Hands On Display

“I need not go into any particulars about Helen Keller.  She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals.  She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”

-From Autobiography of Mark Twain, March 30, 1906

Mark Twain is a known exaggerator, and so if we discount him thirty percent for embroidery, as his mother did, we may find that what is left is “perfect and priceless truth, without a flaw in it anywhere.” 

In his March 30 autobiographical session Mark twain recalls the first time “he ever saw Helen Keller” Helen was fourteen then.  He describes a gathering at the writer Laurence Hutton’s house on a Sunday afternoon where “twelve or fifteen men and women had been invited to come and see her.”  Note that he says come and see her not meet her, and before you accuse me of being an overly sensitive politically correct whiny blind person, construing even the words of Mark Twain, read this and tell me how to expunge the wildlife adventure quality of his narrative:

“After a couple of hours spent very pleasantly, someone asked if Helen would remember the feel of the hands of the company after this considerable interval of time and be able to discriminate the hands and name the possessor’s of them.”  Miss Sullivan assured them all that Helen would have no problem with that, and indeed she did not except for a man who had worn gloves the first time around and took them off for the second, which seems like a nasty trick to me. 

But for Twain, Clemens, the real “miracle” came when he was leaving early from the lunch and patted her on the head as he passed by:

“Miss Sullivan called to me and said stop Mr. Clemens, Helen is distressed because she did not recognize your hand.  Won’t you come back and do that again?  I went back and patted her lightly on the head and she said at once, ‘Oh, it’s Mr. Clemens.”  Perhaps someone can explain this miracle, but I have never been able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her hair?  Someone else must answer this.  I am not competent.   

I offer the following by way of explanation, taken from her book The World I Live In, where she describes “the hands of others”:

“It is interesting to observe the differences in the hands of people.  They show all kinds of vitality, energy, stillness, and cordiality.  I never realized how living the hand is until I saw those chill plaster images in Mr. Hutton’s collection of plaster casts.  The hand I know in life has the fullness of blood in its veins, and is elastic with spirit.  How different dear Mr. Hutton’s hand was from its dull, insensate image!  To me the cast lacks the very form of the hand.  Of the many casts in Mr. Hutton’s collection, I did not recognize any, not even my own.    

“But a loving hand I never forget.  I remember in my fingers the large hands of Bishop Brooks, brimful of tenderness and a strong man’s joy.  If you were deaf and blind and could have held Mr. Jefferson’s hand, you would have seen   in it a face and heard a kind voice unlike any other you had known.  Mark Twain’s hand is full of whimsies and the drollest humors, and while you hold it the drollery changes to sympathy and championship.”


The autobiography of Mark Twain was published for the first time in full last year, marking one hundred years since his death, you can find out everything you might want to know about it and him at The Mark Twain Project:


The quote from Helen comes from her second book published in 1908 called The World I Live in, and can be found for free at Project Gutenberg:


Announcements: Happy Good Lovin Day!

This month you can find me at the following fantastic shows!

  • Me and my accordion back up the insanity that is:

Monday, February 14th, 9pm
Under St. Marks Theater, $5
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. Stories from: Greg Leitman, Margot Leitman, Cyndi Freeman, Brad Lawrence, & Jenna Brister.


  • Me and my accordion play sidekick at:

Friday, February 18th, 7pm
Award-winning storyteller Leslie Goshko (Manhattan Monologue Slam Champion, NY Fringe Excellence Award, Sirius XM), invites some of NY’s top writers and storytellers to share true, bizarre tales about their lives. There’s live accordion music, a challenging trivia game, and a free wine giveaway where one lucky audience member will walk away with their very own bottle of Sideshow Sauce!

Tonight’s stellar lineup includes stories from: Steve Burns, Jim O’Grady, Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez, and Leslie Goshko

Time Out New York “Critic’s Pick”

New York Daily News “Editor’s Pick”

  • I’ll be the musical entertainment at:

1001 Nights

Saturday, Feb 26 @ 7 pm

in the upstairs theater at The Creek & The Cave in Long Island City, Queens.

Featured in LIC Magazine and the Queens Courier, 1001 Nights has been bringing quality storytelling to Queens since 2009. Hosts Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez and Ted McAdams have brought a new musical twist to the show starting in 2011, featuring musicians, musical improvisers, and other talented performers. Join us every third Saturday of the month in the fabled Creek Theater for the finest stories in sound.

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:




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: