All Ears

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   October 4, 2018

As an aesthetic object, the human ear hasn’t yet received its due. Poems and songs celebrating eyes, lips, even chins and noses, abound. Shakespeare, in his Seven Ages of Man, even depicted a lover “with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” But nobody writes ballads, woeful or otherwise, to anybody’s ear.

Can it be that ears are ugly? They may perform their purpose very well – but surely no modern acoustic engineer would come up with a design in any way resembling those things on the sides of our heads. Of course, we ourselves don’t usually have to look at them, any more than we customarily get a good look at our own shoulder blades. 

But three of the world’s most famous ears achieved that status only because they were severed from their owners’ heads. In order of notoriety, we must first pay appropriate tribute to the left ear of Vincent Van Gogh, which he somehow lost in Arles, southern France, on December 23, 1888. According to the traditional account, he cut it off himself – with a razor, in a fit of lunacy – then wrapped it up and delivered it in person to a local prostitute. Modern research has cast doubt on practically every element of this story, but as evidence that something happened, we have the artist’s own documentation in his “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Head.” (It appears to show the right side bandaged, but remember, he was looking in a mirror.)

Then there was the much more recent, but equally ghastly, ear-loss of John Paul Getty III, a grandson of one of the world’s richest men, who, in July 1973, at the age of 16, was kidnapped in Italy, and held for ransom. His grandfather at first refused to negotiate for his release, arguing that he had 14 other grandchildren who could all be thereby put at risk. It was only when the right ear of the unfortunate abductee was received in the mail that negotiations began, leading to a paid ransom of more than $2 million and the victim’s eventual release.

Regrettably, although we have good words for head loss (decapitation) and even for being thrown out of a window (defenestration), we have none for the malicious removal of an ear.

In terms of major consequences, however, both of the above incidents are dwarfed by the ear-removal suffered by Robert Jenkins, captain of the British brig Rebecca, at the hands of officers from a Spanish patrol boat, off the coast of Florida, in 1731. They cut off his left ear, apparently as a warning against smuggling, of which they suspected him but couldn’t prove. Britain and Spain were then at peace, and hostilities didn’t actually commence until eight years later, after Captain Jenkins himself had appeared before an indignant British Parliament. 

According to some accounts – which one somehow likes to believe, even if historians consider them questionable – he actually displayed the severed ear itself to the outraged members. This unkindest cut did indeed lead to a declaration of war against Spain – which officially lasted 11 years, and was fought mainly in and around the Caribbean – until it merged with the wider European conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession. The whole brouhaha wasn’t finally settled until one of those grand treaties, this one at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

But it wasn’t until 110 years after that, in 1858, that the British writer Thomas Carlyle gave to this conflict the name by which it has been known ever since: The War of Jenkins’s Ear.

Our final unpleasant ear episode took place in that same year, 1858. You may have heard the sage medical advice, “Never stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.” 

But what if you’re a British explorer, in the heart of what was then still Darkest Africa (on an expedition to discover the source of the Nile), with no medical help anywhere within reach, when a beetle crawls far into your ear, and refuses to come out?  That is what happened to John Hanning Speke, whose consequent agonies drove him to the desperate extremity of trying to get the insect out with a knife. Unfortunately, in the process, he succeeded not in extricating the beetle, but in piercing his ear-drum, bringing on a severe infection and months of suffering. (He survived, however, to return to England and a hero’s welcome.)  

After all that, what more can I say but, inspired by Marc Antony, thank you, for lending me your ears.  


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