Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story (Despite Your Helen Keller Jokes)

Star of happiness promotional shot: Godin with lamp on head and braille paper and Igor GuideDog, and three little girls in projected background.On to the black stage she steps. You believe you hear her cane tap tapping, then stop. Papers rustle. Suddenly you are blinded by a brilliant light. The light, emanating from a lamp on her head like that of a miner, creates dark smudges of her facial features. Under the brilliant light and shadow face, you see what appears to be an oversized pamphlet. Its pages glow eerily with the angel-sleeves of her pale robe or jacket. At first you think the pages are blank, then you recognize them as braille-dappled.

She begins reading, “I was not born blind. I was not born deaf. I was not born a joke.”

Something childish sparks in you. “If Helen Keller fell down in the woods, would she make a sound?”

“What?” she asks. She seems disconcerted, not angry, and this titillates you.

“How did Helen Keller burn the side of her face?”

Helen Keller answers, “I answered the iron.”

“How’d she burn the other side?”

“It rang again.”

“Hahaha!” You are having fun. “What’s Helen Keller’s favorite color?”

“Purple,” she says.

“No,” you tell her, “Corduroy! “You laugh. These jokes are hilarious! Isn’t she a sport playing this funny game with you.

It is impossible to say if that is a scowl on her face with the light in your eyes. You decide it’s a smile. She seems to wait to see if you’ve finished and, having temporarily run out of jokes, you let her continue. “I was born in 18 80 in Tuscumbia Alabama on a postbellum plantation called Ivy Green. The fair daughter of a southern belle and a confederate soldier, I had–”

“How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

It’s like the itch of a phantom limb. It must be scratched somehow, but she ignores you. “I had, they tell me, keen eyes. They were blue.”

On a screen behind her, the opening sickbed scene of the 1962 film The Miracle Worker projects silently. Your eyes drift to the moving black and white image, while   Helen continues her story.

“In the winter of 1882 when I was nineteen months old, just learning how to talk, I was struck by a fever. Some say it was meningitis. Others say scarlet fever. It raged through my little body for two weeks and when it broke my family rejoiced.”

Talk of her family reminds you of your unrequited joke, and, you can’t help it, there is a little meanness in your voice when you repeat, “How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

“Then the doctor told them the fever had left me deaf and blind, and they mourned.”

It’s like you’re not even there, like she’s forgotten you, sitting in the bright illumination of your personal, if somewhat erratic, spotlight. You raise your voice. “Come on, how did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

“They washed my hands out with soap,” she says, letting out an exasperated sigh, the sigh of a mother fed up with her little trickster.

“Nice,” you say, for this new attitude of hers does not bother you. You’re playing a part too. Besides, there are many punchlines to this joke. You ask again, “How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

This time Helen answers with conviction, “They moved the furniture around.”

“Let’s have another!” you say.

“No,” she says, “they really did move the furniture around.”

“What?” You’re confused.

Helen continues, “Two inlets of perception cut off from the world. Taste touch and smell were all I had to connect with others. So I invented signs, little imitations of the world in which I lived. I mimed the act of buttering bread if that was what I wanted, or crawled on the ground, hands doubled in a fist, to show my little black friend–this was after the emancipation proclamation, that it was time to go hunting for guinea fowl eggs in the grass.

As I wrote in my youthful autobiography, The Story of My Life, In those days, a little colored girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old Setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter.”

The projection on the wall shifts abruptly to the famous food fight scene of the Miracle Worker–eight minutes of struggle between Helen and Teacher–foot-stomping, hand-slapping, grappling, utensils clattering, inarticulate cries, and non-verbal reprimands.

“I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and     always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.

“They called me the Tyrant of Ivy Green. I snatched food off the plates of others at table and flew into violent tantrums when corrected or deterred.” She pauses, thoughtful. “They tell me it was suggested I be put in an asylum.”

“What a home for retards? Hey, I got one for yuh …What did Helen Keller name her dog?” You are dying. This is so funny. “Nymphdrumpherlmf! Hahaha!”

Silence greets your hilarity.

“Ok you didn’t like that one.”

She shakes her head emphatically, raking the light across your visionscape.

“You’re gonna love this one… Why can’t Helen Keller drive?”

She has her hand on her hip. She is not amused. You wait until you can’t wait any longer. You explode, “Because she’s a woman! Hahaha!”

You laugh uproariously. She remains looking at you, you think, with those eye pits under the light. You cover your mouth and sigh. What can you do with a person so totally devoid of a sense of humor?

