Seventeen years of living in a three-bedroom Astoria apartment distilled into one art installation: so much lost and gained; so many things dismantled and recreated; so many memories… I lived and worked in every room of that home. Beginning in the front room with my first guide dog and the boyfriend whose munificence allowed me to remain long after us, to the back room where I came into being as a blind person and an artist. Once I looked out the window to fire escape and cherry tree, the identical buildings across the yards, but, upon my departure, I saw only a pixilated rectangle of light.
I last moved towards that window to open the curtains for Stravinsky, a creeping pothos (Epipremnum aureum) I bought to commemorate the untimely death of my second guide dog Igor. Igor’s poem, To Stravinsky, ensured that his plant spirit would occupy the living center of Distillation Installation. Also his small relics made into a piece whose description sounded, “Glue on memories.” (I audio labelled title and description cards with my PenFriend, dots that speak with my voice when touched with tip, analogue/digital magic!)
Finally, in later years, I came to rest in the dark corner room, dubbed the bat cave. Its purple walls with a genie providing pulsating light and smellscape in the last days, days when future was uncertain about everything except the important things: art and love, love and art, warm stability with our two hearts knocking out a stronger beat, keeping up the simple hard tune, “desire is suffering, desire is suffering, desire is suffering…”
So much potential had to be tossed. Braille books and maps, fabrics that wanted sewing, yarn that wanted knitting, paints that wanted painting–so many things collected and hoarded in the late stages of dissertation-that-wanted-writing. Throwing so many things out seemed so sad–so much potential lost that I conceived making an installation out of some precious drops of it. for months, I put things that might be of value in one corner and made bags for the street scavengers to pick through and utilize, minimizing landfill.
I’d decided years ago that I had enough clothes and began repurposing. Too many things in the world. Too much crap. I kept ahold of my crap so that I would not be so tempted to buy new crap. With that in mind I first put fringe on deconstructed sweater and kept on with my refashioning old things into new by hand sewing. But of course, there are always things to buy that are not clothes–technology and musical instruments–and I can’t make shoes…
Distillation Installation manifested in the once-living room, the home’s center, with tin ceiling painted over long before I arrived. As I worked, around me as I sorted, discarded and built, its cracked paint fell about me in apocalyptic chips.
The braille blinds were the first part of the installation. “See ya later world,” I thought as I sewed double-page deconstructed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde book together, and lay them in cascading strips from the wrought iron double barred curtain rods bought in the early years of domesticity.
Then began the odoriferous papier-mâché experimentations. If I’d had a budget I would have invested much more heavily on smells, because flour takes a scent, is cheap, and good for sticking odd things together (pink taffeta on shovel) and mummifying others (drum music on accordion), but essential oils and hydrosols, derived from the distillation of real plants, cells burst asunder to capture their aromas as oil or water, is rightly expensive. In the end each piece could not have its own scent, but the room was scented: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus plenissima) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) bubbled in the genie diffuser in the Never Be Sorry exhibit (jagged desert, eucalyptus butterfly mating grove), in the corner under Prague Castle, a fan diffuser blew sweet orange (Citrus cinensis) and black spruce (Picea mariana), while the hanging braille cranes were lovingly spritzed with orange blossom (Citrus orantium) hydrosol.
My origami braille cranes–not a thousand as planned, but a lot–hung from wire hangers suspended on the five blades of the dusty ceiling fan with three colored lights–blue red green–in the center sockets for a soft organic look.
Beneath sat Stravinsky on his personal braille-mâché tabletop–the last-minute decision that worked well to create small gasps when the curtain opened on the night of the goodbye tours.
I see it all in my mind’s eye and am proud to have done this thing–compensatory vanity! And why not cover over the mirrors (if I can’t look at myself why should anyone else?)–the gilt one sacrificed its mirrorness first, covered over by gold dust and finger paint scrawl, “Never Be Sorry,” another poem-inspired exhibit.
and “by following the scent” near the end–mirror removed from useless vanity, covered and dusted in mist and pink lipstick. Goodbye to the stage and the music and the light. Hello dazzlement and words and another trip in new places. No guilt just a bomb left behind, time tick tocking until another home will be made and destroyed, until the end when I leave all homes for the last time, leaving behind a fine distillation of my experience of the world, overwhelmingly flavored by brilliant hallucinations and this long eye disease my life.
[All images by Geo Geller. Check out our conversation in Distillation Installation HERE!]
Upon entering the Film forum, where Notes on Blindness, an innovative documentary centered around the voice of John Hull recorded in the early years of his complete vision loss, is playing, I was offered a headset, but told that I should only wear it over one ear. It turned out that I could not mix the audio description track with the soundtrack. The only solution was to put the audio description on low in one ear and hook the other plush earphone–like the kind one uses for recording–around my head to rest behind the other ear. The contraption was a little tight and began to squish my brains after not too long, and I should say that I don’t have a very big head, at least not literally.
