Saturday, May 23, 2009

Helen Keller’s Certain Slant

Helen Keller’s Certain Slant

Originally published on About.coms Classic Literature Page

There are a handful of special writers whose works truly show us what it’s like to be a living, breathing human being. Shakespeare comes most quickly to mind, holding “as ’twere the/mirror up to nature,” and among poets Emily Dickinson may come soon afterward in her ability to make us re-perceive that “certain slant of light” that we all feel so palpably as we turn through the universe. Among prose writers, St. Augustine and Marcel Proust are the two who I’ve always felt to be the most penetrating and thorough in their explications of what it’s like to be us, exploring the vast hall of memory and describing the sensations of human existence on a level that’s almost as profound as existence itself. Freud at his best can also show us what it’s like to feel and to perceive and to be human, his extraordinary prose excavating the disparate strata of the mind to such a degree that, as with Augustine, it transcends whether he’s actually right or wrong about anything. Lately, though, my sense of self-existence has been most deeply illuminated by a writer who is currently much less celebrated—a writer who perhaps surpasses Augustine in her ability to plumb the mind and who even rivals Proust in her ability to describe the deepest and innermost sensations, and who does so with the possession of only three of the five senses: Helen Keller.

Helen Keller with Mark Twain
Keller and her writing have only come into eclipse in the past few decades; in her time, Winston Churchill called her “the greatest woman of our age,” and in a perhaps even more accurate (and less sexist) assessment, Keller’s friend Mark Twain said that she was “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.” In a 2003 essay for The New Yorker, “What Helen Keller Saw” (collected in her 2006 book The Din in the Head), Cynthia Ozick writes that Keller’s current relative obscurity stems from criticism of how “literary” her writing is—“literary” in terms of being influenced by books as ostensibly opposed to being influenced by first-hand experience. Ozick successfully defends Keller’s high literary quality by arguing that almost all writers learn to write best by reading and that all writers go into great detail about things that they’ve never seen or experienced with their own immediate senses. After all, is it in any way probable that Dante really saw anything that he wrote about in his Comedy (a poem whose working title was Vision) or that he learned to write (and imagine) so well without reading deeply in Virgil, Ovid, or Apuleius—or in Biblical literature, whose utterly outlandish and fantastical elements created much of the template for the medieval Florentine’s “high fantasy?” And could he have designed such an elaborately tactile world and universeespecially one that doesn’t correspond very closely to realitywithout studying how people described them in all the known scientific and theological texts?

Helen Keller and family at Niagara Falls
What many critics seem to ignore is that Keller probably had more tactile experience with the world than not just the majority of the world’s greatest writers, but than most of the rest of humanity. She loved the outdoors, and she strove to experience it (and to describe it) in ways rarely seen in even the finest naturalists. With the near-constant companionship and assistance of Anne Sullivan, her extraordinary teacher and friend, she rode tandem bikes and horses, rowed boats, explored the woods, climbed trees, went swimming, examined insects, played with animals, and grew to understand the relationships between the earth and sky and trees and rivers and human beings in ways that perhaps few people with sight or hearing have ever known. Through her constant explorations, she developed a profoundly intimate understanding of how the world works, is arranged, and even “looks.” She may not have literally been able to see or hear Niagara Falls, but her descriptions of climbing the stairs down into its tumult and of crossing the bridge that connects the American side to the Canadian side—and especially of her simply astonishing experience of putting her hands to her hotel room’s window and feeling the overwhelming power of the Falls’ vibrations—allow us to see and hear this natural wonder ourselves and become convinced that she experienced them as movingly as did any of her companions.

