The other story I wanted to share from This American Life is the recently rebroadcast of a 2005 Father’s Day special, Go Ask Your Father.
The first major story is about a man named Lenny who finds out that he was conceived through artificial insemination when it was just in the earliest phases of development. Over the course of 20 years, an uncle’s secret revealed, and a DNA test, he finds out that he not the biological child of his father. His uncle most likely is his father. Lenny describes the difficult relationship he had with his father, how he was always being pushed, shamed, upbraided for not being a particular kind of person. Lenny walks the audience through the emotional stages of finding out about his true genetic identity later in life. This is the story. It was moving, interesting, provocative. As Ira Glass is signing off he mentions that “Lenny” is Lennard Davis and a professor at the University of Illinois. That’s it.
I happen to know that Lennard David is a Disability scholar and child of deaf parents. This father that he spent so much time talking about in the TAL episode is Deaf. All the interactions he describes in the episode are in sign language. In his memoir about growing up CODA (child of deaf adults), Davis talks about how his parents pushed him into the hearing world…not to be held back by the social disadvantage that being deaf in the 1950s brought them. The TAL episode doesn’t mention deafness at all. I even listened to it a second time to see if it had been intimated when I was paying as close attention. (The memoir Davis wrote about the experience does mention deafness.)
So many thoughts went through my head as I made the connection between Lenny of This American Life and Lennard Davis, the scholar and CODA. The story that aired would have had to have been so different. So many different shades of communication. Layers added to the complexity of the relationship between Davis and his father. Why wouldn’t he mention deaf in a story about his father? He’s very outspoken about his connection with the Deaf community now. Maybe it was merely to keep the story simpler…to keep the story line harnessed into one track without introducing another. Maybe it doesn’t always have to come out; one doesn’t always reveal that one is Jewish or Italian. But perhaps one would if being an immigrant (and that is best analogy, I think, for this situation) significantly shaded one’s relationship with one’s parent and the episode was about one’s relationship with one’s parent. It was interesting to listen to the episode a second time with this extra shade of information.
In Susan McClary’s controversial book, Feminine Endings (1991), she semiotically inscribes sex onto musical events. When I read the bit about the violence a certain Beethoven recapitulation wrought on the virtuous ears of his listeners, I snorted. No, Susan. You may have got Madonna right, but not Beethoven. When I got to a certain “violent” part, I heard a deaf man pounding the floor for our attention. I know the gesture. I have done it a hundred times on a hundred floors, to see my little boy’s eyes turn to meet mine.
I have to be careful with the terra sancta of Beethoven. I haven’t delved yet into the literature on Beethoven’s deafness, of which, I’m told, there is quite a lot. I’m almost afraid to. Will they get it right? Will they understand that hearing loss in general is so much more complex than one man’s hearing loss?
I haven’t overcome my reluctance yet, because right now I’m enjoying my private exploration. One thing I’ve been working on is describing a deaf experience of music. There’s a physiological aspect and a cognitive aspect. The former is a bit easier to describe–it’s a matter of noting that as sound waves hit our ear drums, sound waves hit our bodies, and a deaf person is so much more tuned in to that experience without the distraction of auditory hearing. A deaf experience of music is fundamentally embodied hearing. But what is the next step, the cognitive aspect, where our brains make sense of musical sound? That is harder.
I recently taught Beethoven in the music history survey that I’m teaching. I indulged a little and talked about deafness. Since I’ve been concentrating on deafness and music recently for a conference paper, it seemed a pity not to use some of that work in the classroom. I had the students place their hands on their desks, palms open facing down on the desk. I played the opening exposition of Beethoven’s Fifth, loudly. I hadn’t planned on this exercise, it kind of came to me in the moment, and I went with it. So I did the same thing, not knowing what really would happen. The sensation I was left with was the short-short-short-long motive. You know, the germinal motive that ties the whole symphony together? It was always placed in a position of maximum vibration. When I tuned into the vibrations, albeit, in a rudimentary manner, what I felt was short-short-short-long. I don’t want to make critical mistakes of semiotically inscribing deafness into Beethoven’s music, but I did find the experience curious and a little thought-provoking. At some point, I will have to come to terms with the scholarship on Beethoven’s deafness, but for now, I will just feel Beethoven.