Richard Lederer, in his book Miracle of Language, extols language as our finest achievement by illustrating its emancipating power in the lives of many writers. Helen Keller is one he mentions. Helen, left blind, deaf, and mute from an unknown illness at age 19 months, found her deliverance when she was seven – at that time an unruly child prone to lashing out in anger at her helplessness in understanding her dark and silent world. Anne Sullivan, herself near-blind, was her mentor and her redeemer.
I will never forget that pivotal scene from the 1962 film, The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke – recreating the moment when Helen first realizes that the cool fluid on her hands is called “water.” This recognition finally leads to a peaceful atmosphere in the Keller household (instead of the chaos which Helen’s frustrations had often caused). Let me briefly describe that scene:
After dragging the wild Helen to the pump to refill the pitcher whose contents had been so unceremoniously splashed on Annie at the kitchen table, Annie makes her ward hold the pitcher under the pump while she works the handle. Annie spells out the word “water” against Helen’s free hand. W-A-T-E-R, water, Annie verbalizes. “It has a name and the name stands for the thing…” she explains. She stops, realizing Helen has a look of sudden comprehension. The pitcher drops from Helen’s hands and shatters. ”Wah..wah” she says, the water dripping on her hands. “Wah…wah” the words came with difficulty. Wah Wah… Helen hits the faucet hysterically. Annie pumps and the water flows over Helen’s palm. Wah… wah, she calls and grasps Anne’s hand to spell the word against her palm. Annie puts Helen’s hands on her face and nods. She knows! The connection is finally made, and this is just the beginning. Helen wants to know everything, all at once. She frantically pulls Annie along, touching things and then holding her hands out for Annie to spell out the names. Annie follows, spelling as fast as she can. The whole family tumbles out of the house, and when Helen knocks against her mother and father, Annie spells each of their names… Mother, Father and she shouts triumphantly. Helen finally knows!
Helen Keller acknowledges this incident in her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1902), with the following:
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. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.
For a view of that momentous scene, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUV65sV8nu0 for yourself.
Annie Sullivan (1866-1936) became Helen’s lifelong companion – even after she married (she married Harvard University instructor and literary critic John Albert Macy). She would accompany Helen to her talks and presentation. Annie herself contracted trachoma, an eye disease, at the age of five, leaving her partially blind. She graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind. At the recommendation of Alexander Graham Bell, a good friend of the Keller family, she came to be Helen’s tutor.
Lederer writes: “Not only did Helen Keller learn to speak, write, and understand the English language, she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College and went on to become a distinguished lecturer and writer. But perhaps the most poignant moment in her life came, when, at the age of nine, she was able to say to Anne Sullivan, ‘I am not dumb now.’”
I recall my own liberation through the miracle of language, by a caring Grade One teacher who taught me phonics. Unlike Helen though, my early mentor did not accompany me along life’s way. Grace though brought me different teachers and mentors in my life and I continue to feel a strong sense of gratitude for these individuals. How dull life would have been without their guidance of enlightenment.
Litchart (https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-miracle-worker/symbols/water ) gives us the following:
Water is the most overt symbol in The Miracle Worker. It’s the cornerstone of the play’s most famous scene (and one of the most famous scenes in American theater), in which Annie Sullivan pumps water on Helen Keller’s hands in order to teach her how to communicate via sign language. This scene—and water as it functions in the play more generally—has a strong religious undertone. In Christianity, water is a symbol of life and beginnings (think of baptism, for instance). It’s apt that water is what inspires Helen Keller to finally understand how to communicate with the external world because in doing so it’s as if she has been born anew, baptized in the waters of truth and knowledge. In this way, water symbolizes the miracle of Helen’s rebirth.
The Bible uses water to signify faith, salvation, and provision. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, signaling perhaps the very substance of creation, the requirement for life to begin. Genesis 1:20 has the first mention of life, “…Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life…” and this life comes from water. The garden of Eden was watered by a river; without water, the garden would have died. John 3:5 makes it clearer that water speaks of physical birth, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” We see here that the water birth (physical) comes before the Spirit birth (spiritual). Water thus speaks of everlasting life we enjoy in Jesus.
In Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, recorded in John 4, Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” He added further, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Water also symbolizes the word of God. In Ephesians 5:26, the church is to be sanctified and cleansed by the washing of the water of the word (word of God). Finally, Christians are baptized with water, symbolizing purification of the soul and an admission into the faith. The Bible begins with “waters” in Genesis and ends with water in Rev. 22:17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
However, there is another view though – of water suggesting a crisis of faith, when its “tumultuous cadence” brings a note of sadness – when there is an acknowledgment that modernity with its emphasis on the need for scientific proof and newer philosophies pushes the Christian faith to the periphery of superstition. Man’s centrality and special role in the universe is somehow negated in the rushing sense of alienation and melancholy. Loss of faith is equated with the loss of certainty and man is left to the dictates of existentialism, absurdism, and even nihilism. Dover Beach, a Victorian poem, expresses this sentiment.
In high school, I once used Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold as my public oratory piece, a poem I still cherish to this day. Beginning with a detailed description of the seascape and its sounds evoking a deep sadness, the author sees the action of the water wave in its retreat to remind us of the loss of faith in our modern age:
….Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in…
…The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world…
Arnold ends with this:
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I end with this terrifying thought:
Nietzsche’s madman proclaims that God is dead and we are the murderers. Then he asks a series of questions about how such an event was possible, including the question, “How were we able to drink up the sea?” But, how could we drink up the sea? The answer is simple: nihilism – which points to a devaluation of values, and a loss of any ‘why?’ The double murder of God and nature is thus modernity yearning for domination where meaning has become lost. Where once we have a clarity of water, we now merely see its darkling, muddied foam where ignorant armies clash by night.
by Alfie Kwong