THE HAND OF THE WORLD: Helen Keller on Social Blindness

[From Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913). This text has been lightly edited for apparent scanning errors and hyperlinked by me]

Out of the Dark by Helen Keller 1st edition gold coverAs I write this, I am sitting in a pleasant house, in a sunny, wide-windowed study filled with plants and flowers. Here I sit, warmly clad, secure against want, sure that what my welfare requires the world will give. Through these generous surroundings I feel the touch of a hand, invisible but potent, all-sustaining — the hand that wove my garments, the hand that stretched the roof over my head, the hand which printed the pages that I read.

What is that hand which shelters me? In vain the winds buffet my house and hurl the biting cold against my windows: that hand still keeps me warm. What is it that I may lean upon it at every step I take in the dark, and it fails me not? I give wondering praise to the beneficent hand that ministers to my joy and comfort, that toils for the daily bread of all. I would gratefully acknowledge my debt to its capability and kindness. I pray that some hearts may heed my words about the hand of the world, that they may believe in the coming of that commonwealth in which the gyves shall be struck from the wrist of Labour, and the pulse of Production shall be strong with joy.

All our earthly well-being hangs upon the living hand of the world. Society is founded upon it. Its lifebeats throb in our institutions. Every industry, every process is wrought by a hand, or by a superhand — a machine whose mighty arm and cunning fingers the human hand invents and wields. The hand embodies its skill, projects, and multiplies itself in wondrous tools, and with them it spins and weaves, ploughs and reaps, converts clay into walls, and roofs our habitations with trees of the forest. It compels Titans of steel to heave incredible burdens, and commands the service of nimble lackeys which neither groan nor become exhausted. Communication between mind and mind, between writer and reader, is made possible by marvelous extensions of the might of the hand, by elaborate reduplications of the many-motioned fingers. I have touched one of those great printing-presses in which a river of paper flows over the types, is cut, folded, and piled with swift precision. Between my thoughts and the words which you read on this page a thousand hands have intervened; a hundred shafts of steel have rocked to and fro, to and fro, in industrious rhythm.

The hand of the world! Think how it sends forth the waters where it will, to form canals between the seas, and binds the same seas with thought incorporate in arms of stone! What is the telegraph cable but the quick hand of the world extended between the nations, now menacing, now clasped in brotherhood? What are our ships and railways but the feet of man made swift and strong by his hands? The hand captures the winds, the sun, and the lightnings, and despatches them upon errands of commerce. Before its irresistible blows mountains are beaten small as dust. Huge derricks—prehensile power magnified in digits of steel — rear factories and palaces, lay stone upon stone in our stately monuments, and raise cathedral spires.

On the hand of the world are visible the records of biology, of history, of all human existence since the day of the “first thumb that caught the trick of thought.” Every hand wears a birth-seal. By the lines of the thumb each of us can be identified from infancy to age. So by the marks on the hand of the world its unmistakable personality is revealed. Through suffering and prosperity, through periods of retrograde -and progress, the hand keeps its identity. Even now, when the ceaseless ply of the world-shuttles is so clamorous and confused, when the labour of the individual is lost in the complexities of production, the old human hand, the symbol of the race, may still be discerned, blurred by the speed of its movements, but master and guide of all that whirring loom.

Study the hand, and you shall find in it the true picture of man, the story of human growth, the measure of the world’s greatness and weakness. Its courage, its steadfastness, its pertinacity make all the welfare of the human race. Upon the trustworthiness of strong, toil-hardened hands rests the life of each and all. Every day thousands of people enter the railway train and trust their lives to the hand that grasps the throttle of the locomotive. Such responsibility kindles the imagination! But more profound is the thought that the destiny and the daily life of mankind depend upon countless obscure hands that are never lifted up in any dramatic gesture to remind the world of their existence. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle expresses our obligation to the uncelebrated hands of the worker:

 

 

“Venerable to me is the hard Hand; crooked and coarse; wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal, as of the Sceptre of this Planet. . . . Hardly entreated Brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed: thou wert our Conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred. For in thee, too, lay a god-created Form, but it was not to be unfolded; encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of Labour: and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom.”

