On a Growing Deafness

Most of us take our five (six?) senses for granted. We have difficulty imagining what life would be like without being able to hear or see or taste or smell or touch. Losing even one of these senses can cause life to be exponentially difficult. Much of the world is designed around humans who have the use of all five senses.

Imagine a chef who had no sense of taste or a perfumer lacking a sense of smell. Individuals such as Helen Keller, who lived without two of the five senses, intrigue us because of the disadvantages people like her face in a system inherently stacked against them. When individuals like Keller succeed, well, we see such people as heroes. This is one such story.

Even though he was from Germany, he was called The Spaniard as a youngster because of his shock of black hair. And he was born with all of his senses, but he began to lose his hearing in his mid-20s. Despite this worsening hearing condition—which he described first as a ringing in his ears—he remained focused on his work to the point of obsession. Things like clothes did not interest him; in fact, he was arrested once for vagrancy because, despite having some money, his clothes looked like he was a homeless man. But worrying about those things interfered with his intense occupation. Most people thought of him as an exacting technician, a perfectionist, and since he was a contract worker, he had to keep his hearing loss a secret. It would hurt his business if the people who hired him learned he was going deaf.

In addition to his growing deafness, the man suffered from extreme irritable bowel syndrome. The condition left him dehydrated and weak for much of his short adult life. Unlucky at love, also, he proposed three times to the same woman, but she rejected him, in part, because she felt his increasing inability to hear made him somewhat crazy. Yet, because he was able to hide his hearing loss so well, his business didn’t suffer, and his work afforded him a little financial security during his lifetime. And, interestingly, his best work came after he lost his hearing altogether.

To this day, no one knows why or how the deafness started. He himself told a select few close friends different tales about when for sure he began to notice the ringing in his ears. As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact event or time when the affliction began. What we know for certain that, outside of work, he stopped almost all human interaction for fear that someone would discover his diminished faculty.

Near the end of his life, he wrote:

I can with truth say that my life is very wretched. For nearly 2 years past I have avoided all society, because I find it impossible to say to people, ‘I am deaf!’ In any other profession this might be more tolerable, but in mine such a condition is truly frightful.

Maybe the situation would not have been as frustrating if the worsening deafness had not been happening to a genius like Ludwig von Beethoven.

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