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.

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THINK!

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:

www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2397

And The World I Live In:

www.gutenberg.org/files/27683/27683-h/27683-h.htm

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

www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/59

     

 

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Announcements Jan 2011: Happy New Year!

This month I’ll be appearing in the following shows, so come on out and say hi!

  • Thursday Jan 6, 10:30: the variety show to beat all: God Taste Like Chicken

Camp Chicken, God Tastes Like Kool Aid, with Paulina Princess of Power, Liam McEneaney, Killy Dwyer, Harry Terjanian, Noah Levin, Bill Chambers, Joe Yoga, Chanell Futrell, Ramtim Taheri, Jacob Jampel, Blair Frowner, Jen Perney, Michele Leona, Eve Blackwater, Rob Asaro, The Bitter Poet, and John Savoy  

@ Under St. Mark’s Theater, 94 ST. Mark’s Place – FREE!

  • Monday, January 10, 9pm – my accordion and I will be backing up the madness that is the BTK Band!

The BTK Band is NYC’s hardest-drinking improvised storytelling rock band. Raconteurs regale the audience with true stories from their lives while music and lyrics are improvised to turn their stories into songs. As if Tom Waits and The Moth delivered a baby from the gaping maw of Chaos.

@ Under St. Mark’s Theater, 94 St. Mark’s Place – $5

  • Tuesday, January 11 8pm: I’m the musical guest at the super funny Tell Your Friends!

It’s The Tom Shillue Story Hour, with Christian Finnegan, Liam McEneaney, Michele Carlo, Kambri Crews

at Lolita Bar – 266 Broome St @ Allen – $5

  • Friday, January 14, 7pm: resuming my duties as sidekick to the inimitable Leslie Goshko!

Come celebrate the 2 year anniversary of Sideshow Goshko

@ The KGB Bar 85 East 4th Street, 2nd floor – FREE!

And for a glimpse of my other life here’s a clip of the Lighthouse Vocal Ensemble’s guest appearance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

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Embracing Dissonance

WE won! The Star of Happiness is proud to announce that it will be a part of Horse Trade’s miniFRIDGE in the summer of 2011.  Thanks to all those who came out and supported, an huge appreciation to David Lowe for producing some perfectly weird video and to luckydave for helping with tech.  both of these super talented guys have agreed to help out with the final production which will be nearly an hour in length and a culmination of a couple of year’s worth of research inspired by Helen’s four year stint on the vaudeville circuit.

I sometimes worry about putting so much pressure on Helen’s time on vaudeville.  After all, it was a mere four years in the long and impressive life of a woman named one of the most influential people of the twentieth century and whose name has been household for over one hundred and twenty years, though admittedly I just met someone the other day who claimed never to have heard of Helen Keller(!), which was a reminder to never take anything for granted.  But her time on vaudeville, controversial and even scandalous as it was  at the time, affords a unique opportunity to think about the relationship between spectacle and performance, oddity and entertainment.  My research into Helen’s time on vaudeville prompted me to wonder about the roots of vaudeville and its “odd act” which vaudeville producers dubbed any act that did not precisely fit into the entertainment arts.  Sometimes these acts would be informative other times sensational.  The best ones were both.

Helen had a theme song called “The Star of Happiness” written especially for her by the man who also wrote “yes, We Have No Bananas”.  She was a headliner, performing only twice a day with a premium salary, whereas lesser acts performed up to four times daily in this continuous entertainment.  Ostensibly her act was informative, but it had enough to titillate and amuse.  It cannot be said to be free of the stigma of the freak show, and yet it gave her an opportunity to voice her controversial, generally leftist, opinions that had gotten her into trouble on the more conservative lecture circuit.  She was supposed by many to be a heavenly, not political, creature. 

What interests me in this moment is its potential to be a crucible for a number of volatile substances.  Disability is as unstable a thing as a person can handle.  I will consider myself a failure if my work looks anything like a celebration of overcoming obstacles or transcending adversity or the like.  This is not that, or if it is, it is despite my best intentions.  But neither is it a flippant parody, meant only to reveal the embarrassing connections between the odd act and the freak show, though this connection is part of what drives my interest.  There is no easy interpretation of the deaf blind body offered as spectacle to the masses.  Like it or not, she was performing as herself and her fame was securely wrapped up in her person.  She was not blind, pardon, to this fact and as I hope will be clear in other places on this blog and in my performance, she often found this crippling – more crippling in certain respects than the disabilities themselves.

