort of horrible relief.

Here he describes the process in a letter.

That ringing in my head! That noise! … that is worst of all. Deafness would be a relatively decent condition, if only all was quiet in my head. But the greatest torture is caused me by the almost continuous internal noise which goes on in my head and sometimes rises to a thunderous crashing. This dark turmoil is pierced by the shrieking of voices, from strident whistles to ghastly shrieks as though furies and demons were bearing down on me in furious rage.

In his late autobiographical composition String Quartet NO. 1 (aka “From My Life”), Smetana dramatizes this phenomenon with a sudden intrusion of a high E into the melody late in the 4th movement a couple a minutes before the end.

Here is the musical notation in his own hand:


Listen.  Can you hear it? :

* * *

Even though my paternal great aunts suffered hearing loss — Aunt Polly was known to blast drapery rippling farts that she seemed unaware of — I prefer to blame my disability on Bruce Springsteen.  On 1 August 1978 we saw the Boss from the first row at Gaillard Auditorium in Charleston, a terrific concert from the first chords of the Bobby Fuller Four cover of “I Fought the Law” to the encore cover of Gary US Bonds “Quarter to Three.”  However, after the show and for two days afterwards I suffered a milder case of Smetana-like ringing in my ears accompanied by ear-canal itching.

Eventually, however, the ringing and itching stopped, but alas, ever since then my hearing has been in a state of decline.

* * *

In the late summer 2004, when I was visiting for the last time my ALS-stricken bosom friend[2] Tom Evatt, I couldn’t make out some of his whispery rasp, so I nodded stupidly as if I could understand what he was saying.

As I leaned towards him, his face darkened into displeasure.

“What did I just say?”

“Um, I’m not quite sure.”


That was the first time I was caught out, and I can’t tell you how bad I felt deceiving Tom, but now it’s been another dozen years, and I often find myself nodding stupidly as I attempt to become a lip reader.  The good news, I guess, is that for 6 grand I might be able to get some help via a hearing aid, and the time has come for me to check out that possibility. Otherwise, I fear that among this generation of my students, my legacy will be that of the old deaf coot you could insult right in front of his face, and he would smile and sagely nod his head.

So then I can retire and become the old man in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”:

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe Chico-Feo except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

11th January 1963: A man demonstrating a long distance ear trumpet, at an exhibition of custom-made 19th century hearing aids in London. It is one of the many 19th Century hearing aids owned by Amplivox-Ultratone, and was originally made by F.C. & C.V. Rein & Sons. (Photo by John Franklin/BIPs/Getty Images)

[1] E.g., Phyllis Diller’s daughter Loquacia Quasimodo

[2] Wait along enough and antiquated clichés can come again to life.

5 thoughts on “On Going Deaf

  1. 3 piece suit fits you very well, so there’s that… I have a bird I feel horrible about keeping because he screams that music notation of Smetana’s all day 🙂 I just know if I give away, someone else might not keep him. Plus, to even have a legacy is an “A” in my book.

  2. I had a 14 year-old deaf-from-birth student once who described her state as living in a glass coffin. It is the saddest thing I ever heard from a student.

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