Helen Keller and the Discovery of a Trinitarian Reality

The story of the world opening to Helen Keller through her discovery of words and language, the discovery that everything has a name, contains the movement from indiscernible objects and sensations to a connectedness to the world, to other people, and to a profound spirituality. It also contains the discovery of herself as a particular subject and actor, as she becomes self-conscious (guilty) for the first time. In short, Helen Keller’s story (which I assume most are familiar with but which is related below) describes not only passage, in her words, out of the darkness of slavery into the freedom of the light, but it describes what must be the “common” passage into personhood, and my presumption throughout is that the complete realization of this personhood is fully Trinitarian in scope. As with the Trinity, so with the story of Helen Keller, the entire event is mysterious, and yet out of this mystery arises every form of awareness and knowing. Reality – the reality of God, I presume, is not only accessible but is the means and mode of all access and all experience.

The Sacrifice  

The first movement in Helen’s opening to the world of language, to her realization that letters spelled out in her hand related to the world, occurs prior to where many would take up the story, but she, no doubt, felt that the sequence of events was interrelated. At first, she had enjoyed the new game that Anne Sullivan, her new teacher, was playing, trying to spell out words in her hand, and she describes trying to imitate this – she compares it to a monkey’s imitation. But then she became tired of the game and takes it out on the doll Anne had given her and which was the word (d-o-l-l) she was spelling out in her palm:

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.[1]   

The doll had not really been special to Helen, prior to her breaking it apart. As with an infant, her world did not contain the sort of differences and differentiation resulting in affections and attachments, which language introduces. Helen describes it as a world without sentiment or tenderness, and explains that she had not really loved the doll. With the doll’s shattering the concrete and undifferentiated world will also explode and become animated with significance – the signs of language.

Helen, two times over, remarks on the “keen sense of delight” she felt at the shattering of the doll. As Lacan and Freud will describe, there is an imaginary violation the child passes through, in which there is a relinquishment of a sort (the castration complex) in the process of language acquisition. Though Helen felt neither sorrow nor regret at having broken the doll, as soon as she makes the leap into language, it will be the doll that she remembers. Even at this early stage in the story, Helen feels “satisfaction” at Anne sweeping the broken pieces of the doll into the hearth. There is already a foreshadowing of the full subjectivity that is slowly arising.[2]

Every child seems to pass from an original, undifferentiated state, in which mother and child and the child and the world are all part of a monolithic whole. An infant slowly discovers its own hands and limbs, but they seem to appear, at first, as objects somehow part of and yet removed from the child, and then with the acquisition of language the integrity of the body and the individual take shape. But prior to recognizing the body as the self, is the realization of separateness and the possibility of disintegration and dismemberment (the first stirrings of death). The linguistic medium, connecting the child to the world, establishes at the same time the subject/object or self and world between which an exchange is made possible. Helen’s passage into the symbolic world is not a displacement so much as an opening, and it would be hard to name what she has relinquished or out of what stuff any sort of choice is constituted.

Religious sacrifice hints at the economy of language acquisition, as in sacrificial religion there seems to be a replaying of the child’s entry into the world of signs. Animal sacrifice, which is already a symbolic displacement, perhaps of human sacrifice, violates the integrity of the animal body, splitting it open either for a reading of the entrails or for setting up a path to negotiate with the gods. Meaning is quite literally, in this instance, in the murder and dismemberment of the thing. Sacrificial practices seem to reduplicate passage into the establishment of signification with the goal of manipulating, pleasing, appeasing, etc. This reentry or reestablishment of meaning seems to objectify and reify (divinize) the symbolic system, but it is this reification which Freud and Lacan presume are present in the child. The Oedipus complex will reify the father, representative of the symbolic order, and service of this father describes the dynamic interplay between the superego or symbolic and the ego or imaginary.

 There may be a difference between the child’s entry into language and the religious attempt to reorder and manipulate the signifying economy, or perhaps sacrificial religion illustrates the characteristic mistake of the child. This is the Freudian assumption, which explains his great interest in primitive religion (along with early childhood development) as an insight into human neurosis and sickness. He presumed the religion reenacts the presumptions of the child. The father the child admires and imitates, is taken up into the child’s own self-consciousness, but both the inner child or the ego that serves this father figure and the father that is served, are mere fabrications, a primordial deception, which gives rise to the split within the human psyche (ego/superego). Sacrificial religion, Freud presumes, reifies both the father figure, as god, and the service that can be rendered by the child worshiper.

What is clear is that the acquisition of language is a necessary step in the constitution of human reality. There is no option, no alternative reality, but the question is if there is a characteristic mistake which marks humanity. Freud’s answer was to provide a scientific escape from religion, while both Lacan and Slavoj Žižek are content to manipulate, apart from religious mystification, the various sacrificial drives set up within the symbolic order. But what if the problem is not so much in the medium of language the child or the religionist takes up or even in the general contours of the economy? What if they have in fact stopped short in their constitution of reality, so that by delimiting it they might control it?

