The Sea Spells

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

Q: Does talking tire you?

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

To the political:

Q: What do you think of President Harding?

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

to the personal:

Q: Who are your best pals?

A: Books.

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

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

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

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

Her most beloved book is the Bible, she writes:

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

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

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

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

In her discussion of Joseph Conrad she writes:

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


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


The second startling Helen Keller quote I stumbled across lo those many years ago when I was a star-struck grad student taking classes with Derrida himself (really!) and thinking that being an academic was the shit, was also from the Story of My Life:

“A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups- two large beads, three small ones, and so on.  I had made many mistakes and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience.  Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads.  Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis “think.”  In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head.  This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.”

This quote seems so pregnant with symbolic intensity: it is the moment of reification experienced through the learning of language.  And, in Helen’s case, the abstraction corresponds to the body part where the process takes place.  To think is made flesh by the touch of finger to forehead.

According to the Story of my Life, it was about this time that little Helen was struggling with what love is.  The subtext suggests that she could not feel it until she knew it, and yet this feels like a hollow distinction.  It seems obvious that there is a difference between experiencing love and having an idea of it in the mind or a definition on the tongue, and yet, and yet, the passage calls that into question. 

 “what is love?” I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, “it is here,” pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time.  Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.”

There seems to be an irony here involving the strange connection between touch and abstraction, the literal and the figurative. She must learn how to interpret metaphor before she can get a hold of love.

“For a long time I was still – I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for “love” in the light of this new idea.  The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendor.

Again I asked my teacher, “is this not love?”

“love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,” she replied.  Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “you cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the thirsty earth is to have it after a hot day.  You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness it pours into everything without love you would not be happy or want to play.”

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind – I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”

 Damn, copying these words into this document makes me realize how the innate brilliance of Helen was quickened by Annie Sullivan.  It is interesting how she led Helen to understand an abstraction through metaphor.  Helen was often criticized – even denied – for writing about things she could not know, describing things as if she could see.  But when we read the above as an example of her entrance  into language, , it becomes, I think, less wondrous.

Helen learned, through Annie, how to relate abstractions to her body through perception on the one hand and to her imagination through metaphor on the other.  It is through this training that she became the writer and thinker that dazzled the eyes of some and raised the hackles on others.  Some were skeptical that she was responsible for her writings others went so far as to disbelieve her existence as a thinking creature.  They thought that others were putting words into her mouth.  Well, in  a way they were of course.  A very tiny percentage of our thought, syntax or figurative language, is our own.  We inherit what we say and as we inherit what we say we inherit what we see.  Very few people see with eyes unprejudiced by the descriptions of others who have gone before.  Bring someone to a sunset and you will quickly learn how hard it is to wring a cliché-free sentence out of them!

The unique way Annie ushered Helen into language and the world it describes, made her a very good reader – so good a reader that people could not believe her writing.  Some believed she was merely parroting others when she described her life.  They took her use of analogy and metaphor as disingenuous instead of what they were – intimate expressions of her own ideas infused with the ideas of those most dear to her. 

In her autobiography Midstream she dedicates a chapter to her “book friends” called “Enchanted Windows”.  For Helen books were her escape route and she made much use of them.  She got so good at making analogies and linguistic leaps – thanks in part I think to these initial steps in metaphor and abstraction that the world she sensed through her own body expanded exponentially when amalgamated with the world she read about in books or heard about through sighted friends.  (Even here I hesitate – how else to describe those finger spellings then as things heard rather than read?  Describing understanding is almost impossible without resorting to the senses, even if they have nothing to do with associated sense organs. When I say I see what you mean or I hear what you’re saying we are talking in figurative language that is so ingrained in our vocabulary that it almost seems literal.)


In her little treatise called The World I Live In (1907), she discusses her ideas of the world as they come to her through her three senses and how each of those three senses are as limited and as expansive as any one of those others.  It is by way of association and analogy that she found the gall, the hubris, to employ the metaphorics of a visible and hearable world.  For she had, it seems,  been denied that by those who are perhaps not as analytically and imaginatively inclined as she:

“Critics delight to tell us what we cannot do.  They assume that blindness and deafness sever us completely from the things which the seeing and the hearing enjoy, and hence they assert we have no moral right to talk about beauty, the skies, mountains, the song of birds, and colors.  They declare that the very sensations that we have from the sense of touch are “vicarious” as though our friends felt the sun for us!  They deny a priori what they have not seen and I have felt.  Some brave doubters have gone so far even as to deny my existence.  In order therefore that I may know that I exist, I resort to Descartes’ method: “I think therefore I am”.  Thus I am metaphysically established, and I throw upon the doubters the burden of proving my non-existence.  When we consider how little has been found out about the mind, is it not amazing that any one should presume to define what one can know or cannot know?  I admit that there are innumerable marvels in the visible universe unguessed by me.  Likewise, O confident critic, there are a myriad sensations perceived by me of which you do not dream.” 




Project Gutenberg has copies of Story of my Life:

And The World I Live In:

As well as, of course, Descartes’ Discourse on Method:



Everyone Has Heard of Helen Keller

 Of course everyone has heard of Helen Keller.  She has about as recognizable a name as anyone who has ever lived.  Mark Twain, the most quotable of all Americans and the friend credited with giving Helen a lifelong taste for whiskey, said of her that she is “the most marvelous person of her sex who had existed on the earth since Joan of Arc.”  Hyperbolic as ever, Twain suggests with this comparison a kind of saintliness that was put upon Helen even by those, like Twain himself, who knew her to be extraordinarily human.  She was deeply religious, but she was also deeply political, even radical, intelligent, funny, opinionated and practical.  It is testimony to her well-roundedness and not her saintliness that she ended up performing on vaudeville for four years.  One could not imagine such a life-style for Joan of Arc, but, then again, most people have a hard time rethinking Helen Keller as a vaudeville performer, which is, I suppose, the point of all this.

I had first discovered HK intellectually when I was just starting out, wide-eyed so to speak, on the grad school path and was very diligent, if a bit scattered.  Starting with a shaky deconstructed fixation on blindness, I moved backward in time from de Man and Derrida to Rousseau and Diderot on a theoretical trajectory and then forward again following a different path – that of the education of the blind.  The philosophy informed and shaped the history, in both concerted and accidental ways.  The education of the blind started in Paris in the late Eighteen-century and, by the middle of the nineteenth, the very first deaf-blind person had been educated.  This was Laura Bridgman, and her story was famous and written about by giants no less than Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, but her linguistic skills never reached the heights of those of her successor.  Helen’s use of language to move her readers and listeners is truly impressive, if sometimes a bit saccharine for my tastes.  If you’ve never done a Google search for Helen Keller quotes you might do so, especially when you are feeling self-absorbed and sorry for yourself.  They are a fine cure for that sort of thing.

 But let’s start here, with the quote that first got my attention.  You can read it in her never-out-of print best-seller The Story of my Life published in 1903, when she was twenty-three and recently graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe, or you can watch a dramatized version in the 1962 movie, The Miracle Worker.  It still blows my mind, but at the time I first encountered it struck my grad school soaked (pickled?)brain like a thunderbolt, loaded as it is with theoretical import:

“We walked down the path to the water-house, attracted by the smell of the honeysuckle with which it was covered.  Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.  As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.   I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers.  Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.  I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.  That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

It still gives me chills to copy the words.  It is no wonder that millions read the book as soon as it was published.  But it was not just the excitement of a girl learning how to communicate, but even the comprehension of language itself. My studies in first sight, which I was exploring in my master’s thesis, came to life in a new light.  The blind man restored to sight in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries turned into the deaf-blind woman learning language, but not as a child – not as an infant anyway, but rather all at once, as if the idea of language and its possibilities penetrated her six-year-old mind as a conscious revelation.

It turns out that this was a myth, a fantasy produced by Helen in conjunction with her teacher Anne Sullivan and her editor John Macy.  but the myth sticks – I mean everyone loves the moment of revelation right?  It is the stuff of religious fervor and fairy tales – the persecutor/saint struck blind on the road to Damascus and the frog restored to his princely self.

Related Links:

For some HK quotes to cure your self-pity:

Project Gutenberg edition of The Story of My Life (quote taken from Chapter IV):

For the dramatized version of the famous water pump scene:

For The Frog Prince:

The Helen Keller project genesis

By consulting my journal, I find that I mention Helen Keller on Vaudeville for the first time on February 4 2009, nearly two years ago.  Sad.  Sometimes it takes me so long to get things going that it almost doesn’t matter by the time I do.  Furthermore, I’m not proud of the fact that the mention of it is tucked amongst a bunch of bullshit about a dubious relationship and struggles with self-doubt. Typical.  Yes, very but strange nonetheless since the previous month (Jan 09) had marked the official completion date of my PhD.  this is of course one of the great accomplishments of my life – perhaps the greatest – but the excitement I should have felt was shadowed by the more palpable sense of relief.  It had taken so fucking long that it was more of a “phew.” Than a “woohoo!”  The mountain of years of work and not-work, doubt and disgust loomed large behind me and a great yawning pit of “what the hell am I gonna do now?” stretched out ahead, and so this pretty cool thing passed by almost without reflection.  The “pretty cool thing” being the day I, a mere grad student, entered a room with five professors to defend my dissertation and, when I emerged, they squeezed my hand, gave me hugs and were the first to call me “doctor”!  This alas did not even make it into my journal, though I do remember getting thoroughly drunk afterward.  Crazy right? After a million years as a student (my mother told me to stay in school, so I did!), I was finally done, culminating in my big fat English PhD (pronounced phud by my father), and I didn’t even mention the event in my journal.  I mean I fretted about it in just about every entry leading up to it for years, and congratulated myself for doing it in many entries since, but I did not take the time to detail the ordeal when it happened.  If I write anything about the experience of that day here, it is from memory, and memory is not reliable.  This is why I keep a journal.  It is very difficult to write about something in the past without coloring it with the knowledge of what came after.  Impossible more likely.  But what does it matter?  This is not about me being a doctor of philosophy, but about my relationship with the Helen Keller project.

If I tell you that my only post-doc plans were to host a monthly variety show called “the doctor michelle party show”, it might help you to understand why I pounced on the Helen Keller on vaudeville like a dog, and have worried it ever since.  “Helen Keller on vaudeville??!”  I started researching it and performing it almost immediately!  But alas, I am nothing if not inconstant, and so I have not been diligent, either with the performance or the research.  Hence, the blog. I hereby commit myself to this project till death do us part…