Helen Keller feeling the vibrations of music
As with her hotel window, she also had literal hands-on experience with much of the culture that we’d think of as closed to her. When she visited museums she was almost always given special permission to examine the sculptures with her hands, and this was one of her greatest pleasures. Her understanding of form and style were suffused with both a sophistication and an unjaded awe that would have made her a first-rate art critic. She couldn’t see paintings, of course, but she delighted in having them described to her in detail, and she took great interest in new exhibitions and in how people received and reacted to them. She was also fascinated with music, and whenever she went to a church the organist would usually give her a private recital and allow her to feel the vibrations encompass her body. As anyone who’s felt a great church organ shake their bones knows, this is literally a moving experience. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that she took singing lessons (to help strengthen her speaking voice, although she of course became fascinated with the sounds that she was capable of making) and that she even went so far as to take piano lessons—an experiment that didn’t go very far but that she greatly enjoyed.

Helen Keller with Charlie Chaplin
Returning to language (as Keller always did), it’s also important to remember that Keller’s linguistic world was far from a “merely” literary one. She was in constant conversation and correspondence of all forms, and her urge to communicate and be communicated with extended far beyond the realms of gold that lay between the pages of books. She used the manual alphabet to converse with those who knew it (it was an early form of sign-language that used only letters, and she taught it to anyone she could), and with those who didn’t know it, she read their lips with her fingers, and when conversing with her friends she felt for their facial expressions so that she could gauge the full intent and meaning by reading, as she called it, “the twist of the mouth.” She also spent much of her life improving her vocal speech so that she could be understood more fluently and have as an immediate and unmitigated intercourse with reality as words can allow.

Keller’s uncanny ability to perceive often caused people to imagine that she had a kind of “sixth sense,” but in reality this was just her finely attuned sensitivity to the world of communication that surrounds and produces language. In October of 1888, when Keller was just eight years old and had been learning language for about a year and a half, Anne Sullivan reported on her student’s remarkable progress over the previous year:

Her sense of touch has sensibly increased during the year, and has gained in acuteness and delicacy. Indeed, her whole body is so finely organized that she seems to use it as a medium for bringing herself into closer relations with her fellow creatures. She is able not only to distinguish with great accuracy the different undulations of the air and the vibrations of the floor made by various sounds and motions, and to recognize her friends and acquaintances the instant she touches their hands or clothing, but she also perceives the state of mind of those around her. It is impossible for any one with whom Helen is conversing to be particularly happy or sad, and withhold the knowledge of this fact from her.

She observes the slightest emphasis placed upon a word in conversation, and she discovers meaning in every change of position, and in the varied play of the muscles of the hand. She responds quickly to the gentle pressure of affection, the pat of approval, the jerk of impatience, the firm motion of command, and to the many other variations of the almost infinite language of the feelings; and she has become so expert in interpreting this unconscious language of the emotions that she is often able to divine our very thoughts.

Keller’s was a living language, and her experience of the world was clearly as genuine as anybody else’s, and anyone who denies this is simply ignoring the exuberant human being who virtually leaps off the pages of her books to show us the universe’s wonders.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan
Another common criticism of Keller is that her self-conception was merely an extension of Sullivan’s and that her entire personality was nothing more than a mimetic fraud. This notion is simply laughable, however, as anyone who’s read Keller and Sullivan can see that the two women were vastly different in their temperaments, in their ideas, and even (or perhaps most tellingly) in their writing style. While both were extremely intelligent and shared similar kinds of energy and humor and willfulness, Keller was much more enthusiastic and idealistic and optimistic, and her writing was playful and inventive and searching, while Sullivan was pragmatic and sometimes even pessimistic and fatalistic, with a writing style that was much more analytical and deliberate. Sullivan was widely admired and respected, but it was Keller who so charmed and amazed everyone she met, from the most famous intelligentsia of the time to the most ordinary of children. Keller’s consciousness and personality were stubbornly original, and her abilities and ideas far exceeded those of Sullivan, at times exhausting and even exasperating her, and if anything, Sullivan had to scramble to keep up with her student’s ever-expanding consciousness. Sullivan also railed against the early exaggerations that sprang up around her progress with Keller, and she would have been embarrassed by the notion of being any kind of “miracle worker.” She was certainly brilliant, and her experience with Keller definitely gives us a sense of divine wonder, but mostly she was just a hardworking teacher, driven by the need to make a living and inspired by the astonishing abilities that she discovered and fostered in the student assigned to her. She was no molder of souls, and no matter how much genius she possessed, she was no creative genius, and she could have created neither Keller’s books nor the genius herself who wrote those books. Sullivan may have set Keller’s living world back into motion, but it’s Keller who shines as the most prime luminary, both in the innumerable testimonies left by those she met and affected and in the body of writing that she left for the rest of us to marvel at.