Could it be that in a biblical depiction of sacrifice what is being illustrated is not an economy of exchange, in which worshippers can simply appease and make amends, but more than that, the order of the divine reality and human participation in that reality is depicted as an open possibility. As Jacob Milgrom notes, it is God who is playing all the parts in the Hebrew sacrificial system. As in the story of Abraham, God himself provides the animal, lights the fire, and receives the gift. Entry into the Hebrew sacrificial system, or into the world represented by the Temple, is not simply a point of exchange between God and humans but is an invitation to full participation in the kenotic Trinitarian reality of divine life. It is not that humans can manipulate the exchange and that the exchange impacts them like an object, but they are, like God himself, constituted in the movement of giving, pouring out, donation, self-emptying.

Helen describes a rapidly expanding world which had once been closed off to her. She illustrates her life prior to meeting Anne, as if she were a ship at sea, enclosed in a fog and without means of navigation. Even upon meeting Anne she describes an initial “barrier” or something holding her entrapped. It is unclear what barrier held her back, but perhaps it was the fear of losing the little control and integrity which her isolated world afforded her.

Ironically, her blind and deaf isolation describe the typical understanding of God’s relation to the world – apophatic, impassive, immoveable, and unreachable. Typical sacrificial religion, even that which has come to describe the sacrifice of Christ, is an attempt penetrate some wall or barrier that seems to mark the very character of God.  One may need to get his attention, arouse his desire, break him free of his antipathy, or redirect his anger. The presumption is that God is in his own closed world and that the only way of breaking into this world is to somehow break down the barrier behind which he is hidden. But what if is not on the God side of things that something is required? What if, like Helen, the obstacle that needs to be broken open is one’s own (willful?) isolation.

This is the paradigmatic question which God and God’s prophets continue to raise. In Psalm 50 the worshippers are frustrated because God remains silent (v. 21). Israel has made the childish mistake of assuming God needs sacrifice and God corrects this characteristic misunderstanding: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats?” (Ps. 50:12-13). The point of sacrifice, in the Psalmist’s explanation, is not to feed or to satisfy God’s hunger. They need to offer, not blood and meat, but thanksgiving: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. And pay your vows to the Most High; Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me” (Ps. 50:1-15).

Where their sacrificial economy allows for the sacrifice of the neighbor, God would enact an ethic of sacrifice for the neighbor and thanksgiving to God. As Katherine Sonderegger describes the lesson of Levitical sacrifice, God is not one who would maintain his integrity, like an unbreakable or impenetrable object, but God is continually open and moving outward in the processions of the Trinity, portrayed in sacrifice. Israel is invited into this circulating economy of mercy, gifts, and thanks, as this is who God is. It is through this opening that Israel is established, and it is in this the model in which the full constitution of Personhood is modeled.[3]

The Words of Life

As Helen describes it, the sacrifice and dismemberment of the doll was her entry point into a world of signs and significance:  

She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the 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. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As a 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. The 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.

As Helen walks down the path her sense of warmth and smell seem to be heightened. She feels a certain joy. As the “cool stream” of water gushed over her hand, simultaneously her teacher spells out w-a-t-e-r into her other hand. Her graphic portrayal is of one who was formerly dead to the world being brought into freedom as the “living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” This one who is literally blind and in the darkness is enabled to see and to enter into a new freedom. Her “misty consciousness” is delivered to a capacity for thought as “the mystery of language was revealed to me.” What has broken open for Helen is the wall of separation between her and reality.

Helen begins to literally reach out to the world once the “barrier” was broken down. In the description of Anne Sullivan, she began to reach out and touch and name all the objects and persons around her.

I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “Teacher.” Just then the nurse brought Helen’s little sister into the pump-house, and Helen spelled “baby” and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty words to her vocabulary.

Her world is growing exponentially, as she describes, her “soul is being brought to life.” She has entered into the possibility of exchange with the world which very much resembles the divine invitation to Israel to share in ultimate reality, the life of God. This is the very metaphor Helen utilizes: “Thus I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, ‘Knowledge is love and light and vision.’”  The gift of reality opened to Helen, something like the voice of God. The question might be, why not the voice of God or something on a continuum with revelation?

 It is precisely at this point that there are hints that something might potentially go wrong.

The Subject

The destruction and loss of the doll has somehow opened up the symbolic dimension. Helen has entered a world of differentiation in which she is literally reaching out and touching and realizing the nature of the world, the objects, and the people surrounding her. At the same time, Helen enters a depth of self-awareness and subjectivity she had not yet experienced. In her description the chain of signification linked her to the world and gave birth to an unending series of thoughts, until she came back onto the porch and through the door where she had shattered the doll and then she turns inward:

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.