“As a matter of fact,” says Helen, “I was a feminist, a suffragette.”

“A what?” Your jokes have made you dumb. Is she rolling her eyes at you?

I fought for a woman’s right to vote… I was quite the radical. A Socialist and anti-war activist. I was one of the founding members of the NAACP. I was very politically engaged.”

 

“So how’d you end up performing like a freak on vaudeville?”

“Indeed, people criticized me for ‘the deplorable theatrical exhibition into which I had allowed myself to be dragged,’ but we needed the money, and we were one of the highest paid acts on vaudeville.”

“Oh, I get it,” you say,

“you were a sellout.”

“You know,” she says testily, “it’s not easy to make a living as a deaf blind woman, even graduating from Radcliff, summa cum laude. I didn’t want to be a charity case. Andrew Carnegie Offered to give me a pension for the rest of my life… But of course I couldn’t possibly accept his money since he was a capitalist pig who, during our interview, threatened to take me over his knee and spank me for my pinko politics–can you imagine? I was a grown woman! Therefore, it was much more dignified to perform on vaudeville… Besides, being on stage gave me the opportunity to educate people about worker’s rights, and the injustices of our capitalist system.”

“Wow.” You say, allowing in a little snark, “that sounds like a fun show.”

I had jokes too.”

“Hey, did you hear about the Paralympics plane crash?”

“The what?”

“Three disabled guys, a blind man, an amputee and a guy in a wheelchair–”

“Oh no!” she says.

“Oh yes,” you say, and continue with gusto, “are flying back from the Paralympics games in the middle east when their plane crashes in the Sahara desert. They are the only three survivors…”

Helen Keller flips through her notes and then begins reading over you, “As I grew bigger and stronger, my parents began to fear that they might really have to send me to an asylum…”

Two can play this game, you think and raise your voice. “So they wait around for a while for someone to rescue them, but no one shows…”

She gets louder. “But then my mother read Charles dickens’ American Notes, in which he describes his encounter with Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind American to be educated.”

“They start to get real thirsty, so they decide to seek out water.”

“Now I’d like to introduce you to Charles, who will read the passage…”

“The amputee leads the way with the blind man pushing the guy in the wheelchair, and eventually they find an oasis.”

“…the passage that inspired my family to contact the Perkins School for the blind…”

“The amputee leader goes in first, cools himself off, drinks a load of water, and walks out the other side, and, it’s a miracle! He has a new leg!”

“…, where Laura had miraculously been taught to read, write and communicate using the manual alphabet.”

“The blind man offers to push the guy in the wheelchair, but he gets refused because the guy in the wheelchair wants to be mister independent and insists the blind man goes ahead first.”

Helen calls, “Dickens!” to someone over your shoulder, perhaps the guy up in the sound booth, but you don’t turn around to look. You want to finish your joke.

You talk faster, “So the blind man goes in, splashes around, drinks a load of water walks out the other side and, whoa, it’s a fucking miracle! He can see!”

“Dickens?” she calls again.

You are frantic to get to your punchline. “Now the guy in the wheelchair is getting really excited , starts pushing with all his might, goes into the water, cools off, drinks, goes out the other side and lo and behold…”

She shouts, “Dickens!” which forces you to scream out, “New tires!”

You laugh uproariously until the authoritative electronic English voice–a voice like Charles Dickens robot ghost–blares from the PA, “Long before I looked upon her, the help had come. her face was radiant with intelligence and pleasure. Her hair, braided by her own hands, was bound about a head, whose intellectual capacity and development were beautifully expressed in its graceful outline, and its broad open brow; her dress, arranged by herself–”

“You mean she dressed herself?” you interrupt, “Very impressive.”

“Be quiet,” she says to you and pulls out a flask from an inner pocket. “Go on Charles,” she says to the voice over your shoulder, and takes a giant swig.

You are stunned . Helen Keller drinks?

“…was a pattern of neatness and simplicity; the work she had knitted lay beside her; her writing-book was on the desk she leaned upon. – From the mournful ruin of such bereavement, there had slowly risen up this gentle, tender, guileless, grateful-hearted being.”

“Ugh,” you say. “dickens at his cheesiest.”

“Shh!” she rebukes.

Charles continues, “Like other inmates of that house, she had a green ribbon bound round her eyelids. A doll she had dressed lay near upon the ground. I took it up, and saw that she had made a green fillet such as she wore, and fastened it about its mimic eyes.”

“Ha!” you say, triumphant, “Even blind people don’t like to look at blind eyes! But what was Dickens doing visiting some deaf-blind chick anyway?”

“Laura was famous,” she tells you, as if you were a child. “Thousands of people visited her at the Perkins School.”

“You mean they put her on display!?”

She seems embarrassed, sensing a trap. “Sort of, but–”

“Like a freak show!”

“No. It wasn’t like that. It was about progress. About the possibilities of education and science. About enlightenment and humanitarianism.” She is regaining momentum.

“Uh huh. Did they charge money?”

“Not exactly,” she says softly, the pool of lamplight falling at her feet.

“But I bet she brought in lots of dough for that blind school.”

“Well yes, and is that so bad?” She perks up. “I mean, that helped the Perkins Institute educate Teacher and send her to me…” She grows fanatical. “to rescue me from an irrevocable descent into complete animalistic degeneracy!”

You’ve got nothing to say to that. She looks pleased. She returns her attention to her book. She shuffles her braille book one way, then the other. The oversized pages have been printed on perforated sheets, which suddenly cascade to the floor. She pulls the accordion back together and tries to find her place. This is painful to watch. You do the peeking out through fingers thing in your commiseration with her discomfort.

Suddenly she flings the pages over her shoulder and wings it. You’d suspected all along that she didn’t need them; it is her story after all.

Anne Sullivan Macy, Teacher, was blind as a child and, though a series of operations restored much of her sight, she always had trouble with her eyes.”

“Ha! The blind teaching the blind!”

She ignores you. She removes her jacket with the angel sleeves. At some point she has removed her miner’s lamp. How had you not noticed this or the fact that she is you suddenly see that she is quite attractive.

“Teacher’s life started out much worse than mine. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her mother died when she was a child and her father was an alcoholic who abused her and her siblings.”

“Hey,” you try lamely, “did you hear the one about the Irish guy who went to a private investigator because he’d lost his temper?”

She does not miss a beat. “When her mother died, Teacher was put into an orphanage, where she learned early to fight. She was uniquely qualified to tame the tyrant of Ivy Green. In fact, some people called her methods unsound.” Her voice has changed registers; now it is sultry, inviting.

“hmm,” you say, “this sounds interesting.”

“yes,” she says with flirty eyes, “I was impossible. Oftentimes Teacher had to resort to physical restraints and other extreme measures to dominate me.”

The food fight scene is back up and you glance at the black and white woman tackling the little girl. Your eyes return to Helen’s pretty face, then slip down to fixate on her boobs–how had you missed those? You are very glad the spotlight is not on you anymore. Reluctantly you look back up and realize with a little jolt that she is looking directly at you, or seems to be–for with the spotlight on her now, she must be quite blind to you sitting out here in the dark–and waiting for you to say something. “Mm,” you say, “go on.”

“Well, it was very hard for Teacher to do her work with my parents scrutinizing her every move.” Helen is fiddling with the black strap that dangles from the handle of her white cane. It is a little bit obscene the way she is fiddling with it. “Finally teacher convinced my parents that, in order to master me, she must remove me from their presence.” She bats her long lashes at you. “We were installed in a little cottage some distance from the main house…”

She trails off, allowing you to follow. It dawns on you where she might be going with this and you smile at her. She seems to see and smiles back.

“And, in order to make me believe I was in a new and unfamiliar environment…Far from my family and completely reliant on Teacher… They…”

You burst in and together gleefully say, “moved the furniture around!”

“Yes!” she says, and theatrically raises her arm to present the final joyful water pump scene where Teacher (Anne Bancroft) drags the impossible Helen (Patty Duke) to the water pump and spells w-a-t-e-r into her hand while the water splashes over them and the light dawns and Helen understands language. All is joyful and triumphant. Bells ring and the movie rushes to the end.

“That’s a lovely story,” you say, a little misty-eyed despite yourself.

She is pleased. She says, “And that’s just the beginning.”

“No,” you say, “That’s the end of the movie.”

“THE END” looms above her in all its Hollywood glory, and you are a satisfied spectator.

Helen Keller, on the other hand is not happy. “But I’m only 7 at the end of the movie. And I live to be 87.”

You feel mean again. You don’t understand what her problem is. “So? You were deaf dumb and blind. You learned how to quote talk–” you make air-quotes with your fingers, “what more do you want?”

She turns as if to leave, then turns back at the wall next to THE END. The spotlight constricts, haloing her.

