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On deafness Not being able to hear entirely changes the way you perceive the world

Not many people hear about deafness. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Not many people hear about deafness. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)


June 21, 2021   3 mins

Not many people hear about deafness. The ones that perhaps need to can’t hear anyway, and the ones with good hearing can’t be bothered. Consequently, there is not much in books or the media about it.

The problem is that there is obviously a growing number of deaf people. How do I know? Thirty years ago, I had to go to John Bell & Croyden off Baker Street just to get the batteries for my hearing aids. Now I notice there are three shops selling hearing aids in Kensington High Street. Well, someone must be buying them.

When I first got hearing aids in 1979, they told me I had lost 20% of my hearing. But it is a lot worse now. The reason I got them was I had been teaching for a week in San Francisco, and at the end of the week we had a seminar and I realised I had great difficulty hearing people from the back (especially girls). This prompted me to go for a test, and I was told I had an issue with both ears. Once I got the hearing aids, people noticed I was much less fidgety. In order to hear people, I was always moving around.

My father went very deaf at the age of 40 and my mother had very good hearing. I can remember sometime in the Fifties when we were all having Sunday lunch round the table. The radio was playing “The Forces’ Choice”, a programme of gramophone records for soldiers in Germany. They were playing Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Oh, do you remember this Kenneth?” said my mother to my Father. We all looked at him. He got up and went to the loud speaker and listened intently for a while and then announced: “Oh yes! It’s Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight.”

We all laughed, and my mother looked perplexed. My sister is very deaf, and now some of my nephews and nieces. So my deafness, I’m told, is hereditary.

I never liked background music. Music for me has to be in the foreground. I never play music when I paint or draw. I did enjoy going to concerts and the opera because it had a non-electronic sound. I used to play music in my car, the last one having eight speakers, but if passengers wanted to talk, I turned it off. The drive from London to Bridlington takes about four hours and we would play a Georg Solti recording of “TannhĂ€user” — marvellous for going 80 miles an hour on the motorway. I can recommend it.

So restaurants and pubs have got rid of smokers — but I think they have cleared out the wrong pollutants. The real one for me is noise. Ah, you think, why should noise be a problem for people who can’t hear? For me the problem is clarity, not volume. If a person with very good hearing enters a crowded room where everyone is talking, they can fade out that background noise and hear the person talking to them. I lost this ability 40 years ago; I just hear one noise that makes me leave the room as quickly as possible.

I had given up going to restaurants in LA before the smoking ban because of noise. Some restaurants are incredibly noisy, especially those with few soft furnishings and lots of glass mirrors and hard surfaces. I don’t go out much, and only go to other people’s houses if they have no more than eight people — and I can smoke. I am perfectly happy at home, with a few guests or none at all. The moment two people start talking together, and then another two join in, I am out of it and retire to my quiet bedroom to read. I can hear every word in a book.

The one good thing about my deafness is it has made me perceive space quite differently. A blind man gets around with his hearing and so why shouldn’t a deaf person perceive space differently. Of course you might only detect this if you are an artist. And since I am deeply interested in perception and depiction, of course I’ve noticed this.

I have had to organise my life now a bit differently. I really don’t want to go anywhere where there will be a crowded room. So I avoid art openings, which can be really bad because of the hard surfaces. I am OK because I have that purpose in life; I can paint and draw in silence for days on end. But deaf people do tend to end up quite isolated, as it becomes hard work to listen to what others are saying.

So what will become of all those people losing their hearing? I can see it might be a big problem in the future, especially for waiters in those noisy restaurants.


David Hockney is an English painter.


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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Interesting perspective on deafness by Mr. Hockney. I wish, though, he’d elaborated on this statement: “The one good thing about my deafness is it has made me perceive space quite differently…. And since I am deeply interested in perception and depiction, of course I’ve noticed this.
How does an artist of his caliber perceive space differently now he’s deaf? Maybe he’ll address that question in a subsequent essay.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
2 years ago

I enjoyed that thank you. Until I have recently lost some hearing, and for a while went completely deaf in one ear, I had greatly underestimated the condition. Sometimes I now guess at what people are saying, often I just nod and smile and hope it was just a pleasantry, God knows what I miss. The bit that doesn’t change is the company of dogs. As ever, peaceful and undemanding. And yes I enjoy my own company even more.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christine Hankinson
Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

