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Language in the Words of Helen Keller

October 19, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I often study the idea of Language. I am curious about how language comes to be meaningful, communicative and permanent. Yet, at the same time, language is so flexible and manipulative. This elasticity allows it to grow, change and expand to incorporate new ideas and influences. Yet, language can also restrict in unseen ways. One thing that is often forgotten, however, once one becomes proficient in reading and speaking, is the power of learning how to communicate. In order to experience this, we can witness the curiosity of young children in the learning process. Rarely do we remember this process ourselves. But we have been gifted with the wonderful, powerful story of Helen Keller, who writes eloquently about her own dawn of language. The rest of today’s blog contains two long quotes from The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, which demonstrate the magic and beauty of language, communication and connection.


From Chapter IV:

“The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. 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. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.”


From Chapter VI:

“I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.

I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, "love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."

"What is love?" I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.

I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"

"No," said my teacher.

Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.

"Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. "Is this not love?"

It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. 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.

For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for "love" in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.

Again I asked my teacher, "Is this not love?"

"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”

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Shakespeare's Troilus Versus Chaucer's Criseyde

September 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Shakespeare is a favorite topic of mine, and of many of our students. Recently, I read and discussed Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Though we didn’t have time to compare it to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, I wanted to spend a few moments doing just that. Before I do, however, I will list a few of my lingering questions about Shakespeare’s play.

1] Based upon the title, I thought this play was about love, but where is the romance?

2] Why, after lamenting about the loss of order, does Ulysses allow Ajax to face Hector? If Ulysses is so concerned with the natural order of things, shouldn’t Achilles, the best Greek fighter, face Hector, the best Trojan fighter?

And 3] Why does Shakespeare end the play with Pandarus moaning about his own degradation? I thought this play was about the romance, not the middleman.

It would be safe to assume that a story titled Troilus and Cressida would mostly be about Troilus and Cressida. Yet, if you have read Shakespeare’s play, then you’d be surprised to find how little time is spent upon the love affair. In fact, Shakespeare’s Troilus laments about love for a few scenes, and only one scene involves the actual love affair. The play’s focal points involve talk of war, such as Ulysses’s long speech on order in Act III, and Achilles’s tragic slaying of Hector. The play questions what it means to be noble or heroic. Framed by an unjust war (stemming from a love affair), these characters face the very modern problem of living in a fallen society. Troilus and Cressida become lost in the societal conflicts at the play’s center. Love becomes a lens with which to judge the nobility of the characters. Often labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Troilus and Cressida offers difficult, but very worthwhile, questions.

Some differences between the two works are easy to note, such as the fact that Chaucer wrote a metered poem, whereas Shakespeare chose to write a play. Chaucer’s poem does focus on the lovers. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, spends much of the time on discussion of war. Shakespeare wrote long speeches for Ulysses, Hector, and even Nestor. They discuss war at length, introducing the idea of honor in a fallen state. After Criseyde has been sent to the Greek camp, Chaucer focuses on Troilus’s plans to wait for her each night. Shakespeare’s characters must decide whether or not to fight a dishonorable war.

I find the last lines of these two works very interesting. Chaucer ends his poem with Troilus’s death which grants a final release of Troilus’s damaged soul. In this poem, it is fitting that Troilus dies by the heroic sword of Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And having fallen to Achilles’ spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.// As he looked down, there came before his eyes/ This little spot of earth, that with the sea/ Lies all embraced, and found he could despise/ This wretched world, and hold it vanity,/ Measured against the full felicity/ That is in Heaven above” (273A)*. In other words, Troilus is released from his earthly cares and upon reflection he realizes that earthly life is a truly “wretched world.” There is a feeling of rejoice as he rises. Throughout the poem, Troilus is consistently loyal, honorable and (other than his inability to act on love unaided) he demonstrates virtue. Clearly, then, Troilus find peace, not in love, but in heaven.

On the other hand, Shakespeare gives the play’s final word to Pandarus, who appears to be the least honorable character in the play. In the last scene, he asks the audience to weep at “Pandar’s fall.” These ironic lines underscore the brutality and depravity of the previous scene in which Achilles and his men slaughter an unarmed Hector and then drag his brutalized body behind Achilles’s horse. Through Achilles’s actions, Shakespeare questions the often idyllic view of ancient myth. Pandar’s words, then, become doubly painful. Hector is the true hero, not Pandarus, but it is Pandarus who lives to beg for the audience’s sympathy. He also invites the audience to join him in this fallen future. In Shakespeare’s play, Hector, perhaps, comes closest to attaining nobility, but even he falls prey to tradition or pride or duty. In this play, the characters act as pawns, which makes Pandarus’s final words even more fitting. Troilus and Cressida is about the fallen state. The tangle of love affairs play off each other nicely to demonstrate the fallen state. Through these characters, we must ask: What is love? What is honor or nobility? And how do they display any signs of love?