Though the system was not ideal, the audio description turned out to be quite pleasant. And yet I found sitting in my own little audio bubble to be a bit strange. Usually my head would’ve been resting on my boyfriend’s shoulder to facilitate his whispered descriptions. The sensation of separation was both cool and lonely, our only connection the shared bag of popcorn. As Notes on Blindness suggests, blindness is a paradoxical gift–not one Hull (or I) would have asked for, but still with unique compensations, one being the closeness that comes with occasional dependence, a closeness that can sometimes be awkward and other times charming.
I was excited to experience Notes on Blindness because I remembered reading Touching the Rock (John Hull’s recordings in book form) when I was new to New York and grad school. At that time, some of his observations resonated, such as the social difficulties of negotiating parties and bars, as well as the interesting, and not always unfortunate, adaptations one makes when one is forced to read books with one’s ears instead of eyes, such as the development of a good auditory memory and acute attention to the spoken word. But at that time in my progressive cone-rod dystrophy, I steadfastly existed as a visually impaired–not a blind person–and could not relate to the vast majority of Hull’s observations.
Twenty years later, I find that Hull’s words resonate more fully, but that his experience still differs from my own in some fundamental ways. For example, now I understand his sometimes strong desire “to hide my face from others” and wonder with him, “Is this a primitive desire to find some kind of equality? Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you?” But I do not feel Hull’s “horror of being faceless, of forgetting one’s own appearance, of having no face.” I’m very aware, self-conscious even, of my face being present and vulnerable to the gaze of others. In this way, I believe my experience of blindness is colored by my experience as a woman, with all its attendant expectations of beauty.
Of course, Hull is but one individual who lived one path that included blindness. He was also a father, a husband, an educator, a deeply religious man born in a particular time and place, whose unique and philosophical observations ought to chip away at, rather than fortify, the monolith called blindness.
Hull alludes to the impossibility of speaking for all blind people in his preface “To the Blind Reader”: “Blind people differ from each other as much as sighted people do. I do not claim to speak for you, but only for myself. You do not need to know what blindness is like, because you are blind.” As a matter of fact, I am intensely curious to learn about his experience of blindness because it is, in many ways, very different from my own. I do not accept his assertion that I “know what blindness is” for anyone but myself.
In “The ‘Dark, Paradoxical Gift’” (first published in 1991 in The New York Review of Books and republished as a forward to subsequent editions of Touching the rock), Oliver Sacks writes, “There has never been, to my knowledge, so minute and fascinating (and frightening) an account of how not only the outer eye, but the “inner eye,” gradually vanishes with blindness; of the steady loss of visual memory, visual imagery, visual orientation, visual concepts,… into the state which he calls ‘deep blindness.'”
Sacks did not at first question hull’s assertion of “deep blindness”–where physical sight loss leads inevitably to a shutting of the inner eye. But almost twenty years later, in The Mind’s Eye he admits his mistake:
“I assumed that Hull’s experience was typical of acquired blindness, the response, sooner or later, of everyone who loses sight–and a brilliant example of cortical plasticity.
“Yet when I came to publish an essay on Hull’s book in 1991, I was taken aback to receive a number of letters from blind people, letters that were often somewhat puzzled and occasionally indignant in tone. Many of these people wrote that they could not identify with Hull’s experience and said that they themselves, even decades after losing their sight, had never lost their visual images or memories. One woman, who had lost her sight at fifteen, wrote:
“‘Even though I am totally blind … I consider myself a very visual person. I still “see” objects in front of me. As I am typing now I can see my hands on the keyboard…. I don’t feel comfortable in a new environment until I have a mental picture of its appearance….'”
Those words could have been written by me, so close are they to expressing my reliance upon and constant sense of the visible. Unlike Hull who loses his visual memories and the ability to create new ones, I, like the woman above, use the inner eye to map and remember my world as I encounter it. For example, although I cannot in any sense have been said to experience a recent dinner party–From the outfit I was wearing to the position of others at the table to the food on the plate in front of me–through my physical eyes, when I call it to mind, it appears as a vivid tableau, punctuated by conversation and smells, but occupying mental space just as those memories from before vision loss.
In the Mind’s Eye Sacks presents Hull’s concept of deep blindness in dialogue with alternate neurological responses to total vision loss .Sacks writes, “Had I been wrong, or at least one-sided, in accepting Hull’s experience as a typical response to blindness? Had I been guilty of emphasizing one mode of response too strongly, oblivious to other, radically different possibilities?”
