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.
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: