Thursday, 26 January 2012

The World I Live In - Helen Keller

I was trying to remember who told me about The World I Live In (1908) by Helen Keller, when I realised that none of you did.  This joins Yellow by Janni Visman and Alva & Irva by Edward Carey (both wonderful novels) in being a book I happened upon at work in the Bodleian, and decided to buy for myself.  And, like them, it turned out to be a good reading experience - although rather different.

I had heard of Helen Keller, of course, although I must confess to having thought her British rather than American.  For those who don't know the name, Keller lived from 1880-1968 and at 19 months' old had an illness which left her completely blind and deaf.  She spent seven years with barely any proper communication with others; she describes it as a period during which she was not alive - then, when Keller was seven, 20-year old Anne Sullivan became her teacher.  With Sullivan's patient assistance, Keller used hand-spelling to communicate, and became rather more eloquent than most other young women.  She wrote The Story of My Life in 1903, which I have not read; the essays collected within The World I Live In were written during Keller's twenties, and make for fascinating reading - and certainly not for some sort of novelty value, but because Keller is, in her own right, incredibly intelligent, something of a philosopher, and entirely an optimist.  Indeed, the NYRB Classics edition I have includes Optimism: an essay written in 1903, which includes this excerpt:
I, too, can work, and because I love to labour with my head and my hands, I am an optimist in spite of all.  I used to think I should be thwarted in my desire to do something useful. But I have found out that though the ways in which I can make myself useful are few, yet the work open to me is endless.  The gladdest labourer in the vineyard may be a cripple.  Even should the others outstrip him, yet the vineyard ripens in the sun each year, and the full clusters weigh into his hand.  Darwin could work only half an hour at a time; yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.  I long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.  It is my service to think how I can best fulfil the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.
 When I say that Keller's worth as an author is not merely as a novelty, I mean that she should not be patronised, nor her writing viewed as some sort of scientific experiment.  She is too good and perceptive a writer for that.  But, of course, Keller offers a different understanding and interaction with the world than most writers would.  The sections I found most fascinating were towards the beginning, where Keller writes about hands.  She divides this into three sections: 'The Seeing Hand' (how she uses touch as her primary sense); 'The Hands of Others' (how hands reveal character), and 'The Hands of the Race' (where the explores hands in history and culture.)  Her perspective is not entirely unique, I daresay, but I certainly haven't encountered documented elsewhere, nor can I imagine it done more sensitively, or with such a good-humoured demeanour:
It is interesting to observe the differences in the hands of people.  They show all kinds of vitality, energy, stillness, and cordiality.  I never realised how living the hand is until I saw those chill plaster images in Mr. Hutton's collection of casts.  The hand I know in life has the fullness of blood in its veins, and is elastic with spirit.
[...]
I read that a face is strong, gentle; that it is full of patience, of intellect; that it is fine, sweet, noble, beautiful.  Have I not the same right to use these words in describing what I feel as you have in describing what you see?  They express truly what I feel in the hand.  I am seldom conscious of physical qualities, and I do not remember whether the fingers of a hand are short or long, or the skin is moist or dry. [...] Any description I might give would fail to make you acquainted with a friendly hand which my fingers have often folded about, and which my affection translates to my memory.
As I say, it is these early sections which I found most captivating; similarly, the essay on smell gave a wonderful insight.  I hope it is obvious that I intend no offence when I say it reminded me of Flush by Virginia Woolf, where the dog's primary sense is smell, and the world is focalised through this perspective.  Keller does not feel that her experience of life is any less full than anybody else's - the senses of touch, smell, and taste give her a vivid comprehension of the world and, what is more, a deep appreciation of it:
Between my experiences and the experiences of others there is no gulf of mute space which I may not bridge.  For I have endlessly varied, instructive contacts with all the world, with life, with the atmosphere whose radiant activity enfolds us all.  The thrilling energy of the all-encasing air is warm and rapturous.  Heat-waves and sound-waves play upon my face in infinite variety and combination, until I am able to surmise what must be the myriad sounds that my senseless ears have not heard.
I have to confess that the second broader section of The World I Live In left me cold.  In it, she describes - at length - her dreams, since it is often 'assumed that my dreams should have peculiar interest for the man of science.'  Well, perhaps they do.  But I am allergic to people describing their dreams, it is utter anaethema to me (as my housemates now know!) and I skipped past this section.  If you have a greater tolerance for dream-descriptions than I do, perhaps it is just as interesting as the first section.

The final parts of the book were added from elsewhere, for the NYRB edition: the optimism essay, mentioned above, and 'My Story', written when she was 12, and quite astonishingly mature for that age - let alone for a girl who had only learnt language from the age of seven.
That is what astounds me most about Helen Keller's book: that someone who came late to language should progress in it so quickly and maturely.  Regardless of the reasons why she could not speak, read, or listen, the fact that she had seven years without language, overcame this, and wrote so beautifully and intelligently  - well, it's astonishing.  Keller is wise, sensitive, generous, and philosophically fascinating.  I'm grateful to NYRB for bringing The World I Live In back into print in 2003, and would recommend this to anybody interested in intelligent, lovely writing.  Here's a wonderfully insightful paragraph from Keller to finish:
It is more difficult to teach ignorance to think than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara.  I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in wood, sea, or sky, nothing in city streets, nothing in books.  What a witless masquerade is this seeing!  It were better far to sail forever in the night of blindness, with sense and feeling and mind, than to be thus content with the mere act of seeing.  They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with a barren state.

