The World I Live In Part 3

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Once, long ago, in a crowded railway station, a lady kissed me as she hurried by. I had not touched even her dress. But she left a scent with her kiss which gave me a glimpse of her. The years are many since she kissed me. Yet her odour is fresh in my memory.

It is difficult to put into words the thing itself, the elusive person-odour. There seems to be no adequate vocabulary of smells, and I must fall back on approximate phrase and metaphor.

Some people have a vague, unsubstantial odour that floats about, mocking every effort to identify it. It is the will-o'-the-wisp of my olfactive experience. Sometimes I meet one who lacks a distinctive person-scent, and I seldom find such a one lively or entertaining. On the other hand, one who has a pungent odour often possesses great vitality, energy, and vigour of mind.

Masculine exhalations are as a rule stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odour of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all things strong and beautiful and joyous, and gives me a sense of physical happiness. I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent--pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality. It is not until the age of six or seven that they begin to have perceptible individual odours.

These develop and mature along with their mental and bodily powers.

What I have written about smell, especially person-smell, will perhaps be regarded as the abnormal sentiment of one who can have no idea of the "world of reality and beauty which the eye perceives." There are people who are colour-blind, people who are tone-deaf. Most people are smell-blind-and-deaf. We should not condemn a musical composition on the testimony of an ear which cannot distinguish one chord from another, or judge a picture by the verdict of a colour-blind critic. The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life are not less pleasant merely because some critic who treads the wide, bright pathway of the eye has not cultivated his olfactive sense. Without the shy, fugitive, often un.o.bserved sensations and the certainties which taste, smell, and touch give me, I should be obliged to take my conception of the universe wholly from others. I should lack the alchemy by which I now infuse into my world light, colour, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered. The solid earth would melt from under my feet and disperse itself in s.p.a.ce. The objects dear to my hands would become formless, dead things, and I should walk among them as among invisible ghosts.




I WAS once without the sense of smell and taste for several days. It seemed incredible, this utter detachment from odours, to breathe the air in and observe never a single scent. The feeling was probably similar, though less in degree, to that of one who first loses sight and cannot but expect to see the light again any day, any minute. I knew I should smell again some time. Still, after the wonder had pa.s.sed off, a loneliness crept over me as vast as the air whose myriad odours I missed. The mult.i.tudinous subtle delights that smell makes mine became for a time wistful memories. When I recovered the lost sense, my heart bounded with gladness. It is a fine dramatic touch that Hans Andersen gives to the story of Kay and Gerda in the pa.s.sage about flowers. Kay, whom the wicked magician's gla.s.s has blinded to human love, rushes away fiercely from home when he discovers that the roses have lost their sweetness.

The loss of smell for a few days gave me a clearer idea than I had ever had what it is to be blinded suddenly, helplessly. With a little stretch of the imagination I knew then what it must be when the great curtain shuts out suddenly the light of day, the stars, and the firmament itself. I see the blind man's eyes strain for the light, as he fearfully tries to walk his old rounds, until the unchanging blank that everywhere spreads before him stamps the reality of the dark upon his consciousness.

My temporary loss of smell proved to me, too, that the absence of a sense need not dull the mental faculties and does not distort one's view of the world, and so I reason that blindness and deafness need not pervert the inner order of the intellect. I know that if there were no odours for me I should still possess a considerable part of the world.

Novelties and surprises would abound, adventures would thicken in the dark.

In my cla.s.sification of the senses, smell is a little the ear's inferior, and touch is a great deal the eye's superior. I find that great artists and philosophers agree with me in this. Diderot says:

Je trouvais que de tous les sens, l'oeil etait le plus superficiel; l'oreille, le plus orgueilleux; l'odorat, le plus voluptueux; le gout, le plus superst.i.tieux et le plus inconstant; le toucher, le plus profond et le plus philosophe.[C]

A friend whom I have never seen sends me a quotation from Symonds's "Renaissance in Italy":

Lorenzo Ghiberti, after describing a piece of antique sculpture he saw in Rome adds, "To express the perfection of learning, mastery, and art displayed in it is beyond the power of language.

Its more exquisite beauties could not be discovered by the sight, but only by the touch of the hand pa.s.sed over it." Of another cla.s.sic marble at Padua he says, "This statue, when the Christian faith triumphed, was hidden in that place by some gentle soul, who, seeing it so perfect, fas.h.i.+oned with art so wonderful, and with such power of genius, and being moved to reverent pity, caused a sepulchre of bricks to be built, and there within buried the statue, and covered it with a broad slab of stone, that it might not in any way be injured. It has very many sweet beauties which the eyes alone can comprehend not, either by strong or tempered light; only the hand by touching them finds them out."

Hold out your hands to feel the luxury of the sunbeams. Press the soft blossoms against your cheek, and finger their graces of form, their delicate mutability of shape, their pliancy and freshness. Expose your face to the aerial floods that sweep the heavens, "inhale great draughts of s.p.a.ce," wonder, wonder at the wind's unwearied activity. Pile note on note the infinite music that flows increasingly to your soul from the tactual sonorities of a thousand branches and tumbling waters. How can the world be shrivelled when this most profound, emotional sense, touch, is faithful to its service? I am sure that if a fairy bade me choose between the sense of light and that of touch, I would not part with the warm, endearing contact of human hands or the wealth of form, the n.o.bility and fullness that press into my palms.