I’ve noticed that and it is difficult to know what to do. Sometimes repeating gets the response that they heard.

bhqc
bhqc
2 years ago

Yes this is an intriguing subject, but there is so much more to say on going deaf and how it affects a person’s view of the world, raises perceptions in other ways; and increases a sense of isolation particularly in places where the rest of the world seem so relaxed. Deafness and sight deficiency are not treated equally, as others cannot “see” or as easily comprehend the consequences of partial deafness. Two people speaking at the same time, or simply too quickly, can become create a real problem. Learning languages which I love is a much greater problem, as are understanding the languages you though you knew. Pitch too is often an issue. Hearing aids can even make this worse in certain situations. Face-masks currently make it very difficult indeed to follow conversation with a wearer. David Lodge’s book “Deaf Sentence” has lot to say, but I really want to hear an artist’s view on going deaf, and what David means about perceiving space differently. Love to hear more on this.

Last edited 2 years ago by bhqc
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

If you think about it, deafness (or blindness) is like being in permanent lockdown – or much worse. Many older people lose their hearing to a certain extent and it is often treated as a bit of a joke.
If we are in lockdown for a year and the world keeps talking about ‘mental problems’ what must those mental problems be like when you are cut off by deafness?
A good reminder from Mr Hockney.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Restaurant and pub noise has always been problematic for me, and I have good hearing.
Pipedown.org.uk is one organisation campaigning against recorded background noise/music..

Terry Tastard
Terry Tastard
2 years ago

Likewise. I often ask staff to turn down the volume. I remember being in a fairly posh restaurant in a Norfolk coastal town, all the patrons were like me of a certain age, yet the blasted sound system was playing rap. The music is chosen for the staff not the customers.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Tastard

Quite. I also suspect the music is chosen BY the staff. I love finding bars and restaurants with no piped music or televisions and will always give such places my patronage. Wonderful. The one thing I will entertain, however, is a juke box in a seedy dive. At least then it’s the paying customer who decides the soundtrack.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Al M

A jukebox running vintage 45rpm singles – fine.
I can subject other customers to the joy of obscure B-sides.
A digital jukebox allowing one customer to put unlimited tracks on – no way.
Any jukebox containing Hotel California 
 take appropriate steely knife action!

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
2 years ago

I was totally deafened in a mountain accident in 1972. In 1991 I had a cochlear implant fitted. This enables me to talk to one person in a quiet environment, though not for too long. It is a boon – still one develops solitary pursuits.
In the later days of apartheid in SA there was something called a banning order which restricted the banned person to meeting with one person at a time. It seems Hockney, like me, has a lifetime banning order.
People think deafness = silence. It does not. One is beset by random noise generated internally – call “tinnitus”. Deafness is a noisy world.
People would like to help and be kind – but this requires communication and they can’t do that, so they retreat perplexed.
People have an erroneous view of lip-reading. With very few exceptions (usually people who went deaf slowly while they were acquiring language) lip-reading without audible clues is not possible. In the 50 odd years I have been deaf I have heard about two such people.
“Deaf” means to most hearing people “hard of hearing” so they tend to think it a mere nuisance (and shout). “Blind” is taken to mean totally blind, though few blind people are.
Maybe in twenty to thirty years there will be way to regrow a damaged hearing system. Until then cochlear implants are marvellous – and being fitted to younger people, and more quickly after trauma, they work much better.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Hockney is consistently interesting!

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

I often think that deafness is worse that blindness, partly because it is less obvious, but we also tend to think that people with hearing aid can hear normally which is not true as explained. I also think the deaf are being ripped off with promises that expensive private hearing aids are significantly better than the NHS aids. I only know one person who was persuaded to buy expensive hearing aids and she has gone back to the NHS. The article discusses background noise but there are also problems with telephone calls.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

I agree with your first sentence. Blind people tend – quite rightly- to get a lot of sympathy. Deaf people are often seen simply as a nuisance or stupid. Humans are social animals, and deafness deprives the sufferer of human contact through conversation.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

My hearing is normally fine but I can’t pick out individual conversations in noisy places and never could.