Groping blindly

I’ve been in a ferment, witness to a cascade of interconnectedness, from which it is surely possible to construct an overarching meaning—but I won’t try, and that is an instance of laziness (or what-you-may-call-it) which was a theme in my last: something which seems to me like a great creative principle. In Nature, or perhaps natural philosophy, known these days as science, it’s the principle of least effort. In disputation, known these days as philosophy, it is Ockam’s Razor. In wayfaring, it is not being too rigid about the route you will take.

SatNav is one thing, wayfaring is another. There are those who set out on a journey in order to get back to where they started. In my literal wayfaring expeditions, this is of course my over-riding consideration. There may be perils along the route: mud, nettles, brambles, barbed wire or fierce bulls. But so long as I can get back home in reasonable time, and “in one piece”, to use the delightful English phrase, then all is well. Another kind of wayfaring, rather more metaphorical, is to pursue the myth of progress: the eternal quest for a better destination. You find it in the fairy tales of a young man who sets out to seek his fortune, taking advantage of chance encounters to better himself. The course of our lives may be seen as one or other kind of wayfaring, whether the homecoming circle or the line of progress. And yet, if we look deeper, there is no circle that isn’t a spiral, for by the time of our homecoming, the world, or our perceptions of it, have already changed: which is of course a theme in Homer’s Odyssey! What we think of as straight-line progress, for its part, tends to curve, till it comes full circle, and then it’s “déjà vu all over again”. Thus, death is like birth in reverse, but not quite. To add to the pile of paradoxes, I might add that the pursuit of laziness directs us to ever more intense concentration and inventiveness. For example, writing about laziness is hard work!

I can easily trace the curved path which led me to watch The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It’s a well-defined series of chance encounters, beginning on 6th June 2010, on the occasion described in a certain post. On that day, I met my step-brother for the first time. We had “time-shared” the same father. Michael’s mother had left her husband and taken him to New Zealand. My mother married him and brought me to the same house in East Cowes that Michael had vacated.

But in the post I linked to above, I never mentioned a certain moment which occurred the same day. There’s a spot in West Cowes, my favourite in all the world, as captured in my illustration from Google Maps. In the front you see flower beds, on a corner of the road, and spreading there luxuriantly was a Jerusalem Sage, or Phlomis Fruticosa: the most impressive flowering plant I had ever seen. In one of those blind gropings for the recapture of a special moment, I looked it up when I got home, to see where I could get one; for covetousness is a force equal and opposite to laziness. This is how I met Steve Law, who runs Brighton Plants Nursery. He could supply the plant, at low cost, but there was a snag. It would not fit in my tiny backyard, even if I bought the more compact variety he recommended.

In Steve I encountered not just a nurseryman, but a novelist and friend. We encourage one another’s writing, and it was through him that I discovered Annie Dillard, and through her, Helen Keller. All this is mentioned in earlier posts, so by the principle of laziness I won’t repeat myself, but you can follow the links if you wish—if the rambling of my preamble isn’t enough already. Let’s cut to The Miracle Worker.

The film is based on a play by William Gibson. I rather like films derived from plays. They have a richness and theatricality. This one was revived on Broadway in 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of its first staging in London, but flopped: whether due to the production values or the homespun human values of the script, I cannot say. In the 1962 film, Anne Bancroft plays a feisty Irish Anne Sullivan, whose childhood was marred by her own blindness, her brother’s crippled hip and their struggle for survival together in an asylum where they played with rats instead of toys. Patty Duke is even more fiery as Helen Keller, and I read somewhere that the seven-minute catfight between them is a cinematic world record. Helen, blind and deaf since six months old, has been indulged as a hopeless retard, spoilt rotten as her high-achieving family’s only way to love her. Sullivan, her own sight restored through surgery, is the one person in the world hard enough, yet understanding enough, to take her on. Teaching her table-manners is the chosen battle-ground to break her in. Cap’n Keller is impressed that his daughter has been successfully taught to obey and conform to civilised behaviour. But he’s had enough of catfights and is ready to dismiss the firebrand Sullivan, saying her work is done. On the contrary, it has yet to begin. Discipline (in which Helen’s frustrated lashings-out are matched by harder slaps) is merely the ground or necessary background for the miracle which is to unfold.

