The Sea Spells

AT the end of each vaudeville act Helen and Annie allowed for questions from the audience. They ranged from the schticky:

Q: Does talking tire you?

A: Did you ever hear of a woman who tired of talking?

To the political:

Q: What do you think of President Harding?

A: I have a fellow feeling for him.  He seems as blind as I am.

to the personal:

Q: Who are your best pals?

A: Books.

Helen was as much a people person as anyone, but there can be little doubt that she derived much pleasure from reading, and admittedly, much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme:

“more than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free.  Books are my compensation for the harms of fate.  They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

For Helen, books supplied what her missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live heroic lives.  She was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna.  Her politics were leftist – she was a socialist and wrote a series of essays in 1913 called Out of the Dark, which angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent and contradictory to their angelic idea of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her.  She did not have the luxury of searching vast databases but had to rely on others to tell her about books and authors and then she had to have them transcribed – a costly affair – or have someone read them to her.  I only wish she had more books at hand, for I feel certain that her inclinations were mostly , her Swedenborgianism not withstanding – fine.

Her most beloved book is the Bible, she writes:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over.  The one I have read most is the Bible.  I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels.  To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

I will have more to say about Helen’s religion when I understand it better; besides the fact that I am a heathen, her belief and philosophy are as complicated and idiosyncratic as herself. For now I think what’s important to notice is how a book seems capable of taking the place of a friend’s comforting voice.  Though, to be sure, The Bible is a special case, she says something similar when she talks about Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way.  I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt.  It was when I read the “Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him.  For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations.  They wave like flowers, they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents.  He sings unconquerable life.  He is in the middle of the stream.  He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

I can only imagine the degree to which she might have felt isolated.  My deprivations are by no means equal to hers, but still I can relate to the compensatory pleasure she derived from books.  They offer experiences not ordinarily had by us, but more than that, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

In her discussion of Joseph Conrad she writes:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then.  I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once.  I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones.  I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me.  We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember?  I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land.  It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element.   The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships.  In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”


With the exception of the vaudeville questions, which come from Dorothy Herrmann’s biography Helen Keller: A Life, all the above quotes come from Helen’s autobiography of her middle years called Midstream published in 1930.

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