Arts: And the ears have it

What's in a voice? According to Jonathan Ree's new book, as much as your very soul.
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The Independent Culture
Admittedly, it wasn't as mad as the harpsichord that made cats mew different notes by sticking needles up their bottoms. Even so, few thought that the Parisian Jesuit, Louis Bertrand Castel, would succeed in his mission to build a keyboard which played music entirely in colour. Taking as his cue Isaac Newton's theory that the seven main colours of the spectrum could be ranged across the notes of an octave, the mad inventor built a series of instruments whose elaborate multicoloured mechanisms - variously using glass prisms, candles, dyed cloths and lanterns - all proved to be woefully effective at emptying concert-halls. In the end, he realised his ambitions were more likely to be prey to Newton's theory of gravity than to his dreams of colour music and, after his final project came tumbling round his ears in 1757, he turned up his toes and died.

The point to this story, as Jonathan Ree will tell you, is that people should resist the temptation to draw too many analogies between the visible world and the world of hearing. Although, as he writes, "science tells us... that seeing is simply what happens when light enters our eyes, and hearing when sound enters our ears", the excited attempts of Newton, Castel and others to draw parallels between the two always results in confusion.

In his book, I See a Voice - published next Monday - he reveals that Castel's dilemma, far from being a piece of historical trivia, forms the basis for understanding one of the most controversial linguistic debates to rage over the past three centuries. The question of how to create an effective system of communication between the deaf and the hearing population - and therefore to translate the essentially oral methods of teaching language into visual representations - was a source of frequent debate from the 18th century onwards. Not only did it reveal the prejudices surrounding the voice, but it also provoked a series of challenging and ultimately revealing questions about the nature of language itself.

The fact that "dumb" can still mean stupid is only the tip of an iceberg of centuries' prejudice. At its murky depths lies the practice of killing children born deaf - in ancient Greece and Rome it was legal to dispose of deaf offspring when they were as old as three - while in Jewish Mosaic law deaf people were not allowed to own property.

Having tempted the reader in with these historical facts, Ree takes a quick side-step to literature, pointing out that while those struck blind - such as Oedipus or Samson - are normally dignified, the deaf and dumb are often reduced to victims, like Hans Christian Andersen's little mermaid, or even worse, objects of ridicule. Finally he pulls the reader into the book's heart, the realm of "hardcore" philosophy, where he shows - for example - that when certain 18th-century philosophers said the deaf were doomed to remain like animals, leading minds such as Immanuel Kant agreed, saying that since speech was the source of civilisation, the dumb could never attain the faculty of reason.

I See a Voice actively draws the reader to indulge in metaphysical musings about what it would be like to be deprived of a sense, and starts by analysing the relative prejudices over the centuries to the importance of eye and the ear. As I entered Ree's flat in this frame of mind, it struck me how much you could still pick out with only your ears to navigate. The Indian music drifting up from the floor below indicates the convenient proximity of a curry-house, while the clunk of shoes on the bare floorboards and the softly licking flicker of the flames from the coal fire in the grate give some clues about the cosy, yet minimalist mode of decoration. And Ree's voice, which hovers around the tenor range, is constantly on the brink of laughter, though its speech patterns are measured and analytical - full of pauses for thought.

The voice and its role are the crux of the book. Historically, there have been many claims about the voice's powers: some have put forward the notion that is a reflection of the soul, others that it represents our power to participate in politics (the German "Stimme", which means voice, also means "vote", points out Ree).

"One of the things that started me on the subject was noticing that people find it very difficult to say when a `voice' is being used metaphorically and when it's being used literally," he explains. "For example, you can talk about the voice of conscience, or you can talk about madness in terms of hearing voices - so it seemed like a rather clever topic to fix on... though it does lead absolutely everywhere."

The resulting eclectic philosophical history is full of gems of historical tales and provocative questions about the interpretations of the senses. One of the most entertaining theories about the voice is put forward by the Renaissance metaphysician Francis Mercury Van Helmont, who announced that the voice was a manifestation of sexual power - and its energy was derived from semen held back from physical emission.

"One of the things that I told myself quite early was that I wanted to write philosophy like Charles Dickens - I wanted to have lots of colourful narrative, lots of stories. I didn't feel that I was going outside philosophy in order to find illustrations. It was more the case that philosophy was already there out in the world if you looked for it."

If provoked, Ree will admit that he is a man with a mission. He is angry that a lot of 20th-century philosophers have been so anxious to take an academically respectable, scientific approach to philosophy that "they actually turn their back on what makes philosophy deserve to earn an important place in culture. It's terribly unfortunate that most people's idea of the subject is derived from books called A History of Western Philosophy. They sit on the same shelf as the atlas - and it does give you the sense of philosophy as a set of rather abstruse doctrines held dogmatically by rather boring people."

To counter that perception, Ree has developed a new mode of enquiry, which he describes as "philosophical history" - as distinct from a history of philosophy - which draws philosophy back into the territory that was initially staked out by Plato, asking simple questions about our perceptions of everyday life and culture through looking at our changing attitudes through history. He would like to become for philosophy "what Simon Schama is for history", though he recoils slightly when it is suggested that there could be any similarity between his methods of reigniting a child- like wonder in the subject and those of Jostein Gaarder, the author of the teenage philosophy hit, Sophie's World.

Before I leave the flat, I ask him whether the extensive philosophical expedition he has taken through concepts of the voice and theories of language has changed his childhood reflections that he would "far rather be deaf than blind".

"I'd rather be blind," he says, and then there is a long, thoughtful pause... "If it had to be one or the other."

`I See a Voice' is published by HarperCollins on Monday