Strangely, the broken doll has seemingly ushered her into the human world of full personhood, subjectivity, and morality. Her first notion of repentance and sorrow and her attempt to put the doll back together seem to indicate that in her own mind there has been, in Lacanian terms, a “murder of the thing.” Her own isolated and individual world seems to have splintered and opened with the shattering of the doll. The smashed doll may be functioning as the violation of Helen’s previous sense of wholeness, closed off as she was in her own world. Her attempt to recover this lost object may hint at the primitive religious impulse, the desire of the child, which haunts human subjectivity.

The interchange with the world holds out a lost object of desire, which Lacan will identify with the ego. The ever-elusive object of the self, held out in the mirror image or in the bodily image of others. Helen has no capacity to gaze into the mirror or to witness the bodily integrity of others offered up by sight, but what she has now realized is the breaking open of a former integrity or completeness which she had attached to the doll.

Helen describes her former life as a kind of animal like existence. She was fully enmeshed in the darkness of her immanent, silent, world like an animal, fully enmeshed in the immanent order so that it can be said to be in the world like water in water.[4] This must describe Helens unseeing, unhearing world, but doesn’t every human begin in this completely integrated order? The broken doll seemed to enact a space of separation into which the world of language entered. For the first time Helen desired to put together that which has been broken.

Earlier, she describes how she had become attached to a doll and enjoyed putting the doll in its crib. One day she discovers her baby sister in the crib, and in a fit of rage she overturns the crib and indicates the child might have been killed had her mother not been there to catch her. Helen feels no remorse or sorrow, and yet she seems to have some awareness of what she has done. Strange then that this doll, which unlike her own baby sister was hers alone, would evoke remorse.

The moment of guilt and the attempt at payment, in the explanation of Freud and every biblical indication, seems to become a permanent aspect of failed human subjects. The pervasive, if not universal bent toward masochism indicates a self-induced suffering offered as immediate punishment for the pleasure of the symbolic father figure. The symbolic enacts a price paid through masochistic sacrifice and heightened desire.

In the mode of desire, as the Psalmist explains on behalf of God, “You thought that I was just like you” (50:21). The cycle is one in which there is giving and receiving but the interchange gives rise, not to satisfaction, but to heightened desire. They honor thieves and adulterers and they practice deceit, and in their mistaken focus they have forgotten God (v. 22).

 The point of Psalm 50, and in Sonderegger’s portrayal, the point of Leviticus and the point of Jewish cultic sacrifice, is a direct portrayal of the immanent life of God as a resolution to the corrupt economy of sin. “In Trinitarian Sacrifice, Almighty God gives Himself, His Life as the Distillate, the Concretion, of Deity. He is Molten Gift.  The costly Breaking, the Plunging Down, the Life that is Blood: that is the Divine Generation, the Hiddenness poured out and made Manifest.”[5]

The great exchange which the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible may be opening up, is not simply a transaction between God and humans, but the exchange of a mode of subjectivity built on immanent wholeness (a self-contained punishment and pleasure) to one built upon an ever-expanding reception and gratitude. In Sonderegger’s description, “Israel’s cultus is an exchange, a rescue, just because it follows and imitates the Holy Life of God: the life of the sinner and the Divine Life of the Holy God meet on the altar of Israel.”[6]

Hellen Keller’s journey seems to indicate that there is a potential direct trajectory from the house of language to recognition of the person and work of God. According to Sonderegger, Helen illustrates how the child’s acquisition of language may take on a theological tone as “in the encounter of the intelligible in the concrete, the mastering of that explosive relation, we are brought into the house of language but also, and more powerfully, into the House of Being.”[7] She will spend a good portion of her book demonstrating that Being simply is the Being of God, and in Helen’s ever-expanding realization of the essence of things through language, the recognition of God is natural and immediate. We seem to have more than language acquisition demonstrated in the life of Helen Keller’s memoir, as the spiritual richness “tells us that we stand in a larger domain,” something on the order of spiritual enlightenment.

It is a spiritual enlightenment that flows naturally from the orientation that Helen demonstrates, subsequent to the singular sacrifice of her doll. She describes her expanding world granted through the capacity to name and then the passage into abstraction and community: “the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” She remembers distinctly her first encounter with and growing capacity for abstraction and her realization of a capacity for love: “The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.” This connecting Spirit of Love would seem to be none other than the all-powerful Divine Love of God.

What every child, every person encounters in their growing awareness must be this same Divine order opening up to them.

[1] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, (New York, Doubleday) available online at http://cbseacademic.nic.in/web_material/doc/The%20Story%20of%20My%20Life,%20by%20Helen%20Keller.pdf All quotes of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan are from this source.

[2] The shattering of the doll is similar to the cooing satisfaction Freud first notices in his grandson as he learns his first words, here/gone, as he plays with a spool.

[3] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, Fortress Press.

[4] Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology After Lacan, (Routledge) 187.

[5] Sonderegger, 465.

[6] Sonderegger,464.

[7] Sonderegger, 280.