Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1908)
When I read Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, I was intrigued by one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to a college professor who found her compositions too derivative and wondered when she would write of her own unique experiences:
I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any…
The World I Live In could be seen as the fruit of this intention, and it is a remarkable piece of work. Composed from essays published in Century Magazine between 1904 and 1908, with an added final chapter, it is an extended meditation on the sensory and mental world inhabited by a deaf-blind person, and a rebuke to those who believe that because she cannot see and hear she cannot be fully human, perhaps does not even exist.
She responds with Descartes’ formulation, “I think, therefore I am,” and it’s clear that thought is her light, that her ability to think is in no way impaired by sensory deprivation. Her lucid, carefully constructed, and often playful prose guides us through her realm of experience, bringing us to understand how a condition that seems so alien and threatening can reveal aspects of our common humanity, our spiritual core.
Keller defends her choice to use visual and auditory imagery in her writing, arguing that she can by analogy comprehend many concepts related to the five-sensed world — just as we understand non-sensory concepts like love, faith, mercy and justice that we have never seen with our eyes. She can “see” a friend just as we do — not with her eyes, but with the inner vision which is what we really mean by that expression.
But it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.
In the NYRB Classics edition, the essays along with their coda, the prose-poem “A Chant of Darkness,” are followed by the earlier essay “Optimism” (1903) and the autobiographical sketch she published at the age of twelve, “My Story” (1894). An introduction by Roger Shattuck explains the circumstances of publication and points out elements of note in each work and in Keller’s thought as a whole.
At under 200 pages, it’s a compact but rich encapsulation of the life and ideas of an individual whose true achievements have been little understood or appreciated. I hope that it may become more widely known, and spark our own rehabilitation of the senses we possess but do not fully use, guiding us toward the practice of joyful creative activity that Keller so beautifully demonstrates.