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:

www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Helen_Keller

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

www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2397

For the dramatized version of the famous water pump scene:

www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index.jsp?cid=274802

For The Frog Prince:

www.eastoftheweb.com/cgi-bin/version_printable.pl?story_id=FrogPrin.shtml

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Abstract

Seeing and not-seeing suggest a confusion between seeing metaphorically and seeing literally.  This confusion manifests in writings about poetical/critical seeing either in the mind’s eye or in the real eye.  As epistemological questions circle around the senses in the wake of empiricism the concept of seeing literally becomes more important and the metaphorics of blindness more complicated.

By examining the blind man in an age when the evidence of the senses, particularly sight, increases in importance, one finds a radical shift in ideology. The blind man, as an empirical specimen rather than a potential site for divine inspiration, deprives the Platonic ideal of meaning.  In his blindness, and in the way in which he is read through the eighteenth century, Milton represents both the poet/prophet and the specimen of empirical inquiry.

For certain early modern critics, such as Addison, the way to understand art and society is through the senses.  However, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Burke turns again to the blind man and says something quite different than had been said before.  He will empty vision of empirical sight, and he will cite real blind men as evidence for the possibility of describing the visible world without the means of sight.  For Burke the vastness of augmented sight – microscopic and telescopic – suggest the sublime, but for others particularly Swift and Pope, the microscopic eye suggests a kind of too-much of seeing that is not unrelated to blindness itself.  Lastly, I consider Samuel Johnson and his forty-year friendship with the blind lady Anna Williams, which at times suggests that his existential fears of death and doubts regarding Christianity are intimately bound up with the weightiest metaphorics of blindness.

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The Star of Happiness Has Five Minutes to Shine

I’ve known people who have done fringe festivals over the past couple of years, but it was fairly recent that I found out that the fringe selection process is usually very egalitarian.  The majority of participants are allowed in via a lottery system or a first come first served basis or some combination of the two.  Applying to FRIGID new York is my first experience with this whole process and I’ve gotten a little glimpse of how it works

Frigid new York takes place in late winter, but the applications were due on Labor Day at midnight.  The first fifteen slots went in a record 6 seconds!  Although I had had my application ready to go for hours, I was somehow late to push the submit button (duh), and alas was forced to wait for another couple of months for the lottery.  The lottery was held on Halloween at Under St. Mark’s, the theater where I hope to perform The Star of Happiness, where the hard rockin/drinkin story telling madness that is the BTK Band somewhat alleviated the sadness of not having my name picked out of the hat.

Because there were so many disappointed friends of Horse Trade, they decided to invite three would be FRIGID shows to the miniFRIDGE.  Well, the irony is that if you ended up like me (and a lot of scary worthy people did), then suddenly all the luck is taken out of the equation, and we’re left with good old-fashioned competition.

On December 22, each of us miniFRIDGE hopefuls/FRIGID Fest losers will have five precious minutes to convince the audience to vote for our show and thereby win one of the three coveted miniFRIDGE spots. This will be a great event no matter what – details to come!

For more info on FRIGID new York: frigidnewyork.info/

And for all things wonderful at Horse Trade (including the insane BTK Band): horsetrade.info/

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apostrophe

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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…

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