Podcast • July 16, 2013

Gerald Shea’s Song Without Words

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means ...

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls.

Marcel, enthralled by the chamber music, appalled at the intermission chatter, in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

Gerald Shea’s exquisite and affecting memoir of his deafness could be read as an extended riff on Proust’s fantasy. About halfway through his 70 years, Gerry Shea realized that he was severely deaf — that he’d been coping somehow, at a price, with an affliction he refused to notice. What he learned in stages was to observe how his brain works — how poetry and music, sign and spoken language and the “commerce of souls” actually work, perhaps for all of us. Shea is a word-master in his own right who comes almost to prefer the pure song — in the tradition of Mendelsohn, too, who wrote the little piano gems Songs Without Words and refused lyrics for them. But Gerry Shea got there the hard way — as a lawyer, not a musician.

Through the first half of his 70-years, Gerry Shea misheard almost everything. Example: the opening line of the Frank Loesser song, “I Believe in You,” came through as “You are the tear two ties of a keeper of incoming loot” — not “You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,” as writ. At Yale young Shea was a singing star but he didn’t belong in class. He took the star history lecturer Charles Garside to be saying that the emperor Charles V “indebited the minstrel stills of this automatic million,” when the professor was saying: “Charles inherited the administrative skills of his grandfather Maximilian…”

On such Jabberwocky in ears he didn’t know had been damaged by scarlet fever at age 5, Shea went from Yale to Columbia Law and then to a big job with the international firm of Debevoise Plimpton. He had mastered lip-reading and his own mode of translating the garbled nonsense in his ears — his “lyricals,” as he called them. But how in the world, you ask, did he avoid having his ears tested for all those years? The deeper riddle in our conversation is: why? And why, when severe deafness finally showed up unmistakably on a job test, he waited a year even to consider hearing aids or any other help. This is the point where the story became, for me, a heart-seizing meditation on afflictions imagined and denied, on identities chosen and clung to — stubbornly and with some cruel effects; and then the joy of letting go.

For me it was always a spiritual or perhaps intellectual problem. I thought everybody else heard what I heard, but that they could translate it and I couldn’t. At Yale, I felt in many ways, academically anyway, I probably didn’t belong there… I did live in a way in my own world of poetry. Lyricals are really an unconscious poetry. It was the life probably that I did love. Even though the problem of misunderstanding was there, I loved my universe and I still do… As soon as somebody tried to approach my private world of lyricals, I really didn’t want to let them in… I think probably because of insecurity, because of fear. Because of my knowledge of myself as perhaps an incomplete human being. Perhaps as someone who was at home with his own internal poetry. It was simply a world that I wanted to keep to myself. I was different from other people, and I was going to live that way and stay that way — except in the law, because I had somehow to earn my bread.

Relief came when hearing aids were virtually forced on him at age 35. The reward was hearing the rest of his music; the flutes, violins and piccolos; the wind in his willows, so to speak, with all due credit to the author Kenneth Grahame.

When I finally got the hearing aids and I realized that the external world was making a lot more sound than I’d heard, it brought me to tears. The first time I wore my glasses with hearing aids in them… suddenly out in that field I felt as if I was not alone and I heard the sound of crickets coming from every direction. It was a beautiful, beautiful sound I hadn’t heard since I was a child, a further awakening to me as to who I was and the world I was really living in. ‘There it is again,’ as Rat says to Mole in The Wind in the Willows. ‘O, Mole, the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!’ That thin clear call has really become the heart of my life. That’s what Mendelson was talking about, the definite message of music that carries you with it. The most beautiful part of my life, clearly, is music… The heart of my life. Maybe it always was.

Gerald Shea in conversation with Chris Lydon in Marblehead, Massachusetts, July 2013.