Groping Blindly

Originally published on April 27th, 2011. Another one rescued from oblivion

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. So no trade was done but we started a correspondence, out of which 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.

See original comments on this post here

12 thoughts on “Groping Blindly”

  1. A recent book I HAVE BEEN BURIED UNDER YEARS OF DUST is an account of autism from the perspective of a mother and daughter. Making connections is a internal task as well as an external one. I guess both are a combination of trying as hard as we can, and letting it happen in its own way.


  2. I had a look at this book (reviews & Kindle sample) & can see the connection you make between Emily Grodin & Helen Keller.
    Based on such limited investigation, I concur with Charles, writing in Goodreads, when he says

    As someone who is autistic and has autistic family, this book was awful to read. In short, it’s a narcissistic mother — an “autism mommy” trope personified — who is hung up on making her daughter “normal.”


  3. Here is another insight into understanding the diverse ways in which our brains function. When Temple Grandin, who could only think in pictures, was assigned a a blind roommate, the two complemented each other and assisted each other is understanding the exterior world. The senses which were deficient in Grandin, such as the ability to hear and interpret emotional context, were highly developed in her blind friend.


  4. Yes, I came across Temple Grandin some years ago and admired her for many reasons. Mentioned her in this post,

    Parental anxiety as revealed in Buried Under Years of Dust is echoed in a TV series The A Word, which my daughter urged me to watch. I gave up after two episodes, I was so passionately angry at the mother who failed to understand her little boy and interfered with his efforts to be true to himself. She was full of her worries and not his needs. I speak as a father of four who never laid expectations upon my children, let them learn from their own mistakes . . .


  5. Thanks Ian. You gave me a connection to Milton’s cottage which was secured for him by a young Quaker whom Milton had assisted in improving his Latin. Thomas Ellwood later edited George Fox’s Journal for publication. I envy you for seeing the places in England which I only read about.

    It seems to me that parents of autistic kids live with extreme pressure. There are no simple solutions to help the children break through the barriers that keep them locked in frustrating existences. From what I’ve read it takes a lot of love, patience, sensitivity, and innovative methods.

    There is a child in our Quaker meeting who is on the autism (or aspergers) spectrum. He has various strengths and weakenesses. It is hard to predict what might upset him unexpectedly. But I really enjoy spending time with him.


  6. I feel so thankful. You extend my world. You open my doors of perception.
    Sorry I have no coin with which to repay you.


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