Silence has shrouded this space for much of the last few months because, in my life offline, most of my recent thoughts have been bent around a different kind of silence, a silence true and pure. In April 2014, my wife and I became parents to a healthy and happy little girl named Ivy. Not quite six months later, however, Ivy underwent behavioural tests that showed some signs of hearing loss, and then, when she was exactly six months, specialised tests revealed that she is in fact profoundly deaf. She can’t hear sounds of any kind, not even at the volume of a close-range aircraft engine, and she suffers hearing loss so extreme that she may never be able to hear at all.
In coping with the failure of hearing aids, in anticipating the insertion of a cochlear implant, in working full-time and parenting while also learning how to respond to deafness in children and how to adjust our lives to meet the needs of a child with a severe disability, the stresses of the period following Ivy’s diagnosis have been monumental. But some of the most monumental stresses of all have come less from practical difficulties than from daily wrestling with a sense of long-term loss and the grief that attends it. To know that our daughter has no access to sound is to know that we may never be able to share with her so much of what we most appreciate in the world. For my wife, the greatest loss to Ivy is music in all its varieties. Coming from a family for whom music is the lingua franca of shared experience, it has been terrible for her to begin processing the knowledge that Ivy will in some sense be forever cut off, kept at a distance, from that part of her heritage.1 For me, of course, what seems to be lost is Ivy’s access to what I believe is the greatest of the pleasures of literature.
I was teaching The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass when the results of Ivy’s tests came through and, at the same time, I was preparing to teach Gertrude Stein, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, and dozens of other writers who invest extraordinary energy in distinct, challenging, and versatile prose styles. I could not escape the obvious truth. So much of what literature means to me depends on being attuned to its prosody. So much of what makes it valuable for me resides in the harmonies and dissonances that develop and dissolve as the eye passes over a sentence, the succession of concordant and discordant intonations offered up by the author’s careful selection of words and by the equally careful positioning of those words in relation to one another. The value of prosody sings to me from the shelves full of books in my house and from every page of my own book, Blood and Bone, which was published when Ivy was just eight weeks old.
Language is the distillation of the constituent elements and concepts of the world, in all their overwhelming variety, into a system of symbols. For most people, at first, those symbols take the form of sound. Literature, then, is not a system of symbols constructed to represent the world, but a system of symbols constructed to represent other symbols, a lexical representation of the auditory symbols that are our primary means of referring to the world and of thereby representing it. Even though reading remains a “visual business,” as William H. Gass puts it, the writers whose work attracts me are those whose practices involve what Gass calls a sense of “the marvelous palpable quality of making words and sounding them.” Indeed, whether it be the work of Didion or Sontag, McCarthy or Murnane, Hemingway or Faulkner, Gaddis or Wallace, what resonates most powerfully with me is work in which each word seems to have been selected as much for its fixed referential qualities as for its atmospheric musicality, so that a carefully constructed tonal and prosodic soundtrack shadows the literal meaning of every sentence. But one need not turn to the writers above to seek out works in which prosody stands at the forefront of appreciable literary qualities. It’s there, too, at the forefront of just about every children’s book on the market — the majority of which make liberal use of qualities like alliteration and rhyme — so that Ivy’s deafness blocks her access to the pleasures of the literature available to her even at this early stage in her life. Will it hold other pleasures for her sometime further on? And equally, given the efforts now underway to facilitate Ivy’s acquisition of language, will literature come to hold for her distinct and unique pleasures that I can never access?
My wife and I are in the midst of learning British Sign Language (BSL) so that we can pass it on to her. This is a difficult process because, whereas hearing children acquire language by environmental means, simply by being within earshot of spoken language on a regular basis, Ivy will acquire it only through bursts of direct visual contact with BSL practitioners. Nevertheless, with BSL as her native language, with the constituent elements and concepts of the world distilled into a system of symbols entailing bodily movement, written language will call to mind a complex of worldly referents and movement sensations where otherwise it would call to mind a complex of referents and sounds.2 If, for me, to read is to see a word written on the page and then, reflexively, to simultaneously grasp its referent and hear in my head the whisper of its sound, will Ivy’s reading involve grasping a referent while also feeling a ghostly motion passing through her fingers, her face, her torso and her arms? If written words transmit to me a sense of music unaccompanied by motion, will they transmit to Ivy something like a dance without a tune? What exactly will be, for her, the sensation that shadows their meaning? And if, someday, Ivy were to read the work of any of the writers named above, would she experience a sensation as pleasurable as the one I derive from their sound? She almost certainly wouldn’t. This is not to say that the sensation of movement in sign language cannot generate pleasure,3 but only that the above writers have arranged their words on the page so as to produce pleasure through sound without regard for signs. Additionally, since sign languages vary greatly from country to country and even amongst countries that share a spoken language, and since the grammatical structures of the sign languages of English-speaking countries tend to depart significantly from the structures of spoken English, chaos is the inevitable result of any attempt to sign a word-for-word translation of a sentence as written in English.
When it comes to novels, then, what possibilities exist for native signers? Is there anywhere a novel written so as to be instantly grammatically intelligible to them, independent of any habituation to the grammar of written English? Is there anywhere a novel whose prose, whose selection and sequencing of words, is directed towards producing pleasurable sensations of ghostly movements for signers rather than producing sensations of sounds? Is there a work whose every turn of phrase is intended not to appeal to those who can hear and to generate pleasure through prosodic musicality, but rather to appeal specifically to the deaf by pleasurably conducting the motions of a body accustomed to sign? Is the composition of such a work even possible? If so, what sorts of sensations would the reading of it produce in a person who reads the way I do?
1. While cochlear implants “have the potential to magnificently enhance the understanding and acquisition of spoken language,” as Gavin Francis observes in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “15 to 20 percent of recipients gain little benefit from them and, contrary to some claims, they don’t reproduce normal hearing. Instead they transmit a simplified, broken-down representation of the acoustic world” which “one of the technology’s pioneers, Michael Merzenich, likens [to] ‘playing Chopin with your fist.’” Even in the best-case scenario, then, a full appreciation of music will probably remain inaccessible to Ivy.
2. As Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel Mayberry write, “To become readers, [hearing] children must learn the mapping between the spoken language they already know and printed words on a page. For English, as for most languages, that mapping is based on sound. Once children understand the underlying principles of the print-sound mapping… they can call upon their knowledge of their spoken language to facilitate the reading process,” such as when they are guided into ‘sounding out’ the letters of an unfamiliar word. But “deaf children are disadvantaged as potential readers on both of these counts — they do not have easy access to the phonological code and many do not know any language well.” Moreover, when “deaf readers translate [a written] sentence into [sign language],” they are continually at risk of finding the written sentence “relatively difficult to process,” and therefore unpleasant to read, because, among other reasons, “the signs in the translation [may be too] similar in form.”
3. In his recent book Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon describes, with a sense of childlike wonder, watching the movements of a deaf woman who “manifests a pleasure in [her language] that only poets feel for English” through movements “so swift, crisp, and perfectly controlled that she seems to be arranging the air into a more acceptable shape.”