Recently, I stumbled on a book by Helen Keller called The World I Live In. I remember Helen Keller from a movie about her with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke called The Miracle Worker, based on a play by William Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn. The movie, in my opinion, is a masterpiece—a parable about the most important profession—teaching.
Helen at nineteen months contracted a mysterious disease that left her blind and deaf for the rest of her life. I recall from the movie that moment when her teacher, Anne Sullivan (played by Bancroft), realizes that the seven year-old blind-deaf child (played by Duke) at last understood that the letters tapped on her hand were words that meant something. The first word Keller discovered was water.
Once she saw that words spelled out on her hands by touch opened up a universe of meaning, her reading skills evolved at warp speed, she wrote two extraordinary books while she was going to college at Radcliffe, and became an internationally known writer and speaker. She lived eighty-seven of her eighty-eight years in total darkness and silence. “But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness,” she wrote, “and my heart leapt to the rapture of living.”
Of the two books Keller wrote, one disappeared from general awareness for a hundred years—The World I Live In (1908). Roger Shattock, master scholar of French literature, published a recent edition (2003) for bedevilled twenty-first century readers. The book I was drawn to by Keller was endorsed by two great American writers, Mark Twain and William James. Helen Keller was not only a gifted writer, but a thinker who speaks to the miracle of the mind and was herself the proof of her own thesis.
Imagine at nineteen months with nascent language skills, you get ill and suddenly find yourself in a world soundless and totally dark. Keller recalls what it was like, noting there was no Helen, no world; just thrashing about in the dark and the silence—but soon learning to use the senses she had in extraordinary ways. She was quite unmanagable until a teacher of the impaired, Anne Sullivan, came from the Perkins Institute in Boston to live with her.
In the first miracle she worked, Sullivan, a master of tough love, connected with Helen’s mind, and helped Helen connect with the mind of the world. She did it through the power of language. Relying solely on her three senses, touch, taste, and smell, Keller learned to form a picture of the world as well as describe it beautifully and critically. She acquired an almost supernormal sensitivity of touch; putting her fingers on someone’s face enabled her to read his or her character. From feeling the wind on her face she learned to imagine the open blue sky. She found that what was essential to her life she could never lose—the creative power of her imagination. “We differ, blind and seeing, from one another, not in our senses, but in the use we make of them. . . . I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing of wood, sea or sky, nothing in city streets, nothing in books. What a witless masquerade is this seeing! It were better far to sail in the night of eternal blindness, with sense and feeling and mind.” I find the foregoing an astonishing insight.
Based on her own painful and challenging experience, Keller wrote: “Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value.“ Her aim in this book was to remind us that however difficult and disadvantaged our situation, the creative powers of mind and soul are latent within us—a useful working hypothesis for living our lives.
“Blindness has no limiting effect upon mental vision. My intellectual horizon is infinitely wide,” she writes, after her struggle to wrench her identity from her silent, lightless world. Ordinary reality addicts may try to put her down, but she rails against the “supercilious doubters. They ever strive to clip the upward daring wings of the spirit.” Here I believe Keller puts her finger on an unfortunate tendency of some people who prefer the cynical deflation to the optimistic expansion of human potentials. Beware of the downers yapping at our heels!
The World I Live In contains Keller’s credo of optimism. Coming from a highly sensitive person cruelly treated by fate, she could still say: “I am never discouraged by absence of good. I never can be argued into hopelessness. Doubt and distrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the stedfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.”
The message that comes across is about the shallowness of our ordinary perceptual life. It’s when we’re really challenged that we may ‘see’ more and ‘hear’ more and be more driven to create. Keller has a chapter comparing the senses and argues that touch, which is about feeling, is more intimate and accurate than sight that is distant and prone to error.
Touch and contact play a key role in healing narratives, as when Jesus and Buddha heal by laying on of hands. To be touched by something is an expression that implies feeling, so touch has two senses, mechanical and emotional. This duality pervades all the senses. We can see something and not feel it. We hear words of grave matters but feel nothing. Our ideas and feelings even shape the way we taste and smell things.
I discovered Helen Keller’s book just as my book on miracles was being published.[i] There are people we might call miracles, and Helen Keller would for me be a prime example. I mentioned that water was the first word she understood. But let Keller explain in words that she wrote when she was twelve years old in My Story. “That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought.”