But wherefore these deformities and defacements? Wherefore this bondage that cramps the soul? A million tool-hands are at our service, tireless and efficient, having neither heart nor nerve. Why do they not lift the burden from those bowed shoulders? Can it be that man is captive to his own machine, manacled to his own handiwork, like the convict chained to the prison-wall that he himself has built? Instruments multiply, they incorporate more and more of the intelligence of men; they not only perform coarse drudgery, but also imitate accurately many of the hand’s most difficult dexterities. Still the God-created Form is bowed. Innumerable souls are still denied their freedom. Still the fighter of our battles is maimed and defrauded.

Once I rejoiced when I heard of a new invention for the comfort of man. Taught by religion and a gentle home life, nourished with good books, I could not but believe that all men had access to the benefits of inventive genius. When I heard that locomotives had doubled in size and speed, I thought: “The food of the wheat-fields will come cheaper to the poor of the cities now/’ and I was glad. But flour costs more to-day than when I read of those great new engines. Why do not improved methods of milling and transportation improve the dinner of the poor? I supposed that in our civilization all advances benefited every man. I imagined that every worthy endeavour brought a sure reward. I had felt in my life the touch only of hands that uphold the weak, hands that are all eye and ear, charged with helpful intelligence. I believed that people made their own conditions, and that, if the conditions were not always of the best, they were at least tolerable, just as my infirmity was tolerable.

As the years went by and I read more widely, I learned that the miseries and failures of the poor are not always due to their own faults, that multitudes of men, for some strange reason, fail to share in the much-talked-of progress of the world. I shall never forget the pain and amazement which I felt when I came to examine the statistics of blindness, its causes, and its connection with other calamities that befall thousands of my fellow-men. I learned how workmen are stricken by the machine hands that they are operating. It became clear to me that the labour-saving machine does not save the labourer. It saves expense and makes profits for the owner of the machine. The worker has no share in the increased production due to improved methods; and, what is worse, as the eagle was killed by the arrow winged with his own feather, so the hand of the world is wounded by its own skill. The multipotent machine displaces the very hand that created it. The productivity of the machine seems to be valued above the human hand; for the machine is often left without proper safeguards, and so hurts the very life it was intended to serve.

Step by step my investigation of blindness led me into the industrial world. And what a world it is! How different from the world of my beliefs! I must face unflinchingly a world of facts — a world of misery and degradation, of blindness, crookedness, and sin, a world struggling against the elements, against the unknown, against itself. How reconcile this world of fact with the bright world of my imagining? My darkness had been filled with the light of intelligence, and, behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness! At first I was most unhappy; but deeper study restored my confidence. By learning the sufferings and burdens of men, I became aware as never before of the life-power that has survived the forces of darkness, the power which, though never completely victorious, is continuously conquering. The very fact that we are still here carrying on the contest against the hosts of annihilation proves that on the whole the battle has gone for humanity. The world’s great heart has proved equal to the prodigious undertaking which God set it. Rebuffed, but always persevering; self-reproached, but ever regaining faith; undaunted, tenacious, the heart of man labours toward immeasurably distant goals. Discouraged not by difficulties without, or the anguish of ages within, the heart listens to a secret voice that whispers: “Be not dismayed; in the future lies the Promised Land. ”

When I think of all the wonders that the hand of man has wrought, I rejoice, and am lifted up. It seems the image and agent of the Hand that upholds us all. We are its creatures, its triumphs, remade by it in the ages since the birth of the race. Nothing on earth is so thrilling, so terrifying, as the power of our own hands to keep us or mar us. All that man does is the hand alive, the hand manifest, creating and destroying, itself the instrument of order and demolition. It moves a stone, and the universe undergoes a readjustment. It breaks a clod, and new beauty bursts forth in fruits and flowers, and the sea of fertility flows over the desert.

With our hands we raise each other to the heights of knowledge and achievement, and with the same hands we plunge each other into the pit. I have stood beside a gun which they told me could in a few minutes destroy a town and all the people in it. When. I learned how much the gun cost, I thought: “Enough labour is wasted on that gun to build a town full of clean streets and wholesome dwellings !” Misguided hands that destroy their own handiwork and deface the image of God! Wonderful hands that wound and can bind up, that make sore and can heal, suffering all injuries, yet triumphant in measureless enterprise! What on earth is like unto the hands in their possibilities of good and evil? So much creative power has God deputed to us that we can fashion human beings round about with strong sinews and noble limbs, or we can shrivel them up, grind living hearts and living hands in the mills of penury. This power gives me confidence. But because it is often misdirected, my confidence is mingled with discontent.

“Why is it,” I asked, and turned to the literature of our day for an answer, “why is it that so many workers live in unspeakable misery?” With their hands they have builded great cities and they cannot be sure of a roof over their heads. With their hands they have opened mines and dragged forth with the strength of their bodies the buried sunshine of dead forests, and they are cold. They have gone down into the bowels of the earth for diamonds and gold, and they haggle for a loaf of bread. With their hands they erect temple and palace, and their habitation is a crowded room in a tenement. They plough and sow and fill our hands with flowers while their own hands are full of husks.

In our mills, factories, and mines, human hands are herded together to dig, to spin, and to feed the machines that they have made, and the product of the machine is not theirs. Day after day naked hands, without safeguard, without respite, must guide the machines under dangerous and unclean conditions. Day after day they must keep firm hold of the little that they grasp of life, until they are hardened, brutalized. Still the portent of idle hands grows apace, and the hand-to-hand grapple waxes more fierce. O pitiful blindness! O folly that men should allow such contradictions — contradictions that violate not only the higher justice but the plainest common sense. How do the hands that have achieved the Mauretania become so impotent that they cannot save themselves from drowning? How do our hands that have stretched railways and telegraphs round the world become so shortened that they cannot redeem themselves?

Why is it that willing hands are denied the prerogative of Labour, that the hand of man is against man? At the bidding of a single hand thousands rush to produce, or hang idle. Amazing that hands which produce nothing should be exalted and jewelled with authority! In yonder town the textile mills are idle, and the people want shoes. Fifty miles away, in another town, the shoe factories are silent, and the people want clothes. Between these two arrested forces of production is that record of profits and losses called the Market. The buyers of clothes and shoes in the market are the workers themselves; but they cannot buy what their hands have made. Is it not unjust that the hands of the world are not subject to the will of the workers, but are driven by the blind force of Necessity to obey the will of the few? And who are these few? They are themselves the slaves of the Market and the victims of Necessity.

Driven by the very maladjustments that wound it, and enabled by its proved capacity for readjustment and harmony, society must move onward to a state in which every hand shall work and reap the fruits of its own endeavour, no less, no more. This is the third world which I have discovered. From a world of dreams I was plunged into a world of fact, and thence I have emerged into a society which is still a dream, but rooted in the actual. The commonwealth of the future is growing surely out of the state in which we now live. There will be strife, but no aimless, self-defeating strife. There will be competition, but no soul-destroying, hand-crippling competition. There will be only honest emulation in cooperative effort. There will be example to instruct, companionship to cheer, and to lighten burdens. Each hand will do its part in the provision of food, clothing, shelter, and the other great needs of man, so that if poverty comes all will bear it alike, and if prosperity shines all will rejoice in its warmth.

There have been such periods in the history of man. Human nature has proved itself capable of equal cooperation. But the early communist societies of which history tells us were primitive in their methods of production — half civilized, as we say who dare call our present modes of life civilization! The coming age will be complex, and will relinquish nothing useful in the methods which it has learned in long struggles through tyrannies and fierce rivalries of possession. To the hand of the world belongs the best, the noblest, the most stupendous task, the subjection of all the forces of nature to the mind of man, the subjection of physical strength to the might of the spirit. We are still far from this loftiest of triumphs of the hand. Its forces are still to be disciplined and organized. The limbs of the world must first be restored. In order that no limb may suffer, and that none may keep the others in bondage, the will of the many must become self-conscious and intelligently united. Then the hand — the living power of man, the hewer of the world — will be laid with undisputed sway upon the machine with which it has so long been confounded. There will be abundance for all, and no hands will cry out any more against the arm of the mighty. The hand of the world will then have achieved what it now obscurely symbolizes — the uplifting and regeneration of the race, all that is highest, all that is creative, in man.

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