Aside from her legacy of advocacy and activism (which is remarkable), most of what Keller has left us exists in this body of writing, and perhaps this is why some critics attack her as merely bookish and literary. But even if we set aside the rest of Keller’s enormous existence and just focused on her linguistic, artistic, and intellectual mastery (which would be absurd), we would still be confronted with a literary mind of the very highest order, and this is something to be celebrated and explored rather than dismissed. Her books tell us in great detail about the facts of her life—indeed, her life is as inseparable from her books as books were inseparable from her life—but a quick biographical sketch may help spur the uninitiated to delve into her marvelous life-works:

During a severe illness, Keller lost her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen months, and she lived with her family in Alabama as a kind of domestic savage until, after years of searching for either a teacher or a cure, the Kellers contacted Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, who referred them to Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind. Modern science and psychology believe that most of our personality and linguistic capacity are intact (or at least engaged and initiated) before the age of two, and Keller’s case seems to confirm this. As anyone with sight and hearing does when growing up surrounded by other people, the toddler had acquired rudimentary spoken and symbolic language by the time she was stricken with her sickness, and even though it was five years before her family’s efforts resulted in the Perkins Institute sending Anne Sullivan to help her develop her dormant skills, she retained the ability to use simple signs and gestures to indicate her needs. Most interesting—and also oddly literary, in light of the experience that brought language back to life for heris that she remembered how to make the sound signifying “water” (“wah-wah”) and continued to use this sound during the years before she learned how to spell the word.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan
Then came the justifiably famous “miracle at the well” (which was actually in an enclosed cistern-house): On April 5th, 1887, after less than a month of using the manual alphabet to teach Keller words, which the girl somewhat apishly learned and repeated back to her, Sullivan signed the word “water” into Keller’s hand while well-water rushed over her other hand, and suddenly the six-year-old lit up. She’d been having trouble distinguishing between the meanings of the words for “mug” and “water,” which to her mind were the same thing, and when she suddenly realized that “water” was a distinct entity and that “w-a-t-e-r” was its linguistic symbol, it became clear to her that “everything has a name, and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know” (Sullivan’s words and italics).

Her progress grew rapidly from this moment. She soon learned how to write with a pencil, and after two and a half months she wrote and mailed her first letter:

helen write anna george will give helen apple simpson will shoot bird jack will give helen stick of candy doctor will give mildred medicine mother will make mildred new dress

She soon learned to write in Braille, and eventually with a typewriter, and the following year she was not only writing in full idiomatic English, but was peppering her letters with the French and Greek phrases that she’d learned from friends, and in one letter she even explained the Latin etymology for the word “astronomer.” At age seven she had an audience with President Grover Cleveland; at age eight she was corresponding with her favorite poets; and soon afterward she was immersed in French, German, Latin, and Greek. She read Paradise Lost on a trainride when she was twelve, and her mastery of language eventually allowed her to graduate cum laude with a B.A. in English from Radcliffe and to write fourteen books throughout her lifetime. She wrote her first book, The Story of My Life, while she was a sophomore at Radcliffe, and it’s this book that contains the best document of the mind that grew so rapidly from the big bang of “w-a-t-e-r” to encompass universal dimensions.