When I tell people about this project the most common question is “what was her act?”  and well, that will be part of my act too, so I won’t give it all away, but I can assure you that, though wholly dependent on her being there live and in the flesh, it consisted of elements as old as performance and as transcendent and hacky as vaudeville itself.

Vaudeville producers made it a point of having acts as varied as possible so as to invoke in their audiences a constant state of alertness.  The dissonance that the heart’s and mind’s of the spectators experienced as they were carried from opera to monkey acts and from buster Keaton to Helen Keller, is precisely the mental state I would like to induce.  However, I, unlike vaudeville producers who might accidentally inform their audiences if they thought it entertaining, am more like Helen who would happily entertain en route to opening eyes.

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The Anatomy of Melancholy

michelle-leona godin @ the beezy douglas carnivale, spring 2010

I’m an artist and academic, whose accomplishments include getting my PhD in English Literature from NYU and not yet ending up in a pool of my own toxic waste… 

Robert Burton the black humored author of The Anatomy of Melancholy wrote in his preface to the reader: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.”  This apparently worked just fine until the enormous volume was finished and the sad scholar, bereft of work, hung himself in his Oxford rooms.  Although this last has not been confirmed by history, I’m not alone in thinking it makes a nice story and accept it as a fact of art  from a world that relates only tangentially to literal facts; an artifact from  a world where facts are the stuff of the imagination and inner eye and not the outer one and reason.

So that’s it.  this website is my Anatomy and I’m hopeful, since I don’t have to worry about publishing, or rather can constantly publish, that I likewise don’t have to worry about finishing, and can remain always and forever in the state of avoiding. 

But what are you avoiding?

Well, like my black biled brother Burton, I’m attempting to avoid the often romanticized and, if Prozac & other anti-depressants are any indication, just as often reviled stuff of the blues.  But also I’m attempting to stave off the rigor mortis associated with death, adulthood and a general fear that there is nothing more to learn and nothing more to do about the current sack of corpus you inhabit.  To stave off, in fact, the facts of life and death.  Because what better way than making art?  Art defies such molds and molderings.

So, that’s it about me.  I’m just like all the rest: making art in order to avoid annihilation!

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The Star of Happiness @ The December Event!

On Wed Dec 22, I’ll be unveiling the first few minutes of my upcoming one-woman, two-voice show about Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville. 

The night is actually a competition which is why I hope you will come and vote for me.  I’m competing against some really wonderful performers, so YOU can’t lose!

We are competing for three coveted slots to put on a full-length show as a part of Horse Trade’s miniFRIDGE, which takes place in the summer.

The December Event:

Wed Dec 22, 7:30pm

@ The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, nyc

This event will sell out, so please purchase tickets in advance at SmartTix, either by following the link:

frigidnewyork.info/

Or by calling:

212 868 4444

(Tickets are $15 which includes a free drink and a whole lotta show!)

Yours,

ml

The St*r of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville?!

“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.” – Helen Keller from Midstream  

Was it dignified or degrading to deaf/blind people everywhere?

Was she a holdover from the freak show or legitimate entertainment?

Was she being exploited or using the opportunity to express her pinko politics?

Was she selling out or merely trying to earn a living?

Dr. michelle-leona godin does not presume to answer these questions but rather, through a series of performative readings of disparate texts, makes bold suggestions that force us to confront our deeply held, if often unconscious, attitudes towards the disabled body.

I thought this was supposed to be funny!?

There will be jokes.

Oh thank goodness I was getting worried.

But, in laughing at these jokes, you will experience a kind of joyful shame that is not so different from that of the freak who, for financial as well as egotistical reasons, feels a kind of painful gratitude towards the gaze of the gawkers who, fancying themselves normal cannot fail to identi—

Do you want an audience?

Yes please!

Then shut up!

Ok, but let me just say…

Written and performed by michelle-leona godin, The Star of Happiness is a one-woman, two-voice show inspired by Helen Keller’s time on vaudeville.

Video projections by David Lowe

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