[C] I found that of the senses, the eye is the most superficial, the ear the most arrogant, smell the most voluptuous, taste the most superst.i.tious and fickle, touch the most profound and the most philosophical.




THE poets have taught us how full of wonders is the night; and the night of blindness has its wonders, too. The only lightless dark is the night of ignorance and insensibility. We differ, blind and seeing, one from another, not in our senses, but in the use we make of them, in the imagination and courage with which we seek wisdom beyond our senses.

It is more difficult to teach ignorance to think than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara. I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in wood, sea, or sky, nothing in city streets, nothing in books. What a witless masquerade is this seeing! It were better far to sail forever in the night of blindness, with sense and feeling and mind, than to be thus content with the mere act of seeing. They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with a barren stare.

The calamity of the blind is immense, irreparable. But it does not take away our share of the things that count--service, friends.h.i.+p, humour, imagination, wisdom. It is the secret inner will that controls one's fate. We are capable of willing to be good, of loving and being loved, of thinking to the end that we may be wiser. We possess these spirit-born forces equally with all G.o.d's children. Therefore we, too, see the lightnings and hear the thunders of Sinai. We, too, march through the wilderness and the solitary place that shall be glad for us, and as we pa.s.s, G.o.d maketh the desert to blossom like the rose. We, too, go in unto the Promised Land to possess the treasures of the spirit, the unseen permanence of life and nature.

The blind man of spirit faces the unknown and grapples with it, and what else does the world of seeing men do? He has imagination, sympathy, humanity, and these ineradicable existences compel him to share by a sort of proxy in a sense he has not. When he meets terms of colour, light, physiognomy, he guesses, divines, puzzles out their meaning by a.n.a.logies drawn from the senses he has. I naturally tend to think, reason, draw inferences as if I had five senses instead of three. This tendency is beyond my control; it is involuntary, habitual, instinctive.

I cannot compel my mind to say "I feel" instead of "I see" or "I hear."

The word "feel" proves on examination to be no less a convention than "see" and "hear" when I seek for words accurately to describe the outward things that affect my three bodily senses. When a man loses a leg, his brain persists in impelling him to use what he has not and yet feels to be there. Can it be that the brain is so const.i.tuted that it will continue the activity which animates the sight and the hearing, after the eye and the ear have been destroyed?

It might seem that the five senses would work intelligently together only when resident in the same body. Yet when two or three are left unaided, they reach out for their complements in another body, and find that they yoke easily with the borrowed team. When my hand aches from overtouching, I find relief in the sight of another. When my mind lags, wearied with the strain of forcing out thoughts about dark, musicless, colourless, detached substance, it recovers its elasticity as soon as I resort to the powers of another mind which commands light, harmony, colour. Now, if the five senses will not remain disa.s.sociated, the life of the deaf-blind cannot be severed from the life of the seeing, hearing race.

The deaf-blind person may be plunged and replunged like Schiller's diver into seas of the unknown. But, unlike the doomed hero, he returns triumphant, grasping the priceless truth that his mind is not crippled, not limited to the infirmity of his senses. The world of the eye and the ear becomes to him a subject of fateful interest. He seizes every word of sight and hearing because his sensations compel it. Light and colour, of which he has no tactual evidence, he studies fearlessly, believing that all humanly knowable truth is open to him. He is in a position similar to that of the astronomer who, firm, patient, watches a star night after night for many years and feels rewarded if he discovers a single fact about it. The man deaf-blind to ordinary outward things, and the man deaf-blind to the immeasurable universe, are both limited by time and s.p.a.ce; but they have made a compact to wring service from their limitations.

The bulk of the world's knowledge is an imaginary construction. History is but a mode of imagining, of making us see civilizations that no longer appear upon the earth. Some of the most significant discoveries in modern science owe their origin to the imagination of men who had neither accurate knowledge nor exact instruments to demonstrate their beliefs. If astronomy had not kept always in advance of the telescope, no one would ever have thought a telescope worth making. What great invention has not existed in the inventor's mind long before he gave it tangible shape?

A more splendid example of imaginative knowledge is the unity with which philosophers start their study of the world. They can never perceive the world in its entire reality. Yet their imagination, with its magnificent allowance for error, its power of treating uncertainty as negligible, has pointed the way for empirical knowledge.

In their highest creative moments the great poet, the great musician cease to use the crude instruments of sight and hearing. They break away from their sense-moorings, rise on strong, compelling wings of spirit far above our misty hills and darkened valleys into the region of light, music, intellect.

What eye hath seen the glories of the New Jerusalem? What ear hath heard the music of the spheres, the steps of time, the strokes of chance, the blows of death? Men have not heard with their physical sense the tumult of sweet voices above the hills of Judea nor seen the heavenly vision; but millions have listened to that spiritual message through many ages.

Our blindness changes not a whit the course of inner realities. Of us it is as true as it is of the seeing that the most beautiful world is always entered through the imagination. If you wish to be something that you are not,--something fine, n.o.ble, good,--you shut your eyes, and for one dreamy moment you are that which you long to be.




ACCORDING to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations.

Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements. Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, pa.s.sion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of G.o.d, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds.

The World I Live In Part 3

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The World I Live In Part 3 summary

You're reading The World I Live In Part 3. This novel has been translated by Updating. Author: Helen Keller already has 444 views.

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