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Louis Braille at 200
Celebrating the Bicentennial of the Birth of Louis Braille
by C. Michael Mellor
Editor Emeritus, Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind
On Friday, January 2, I boarded an overnight flight for Paris, where I was to participate in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, who was born on January 4, 1809, just a few weeks before Abraham Lincoln. Paris was cold and damp, and I well understand why Braille often complained in his letters about the winter weather and told how happy he was to stay in his well-heated room! Despite the icy sidewalks, on Sunday morning, Braille's birthday, several of us, including two couples with guide dogs, walked from our hotel to the National Institute for Young Blind, INJA, to attend a memorial. It was in this building, opened in 1844, that Braille taught whenever his fragile health was up to it. On one classroom wall hangs a plaque noting that he gave music lessons in that very room.
INJA has a lovely small chapel, now known as the André Marchal room. It has the rectangular form of a Roman Basilica, with a semicircular apse at one of the narrow walls, while at the opposite end is the organ, with ranks of pipes beautifully arrayed on two levels. Along the face of the semicircular arches in the apse are sayings from the Bible in Latin. Braille knew Latin and would have understood these sacred words when they were read out to him.
The chapel was tightly packed with people, blind and sighted, from all over the world, including many who were not Christian. The choir sang beautifully, and the proceedings were dignified and touching. What especially moved me was the sight of a middle-aged man from Africa following the service in braille. Did Braille ever imagine that his brilliant dot code would one day be used throughout the world?
To me, the occasion had a special meaning because I was well aware that it was in this very chapel that the first public endorsement of the braille code was made. At the inaugural ceremonies of the new building, held in the chapel on February 22, 1844, the school's deputy director, Joseph Guadet, read aloud from his 15-page booklet, "An Account of the System of Writing in Raised Dots for Use by the Blind." He asserted the superiority of Braille's code and made his case by means of a demonstration in which students showed off their braille reading and writing skills.
During the Mass, the superb organist, who was blind, played brief excerpts from the immortal Bach's glorious music. Braille himself probably played this fine instrument, for he was an excellent musician and supplemented his teacher's pay as a church organist.
The night of Braille's birthday we had another unusual musical experience: A memorial organ recital in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. The organist, Jean-Pierre Leguay, is blind, and the recital consisted entirely of music by blind composers. While my preference is for baroque music, this modern music produced some wonderful effects and showed off the amazing skill of the organist and the musical knowledge and imagination of the composers. To hear the full power and majesty of a great organ reverberating through a magnificent cathedral was a once in a lifetime experience. It was as if those ancient sculptured stones were vibrating in harmony with the organ. At times, the sound seemed to be coming from in front, even though I knew very well that the pipes were located behind me. The entire cathedral was transformed into one huge musical instrument proclaiming the genius of Louis Braille. The nave of the cathedral was packed to capacity (the concert was open to the public) and the presence of all the people somehow intensified the emotion. I have never seen so many people inside a cathedral. Let me add, coming down to earth, that it was also the coldest concert I have ever attended! We sat there enthralled, but thankful for our coats, scarves, hats and gloves!
The following day, January 5, the official proceedings began at the headquarters of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. I was one of three speakers at the opening event. Françoise Madray-Lesigne, general secretary of the Association Valentin Haüy (named for the founder of the first school for the blind in 1785) spoke first, and dramatically emphasized Braille's international recognition by reading out aloud the names of all 46 countries represented at these celebrations. Euclid Herie, from Canada, spoke of the six dots that changed the world, and ended his talk by leading the several hundred people in the room in a rousing chant of the word "Braille" (which in French sounds rather like "bry") over and over. I spoke third, and used my allotted 20 minutes to give details of Braille's humble beginnings and his short, but glorious life. My emphasis was on the character and many talents of the human being who gave the world this simple, yet highly effective, code.
Thanks to the facilities of UNESCO, all presentations were simultaneously translated. Audience members had access to headphones through which they could select from several languages. I was intrigued by this system and experimented with it. I listened to parts of a talk on Asian braille given by a distinguished Japanese man reading from a braille text, speaking in English, yet I could listen to the translation into Spanish. Such are the wonders of modern technology.
Wednesday, January 7, was the last day of session at UNESCO. I had time to walk about chatting to people from all over the world and signing copies of my book, which was on sale in the original English and also in the newly published French translation, LOUIS BRAILLE: LA GÉNIE AU BOUT DES DOIGTS (Genius at his Fingertips). I was especially pleased to be tracked down by a Russian gentleman who wanted me to sign his copy. Through his vivacious interpreter he explained that there was scarcely any information about Louis Braille in his country, and that he wanted to obtain permission to have my book translated into Russian.
That night we attended a banquet at the magnificent Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), where, among others, the Mayor of Paris gave an address. During the meal, we were entertained by a talented group of blind musicians from Egypt. The selections included baroque music and what sounded to me like gypsy music. On the highly decorated walls of the spacious dining room I spotted a portrait of André-Marie Ampère, a leading pioneer in the study of electricity. Ampère's house was located just a few blocks from the original school building that Braille first attended in 1819. The distinguished scientist took an interest in the school, and it is very likely that Ampère knew Braille, who enjoyed scientific subjects. In one of his letters, Braille actually says that the trio of musicians with whom he was playing "electrified" the audience.
On Thursday, the last day of the conference, we were taken by bus to the house in Coupvray where Braille was born. It is now a museum, and I have been there several times, but never with so many people. It made me realize just how small the family room is. It has a large table, a wood-fired semicircular oven in which Braille's mother baked bread and pies, and has examples of the molds used in making the Brie cheese typical of this part of France. This small room also has a recessed full size bed in which Braille's parents slept. It was the only heated room in the house; the Braille children, two boys and two girls, slept upstairs.
Also in the house is a reconstruction of the workshop of Braille's father, with examples of the sharp tools he would have used to shape leather into the hefty straps that made up a horse's harness. It was with such a sharp tool that Braille accidentally cut his right eye at age 3. Within two years, he was totally blind because sympathetic ophthalmia damaged his left eye too. Who would have predicted that this stricken little boy would grow up into a young genius who would invent a reading and writing system used throughout the world, and would be hailed as a great benefactor of blind people everywhere?
Note: to read about Jean-Pierre Leguay, organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris who has been blind since birth, visit www.notredamedeparis.fr/Jean-Pierre-LEGUAY,402 .
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