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Written by Timothy Sexton
“…there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”
Less than a page into the book, Helen Keller offers this brilliant metaphor that boils down the essential quality of being human and puts a sharp sword into every single argument supporting purity of blood. Keller is suggesting in her usual poetic way one of the essential truths of being: we are all connected. Potential is in no afforded or limited by the circumstances of one’s birth because in one way or another we are all connected in some way to both kings and slaves.
“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was.”
This quote is an excellent example of the poetic grasp of simple prose that Keller regularly engages to endow her writing with an element capable of transforming the craft of writing a memoir into an exercise in high art. Throughout The Story of My Life Keller demonstrates a mastery of imagery that belies any belief that one must be able to see something through their eyes to visualize it in their mind or through their pen.
“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”
Remember that scene from The Miracle Worker where Anne Bancroft is spelling the word “water” into Patty Duke’s palm and in her Oscar-winning performance Duke manages to reveal the ecstasy of understanding in a way unparalleled in movie history? Well, watch that scene again while reading these words from Keller herself who reveals in an unparalleled way an insight into the almost mystical experience of understanding. That misty consciousness of the apprehension of the mystery of language is describing the events portrayed in that very famous scene from the movie.
“Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun's warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odour came up from the earth. I knew it, it was the odour that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at my heart.”
Fear clutches at Helen’s heart because she is alone and she senses a thunderstorm is about to place her in danger. This passage is wonderfully expressive and provides a tactile example of the oft-repeated assertion that when you lose one of your senses, you are forced to become more attuned to those that are left. And, of course, Helen had lost not one, but two senses and so, down to just the last remaining three, her very survival could actually depend on the ability to smell a storm and feel a change in light. Remarkable, really.
“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.”
A groundbreaking moment in Helen’s life, this. Can you recall the moment when you first apprehended the understanding of something as abstract as the process of thought? And what was going on at the time that led to this momentous point of understanding? Young Helen was stringing together beads of different sizes and finding trouble maintaining the repetition of a pattern. From such prosaic activities are life-altering moments borne.
“I read `King Lear’ soon after `Macbeth,’ and I shall never forget the feeling of horror when I came to the scene in which Gloucester's eyes are put out. Anger seized me, my fingers refused to move, I sat rigid for one long moment, the blood throbbing in my temples, and all the hatred that a child can feel concentrated in my heart.”
With this quote, Helen provides a unique perspective on a familiar subject to many. How many people over the centuries have read the scene in King Lear in which the vile jelly surrounding Gloucester’s eyes are forced out by one of the villainous characters and experienced only a standard sense of disgust at the gore quality of the sequence? Helen gives us insight into the true depth of disgust the idea of one character jamming his fingers into another’s eyes to enforce blindness upon them would have for someone already dealing with that disability. We often forget when reading or watching scenes of violence how those specific acts might impact someone who has actually suffered them. Essentially, this quote serves to remind us of the increasing level of desensitizing against graphic violence that modern society is experiencing.
"Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle."
In April of 2016, it was announced that Keller’s home state of Alabama was rallying support for their native daughter’s image to be chosen as the replacement portrait to grace the nation’s $10 bill. Almost immediately, the backlash began on social media with opponents forwarding an argument against this idea that went no deeper and contained no more profound insight than statements characterized by complaints along the lines of “she was a socialist.” As if that disqualified her from enjoying the same level of distinction and honor afforded men who not only owned slaves, but legitimized the practice of treating human beings as private property. The capacity of humans for toleration knows no bounds, but Keller is suggesting here that toleration requires a bit more intellectual engagement than most might actually practice.
“Arithmetic seems to have been the only study I did not like.”
It can be especially hard to relate to Helen Keller. First you learn that she deaf and blind that certainly puts a distance between her and most people. Then there is her incredibly inspiring life filled with ambition, purpose and accomplishment and that certainly puts a great distance between her and even more people. So it is especially comforting to come across an admission like this from this extraordinary woman who seemed capable of so much. It is an admission that grounds her in our own reality a bit more; an admission that serves to humanize the legend. An admission that connects many to the amazing Helen Keller.
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