Sacks goes on to relate the story of Zoltan Torey and others blinded, but retaining a strong sense of the lasting vitality of the inner eye. The experience of blindness reveals itself to be as complex as the experience of sight. Even though Hull’s experience of deep blindness is not my own, his philosophical and sociological grappling is fascinating and intellectually stimulating, as well as entertaining.
In Notes on Blindness, I found Hull’s considerable insights smothered by the family recreations and straining narrative–a narrative that is precisely flouted in Touching the Rock. Notes on Blindness seems not to be fueled by Hull’s wanting “to understand blindness” but rather by the more quotidian formula of overcoming blindness, his original conception of deep blindness barely alluded to. The movie attempts to shape the meandering thoughts of a very smart and philosophically-minded blind man into a domesticated docudrama, where Hull’s recorded meanderings project a bleak arc.
But, like most blind people I know, Hull has a lively sense of humor regarding himself and the sighted people he must deal with, which sparkle throughout Touching the rock that would have added much fun and insight to the film. For instance in a 1984 entry entitled “Does he take sugar?” Hull describes behaviors painfully familiar to me:
“This situation often seems to arise when I am getting in a car with a group of other people. ‘Will you put John in the back with you?’ ‘No, I’ll put him in the front with you.’ ‘All right, you put him in then.’ At this point, I interjected, crying out with an exceedingly loud voice, ‘John is not put anywhere, thank you very much. John is asked if he has any preferences about where he sits.’ At this, all my friends laughed uproariously and were covered with apologies and confusions. On a similar occasion recently, I shouted out, ‘Hey, you guys, don’t you talk about me as if I’m not here.’ This, again, brought shouts of laughter and a mixture of apologies, agreements and congratulations.
“It is, of course, very embarrassing for intelligent and sensitive people when they are caught out like this, in using the ‘Does he take sugar?’ approach to a disabled person. These people are all sensitive, and well aware of the humiliation which this approach implies. So the question arises, why do they do it?
“It is so easy to marginalize a blind person; indeed, in certain situations it is almost impossible not to.”
There is great pathos in the film, but I found the highly stylized and self-conscious metaphorics a bit much, though that could in part be a problem of translation–how many times can a person hear “fade to black” without feeling bored? The raining indoors (and without the family taking notice of it) also seemed needlessly artsy and contrived–not nearly as beautiful as Hull’s intricate description of the sound picture made by rain earlier in the film.
On the other hand, the filmmakers neglect what, to my mind, is one of the most outrageously visual scenes in Touching the rock. Perhaps they felt that a blind man stretched upon an enormous stone altar at the front of an abbey that he had learned by feel, incrementally, and alone in the dead of night, would be too weird or offensive. But it is precisely this image that expresses the whole body seeing that seems ultimately to offer Hull compensation:
“Every night I returned, to explore a little bit more. From pillar to pillar I would work my way, counting the steps, remembering the angles, always returning to the foot of the stairway.
“After several nights, I discovered the main altar. I had been told about this, and I easily recognized it from the description. It was a single block of marble. Finding one corner, I ran my fingers along the edge, only to find that I could not reach the other end. I worked my way along the front and was amazed at its size. The front was carved with hard, cold letters. They stood out boldly, but I could not be bothered reading them. The top was as smooth as silk, but how far back did it go? I stretched my arms out over it but could not reach the back. This was incredible. It must have a back somewhere. Pushing myself up on to it, my feet hanging out over the front, I could reach the back. I did this again and again, measuring it with my body, till at last I began to have some idea of its proportions. It was bigger than me and much older. There were several places on the polished surface which were marked with long, rather irregular indentations, not cracks, but imperfections of some kind. Could it have been dropped? These marks felt like the result of impact. The contrast between the rough depressions and the huge polished areas was extraordinary. Here was the work of people, grinding this thing, smoothing it to an almost greasy, slightly dusty finish which went slippery when I licked it. Here were these abrasions, something more primitive, the naked heart of the rock.”
I fear I may be criticized for having anything negative to say about a film that I should appreciate, perhaps, simply because it attempts to illuminate, in these dark times, a unique perspective, and even includes me, a blind movie-goer into the experience by offering audio description. I think it would be a fair criticism; I would not even feel comfortable writing about–even offering, in my meandering way, a review–on something that was not ostensibly accessible to my appreciation of it. So the opportunity is not to be squandered.
I used to love movies and have in my mind’s eye scenes, decadent visual images (several from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover, for example!), to remind me that filmmaking tends to be extremely visual, though many blind people I know get quite a bit from listening to movies. In other words, I am delighted to write about Notes on Blindness and thrilled to have had an afternoon at the movies to enjoy something that was made, at least in part, with someone like me in mind. I hope there will be more.
November 13 is the birthday of Igor, my last guide dog. It is a day to celebrate his short life as well as the diligent and loving lives of guide dogs everywhere. Please consider a donation to the fund I set up at the Animal Medical Center in honor of him and my first guide dog, Millennium.
You kneel on the floor with two loop pedals in front of you. Above you hangs a projected red curtain and an empty spotlight. you say, “Oh, fuck it,” and hit one of the pedals, which causes The Star of Happiness theme song instrumental interlude to play.
“I was born with a degenerative eye disease called…” you hit the loop pedal twice quickly in order to catch “cone-rod dystrophy.”
“This means that, since I was ten years old, I’ve been going very slowly blind. I’ve occupied many positions on the sight/blindness continuum. I’m more blind than sighted now, but it’s not always been like this. Perhaps for you, going blind is the scariest, or at least one of the scariest, things imaginable. For me, thinking about losing another sense, especially hearing, is really scary.
“When I started reading books by and about Helen Keller, I suddenly developed a ringing in my ear. It was likely psychosomatic. (Wouldn’t have been the first psycho symptom I’ve exhibited.) Around that time, I had a dream: I was Helen, in the last years of her life when she was confined to bed by old age illness. We were insensible to sights and sounds As she had almost always been, but now, unable to move, we were deprived of the incessant, impulsive force that had launched her, a crazy deaf blind caterpillar, feelers electrified and electrifying, meteorically into a world that could not get enough of her, and of which she also could not get enough.”
Behind you on the screen, images of Helen from earlier in the show slowly spin around the projected spotlight, then break away.
“Now, after living nearly ninety years of a life that included such varied occupations as…” you pick up “political activist” and “vaudeville performer” into the loop and continue, “and ” after World War II, after America dropped bombs etc., she became an officially sanctioned, unofficial…” you catch up the following into the loop, “ambassador of American peace and good will,” and continue. “Two million Japanese welcomed her when she visited decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They loved her that much!
“but my dream was set in a time past all that, so that I experienced what it would be like to have a sensory existence that extended no farther than the cocoon like bedding in which we were wrapped. Excepting slight tremors and vibrations through the floor, And the occasional touch of an attending hand…” you hit the loop pedal, “THERE WAS NOTHING.”
“However, in the double visioned way dreams sometimes unfold, I was trapped in her immobility with her and seeing her inert body as if it were an out of body experience, without much height or distance. The perspective was split: both inside feeling out and outside looking in.
“The in-body perspective was that of the cornered small animal trembling with the desire to escape, that of the suddenly quadriplegic wishing impotently to die, that of the tongueless victim left alone to tell her tale.
“While the out of body perspective was that of the achingly detached observer, that of the nonsensical buzzing fly, that of the sole audience at a wake. From here, the bed on which we lie, appears, in my mind’s eye, to be a tabula rasa, our body a lumpy virgin landscape.
You put down the mic and hunch over your workstation on the floor. You feed Helen Keller quotes from one pedal into the other, adding to the increasingly chaotic mix. Above and behind you in the projected visionscape, images likewise become disjointed and frantic.
Helen says, “Every one of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to our fellow men, until our ears hear the voices of humanity.”
Helen says, “It is not required of every man and woman to do or be something great. Most of us have to be content to take small parts in the drama of life.”
Helen says, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”
Helen says, “I really care for nothing in the world but liberty, liberty to grow mentally and spiritually, untrampled by tradition and arbitrary standards.”
Helen says, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”
You hit the loop pedal one final time and the theme song plays its refrain, “Wonderful star of light wonderful star of light wonderful star of light…”
You are done. you look up into the audience, then crawl stage left as if you will exit, but stop at the edge to sit and apparently observe the strangely calm cycling of looping fragments. The soundscape grows louder while the lights, almost imperceptibly, grow brighter, until the stage and the audience are drenched in artificial light.
[This Distill My Heart about the infamous corpse flower and its unsavory pollinators is a little bit stinky creepy crawly, a little bit anthroposophical sweetness, and was first published at Quail Bell Magazine.]
Most people know Goethe as the author of Faust and other literary works. But Goethe was also a keen amateur botanist who was very proud of his scientific writings, despite the fact that they fell flat in his own time–both because he was not a member of the scientific community and because they seemed outlandish to his contemporaries. “Stick to poetry,” was the general consensus. His 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants was not fully appreciated until after Darwin’s theory of evolution established itself.
In their chapter on Goethe, the authors of The Secret Life of Plants (1973) present the poet-scientist against the backdrop of the cataloguing and classifying mania of the 18th and 19th centuries, and lament how that mania deprived the study of botany its vivacity:
“How many universities even now draw the parallel between the hermaphroditic nature of plants, which bear both penis and vagina in the same body, with the “ancient wisdom” which relates that man is descended from an androgynous predecessor? The ingenuity of some plants in avoiding self-fertilization is uncanny. Some kinds of palm trees even bear staminate flowers one year and pistillate the next. Whereas in grasses and cereals cross-fertilization is insured by the action of the wind, most other plants are cross-fertilized by birds and insects. Like animals and women, flowers exude a powerful and seductive odor when ready for mating. This causes a multitude of bees, birds, and butterflies to join in a Saturnalian rite of fecundation.”