Another book to get Stuck into:

Halfway to Venus by Sarah Anderton
If this were in a thesaurus it would be listed under 'antonym' rather than 'synonym' - Anderton had one arm amputated early in life, and Halfway to Venus is a very interesting book that combines memoir with an overview of the absence of hands in art, religion, literature, and history.  As such, it makes a fascinating comparison with Keller's writing on the primacy of hands in the same.

23 comments:

  1. What a marvelous review! Thank you. I don't mean to make little of Ms. Keller's achievement, but I wonder how much of the quick growth in her language skills is a testament to humanity's innate ability with language. Many people more learned than I have suggested that human evolution favored development of language skills over just about everything.

    None-the-less, I think this is a book I should add to my TBR pile.

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    1. Thank you!
      I know very little about language learning, but I would love to know more...

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  2. Helen Keller's story was one of the first children's biographies I ever remember reading. I was always amazed by how she learned to communicate. I've never read any of her own writing. Sounds fascinating.

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    1. I knew only vague things about her before, so I didn't know quite what to expect. I wonder if the biographies/films etc. emphasised her intelligence and eloquence?

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  3. This book would be amazing to read! How great to see it highlighted here.

    Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

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    1. Lovely :) I hope you manage to track it down!

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  4. I watched The Miracle Worker movie when we learned about Helen Keller in school, but I haven't read any of her works either. I did recently read a book that my daughter purchased at her school book fair. Mrs. Spitfire is written from the point of view from Annie Sullivan. It was quite good.

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    1. I didn't realise that there was a film, or indeed films - I can't decide whether or not I want to see them, or just stick to Keller's own writing. Having said that, Annie Sullivan's perspective is fascinating, I wonder if she ever wrote anything herself?

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  5. I saw the film many years ago and I think I also saw a stage version of it when I was a child? In any case I remember knowing about her from a very early age. All very inspiring -- thanks.

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    1. She does seem to have had all manner of media devoted to her! I'll stick with the book for now, but keep my options open ;) (Then there is her autobiog to read, but the introduction to The World I Live In suggested it was rather drier than her essays.)

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  6. The movie is wonderful. Anne Bancroft, late wife of Mel Brooks, won an Oscar for her performance as Anne Sullivan. The movie was made in 1962. Bancroft had previously played Sullivan in 1959 on Broadway; she won a Tony Award.

    Helen Keller was played by Patty Duke. See review in the New York Times at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B04E6D91038E63ABC4C51DFB3668389679EDE

    You can stream the movie free from Netflix (with subscription) or on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=556xz3Mw7rw

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    1. Thanks Margaret! The DVD is pretty cheap, so I have put it on my Amazon wishlist. I must say, one of my main feelings upon finishing the book was curiosity to know more about Sullivan - how wonderful that this film was made.

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  7. I am from Canada and I think Helen Keller is better known in North America. The Miracle Worker is a fantastic movie; both Anne Bancroft, who played Annie Sullivan, and Patty Duke, who played Helen, won Oscars, for best actress and best supporting actress respectively.

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    1. You could well be right - although I haven't really asked anyone here. I might poll people tomorrow!

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  8. I also encourage you to see the movie Simon. It is really very moving. Both Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft won Oscars, I think. And you get a sense of Anne Sullivan, who was as remarkable a person as Hellen Keller.

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    1. Thanks! With all this enthusiasm for the film, I am definitely going to have to watch it.

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  9. Slightly off the main topic: I too HATE reading or hearing about dreams. In real life (or non-fiction) I just find them boring (unless they're mine) in fiction I feel like the author is cheating. There are no rules in dreams so how easy for the author to put in whatever he/she wants in a dream to reflect, foreshadow, rationalize, or otherwise provide catharsis when they can't seem to do it in the main narrative. Iris Murdoch (who I love) seems to describe a lot of dreams--and I never find them all that necessary.

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    1. Glad it's not just me! What I *really* can't stand is when people throw in "Such-and-such happened, which couldn't really have happened, but this was a dream..." YES, I KNOW STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN IN DREAMS, I HAVE THEM TOO, NOW BE QUIET AND LEAVE ME ALONE! Ahem...

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  10. Thanks for reminding me of Helen Keller, Simon. I went to school in the States for a couple of years, and while I was there we were read a story about her I never forgot - about the moment when she realised that the sign her teacher was making in her hand meant 'water'. From then on she could communicate, and went to college. It is amazing how she writes, how she learnt to understand concepts, however I guess it's amazing how all of us do. Thanks for taking me back to that memory - I was about 8 years old and it must have made a big impression.
    Good to read that last paragraph, too, about valuing sight.

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    1. It did make a big impression, obviously! That part, about the water, is mentioned in the book - well, in the account she wrote of her life when she was 12, which is included in the back. It really is amazing.

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  11. Agree regarding the movie "The Miracle Worker" with Anne Bancroft as Ann Sullivan. It was based on The Story of My Life and it's wonderful. I've read somewhere that she was a member of the Socialist Party of America - is there anything political in this book?

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    1. How interesting - no, there's nothing remotely political in this book. Quite a lot theological and philosophical, but nothing party political.

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  12. To think that someone can be transformed from a self-described state of "vacancy absorbing space" into a thoughtful, brilliant person writing beautiful observations about her three senses, is amazing.
    "It is not for me to say whether we see best with the hand or the eye. I only know that the world I see with my fingers is alive, ruddy and satisfying."

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