The Story of My Life is in fact three books in one—an autobiography, a collection of Keller’s letters, and a compilation of letters and documents written by Sullivan and Keller, the latter two parts of the book edited and commented upon by their friend (and future husband to Sullivan) John Macy. The book was originally published in 1903, but throughout the twentieth century many editions have comprised just the autobiography or just the autobiography and Keller’s letters, leaving out the valuable documentary evidence that surrounds her brilliant written account of herself. In 2003, two different restored centennial editions were published, once again giving us the fuller volume that the original book contained, but even though Sullivan’s brilliantly illuminating letters (and much of Macy’s commentary) are invaluable to understanding the entire story of Helen Keller, it’s Keller’s writing itself that’s supreme and that stands as one of the greatest records of living human experience.

Written in serial form for magazines and then meticulously revised and woven together into a seamless tapestry, The Story of My Life tells not just the remarkable story of a remarkable young woman in remarkable circumstances; it shows us life on earth as lived by that most remarkable of creatures: human beings. Keller’s supremacy as a writer is in many ways comparable to Vladimir Nabokov’s, and the main similarity between the two writers is that English was always something of a foreign language that they explored from both within and without. Keller became perfectly fluent in all of the nuances of the living language, but she also never stopped seeing it as an object to be manipulated to achieve amazing effects, just the way that Nabokov would do later in the century when he stopped writing in Russian and began writing in English. What makes The Story of My Life even more fascinating is that this linguistic objectivity mirrors the objectivity of Keller’s journey from being a near-savage to becoming one of humanity’s greatest representatives. Just as language was a kind of foreign language to Keller, so was human existence itself (in a later book, The World I Live In, she wrote, “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world.”), and her descriptions of the endless discovery of the self’s relationship to the universe astonish us into seeing things that our sight and hearing may never have allowed us to see or hear on our own.

One of the most revelatory scenes in the book is when she describes learning about the existence of fossils and being utterly astonished at the age of the earth. For humanity in general—and for each of us in particular—this kind of vastness has never been easy to comprehend, but for someone who’d only recently existed in a kind of eternal nowness, this experience of suddenly being thrust into the fabric of a fathomless continuum is overwhelming, and her description of how this shift affected her strikes the reader afresh with the utterly inconceivable mystery of time.

Keller’s narrative powers are as dramatic and as highly developed as her intellectual faculties, and one of the most moving scenes in the bookmoving at once in an existential sense and in an immediate life-and-death senseis the scene when she becomes trapped in a cherry tree during a thunderstorm. Keller and Sullivan had been out on a long walk, and they stopped to climb a tree to relax before heading home, and as the day was so pleasant, Sullivan decided to go home to bring back a picnic basket so that they could prolong their enjoyment. A short time after leaving Keller in the tree, however, a violent and unexpected storm moved in. Keller could feel a palpable shift in the atmosphere immediately, and when the storm arrived full force, her terror of aloneness in the face of possible annihilation rose to a histrionic pitch. Keller was only a foot or two from the ground, but she had no idea how to get down safely, and as I read this scene with shaking hands, I thought of Homer (one of Keller’s very favorites) and how his description of Odysseus’ nearly endless battle to survive the waves crashing him up toward and back away from the shore of his home island of Ithaca makes us feel the astonishing power and danger of nature, whose caprices can cut us down even when home is just a short leap away.

Keller’s full power comes most dramatically alive when describing the scene at the well, of course, because she weaves together almost every aspect of her existential experience on earth into a tour-de-force of self-discovery, the depths of the scene’s sensual and intellectual self-revelation prefiguring (and perhaps even matching) Proust’s celebrated “madeleine” scene in In Search of Lost Time.