Enter the corpse flower, the titan arum, whose Latin binomial, Amorphophallus titanum, refers to its giant (titanum), misshapen (amorpho), phallus-like spadix, which some say resembles more a French baguette.
In the past few weeks, the corpse flower has received a lot of attention as it has bloomed in the botanical gardens of three US cities: New York, Washington DC and Denver. My personal favorite, based on name alone, is Charlotte, the darling of the U.S. Botanic Garden.
“She took her own sweet time to unfurl the maroon cape that surrounds the central spike of the world’s largest unbranched flower. But that may be the only thing about Charlotte that is sweet. She opened at around 4 a.m. and by late morning was greeting visitors with odors that ranged from rotting cabbage to stinky trash and worse. Over the next few hours, and particularly Tuesday evening, her horticultural minders anticipate the flower to unleash the rotten flesh stink that gives it its common name.”
Amorphophallus titanum is a member of the angiosperm (flowering/fruiting) phylum, which is by far the most successful plant phylum with over 250,000 species. In terms of diversity, angiosperms are second only to the insect phylum, with whom they have flourished. In the push for genetic diversity, insects and angiosperms have been very cleverly doing the genetic mutation dance in tandem for about a hundred million years–remember that fun video of a bee humping an orchid?
As OpenStax Biology puts it, “Most flowers have a mutualistic pollinator, with the distinctive features of flowers reflecting the nature of the pollination agent. The relationship between pollinator and flower characteristics is one of the great examples of coevolution.”
This brings us to the corpse flower’s pollinators…
Sure, you can attract sweet-toothed bees and butterflies with nectar, but why compete with all those girly flowers? Corner the market on the smell of death, and the night’s creepy-crawlies are yours! The corpse flower bothers not with the masses but has rather made a name for itself in the niche-market that caters to flesh eating flies and beetles who come out at night for a snack and to lay their eggs in carcasses.
Instead of a slab o’ meat, these fellows find themselves trotting atop a giant flower, which, in addition to exuding convincing odor, generates heat in its Oscar-worthy portrayal of rotting flesh. Dazed and confused, the beetle or fly departs in search of the real thing and is (hopefully) foiled by another corpse flower, thereby delivering new genetic material for a new generation.
The corpse flower must open, attract pollinators and be pollinated all within a day or so, if it is not to have gone through all its work in vain. Allow me to reiterate the strangeness of plants, which, unlike most of us, possess both male and female organs. In other words, flowers can self-pollinate, though many, like the corpse flower open or activate their male and female sex organs in succession rather than concurrently in order to avoid this. The point is that flowering plants have developed ingenious ways of spreading their seed, and a marvelous diversity, foul and fair, has sprung from that evolutionary impulse.
The corpse flower is a member of the family araceae, which also includes the calla lily (Calla palustris). This is lucky for me, since I have never seen a corpse flower but have a very vivid visual memory of the sexy calla lily from my childhood backyard in San Francisco. I see quite clearly in my mind’s eye the large and elegant white spathe–what I would have called a petal–with its yellow finger-like thing sticking up out of it–I now know this to be called the spadix on which the actual flowers hang out. This is a good memory to have since all I have to do is enlarge the whole thing by several feet, color it burgundy and, ta-dah! Behold the titan arum. Please don’t pop my bubble if I’m wrong. I’m blind. Give me a break. Anyway, who gives a dam what the thing looks like? People don’t stand in long lines for the look of the thing. No. They flock to city botanical gardens in order to smell the stink!
But because the Titan arum reaches ripeness of stench in the middle of the night, visitors to botanical gardens featured in YouTube videos seem disappointed by the underwhelming gross-out quotient. Personally, living in New York City, where summer stinks abound, I felt not the least need to witness this smelltacular.
