The second startling Helen Keller quote I stumbled across lo those many years ago when I was a star-struck grad student taking classes with Derrida himself (really!) and thinking that being an academic was the shit, was also from the Story of My Life:
“A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups- two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis “think.” In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.”
This quote seems so pregnant with symbolic intensity: it is the moment of reification experienced through the learning of language. And, in Helen’s case, the abstraction corresponds to the body part where the process takes place. To think is made flesh by the touch of finger to forehead.
According to the Story of my Life, it was about this time that little Helen was struggling with what love is. The subtext suggests that she could not feel it until she knew it, and yet this feels like a hollow distinction. It seems obvious that there is a difference between experiencing love and having an idea of it in the mind or a definition on the tongue, and yet, and yet, the passage calls that into question.
“what is love?” I asked.
She drew me closer to her and said, “it is here,” pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.”
There seems to be an irony here involving the strange connection between touch and abstraction, the literal and the figurative. She must learn how to interpret metaphor before she can get a hold of love.
“For a long time I was still – I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for “love” in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendor.
Again I asked my teacher, “is this not love?”
“love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,” she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “you cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the thirsty earth is to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness it pours into everything without love you would not be happy or want to play.”
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind – I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”
Damn, copying these words into this document makes me realize how the innate brilliance of Helen was quickened by Annie Sullivan. It is interesting how she led Helen to understand an abstraction through metaphor. Helen was often criticized – even denied – for writing about things she could not know, describing things as if she could see. But when we read the above as an example of her entrance into language, , it becomes, I think, less wondrous.
Helen learned, through Annie, how to relate abstractions to her body through perception on the one hand and to her imagination through metaphor on the other. It is through this training that she became the writer and thinker that dazzled the eyes of some and raised the hackles on others. Some were skeptical that she was responsible for her writings others went so far as to disbelieve her existence as a thinking creature. They thought that others were putting words into her mouth. Well, in a way they were of course. A very tiny percentage of our thought, syntax or figurative language, is our own. We inherit what we say and as we inherit what we say we inherit what we see. Very few people see with eyes unprejudiced by the descriptions of others who have gone before. Bring someone to a sunset and you will quickly learn how hard it is to wring a cliché-free sentence out of them!
The unique way Annie ushered Helen into language and the world it describes, made her a very good reader – so good a reader that people could not believe her writing. Some believed she was merely parroting others when she described her life. They took her use of analogy and metaphor as disingenuous instead of what they were – intimate expressions of her own ideas infused with the ideas of those most dear to her.
In her autobiography Midstream she dedicates a chapter to her “book friends” called “Enchanted Windows”. For Helen books were her escape route and she made much use of them. She got so good at making analogies and linguistic leaps – thanks in part I think to these initial steps in metaphor and abstraction that the world she sensed through her own body expanded exponentially when amalgamated with the world she read about in books or heard about through sighted friends. (Even here I hesitate – how else to describe those finger spellings then as things heard rather than read? Describing understanding is almost impossible without resorting to the senses, even if they have nothing to do with associated sense organs. When I say I see what you mean or I hear what you’re saying we are talking in figurative language that is so ingrained in our vocabulary that it almost seems literal.)
In her little treatise called The World I Live In (1907), she discusses her ideas of the world as they come to her through her three senses and how each of those three senses are as limited and as expansive as any one of those others. It is by way of association and analogy that she found the gall, the hubris, to employ the metaphorics of a visible and hearable world. For she had, it seems, been denied that by those who are perhaps not as analytically and imaginatively inclined as she:
“Critics delight to tell us what we cannot do. They assume that blindness and deafness sever us completely from the things which the seeing and the hearing enjoy, and hence they assert we have no moral right to talk about beauty, the skies, mountains, the song of birds, and colors. They declare that the very sensations that we have from the sense of touch are “vicarious” as though our friends felt the sun for us! They deny a priori what they have not seen and I have felt. Some brave doubters have gone so far even as to deny my existence. In order therefore that I may know that I exist, I resort to Descartes’ method: “I think therefore I am”. Thus I am metaphysically established, and I throw upon the doubters the burden of proving my non-existence. When we consider how little has been found out about the mind, is it not amazing that any one should presume to define what one can know or cannot know? I admit that there are innumerable marvels in the visible universe unguessed by me. Likewise, O confident critic, there are a myriad sensations perceived by me of which you do not dream.”
Project Gutenberg has copies of Story of my Life:
And The World I Live In:
As well as, of course, Descartes’ Discourse on Method: