About the Book by John Cotter Titled “Losing Music: A Memoir”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Melissa Holbrook Pierson of the book by John Cotter titled “Losing Music: A Memoir”:

Helen Keller was uniquely positioned to judge misfortune. She delivered her verdict in a 1910 letter: “The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.” It is hard to imagine a more devastating loss than that for a writer. John Cotter’s “Losing Music” is his moving account of what it has entailed.

Many of us whose hearing is intact will realize we have taken for granted a striking array of pleasures and freedoms when Mr. Cotter narrates their passing as a result of the gradual degradation of his hearing from Ménière’s disease. He records them in painfully rhapsodic detail, none as deeply mourned as the ability to wander through the rooms of music’s labyrinthine mansion.

There, even a nondescript door (the B-side of an obscure band’s battered cassette plucked from a giveaway bin, say) might open onto a song that will haunt the listener for years. He discovers his disease not only confounds his access to a fundamental human experience that Darwin proclaimed “firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling” (and that Stevie Wonder concurred was “a language we all understand”). It also causes him to lose an entire realm, “the world those sounds created, a world you could live inside.”

In articulating what is now gone, Mr. Cotter vibrantly evokes the sensations of life before the great caesura that is the beginning of the end of his hearing—2008, to be exact, when he started to experience the attacks of vertigo and tinnitus that mark Ménière’s so-far-incurable progress. The book’s introduction, fittingly titled “Prelude,” succinctly lays out several themes that will later be elaborated.

It establishes the importance of music in his life: Mr. Cotter’s tastes had been invigoratingly catholic, embracing Philip Glass and Johnny Cash, Papa Wemba and Samuel Barber, blues and Bach. He took joy in the happenstance encounter, as well as in the deeper exploration of wide “categories of sound,” such as early jazz. This prelude enacts the personal calamity that was the loss of music—its abilities to crystallize time and place, the way it situates us in memory. His lyrical lament for its disappearance, full of specificity—“Music is color . . . it’s location and weather”—brings home its majestic authority.

The book unfolds like an orchestral work saturated in saudade, the Portuguese term with no equivalent in English that refers to the rich presence of absence—the way the vanished is resurrected inside the ache for its loss.

Sporadically bereft of music, or conversation (Mr. Cotter faces the futility of going to parties or dinner with groups), his mind is an echo chamber full of “a kind of buzzy gravity, a planet made of static.” The tinnitus is a disturbing phantom noise coming not from without but from inside the head, variously sounding like an oncoming train or one or more hair dryers. If he dines out, it must be outdoors, to avoid the auditory confusion of sound bouncing from walls. This forced departure from life as he knew it sends Mr. Cotter to some grim places. (“I’d call the suicide hotline and couldn’t make out what they said.”) Not to mention well-warranted rumination on the nature of fate.

Mr. Cotter’s father was a veteran and an alcoholic whose bitterness long scared his son, whom he advised to “fight harder” in general, implying the boy was weak. Now the author is forced to pose an unanswerable question: “Who do you fight when your enemy is yourself?” His illness keeps turning accepted wisdom inside out. “As a child I was afraid of dark houses. Now I’m more afraid of my own body—I’m the haunted house.”

“Losing Music” is touched with disarming candor—sometimes mordant, other times self-lacerating—about difficulties large and small when attempted conversations with students or strangers crumble to inaudibility, when a sense of unreality announces incipient attacks of vertigo that soon start the ground rotating. More poignant is the breathtaking honesty about his own self-doubt, a condition that preceded his illness but is amplified to a silent scream by the arbitrary trial that is the loss of this critical link to the rest of humanity. He’s good at expressing the fear provoked by the deterioration of his hearing: disorientation, anger, self-questioning. It’s not just a physical malady. “My mind—my soul—felt sick.” It threatens the foreclosure of what he calls “the great maybe”: the meditation on future possibilities to which our thoughts return.

Oncoming deafness also poses professional hardship. After moving from Boston to Denver, where he hoped the elevation might clear up the problem (which it does, but only briefly), he pieces together a living as an adjunct professor at four schools. It’s a difficult, but for many writers the only, way to make money. Unable to converse with students, though, he finds it nearly impossible to continue.

Pursuing medical help, he runs into a brick wall at speed. Specialists in three cities are unable to offer hope; an audiologist fits him with expensive hearing aids that “didn’t cure you, just made things louder.” Their model name is the appropriately perverse Dream. For Mr. Cotter, that is largely all they provide. The section recounting his hopeful, ultimately disappointing visit to the Mayo Clinic is so surreal that it could well be a chapter in “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Indeed, it’s no surprise that the shadow of fellow Ménière’s sufferer Jonathan Swift falls long over the author. The great satirist’s example offers little encouragement, as treatment of the disease has barely advanced in nearly 300 years; Swift’s doctors “seemed to be pulling their cures from a hat,” yet no studies definitively support today’s standard interventions either. By age 69, Mr. Cotter writes, Swift reported that he could “neither re[a]d, nor write; nor remember, nor converse.” And what else does a writer do?

Like the protagonist of Darius Marder’s 2019 film “Sound of Metal,” who similarly ventures through vales of desolation upon going deaf, Mr. Cotter ultimately finds the best hope for a life without music: to get right with silence. There is no happy ending to a story about losing the capacity to hear. But an elegy this understatedly elegant can be felt as a sort of beginning.

Notwithstanding the personal catastrophe that deafness represents, it did give Mr. Cotter the ideal subject, transformed through literary grace, for a book. It is hard to describe what music means; that’s why it’s not writing. But “Losing Music” comes closer to expressing the transcendent sensation by nearly being music itself. Its author turned adversity into quiet triumph. Evidence that Mr. Cotter’s ear is still keen for the melodies of language sings from every page.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of “The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing.”

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