I just came across a wonderful New Yorker article about Helen Keller, the deaf-and-blind humanitarian. Of course I stopped what I was doing to read it. I was sure there’d be nothing new for me in the article – I’ve been fascinated by Keller all my life, and I’ve read the major biographies – but I plunged in anyway.
Turns out I was wrong. What I learned from reading it is that Keller (who died in 1968) was a postmodernist.
Keller was an amazing woman – and a controversial one. She had a goody-goody image that belied the tough woman she really was. (One example: she was a tireless crusader for eyedrops to be routinely given to infants to prevent syphilis-related blindness.)
Keller was most famous as a writer. She had a huge audience that inevitably included a number of critics and doubters. Everything she wrote, the skeptics said, was derivative. Because she was blind and deaf, her life experience was too limited to have generated the vivid descriptions and provocative ideas that filled her books.
If you’re a student of philosophy, you can hear an echo of Plato’s Phaedrus – the old speech vs. writing argument – in the complaints of those critics. Writing is bad because it’s secondhand and derivative. Only what we experience firsthand, in the present moment, is real.
It’s extremely unlike that Keller ever read anything by James Hillman or Jacques Derrida, but she firmly aligned themselves with them. “The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction,” she said. For Keller, history was “but a mode of imagining, of making us see civilizations that no longer appear upon the earth.”
Cynthia Ozick, author of the Keller article, adds, “Are we more than the sum of our senses? Does a picture—whatever strikes the retina—engender thought, or does thought create the picture?” Ozick reminds us that much of her knowledge comes not from our senses but from collective memory, heritage, and literature.
You – reading this – aspire to write. What that means is that you yearn to fly (just as Keller did when she figured out how to experience a world she’d never seen or heard). Imagination is the lens through which we experience life. We need to resist the forces that want to tie us down to the concrete reality of the here-and-now.
Today – right now – take the time to fly for a minute or two. And when it’s time to return to Earth, keep your wings handy. You’ll need them the next time you sit down to write.