Now, Helen has to be taught by rote, brought blindly to the point where she can see the point. Sullivan without benefit of specialised techniques teaches her to spell out words, using a primitive deaf-and-dumb sign language, demonstrated with hands and felt with hands. Helen has no idea what a letter is: nor that it is part of a word, for she doesn’t know what a word is, let alone a sentence; nor that it represents a sound, for she knows no sound. How can this possibly work? So she learns sequences of letters, like a kind of hand-wrestling, a sedentary Tai-Chi for two. It’s exactly like teaching a dog tricks, for she gets rewarded with approval (expressed in nods and smiles, which she can feel with her fingers) and morsels of cake. It’s not surprising that we find her one day teaching sign-language to the family dog. Though she can’t see, she’s upset when her aunt gives her a doll with no eyes: these have to be hastily sewn on as buttons. You’d think a blind-deaf child would be cut off from what goes on. But it ain’t so. She is just missing something else.

The hardest part of language, the bit which eludes Helen and baffles Annie, is to establish the relation between the word and the thing it signifies. Helen despite crashing around like a retard is very bright. She knows there is such a thing as speech, and it’s something she wants more than anything, more than sight and hearing. We know this because she feels the discussions around her, touches the faces, catches the vibrations of anger and joy. But she will have to learn to read and write before she can speak with her mouth. These later steps are beyond the scope of the screenplay which, miraculous as it is in portraying the first steps in meaningful communication, covers only a short period of the young Keller’s life.

Ah, the connection between words and reality: a problem which engaged Ludwig Wittgenstein’s entire adult life, from the Tractatus through to the Philosophical Investigations! There’s documented evidence, faithfully reproduced in the screenplay, that Helen was precocious as a baby. At six months old, before her two most vital senses were destroyed by scarlet fever, she had learned her first word: “wa-wa”—water. Locked up in her, as in every human child, was the propensity to harbour concepts and name them. We see how different experiences of water connect in her mind, and how Annie tries to imprint the finger-spelling of “w” “a” “t” “e” and “r” so that she can associate them with experiences of the liquid. Then there is the magical experience when the pump-handle is worked, the water gushes out of the spout, Helen feels its lively coldness on her hands. Suddenly she utters “wa-wa”. Then the penny drops and she spontaneously sees the analogy between all these finger-signings and the simple movement of lips and breath. From this moment on, so brilliantly depicted cinematically, she is able to connect “m” “o” “t” “h” “e” and “r”—all these sequences which she has learned so well—as names for the important beings in her life. Only then can this intelligent child learn to think—to claim this human birthright which distinguishes us from the other animals.

What a film! It shows us, in a human drama which brings us to tears many times along the way, who we are and why. This, my dear reader, is just a few drops of that cascade of interconnectedness, whose overarching meaning shines like a rainbow across a waterfall, that I struggle and fail to communicate. But by the principle of laziness, I need not try too hard. All I can do is work the pump. Out comes “wa-wa”! Things click into place. I don’t know how to join the dots, the sparkling drops which refract in the sun, but I shall strive to be a Pointillist and let you join them yourself, in an understanding which may become more coherent than my expression.

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10 thoughts on “Groping blindly

  1. There are connections everywhere!

    For the past three months, my work has brought me into intensive contact with a three year old girl who as a result of a very rare genetic defect has become completely deaf in the past six months. In addition, she suffers from facial paralysis and has to be continually artificially respirated.

    Her courage leaves me breathless. After major setbacks following the onset of the illness, she is once more living as a more or less normal child. She keeps us all on her toes running around after her carrying the respirator! She has quickly learned the basics of taking care that the life-essentail breathing tubes are always positioned correctly and can get quite angry at us if she feels we aren't doing something “right.” She has developed a rudimentary sign language with us for communicating (the “real thing” will follow next year) and I have never seen anyone who can shrug so expressively – and that despite facial paralysis.

    The human spirit is indominatable – all it needs is a little nurturing.

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  2. “'Time-sharing' a father.”

    I also had a step brother. I never quite heard the situation described that way. Nice.

    The Miracle Worker is another item on my long list of things I've heard about but haven't see/read. I like your take on it.

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  3. Indomitable and so adaptable too! But then the same thing could be said of supergerms – I refer to your latest post, of course. But other creatures adapt by evolving over the generations. Our own organism is fluid and resourceful in one lifetime.

    And the other great difference between us and other creatures is the extraordinary amount, and subtlety, of the nurturing we require.

    And our ability to communicate, against all odds, is astonishing.

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  4. Another beautiful piece of prose Vincent.

    The laziness that you speak of is far from laziness if intellectual activity of your observations is considered.

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  5. It is amazing how you can keep turning out so much bull shit so often in this blog.

    Please don't take this seriously. It is only for amusement :-)

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  6. You are welcome Vincent. The pleasure is entirely mine.

    There looks like you have taken it seriously now :-)

    I was just rying to mimic your style.

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  7. Mimic away, Ashok. My style is not copyrighted.

    One aspect of my style is never to use a ‘smiley face’. This way, it remains unclear whether I am serious or not.

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