Chaucer clearly elevates the idea of love from earthly to celestial. Though Troilus’s passion is true and he remains loyal to Cressida, he realizes the folly of this love as he leaves earth. Cressida, likewise, understands that earthly love will not save her soul. Chaucer’s Cressida is complicated. She sincerely loves Troilus, but is unable to stay with him. Her choice of a Greek lover seems more rational, more necessary, than Shakespeare’s. The reasons for this decision once again highlight the impossibility of earthly love. Furthermore, by forcing Cressida/Criseyde away from Troilus, both play and poem reflect how little choice women have in their lives. The one man she wants is the one man that she cannot have.

Shakespeare turns that idea of love on its head by the parallel stories of Helen and Paris, Troilus and Cressida. In the following passage, Shakespeare treats love (brotherly love, romantic love and patriotic love) with irony and sarcasm. (It is good to know that the Trojan war began because Paris stole Helen from King Menelaus.) During the play, Greece offers to trade a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. Hector accepts the trade, much to Troilus’s dissatisfaction. Then, Troilus laments to Paris (his brother, and also the cause of the war) the fact that Cressida must leave Troy. Troilus says, “I’ll bring her to the Grecian presently;/ And to his hand when I deliver her,/ Think it an altar, and thy brother Troilus/ A priest there offering to it his own heart.” Paris offers only this: “I know what ‘tis to love;/ And would, as I shall pity, I could help!” (128A)*. How ironic that the man who began this war by stealing Helen, could not find a solution to Troilus’s problem. He feels pity, but very little remorse. If Troilus’s love is true, Paris’s feels rather covetous, rash, impersonal and selfish. The play highlights the immorality of these actions purportedly based upon love.

There is so much more that I could say. Reading Chaucer’s Troilus in tandem with Shakespeare’s version enlightened great ideas of love, world, and honor. With wonderful skill and wit, these authors question nobility and virtue. Both pieces are worthy of much discussion, more than I have given them here. If you have a thought on these works, I invite you to post it below.

If you enjoy this topic, you may also enjoy this lecture on more of Shakespeare's play: Harvard lecture (~1.5 hours).

* All citations are from the Great Books of the Western World, volumes 19 (Chaucer) and 25 (Shakespeare), published 1990.

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Augustine and Monica

March 2, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

In leaving Carthage, Augustine abandoned his mother, Monica. A widow, she pleaded with her son not to leave - or, if he must go, not to leave her behind. She would come with him. He lied to his mother, offering her the false comfort that he was not leaving but was only seeing off a friend. In the night, he slipped away, sailing to Rome. Monica suffered a second bereavement. This story, related by Augustine in his Confessions reveals a certain callousness on the part of Augustine toward his mother. Yet, throughout The Confessions, he appears to revere his mother, praising her virtue. How could a man that so loved his mother treat her so despitefully?

That he thought highly of his mother is beyond doubt. He relates several stories of her remarkable virtue and piety. In the third book of The Confessions, he relates how Monica prayed fervently that her son might come to know the Christian god and how she wept over his state of spiritual death. Monica was rewarded with a divinely-authored dream that assured her that Augustine would one day convert to Christianity. In the ninth book, he relates how her mother-in-law originally despised her due to the rumor-mongering of the servants and how Monica, through patience, kindness, and gentleness, won her mother over, so that the two women became quite close. Similarly, she won her husband over to the Christian faith. Augustine sees her as the model wife, never complaining about her husband but defusing his anger with her gentle forbearance. Augustine frequently expresses love and admiration for his mother.

But like most relationships between children and parents, the relationship between Augustine and Monica was complicated. Augustine’s reverence for his mother was mingled with resentment. Though Augustine’s ostensible aim is to confess his own guilt, at times he absolves himself of that guilt by putting the blame on his mother.

For example, even though Monica spent much time praying that her son would become a Catholic, she did not take the opportunity to make him a Catholic when she could. In his childhood, Augustine became quite ill, and it was thought that he should be baptized in order to ensure the saving of his soul. However, he recovered quickly and his baptism was delayed. Monica worried that if he lived a life of profligacy after being baptized, his baptism would be undone and he would be damned. While Augustine praises his mother for her teaching and understands the reason she delayed his baptism, he disagrees with the decision, likening the delay to withholding medicine from the sick man (6). Moreover, he implies that the later sins of his life might not have happened if he had been baptized and purified at that young age and that those years that he wasted as a prodigal son could have been spent in service to the Christian god.

