Deaf-Blindness and the Avid Musical Touch of Helen Keller

By: Stefan Sunandan Honisch (Vancouver, British Columbia) //

My hands evoke sight and sound out of feeling,
Intershifting the senses endlessly,
Linking motion with sight, odor with sound.
They give color to the honeyed breeze,
The measure and passion of a symphony
To the beat and quiver of unseen wings.
In the secrets of earth and sun and air
My fingers are wise;
They snatch light out of darkness,
They thrill to harmonies breathed in silence.
(Helen Keller, A Chant of Darkness)

 On April 24, 1916, the tenor Enrico Caruso sang Vois ma misère hélas! Vois ma détresse from Camille Saint Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila in a private performance for Helen Keller. Keller experienced the music by touching Caruso’s vocal apparatus as he performed, reportedly telling the singer afterwards, “Though I cannot see your face, I can feel the pathos of your song.”

Contemporaneous newspaper reports make much of the fact that Keller’s fingers did what her ears could not, thereby rendering her touch as silent. An equally noticeable tendency in the press reception of Caruso and Keller’s musical encounter is skepticism. Commentators doubted that Keller could experience music in the ways she herself claimed, waving away the sensations she described as figments of a deceptive touch. A report in The Richmond Times Dispatch is unceremonious in this regard, refusing to accept that Keller could have had any properly musical understanding, while nonetheless allowing that Keller may have formed “emotional images” in response to what she felt. In contrast, an account of Caruso’s performance for Keller in The Los Angeles Herald bears the subheading “The Thing May Not Be Impossible,” and strikes a note in support of Keller: “Only those who mistake their ignorance for cunning will deny Miss [sic] Keller’s statement that with her fingertips she can feel the emotions of a fellow human being.”

I’d like to press the language through which Keller communicated her experience to Caruso. References to emotion and affect in music commonly require metaphors of touch. In relation to music’s expressive capacities, for example, feeling is understood to signify feeling emotion. Responses to music are likewise communicated through haptic and kinesthetic metaphors, but with the emotional dimensions left unspecified: to music is ascribed the power to grab, reach, transport, move, take hold. Each of these verbal figurations simultaneously evoking touch and movement is familiar enough that there seems to be little point in subjecting them to closer examination. Yet, in Keller’s declaration, and in the Los Angeles Herald report there is a subtle play of figurative and literal meaning that links the emotional and physical meanings of touch in an unfamiliar way. The quoted passages call attention to touch as a component of music reducible neither to metaphorical nor to literal feeling. As practiced by Keller, the act of touching music is inseparable from both touch as emotion and touch as sensation, while also creating an altogether different way of understanding music. Through literally feeling the singer’s body in performance, Keller could metaphorically feel the expressivity of Caruso’s voice, her fingers drawing out the affective layers in Samson’s expression of grief. Keller’s fingers were neither silent nor misleading but rather the conduit for what I will call an avid touch.

Taking my inspiration from a core aim of this blog, namely to explore avid listening, I ask: what might it mean to cultivate an avid touch in our own musical activities? Keller and Caruso’s musical encounter creates a relationship between musician and audience that exemplifies some of the possibilities through which we might get more in touch with music, whether in the classroom, the concert hall, or the home.

An avid touch may begin at the fingertips, but ultimately it courses through the entire body and involves the senses, imagination, memory, and affect. Keller’s own writings provide a helpful starting point for understanding this complex array of musical resources. The poetic excerpt quoted above provides one such example. Her poem brings multiple senses into play, and shows—in its constant shifts between the real and fantastical, the metaphorical and the literal—the potentially wide range of an avid touch. A more prosaic representation of Keller’s world, this time focused more narrowly on touch, provides another, no less instructive explanation: “Every object is associated in my mind with tactual qualities which, combined in countless ways, give me a sense of power, of beauty, or of incongruity: for with my hands I can feel the comic as well as the beautiful in the outward appearance of things.” What is perhaps especially remarkable is the seamless way that Keller links concrete reality to abstract thought, and the philosophical sensibility that enables her to reach past the surfaces of her world.

Elsewhere, Keller implicitly urges others to deepen their appreciation for the knowledge afforded through touch: “I think people do not usually realize what an extensive apparatus the sense of touch is. It is apt to be confined in our thoughts to the finger-tips. In reality, the tactual sense reigns throughout the body, and the skin of every part, under the urge of necessity, becomes extraordinarily discriminating.“

Teaching by example, Keller shows us that not only can music touch us, but we can touch music. At the most immediate level, the “tactual qualities” of music and of musical objects are physical, which is to say the felt vibrations of music. Yet in Keller’s own descriptions of her musical experiences, touchable vibrations are at the surface, opening up a host of associations between sense, sensation, affect, feeling, and idea that extend beyond music’s vibrating exterior. All of this is not to say that Keller defines the full range of possibilities for an avid touch, but rather to acknowledge that she articulates these possibilities with a verbal eloquence and conceptual precision that allow for transposition to a wide variety of present-day musical contexts.

Consider the following video of Gladys Swarthout singing for Helen Keller in 1952. The interaction through touch between Keller and Swarthout also includes bodily movement in response to music. As Keller’s left hand touches Swarthout’s throat, her right hand moves vertically, often corresponding to the rhythmic and melodic emphases in the hymn tune as though she were conducting the singer. There are also moments where Keller moves her fingers as though she were a pianist tracing out the melody that she literally feels through direct physical contact with the singer.

Were we to watch and listen to this video without any background knowledge about the singer, pianist, and audience, we might think we are witnessing a voice masterclass, with Keller as the vocal coach. Free of contextual understanding, we might speculate that Keller is teaching the singer by analyzing her performance through touch rather than listening, tuned to the vibrations of the singer’s vocal chords. While the different contexts in which people make, see, hear, and feel music are crucial to research, pedagogy, and, for that matter, informed discussion, there is a sense that fostering a musically avid touch requires the sort of naïveté I have imagined here. In the present example, the absence of context can serve an initially useful function in preventing us from both the haste and habit born of the sights and sounds we may take for granted. As we ask ourselves why one person is touching another person’s face as the latter sings, our eyes and ears need not lead us to conclude that the answer is simply: because that person can neither see nor hear and therefore must touch instead.

An avid musical touch requires us to discard the idea that one sense modality can substitute for another. Keller’s deaf-blindness shaped her responses to Caruso and Swarthout because of her sensitivity to touch as touch, and her skill in using both literal and metaphorical language to make sense of music. If classrooms, concert halls, and homes are to become places for the cultivation of musically avid touch, the necessary starting point is a principled openness towards first-hand accounts of musical experience such as those from Keller’s hands that fall outside known categories such as analysis, criticism, and pedagogy. If subjective musical presence in the world is articulated in important ways by sound, and sight, then it is also important to acknowledge the unfamiliar role of touch in shaping other musical subjectivities.

For Discussion

  1. What role does touch play in your own musical experiences?
  2. Several of the newspaper articles cited in this essay express doubts about Keller’s descriptions of her own experiences. When it comes to lived bodily experience, who gets to decide whether a disabled person’s account of her or his own bodily experiences are valid?
  3. Helen Keller is perhaps the most widely known and researched deaf-blind person. Can you think of other examples of deaf-blind people taking part in musical experiences, as performers, as audience members, or in some other role?

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