Interestingly, I’ve run into this last before. Indole, despite its resemblance to poop, is a chemical constituent in some of the most beautiful-smelling flowers such as jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum, J sambac, etc.) ( and ylang-ylang(Cananga odorata), which are both used in perfumery and aromatherapy for their calming, alluring and even aphrodisiac qualities. As Perfumes: The A-Z Guide puts it:
“One of the many difficulties that nature has strewn in the path of perfumers is the vexed problem of indole. Indole is a small molecule made up of a hexagonal ring and a pentagonal ring fused together and containing nitrogen. It and its kissing cousin skatole are breakdown products of the digestion of food and are therefore found in feces. They are also found in large amounts in white flowers such as jasmine, ylang, etc., possibly to attend to the eclectic tastes of pollinating insects. In the textbooks, their odor is described as “fecal, floral in dilution,” which is nonsense: they smell like shit when in shit, and like flowers when in flowers. By itself indole smells like ink and mothballs; skatole smells like bad teeth and that wonderful tripe sausage called andouillette. What, you ask, is the problem? If you measure the amount of indole in, say, jasmine oil and make up a synthetic mix with the same amount of the pure stuff, it will smell of mothballs whereas the natural one doesn’t. Why? Nobody knows. But that is the main reason why white-flower reconstitutions seldom have the back-of-the-throat rasp of the real thing. Perfumers put in as much indole as they dare, but usually stop short of the full dose.”
I think nature touches upon the uncanny with this not-quite-rightness of an ostensibly monolithic good or bad scent. Disgusting scents have a little flower sweetness (benzyl alcohol) to make them especially awful, while beautiful ones need a little nasty indole to keep them from being cloying.
As mentioned above, besides producing um, fragrance, the corpse flower is thermogenic (heat-producing)–stink + heat = convincing carrion!
The heat production takes a lot out of the plant, which is one reason why their bloom is so short. The corpse flower resembles a corpse more than a flower for much of its lifecycle.
After the corpse flower blooms and dies, a gigantic leaf–the size of a small tree–will rise from the corm. A corm is an underground modified stem used for energy storage that resembles a bulb or rhizome–the corm of the corpse flower is as outrageous as the rest of the plant, typically weighing over a hundred pounds. The leaf will work to store food-energy, then wither and fall off, leaving the giant corm to lie underground dormant for approximately four months, then the process will begin again.
The corpse flower’s contraction into the corm is a perfect segue back to Goethe, as his understanding of the lifecycle of a plant takes place in a series of expansions and contractions, each seeming entirely different from one another and yet all containing within them the potentiality of the whole plant.
“Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ. This dying, however, is of a kind we may aptly call a ‘dying into being.’ Life in its mere vegetative form is here seen withdrawing in order that a higher manifestation of the spirit may take place.”
Out of the dark, a jewel box scene materializes; Helen Keller plays vaudeville on this top-billed set. The handsomely appointed drawing room, brilliant and color-saturated, projects hugely: French windows overlook rolling hills and a sky that will shift from day to night; drapes puddle on the floor; The Apotheosis of Homer hangs on one of the brocade-papered walls, and a lion-footed grand piano, atop which sits a vase of American Beauty roses, dominates the pretend room.
In your best announcer voice you say, “All the world knows and loves Helen Keller, the girl with the unconquerable spirit. She had fought her way uncomplaining against the greatest obstacles that ever confronted a human being. Today she is “The Star of Happiness” to all struggling humanity.
“The Star of Happiness” theme song plays and Helen, in a fantastically sequined gown that hugs her curves steps in with a huge smile. She theatrically sweeps her hand around, reaching for the piano, and runs her gloved fingers along its keys of light.
You continue, “Helen can feel the music not only with her finger tips but with her whole body.
Helen says, “It is very beautiful.”
“Miss Keller,” you ask leadingly, “can you tell when the audience applauds?”
She says, “Oh yes, I hear it through my feet.” Then, “Only…”
“Yes?” you ask, as if you didn’t know what was about to happen.
“They are not applauding?”
Your giant MC voice booms through the theater as you command, “Will you please applaud?”
The audience, putty in your hands, applauds enthusiastically, even more so and with little chuckles as Helen does her lying on the ground soaking in the vibes bit. “Ah, that feels good,” she says languorously. She likes to be a little bit naughty; it is not what those poor saps expect. “More!” she cajoles, and the suckers comply.
It’s time for you to play the straight guy. “Er, Miss Keller?”
“Yes?” she says, her eyes half closed. She looks quite ravishing down there.
“You feel the applause through your feet.”
Helen sighs, “Oh, all right,” and pulls her upper body up to rest on one hand, mermaid style. She looks left and dramatically sniffs the air, then crawls in the direction of the vase of flowers which sit on a block made up like a table with a lacey cloth covering. She picks up the vase of fake flowers, the analogue of that which sits atop the projected piano, and sniffs elaborately.
“Miss Keller finds her way from her second floor dressing room to the stage by following the scent of these roses.”
“I do love the scent of American Beauties!” She puts down the flowers and looks thoughtful. “So… Are you really going to make me say this next bit? I mean, who wrote this stuff?
She always balks here and you are not sure why. It’s a bit sappy, but you have to give them a little of what they want. “You did,” you remind her.
“I guess I did, but I believe Mr. Albee‘s man urged me in this direction.”
You say nothing, and she falls in.
