Monday, July 23, 2007

What About Helen Keller?

A friend of mine, Danial McCasoway - the author of Letters from Eden - upon reading my second post here, about Saussure's contention that a word to be meaningful needs both the signifier (sound/image) and the signified (the concept), mentioned Helen Keller. He recognized the fact that Helen Keller could not have access to the sight or sound of words, that she needed a substitute, which in her cases turned out to be touch.

Helen Keller's example gives us a strong case for the fact that in some sense language does indeed create reality. Her account in her autobiography is a deeply moving recollection of a pivotal moment in her life: her discovery that "Everything [has] a name" and that "each name [gives] birth to a new thought."

People who haven't read her autobiography will undoubtedly have seen The Miracle Worker (1960), the classic movie which depicts the moment at the water fountain where the young Helen realizes that the water flowing over one of her hands is "w - a - t - e - r" as it is spelled into her other hand by her teacher.

Helen Keller's case is such a moving example of how the "mystery of language was revealed to" her in that unforgettable moment that the movie was made two more times, as a made-for-TV movie in 1979 and in 2000. In the 1979 version Patty Duke, who originally played Helen Keller, plays Helen Keller's indefatigable teacher, Ann Sullivan.

The fact that Helen Keller had overcome the two main obstacles in the acquisition of language, for she had neither sight nor sound, testifies to humanity's infinite capacity for overcoming odds, and for the miracle of language to do its magic in spite of it all.

1 comment:

Roswila said...

Hi Steve,

Something about this discussion reminds me of what I have done on occasion when a poem I'm drafting just doesn't "jell." I make a diagram of it; as if it were a physical object; as if, if it were physical, I could feel my way along it. One time it actually showed me where I'd "gotten off track." :-)