The three main characters in Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel The Violent Bear It Away are all deaf, in some way or other. Bishop, the ‘dim-witted child’: deaf by birth. Rayber, his father: deaf by accident. He uses a hearing aid and his entire character is a study into degrees of self-imposed silence and distance in perception. Tarwater, the antihero: not literally deaf, but deaf to anything that happens around him except for his intent. A lot of this novel is shaped on mishearing, on assuming to hear or pretending not to, on hearing voices from hidden recesses of one’s own mind, on placing and displacing voices, on the calling of the voice of what is assumed and forced to be religion. Entire scenes are described by means of aural perception and of aural distance; each sounding shade overwhelms the vision and the space it inhabits, it is absorbed in the wholeness of the narration.
O’Connor wasn’t specifically concerned with describing sound or moments of listening as self-contained experiences. The aural dimension, as it is written, exists within the complexity of her stories, where sound is neither an absolute nor a central category. It is encompassed in her ways of shaping her words, to carry ‘all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth’, as she once wrote. And she continued, ‘the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the writer begins where human perception begins. […] Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction’.
Writing sound too takes shape as an experience, not an abstraction: it is the trace of the experience that makes it, every other today.
O’Connor, Flannery. (2007). The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. First published in 1960.
O’Connor, Flannery. (1969). Mystery and Manners. Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.