Interestingly, one of the two recently restored editions of The Story of My Life was co-edited by Roger Shattuck, the renowned Proust scholar, along with Keller’s most recent biographer, Dorothy Herrmann. As was Proust’s method of revision, Shattuck and Herrmann have extended and rearranged the book, giving us back all the original material and a bit more, but even though the few additions are enlightening and welcome (especially two of Keller’s later recountings of the scene at the well), the re-ordering of the book-sections to suit the editors’ priorities isn’t so welcome. They feel that the brilliant Anne Sullivan gets buried in the third section of the original book, so they take her letters and reports and place them after the autobiography and some of Keller's miscellaneous writings (also extracted from the original third section of the book). This separates Keller’s memoir from her amazing letters, which in this edition are placed at the end of the original book’s material, after even John Macy’s section of writing. The editors’ stress on the profound mutual relationship between Keller and Sullivan is understandable, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of keeping Keller from the literal front and center of the book. Her letters give voice and texture to the bounding girl described in the young woman’s autobiography, and they should be read one after the other. Anyone who’s read the book in its original form will never underestimate Sullivan, because the long and detailed third section gives a deep and lasting portrait that fills out and complements Keller’s sections. Shattuck and Herrmann do excellent editorial work, though, contributing two informative essays by Shattuck, a thorough Index, a good list of additional sources, and very helpful notes to the book by Herrmann. Especially helpful are Herrmann’s elucidation of Keller’s numerous literary allusions, many of which are already clear but some of which are dated and are no longer commonly known (there are occasional lapses here, though, as when for example Herrmann doesn’t know that Old Mortality is a novel by Sir Walter Scott). In all, this is a very useful edition, but I suggest that you play hopscotch with it and read all of Keller’s writing together before delving into Sullivan and Macy.

The other recent edition was edited (and only mostly restored) by the academic critic James Berger, whose process was rather to cut sections that he deemed either redundant within the original text (he even excised fifteen of Keller’s letters!) or redundant because they dealt with things that he’d explained in his preface, an outrageous editorial hubris reminiscent of Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire. Berger’s notes are helpful—although much less belletristic than Herrmann’s, as Berger is more literate in a “cultural studies” way than he is in a literary way—but his effrontery in trying to streamline this “restored” edition to fit his own writing and ideas can be maddening.

One of the most illuminating episodes in Keller’s life and mind is the “Frost King” debacle, when at age eleven Keller unconsciously plagiarized Margaret Canby’s story “The Frost Fairies,” which she’d read years earlier, completely forgotten about, and then drawn from her deep reservoir of impressions and rewritten as her own. The original edition of The Story of My Life contains both full stories in section three, but in order to make things ostensibly “easier” for the reader, Berger only juxtaposes short sections of the two stories to show key similarities and differences. It makes clear that Keller was the better and more original writera fascinatingly pre-Borgesian concept that even Canby concedesbut the full texture and approach of the stories are missing, actually making things harder for the reader. What’s even worse about this editorial choice is that Keller’s story is pure shimmering gold (as is anything that she wrote) and offers us the rarest glimpse into her creative mind—as well as into the endlessly fascinating process of how memory and creativity can work—and expurgating it cheats the reader of the full insights offered by this intriguing incident. Thankfully, Shattuck and Herrmann leave this section as it is and let us do the thinking for ourselves. I don’t understand why someone can’t simply restore the book to its original form, though, adding only notes, a few other textual aids, and a couple of essays so that new bookbuyers don’t have to consult multiple editions. But again, it’s Keller’s autobiography and letters that are the greatest treasures here, and any reader will be deeply moved by just reading them alone. Your choice of editions, whether full, rearranged, mostly full, or partial, can make a big difference in how far you’re able to descend into Keller’s remarkable life, but it’s her writing itself that’s the most direct gateway into her remarkable mind.

If you just want to read the autobiography and the letters, the current Signet paperback edition contains these two sections of the book in their pristine form, although the book’s introduction by writer Jim Knipfel is at times begrudging and at other times shockingly belligerent. There are many angles and trajectories into Keller’s illuminating writing and life experience, but it’s only Keller herself who can provide that certain slant that allows you the most deep and lasting penetration into her remarkable self. Ephemeral commentators and editors can add and take away, but it’s Keller who will last. As Twain wrote, she is one of the immortals, and even though our current culture may have become temporarily blind and deaf to her singular voice, the centuries will almost certainly choose her to sing our story.

—David Wiley