Indeed, that he wasted years serving himself is due in part to Monica’s confused priorities, at least, according to Augustine. It was important to her that he become skilled in rhetoric and be able to make a living at it. To this end, she put him in schools where he was beaten when he did not complete his work, preferring to play games instead. Augustine was quite bitter about the beatings administered by his teachers. He found his teachers to be hypocrites. They too wasted their time with amusements (5). He could not understand why parents would turn their children over to the rough punishment of these teachers. As he grew older, he discovered the intense sexual desire of youth, but he found that his parents did nothing to help him. His mother did not want him to marry, lest he be distracted from his studies and his future career be jeopardized. So, instead of having licit sexual relations with a wife, he sought the illicit relations of a mistress (11-12). Later, he would find the life of a rhetorician empty, the fame that accompanied it hollow. Monica’s emphasis on his career led him to a life of sin and vanity. Moreover, it ultimately delayed his conversion to the Catholic faith, as he did not want to give up his life of sexual libertinism.

Even when he writes of abandoning Monica, while confessing his own callousness, he finds fault with his mother. She is a jealous mother, too desirous of his company. In his opinion, she loves him disproportionately. His leaving her, therefore, is a punishment sent from her god, so that she will learn to love her god first and her son second. Or, to put it more accurately, her distorted love of Augustine, which is the cause of her emotional suffering, is both the cause of her punishment and the punishment itself: “...[God] used her too jealous love for her son as a scourge of sorrow for her just punishment” (39). In this way, Augustine mitigates the guilt he feels over leaving his mother - she has brought this sorrow upon herself.

This attribution of guilt to Monica creates a fascinating dichotomy in The Confessions. On the one hand, he wishes to accept responsibility for his sins. His constant refrain is that every wrong thing he ever did originated from himself. Contradictorily, he relieves himself from guilt by placing the blame on his mother, at least in part. She did not protect him from temptation. She did not purify him through baptism. She taught him to pursue illusory goods - fame and wealth. She drove him away through her neediness and too fervent love. Augustine writes that Monica “inherited the legacy of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she brought into the world” (39). But Augustine’s writing echoes the defense of Adam after eating the forbidden fruit, as if Augustine said to his god, “The mother you gave to me, she caused me to sin.”

One can now understand why Augustine, though he adored his mother, abandoned her. He bore her a good deal of ambivalence. While he considered her a model of virtue and religious devotion, he also found her to be negligent of his spiritual good. Though he ostensibly tries to accept responsibility for his own wrongdoing, he finds himself laying much of the blame on his mother: his guilt is her guilt. In confessing his sins, he publicly confesses her sins as well. The mixed feelings that his mother was a most remarkable woman and yet had failed him help explain why he could lie to his mother and leave her lonely in Carthage.

Works Cited

Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer J. Adler et al., vol. 16, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990, pp. 1-159.

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Love Letters

February 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” - Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden

I think that it would be ideal to have somewhere between 96 and 3 words for love. Certainly, one does not seem enough. It is much like the word nature, which contains so much. When discussing literature, we spend so much time just trying to figure out what type of love we are talking about...what type of love the characters demonstrate. Moreover, we use the same word to say that we love something as silly as ice cream, and something as serious as a lost loved one. The following love letters fit the week's theme, which celebrates St. Valentine. They are an exchange between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his future wife Sophia Peabody. They married in 1842 and had three children and a long marriage. Though both were known to be quiet and reclusive, these letters prove of an intense and passionate relationship.

Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to Sophia as his “Dove” and said that she was his sole companion. He continues, “I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” After their first child was born, Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt a different kind of love and he voices this profound responsibility of fatherhood. He writes, “I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”

We wish you health, happiness and love. Contemplate and celebrate the many meanings of love this week!

Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, December 5, 1839

Dearest, – I wish I had the gift of making rhymes, for methinks there is poetry in my head and hear since I have been in love with you. You are a Poem. Of what sort, then? Epic? Mercy on me, no! A sonnet? No; for that is too labored and artificial. You are a sort of sweet, simple, gay pathetic ballad, which Nature is singing, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, and sometimes with intermingled smiles and tears.

 

Sophia Peabody to Nathaniel Hawthorne, December 31, 1839

Best Beloved, – I send you some allumettes wherewith to kindle the taper. There are very few but my second finger could no longer perform extra duty. These will serve till the wounded one be healed, however. How beautiful it is to provide even the slightest convenience for you, dearest! I cannot tell you how much I love you, in this back-handed style. My love is not in this attitude, - it rather bends forwards to meet you.

What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.

My ideas will not flow in these crooked strokes. God be with you. I am very well, and have walked far in Danvers this cold morning. I am full of the glory of the day. God bless you this night of the old year. It has proved the year of our nativity. Has not the old earth passed away from us? - are not all things new?

Your Sophie

- These letters can be found in: Forever Yours: Letters of Love. St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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