Monday, April 4, 2011

On "The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller ***

Helen Keller has becomes part of the national mythos. I've known vaguely, since I was a kid, that she a blind and deaf child who managed somehow to overcome her circumstances to get an education and to be of aid to other handicapped people. I knew Anne Sullivan was her teacher. And that was probably about it.

The focus on language as instinct got me to think about Keller and to various ideas that linguists are exchanging regarding language acquisition. Here, after all, was someone who had not learned language as a baby and yet still mastered it, who had not had a chance to babble--with hands or with tongue, to hear or to see language, and yet who still managed to learn.

But in the end, she does not discount the theories of Pinker or Chomsky, for Keller, as this early autobiography makes clear, had both sight and sound for the first eighteen months of her life. Hence, the instinctualists could claim that those early months were what allowed her access to our language-based world. Keller claims, for instance, that before she had lost sight and sound, she had learned the word for water. She called it "wa-wa." It is how she remembers that word sounding. And she claims to remember certain sights too (this goes against someone else's insights, wherein the author claimed that with the loss of sight, one's memories of it began to fade too).

"Wa-wa" proves to have crucial importance in the book (as it does in various movie adaptations of Keller's life), for it is water that Keller first learns to interpret in sign language--a language she has to learn by feeling her teacher's hands. Before this, apparently, there is some vague usage of signs for specific things, but by an large, Keller is cut off from language as a child, and her frustration with her situation is evident in the various tantrums she throws. How one could bear to live without either sound or sight is beyond me, especially if there is no means to communicate with the world outside one's self. It seems an utterly solitary life, like being buried alive. How Keller finally makes the intellectual leap to understand that signs have meaning and that each item has a name is beyond me. But she does it. It all seems very reasoned out in her autobiography.

A more difficult word for Keller is "doll," for it takes her teacher a bit more skill to convey to her that "doll" is not a specific doll but anything of this particular category that Keller is holding. "Love" proves to be difficult as well, for it demands the Keller begin to grasp that some words refer to things that are abstract rather than concrete. But each symbol is grasped in time. In total, given the reasoned explanations she gives for each step along the way of her learning, she seems one closer to confirming Geoffrey Sampson's claims regarding language than Pinker's.

And really, that is one of the amazing things about Keller's story, for she makes the leap to language not only in terms of learning to feel signs and to read braille but to read lips (with her fingers) and to speak with her own tongue, all of this through much effort rather than some innate ability. Nothing seems beyond this woman. She recounts her difficulties with math in school. Math? I can't imagine trying to do complex algebra in my head, for that seems the only way one could do it without the help of one's eyes.

Another amazing thing is Keller's attitude, which remains so almost completely positive throughout her educational ordeal. She's just happy to talk and to listen and to read. The last half of this book--after she finishes discussing her move into language and her education--is mostly about the books she likes and about the people she's met.

Finally, there is the way that Keller tells her story that is rather fascinating. One realizes just how much our vocabulary depends on verbs revolving around our sense of sight. There is much here in this text about touch and smell--the feel of the waves at a beach, the acidic essence of the air before a thunderstorm, the rattle of the ground near thunder--but Keller often will comment on particular elements she's experienced being the most wonderful thing she's seen, as if she's seen any of it. Moonlight and sunshine--both of these are words that call to our attention chiefly what passes before our eyes--but for Keller they are just as real, even if they are just a feeling on the skin. The book can be read or downloaded here, and the audio version here.

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