“What I have to say is very simple. My teacher has told you how a word from her hand touched the darkness of my mind and I awoke to the gladness of life. I was dumb, now I speak. I owe this to the hands and hearts of others. Through their love I found my soul and happiness. Don’t you see what it means? We live by each other and for each other. Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Love can break down the walls that stand between us and happiness. I lift up my voice and thank the Lord for love and joy and the promise of life to come.” Helen gives a big woe-is-me sigh as the theme song comes up.
You recite for the audience the lyrics to drive home the point:
“Wonderful star of light
Out from the darkness of night
Sending down a silver ray
Turning nighttime into day
Helen throws her arms up like an air traffic controller, “Enough!” The sound of a needle ripping off a record is used to cut the song. “I’m not so sure about those lyrics.”
“What’s wrong with them?” you ask. You know the next line as well as she does, but it seems unnecessarily pedantic. She has insisted you let her keep it.
I’m just so sick of these quasi-religious, light dark metaphorics that pretend to give credence to the idea of compensation.”
A small smart titter is about all that line gets her, but you play along. What can you do? This is her show after all. “Compensation?”
“You know, metaphorical sight for physical sight. Spiritual light for the real thing. I just don’t buy it. I mean really, “The star of happiness”? It’s just so saccharin and Pollyannaish. It panders to the sap and sentimentality in people.”
You hate having to play dumb, but there’s no getting around it, “What’s that?” you ask naively. It’s time for the dance number.
“Hit it boys!” Helen pulls her white cane from a black sequin quiver.
The tiny Twenties trumpets blare as the song starts up, “Yes, we have no bananas–” Helen, right hand on cane, left hand up waving, makes a circle around her white cane. “We have no bananas today.” She makes her circle backwards, bum first, then lifts her cane, holding it horizontally with both hands. “We’ve got string beans and onions–” Helen kicks to the left and the right under the cane. “Cabbages and scallions–” she kicks a little higher to the left and the right. “And all sorts of fruits and say–” Helen shimmies the cane from waist-height to over her head. “We have an old fashioned tomato–” She lets go the cane with her left hand, which she places on her left hip, and twirls the cane above her head like a baton, making a funny proud face, which always cracks you and the audience up. Then she brings it down and stands with it in her right hand, at attention like a soldier. “And Long Island potato,” Helen puts the cane under her arm, as if it were a bayoneted musket, and marches loudly stomping in her heels in time to the music three times. STOMP STOMP STOMP “But yes, we have no bananas.” Helen puts both hands on her cane like Charlie Chaplin. “We have no bananas todaaaay.” Helen holds both arms out in a big-finish gesture and the audience erupts in applause.
“That was fun,” you say.
“You know,” she says, suddenly candid, “I’m rather tired of uplifting your spirits and being an inspiration.”
“What would you prefer?”
She walks determinately upstage and clears her throat. “Through a performative reading of disparate texts, I’d like to make some bold suggestions that force my audience to confront their deeply held, if often unconscious, attitudes towards the disabled body.” She smiles and lifts her head like a self-satisfied peacock, which earns her a chuckle or two.
“All right,” she says, and steps to the pretend table with its lacey tablecloth and moves the vase of roses so she can sit and cross her legs–rather shapely legs. She takes up her little toy drum and the prerecorded audience questions begin.
“Miss Keller, Do you ever tire of talking?”
“Have you ever heard of a woman who tired of talking?”
“Do you think women should hold office?”
“Yes, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to vote for them.”
“Well, sometimes I feel blue and sometimes I see red.” Helen makes her own BADUM BUM with her toy drum. This gets a good laugh.
“What do you think of capitalism?”
“I think it has outgrown its usefulness.”
“What is your conception of light?”
“It is like thought in the mind, a bright, amazing thing.”
“Miss Keller, Do you close your eyes when you sleep?”
“I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.” BADUM BUM.
“What do you think of Soviet Russia?”
“Soviet Russia is the first organized attempt of the workers to establish an order of society in which human life and happiness shall be of first importance, and not the conservation of property for a privileged class.” Helen pauses, then BADUM BUM. People laugh, relieved.
Helen pauses to consider, then, “To feel the other side?”
“Freak,” mumbles that voice.
She puts down her drum and walks towards center stage. She stops, slightly askew, as if a bit disorientated. “Well, yes, at first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same bill with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.”
You try to lighten the mood with a little historical perspective. “Helen’s act was, according to Hammerstein and other vaudeville producers, called an odd act. This was not strictly entertainment, but rather topical, newsworthy or of human interest.”
Helen grows wistful. She is remembering her time in The Play World, tipping her hat to the fact that this performance is pretend, and not so much like the original as all that. “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage, I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me.
“The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.
“I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotions, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.”
