Gabble, Twitter and Hoot

Ian Hacking

  • I See a Voice: A Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses by Jonathan Rée
    HarperCollins, 399 pp, £19.99, January 1999, ISBN 0 00 255793 2

Jonathan Rée takes some tomfoolery from Shakespeare for his title and uses it to create his own striking metaphor. The middle part of his book is about sign languages for the deaf: voices that one sees. The same trope served Oliver Sacks in Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989), but there is more to it than that for Rée. The quotation is from Bottom’s burlesque of love at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The swain says, ‘I see a voice’ – his lover’s – and then goes to the chink in the wall, or rather in the actor, Wall, ‘To spy an I can hear my This be’s face.’ Is this inversion of sight and sound mere silliness, or a more thoughtful playfulness on Shakespeare’s part? The plays – as befits the stage – are full of plays on voice, and for Rée this play is perfect. Although his subtitle refers to the five senses, it is two that preoccupy him, sight and hearing, and sound more than light. He would invert their roles in epistemology, if he could; he can’t, but at least he combats the philosopher’s obsession with vision as the model for perception, and in the modern period, for any type of thought. He also subverts, with barely concealed contempt, the Post-Modern doctrine that the text’s the thing, the notion that writing is paramount and speaking mere air.

The first third of the book is described as ‘a history of metaphysics’. The system-builders have given philosophy a reputation for being abstruse; the analysts have given it a reputation for technical obsession with minutiae; the Post-Moderns have given it a reputation for being unintelligible. All three reputations have been hard-earned and are well-deserved. Yet a lot of philosophy starts with children’s curiosity. Rée engagingly begins by trying to recall the philosophical notions and conundrums of his childhood. Not out of narcissism, but out of sharing, for he thinks that the idea that our knowledge is based on the five senses, and the idea that the voice is the perfect means for expressing our inner feelings, are ones that ‘practically all of us must, as children, have formed or rediscovered for ourselves’. This child’s garden of philosophy provides ‘the subject-matter for an emphatically non-chronological kind of history’. Good warning: his history of metaphysics is not what you get in books on the history of philosophy. It may not be until page 379 that the penny will drop, for there Rée seems to say in passing that metaphysics consists of ‘the more or less unconscious myths, maxims and metaphors we live by’, Oh.

One of the pleasures of the book is that its topics are made personal. They are not the topics formally studied in the schools, but the thoughts of fascinated (and fascinating) individuals with childlike curiosities. The two senses that seem to bring us knowledge from afar are vision and hearing (even Aristotle taught that). The boy that was Jonathan Rée began by wondering what it would be like to be blind or deaf, and which would be worse. (Boy’s conclusion: blind, of course.) But then more thoughts. Just how do these two senses, and their objects, differ? Certain sounds are, or decompose into, definite musical notes, which in turn recompose into harmonics. Could the same thing happen with light, with the colours of Newton’s spectrum serving the role of pure notes? Rée takes us through fantastic instruments, such as a colour harpsichord designed by a Parisian Jesuit, one Father Castel. His Harpsichord for the Eyes was exhibited in Paris in 1734, after ten wearying years of unsuccessful prototypes. A successor, advertised but cancelled for a concert in Soho Square in 1757, had 500 lamps and 60 discs of coloured lamps. All that anyone saw at a performance were flashes of coloured light. Light, as we say, is physically a different type of wave from sound, and allows of no harmonics. Nevertheless, Scriabin wrote a part for the light-keyboard to be played in an orchestral suite first performed in New York in 1915. When the Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951 it was complete with a light console, descended from these experiments. But we had to wait for the end of the century. Robert Wilson, designer/director of Philip Glass’s Monsters of Grace, ‘a digital opera in three dimensions’ which has toured North America and Europe since it opened last year, says of this work: ‘I’m not giving you puzzles to solve, only pictures to hear.’

Some of the tales that Rée includes within his metaphysics remind us that Western sensibilities, however gross they may still seem to the more sensitive among us, have changed for the better. The same Castel tells of a prince of Halle (Handel’s birthplace) bored out of his mind until visited by an itinerant musician with a harpsichord guaranteed to cure melancholia. Cats whose cries were of different pitches were tied to a board so that pressing a harpsichord key would drive a tack into their rears; a score was written and performed; the ensuing cacophony of pain cheered the depressed prince up no end. ‘Who,’ Castel wrote, ‘could fail to laugh at such a thing?’

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