THE END fades and a book entitled The World I Live In by Helen Keller opens with cinematic magic. There is music now and a page has its passage highlighted while Helen recites. “Every book is in a sense autobiographical. But while other self-recording creatures are permitted at least to seem to change the subject, apparently nobody cares what I think of the tariff, the conservation of our natural resources, or the conflicts which revolve about the name of Dreyfus. If I offer to reform the education system of the world, my editorial friends say, ‘That is interesting, but will you please tell us what idea you had of goodness and beauty when you were six years old?’ The editors are so kind that they are, no doubt, right in thinking that nothing I have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting. But until they give me opportunity to write about matters that are not-me, the world must go on uninstructed and unreformed, and I can only do my best with the one small subject upon which I am allowed to discourse.”

Star of Happiness promotional shot: Godin in white, sleeves hanging down. The End looms large in projection.

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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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Helen Keller’s Vaudeville Q & A

a full-length black & white photograph of Helen Keller standing leaning against a tree. She is in a thick woods; the background is dense with limbs and trunks, and her skirts are partially obscured by growth in the foreground. She is facing right with her cheek pressed against the trunk, her right hand rests against it at chest level; her position gives the appearance that she is listening to the tree. She is in a white, long-sleeved dress and her hair is pulled back into a bun. 1907.

 

What is Miss Keller’s age?

There is no age on the vaudeville stage.

 

Does Miss Keller think of marriage?

Yes. Are you proposing to me?

 

Does talking tire you?

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

 

Do you close your eyes when you sleep?

I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.

 

What do you think of President Harding?

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

 

Who is your favorite hero in real life?

Eugene V. Debs. He dared to do what other men were afraid to do.

 

What do you think of the Ku Klux Klan?

I like them about as much as I do a hornet’s nest.

 

What do you think of Harvard College’s discrimination against the Jews?

I think when any institution of learning applies any test other than scholarship, it has ceased to be a public service institution. Harvard, in discriminating against the Jew and the Negro on grounds other than intellectual qualifications, has proved unworthy of its traditions and covered itself with shame.

 

Can you enjoy trees?

Yes, they speak to me of the silent works of God.

 

Do you think women should go into politics?

Yes, if they want to.

 

Do you think women should hold office?

Yes, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to vote for them.

 

Who are the three greatest men of our time?

Lenin, Edison, and Charlie Chaplin.

 

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.

 

Who are your best pals?

Books.

 

What is your definition of a reformer?

One who tries to abolish everything his neighbor enjoys.

 

What is your conception of light?

It is like thought in the mind, a bright, amazing thing.

 

What do you think of capitalism?

I think it has outlived its usefulness.

 

What do you think of the League of Nations?

It looks like a league of bandits to me.

 

What did America gain by the war?

The “American Legion” and a bunch of other troubles.

 

Do you believe with Arthur Conan Doyle that spiritualism is the cure for the world’s troubles?

No. I think the world’s troubles are caused chiefly by wrong economic conditions, and the only cure for them is social reorganization.

 

>>>>

 

quoted from Dorothy Herrmann’s biography Helen Keller: A Life, which assures us that “Helen’s replies were not as spontaneous as they appeared. Some months before, she and Annie had compiled a seventeen-page list of questions that she might possibly be asked, and they had rehearsed the answers.” She tells us:

 

“Other topics included whether America had been true to her ideals (‘I am afraid to answer that; the Ku Klux Klan might give me a ducking’), her opinion of ex-president Wilson (‘I think he is the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known’), her idea of unhappiness (‘Having nothing to do’), and could she really perceive colors (‘Sometimes I feel blue and sometimes I see red’).”

 

>>>

 

For Helen’s thoughts on performing on vaudeville (1920-24) see The Play World.

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The Play World: Helen Keller Writes About Vaudeville

[“The Play World” is Chapter 13 of Midstream: My Later Life, 1929, in which Keller describes her experience of vaudeville and the circumstances that led her to it. I lightly edited and hyperlinked it from a scan of the original.]

Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920. Helen is seated before a table, facing left. Behind her is a row of many robes and gowns. On the table appears to be makeup, and her left hand, resting on the edge of the table holds a brush. Her right hand is holding a powder puff to her right cheek. Her head is tossed back slightly and she is smiling broadly as though enjoying playing to the camera.
Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920

THE picture was not a financial success. My sense of pride mutinies against my confession; but we are the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than we went into it, and I am sorry to say, this condition is not always confined to ourselves.

 

We returned to our home in Forest Hills and for two years lived quietly. But we were faced with the necessity of earning more money. The funds my friends had provided for my support would cease with my death, and if I died before my teacher, she would be left almost destitute. The income I had I could live on, but I could not save anything.

 

In the winter of 1920 we went into vaudeville and remained until the spring of 1924. That does not mean that we worked continually during all four years. We appeared for short periods in and around New York, in New England, and in Canada. In 1921 and 1922 we went from coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention, and I had letters from friends in Europe remonstrating with me about ”the deplorable theatrical exhibition” into which I had allowed myself to be dragged. Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me. Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing. Besides, the work was easier in an essential respect-we usually stayed in one place a week, instead of having to travel constantly from town to town and speak so soon after our arrival that we had no time for rest or preparation. We were on the stage only twenty minutes in the afternoon and evening, and the rules of the theatre usually protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.

In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences. Our lecture contract required that we collect the money before we went on the platform, but that was seldom possible and we disliked to imply distrust by demanding payment. In Seattle we gave two lectures to appreciative Audiences, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The local manager told us he would not be able to pay us our share, which was a thousand dollars, until after the evening performance. He did not appear in the theatre after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him. Our manager was not interested in a lawsuit so far away, and we were obliged to pay him a percentage whether we were paid or not; so he suffered no loss on our account.

This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California. In no case was the town responsible; it was the fault of the local manager. Once when we did demand payment and refused to appear when it was not made, the audience became indignant, and the next morning the newspapers came out with a great headline, ”Helen Keller refused to speak unless she held the money in her hand.” We decided never to put ourselves in that position again. Once when we spoke at Allerton, Iowa, a crowd came to hear us, and our share of the proceeds-we were to go fifty-fifty with the manager-was over seven hundred dollars. It was amusing to see how reluctant the men in charge were to pay it. In Vancouver we had so much larger audience than the local manager expected that he paid us twice as much as the contract called for.

My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre; but I enjoyed it keenly. 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.

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 relate ”the strength and riches of their state”-the powder, the patches and masks, the ribbons, jewels, and livery[]Abraham Cowley]; and 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 emotion, 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.

Some of the theatres where we went were beautiful, and most of them comfortable. Mr. Albee, who is at the head of the organization,   is a man of singular   ability   and   kindness   of   heart,   and he concerns himself earnestly with everything that promotes the welfare of the actors and the efficiency of their work. Very few of them are permitted to come into his presence, but his good will radiates through his staff from one end of the system to the other. We found most of our managers courteous, and some of them were beloved. I shall always be grateful to my personal manager, Mr. Harry Weber, who never failed us in service and loyalty. Mr. Albee is interested not only in the functioning of his mammoth machine, but also in the human cogs and wheels that make it go. Not one of these small ceaselessly moving parts gets out of order but he knows it, and makes every effort to repair it, whatever the cause or the cost. He has kept individuals in shows who are blind or deaf or crippled, but whose handicap is cleverly concealed from the public. An important branch   of   his   humanitarian   work   is the National Vaudeville Association [National Vaudeville Artists], which has ten thousand members. Each membership carries with it a paid-up insurance policy of a thousand dollars, and in Cases of illness, idleness, or other misfortune, everyone is sure to receive financial aid, no matter in what Part of the world he may be. The Association, maintains a sanitarium for tubercular members, and there are health camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other places.

The audiences always made us feel their interest and friendliness. Sometimes many of them were foreigners, and could not understand what we said, but their applause and sympathy were gratifying. After my teacher had explained how I was taught, I made my entrance and gave a brief talk, at the end of which the audience was allowed to ask questions. Some of them were very funny. Can you tell the time of day without a watch? Have you ever thought of getting married? Have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you think business is looking up? Am I going on a trip? Why has a cow two stomachs? How much is too many? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think it is a blessing to be poor? Do you dream? There were hundreds of them.

I am always intensely conscious of my audience. Before I say a word I feel its breath as it comes in little pulsations to my face. I sense its appreciation or indifference. I found vaudeville audiences especially easy to speak before. They were much more demonstrative than most others, and showed instantly when they were pleased. One of the queerest experiences I ever had was the first time I spoke from a pulpit. The audience seemed so quiet and the reading desk was so high I felt as if I were speaking to them over a wall. A similar experience came when I spoke over the radio. I felt as if I were speaking to ghosts. There were no life vibrations-no shuffling feet, no sound of applause, no odour of tobacco or cosmetics, only a blankness into which my words floated. I never had that bewildered feeling before a vaudeville audience.

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Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

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The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “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.”

Books supplied what Helen’s 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 the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal 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 electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“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.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt 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.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“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.”

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