“That must be the hardest thing about being deaf and blind.”
“Not having a lot of opportunities to study life.”
“Oh yes, it can be complicated. . Having conversations with people who do not know the manual alphabet must be done through an interpreter or …
Virtually sitting in my interlocutor’s lap.”
“That sounds exciting.”
“Perhaps… In order to have direct conversation with someone who does not know the manual alphabet, one must put one’s hand on the other’s face, the middle finger lies alongside their nose, the index rests gently along their lips, and the thumb feels the vibrations of the throat. It is rather intimate. Not everyone feels comfortable with such a position. The men in particular seem to get a bit… flustered.” She looks down, as if to acknowledge her large breasts and how they may have contributed to men’s discomfort in her proximity. She looks back up, then, “Could you please excuse me?”
she exits and the pastoral scene beyond the projected French windows transforms into a shadow box–Helen’s dressing room–into which her silhouette magically steps.
Soft music plays–Me and My Shadow–while your conversation with Helen continues as if through the intimacy of airwaves. The audience is immediately hushed and expectant.
“I suppose my figure does not fit the angelic ideal people have of me. I understand my friends and publicists do much to downplay the fact that I am a woman and have breasts.” Her silhouette pulls off one glove and then another, dropping them into the dark.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I had one once… His name was Peter… His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation. The sweetness of being loved enchanted me, and I yielded to an imperious longing to be a part of a man’s life. For a brief space I danced in and out of the gates of Heaven, wrapped up in a web of bright imaginings.” The silhouette reaches behind to unbutton the gown. As she continues, she finishes and it slips to the ground. “We planned to elope but my family learned of our elicit plans and Mother sent my two elder brothers to rescue me from my silly adventure. They were right to do so… I cannot account for my behavior. As I look back and try to understand, I am completely bewildered. I seem to have acted exactly opposite to my nature. It can be explained only in the old way-that love makes us blind and leaves the mind confused and deprives it of the use of judgment. I corresponded with the young man for several months; but my lovedream was shattered. It had flowered under an inauspicious star. The unhappiness I had caused my dear ones produced a state of mind unfavorable to the continuance of my relations with the young man.”
“And has love never disturbed you again?”
She seems to wrap herself in a dressing gown hanging on the wall, but you can’t be sure. You’ve never been allowed back there. Sighing she says, “Recently the idea has slipped into my consciousness, by way of a letter from a gentleman. It is in fact a proposal. I am flattered, but I am no longer the young and thoughtless creature I once was. I am too practical now, in my middle life to seriously consider it. As recompense, I am granted the mature sentiments and talents to write a letter worthy of such an impetuously magnanimous offer. I have spent no little time composing my letter of response, will you hear it?”
“I would be honored, Miss Keller.”
Helen’s silhouette moves to a chair and sits, crossing its legs. It reaches into the pocket of its dressing gown, pulls out folded pieces of paper which it smooths on its lap. The shadow hands move gracefully across the page as the silhouette reads. “All the primitive instincts and desires of the heart, which neither physical disabilities nor suppression can subdue, leap up within me to meet your wishes. Since my youth I have desired the love of a man. Sometimes I have wondered rebelliously why fate has trifled with me so strangely, why I was tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill. But time, the great discipliner, has done his work well, so that I have learned not to reach out for the moon, and not to cry aloud for the spilled treasures of womanhood. I have come to feel that it was intended for me to live as an unmated, and I have become reconciled to my fate.”
Outside the shadow box dressing room, the piano fades, leaving behind the Victorian textured walls, which in turn fade to black, leaving only the silhouette in its box of creamy light.
“You have read my books. Perhaps you have received the wrong impression from them. One does not grumble in print, or hold up one’s broken wings for the thoughtless and indifferent to gaze at. One hides as much as possible one’s awkwardness and helplessness under a fine philosophy and a smiling face. What I have printed gives no knowledge of my actual life. You see and hear, therefore cannot easily imagine how complicated life is when one has to be led everywhere and assisted to do the simplest things.”
Now the shadowbox itself begins to fade into the blackness, leaving the audience, and you, in inky and disorienting dark. If not for the illuminated EXIT sign, one might worry one did not exist either.to
“Somehow your letter has made me acutely aware of my situation and the discomforts of it. I realize, as perhaps you cannot, the almost unthinkable difference between your life and mine. You seem to have lived a full, normal man’s life. I have lived inwardly. They say that all women partake of the nature of children. I am absurdly childish in many ways. My nearest friends tell me I know nothing of the real world. in some ways my life has been a very lonely one. Books have been my most intimate companions. My part in domestic affairs is usually that of a wistful looker on. Your willingness to marry me under the circumstances fills me with amazement. I tremble to think what an inescapable burden I should be to a husband.”