Stanley M. Fried
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The Land of the Deaf


In a place near here: very much like this; in a time near our own; where people sit listening to what someone else says; in a world much like ours: there sits a group of people trying to follow what someone else says. Most can not hear well. They hear only what they think they hear. They follow only what they think is said. None of them knows they have a hearing problem. Few of them are able to understand the content of the stories they are told.

At that time, in that place, a man standing before them tells a story about a group of people who can not hear very well. He tells them of the problems they are having in understanding what they hear and that what they think they hear is not at all what is being said.

No one listening fully hears the man's story. When he tells them, "You are deaf," it sounds to them as if he is saying, "Everything is as it should be." Then he says that hearing-aids are available to help them, but they hear him say "the Truth is beyond understanding." In frustration, he utters, "You do not know a word of what I am saying. I may as well speak to the wind." The group applauds and cheers when he is done, for they understood him to deliver an important sermon allowing them to continue in their way of living without ever having the need to change.

The storyteller then left, returning to his own place and time where people understood what each other were saying. He often relayed the tale of a place where people were deaf but did not know it and this became a popular joke in his land. But that is another story.

As will happen when such things occur in the Land of the Deaf, a fable developed of the wondrous man who arrived one day and revealed great truths to them. It was not long before this fable developed into a code for living their lives. People traveling through that land would look on with curiosity as the residents spoke to one another with blunt honesty, since the now accepted greeting had become the repetition of the magic words, "You are deaf." And, each week, one day was set aside for people to gather in remembrance of the wondrous man and recite in unison, "Hearing-aids are available." Many books were written and universities were founded to ponder the storyteller's final words to them, "You do not know a word of what I am saying. I may as well talk to the wind."

Laws were established to uphold the word of the prophet, for that is what storytellers were called in this place. Anyone who questioned the story questioned the truth as far as these people were concerned. Travelers from other regions soon learned it was best to follow local customs in these matters since the penalty for disbelief was to have one's ears removed as proof of the prophet's words. Literalists and Fundamentalists bore witness to the truth of the words, "You do not know a word of what I am saying". Each day that passed gave proof to the veracity of the storyteller, but in ways they would never know.

One day, a doctor arrived to visit this remarkable land. He quickly discovered that indeed what these people repeated to each other was true. He decided to establish a clinic for the hearing impaired. But understanding that the nature of people is to deny they have any problems, he developed a scheme.

After a short time, a sign appeared over a storefront near the center of town that read, MUSIC. This was something new in a community where everyone was hard of hearing. Occasionally someone would walk in and ask what this music was. They were told that it was a special kind of sound that was heard. This seemed very mysterious as it meant to them, "Music is something that can not be understood." Most people would scoff and leave the store laughing. Some people even became irate at the notion and tried to run the doctor out of town. But there were a few people who, when they heard this definition, defended the store for they took it to mean that music was a mystical experience beyond ordinary understanding.

The doctor began to offer music appreciation classes for those who sought mystic revelation. A recording would be played, and sometimes a live guitar or flute. But the devout who came in search of something mystical would only shake their heads in disbelief. "This is a strict discipline," they thought to themselves as they left the classes telling each other they were deaf. As time passed, fewer and fewer people returned for these classes, but there were always a few new ones at each session to make up for those who had given up.

It was not those who devoutly appeared over and over again without question who interested the doctor. After each class there was often one, and sometimes more, who would say to the doctor they had experienced nothing and asked if they did something wrong. These were the people with whom he worked. He would place their hands on the body of the guitar or on the grill of the speaker so they could feel the beat and rhythm of what was there. In this way, he proved to the students that there was something that could be understood if only they possessed the proper tools. Eventually, the doctor introduced to them the tools they needed in the form of hearing aids for it was these people who demonstrated they had the capacity to learn by admitting they had a problem and showing they had the desire to do something about it.

After some time, a small number of devotees began to meet on a regular basis to discuss and share their musical knowledge. Of course, when one of these people told someone who was still Deaf that they were going somewhere to discuss 'music', it was heard that they were going to talk about "that which cannot be understood". And, as Truth was already known to be beyond understanding, such meetings meant that the people there would be doing no harm, thus protecting the store, the doctor, and those attending the meetings from the derision and possible danger that would come from those who did not believe music existed.

The members of the music society which developed seldom discussed music, although music was always played at their meetings as a reminder of what brought them together. Instead, these meetings explored the problem of being able to hear in a land where everyone else was deaf. A new vocabulary developed among those in the group, one that could only be fully understood by the hearing but which still made a sort of sense to those who could not hear. Much time was spent exploring the belief systems they previously relied upon, for they now could hear what really was said by that storyteller of so long ago. They understood something was needed so that others in their land could know the Truth.

The doctor counseled them that this could take much time, and for now it was best to let the few who were capable of understanding use their knowledge to seek ways for others eventually to hear. Still, there were, from time to time, students who insisted on shouting out the truth to everyone. These would run up to people on the street and shout, "I can hear!" This was heard to mean, "I am mad," and the student would be rushed off to an institution for treatment if they were lucky, or their ears would be cut off on the spot for being a danger, subversive, or even worse, killed for blaspheming.

After a time, the idea of music was less of a threat to the people of that land. It even became a field of study in the universities. Many books were written on the phenomenon of music and the supposed practitioners of music. Careers were built for non-musicians on their theories of music and what it might be, if indeed there were such a thing. There were many who claimed to be teachers of music, but most of these never themselves ever heard music. Usually, they were people who gave up after feeling sound through touch but were unwilling to admit it was something that might be heard. Others of these false teachers built their reputations on applying the theories of scholars they read without actually having the ability to hear. None of them ever lacked for students in their classes for they often attracted those who did not really care about hearing but only wanted to feel the supposed sensation of music and the ecstatic emotions claimed to be a part of such an experience.

A few real music teachers have developed over time. Some compose and perform music as a means of attracting people who want to learn. Others study medicine and do much to further research on the causes of deafness in an attempt to find a cure for the problem. And there are those who have become successful in the business of importing or manufacturing hearing aids and other new technologies that are developing to help the deaf. It is said there are even a few of the hearing who purposely teach counterfeit classes in order to distract the sensation seekers away from those who truly need to learn. It is difficult work but is showing much progress.

This still goes on in a place near here, very much like this, in a time near our own where a group of people sit trying to follow what someone else says.

©1990 - Stanley M. Fried



The Land of the Deaf was performed in Freedom and Other Myths at Sushi Performance Space - Gallery in San Diego, California in 1990.

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