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:
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:
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.