Bobst Library, the Education of the Blind, and The Buffoon of Saint-Ovide, Essay 21 of #52essays2017

When I started my grad degree at NYU, I was given, for my nearly exclusive use, a little padded cell in the basement of Bobst Library where, in the beginning, I read books on the history of the education of the blind alongside postmodern theorists. It was black, or I remember it as such because of the black acoustic foam on the walls. The room was insulated in order to keep the electronic voices from seeping out into the quiet library. It was the A Level below the main floor and it, along with the B Level was open twenty-four hours a day, excepting holidays. This meant that studious NYUers could enter any time of the day or night.

These were the days before the several students launched themselves off the balcony, perhaps hypnotized by the interlocking pattern of colored marble on the main floor. I know that on the occasions I was up there looking down, I felt drawn, and could easily imagine the invitation, the siren song of putting an end to the interminable expectations of youth. While I was still at NYU, the gates went up on the stairways and around the balconies to keep this from happening.

As I walked across that shiny expanse that reminded me of a ballroom, I usually looked up not down. Although I thought how wonderful it would be to study up there in the light-filled spaces of the upper floors, my reading equipment was below ground. And so usually, I walked across the expanse to the bank of elevators that opened near my little room with its keypad code entrance just for the visually impaired and blind students of NYU.

If I looked left on my walk to the elevators, I saw the circulation desk and, in the first couple years I was there anyway, the card catalogue to the right. Later those very particular looking chests of pullout drawers with their little cards that held thousands of books–inaccessible to me since I was a very young teenager were replaced with a museum-style exhibition area with pointed lighting. No one would be using those cards anymore; every book would be catalogued online and accessible forever more, thank god.

The times I rode the elevator up instead of down, it was with my reader. We would hit the card catalogue and then troop around collecting my books. He would read some of those books to me–an intimate experience that deserves its own essay–but many of the books, especially those I planned to read from cover to cover and that boasted clear print, would get taken down to my little black padded cell to be scanned by an enormous stand-alone electronic reader called a Kurzweil. Today my Kurzweil software is in my laptop and I often use it to download books or occasionally to scan them on a portable scanner that is about the same size as my laptop, and it does a great job–big improvements in OCR over the past twenty years!

I kept a little pile of books in a plastic bag under the desk in my padded cell, and once, after a night out with friends–those were the days before guide dogs and white canes when I still looked normal and could mostly travel freely–I entered and scanned a book on the history of the education of the blind. I read drunkenly and while eating my bodega bagel, about Valentin Haüy’s dramatic discovery of ten blind performers, an account that always stands at the origin of the education of the blind.

Stumbling into a not-very classy entertainment venue in eighteenth-century Paris inspired Haüy to begin his path that would eventually lead him to found the first school for the blind. The scene of the blind men, gussied up and banging their broken instruments delighted the crowd. It may have been the Age of Enlightenment for the philosophes, but the rabble wanted their lowbrow fun! Here’s a representative version found in Journey into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind (1951:

“Valentin Haüy was strolling through the streets of Paris one autumn day in 1771, some years before his meeting with Maria von Paradis, when a crowd hooting and laughing in front of St. Ovide’s Cafe on the Place Louis-le-Grand-today the Place Vendome-drew his attention. This grave young scholar crossed the cobbles to see what amused the shrill-voiced women in ruffled panniers, the rowdy men in tricorn hats, coarse yellow cloth coats, black breeches and copper-buckled shoes.

“He stared incredulously at the mummery being enacted on a platform raised above the cafe tables. Ten blind men scraped their bows in pantomime, drawing shattering discord from violins, cellos, basses and viols. They stared blankly at sheet music turned on the racks so that the notes were visible to the jeering audience. Their sightless eyes were ringed with huge pasteboard spectacles devoid of glass. They wore grotesque robes, with dunces’ caps and asses’ ears. A Midas headdress distinguished their leader. A peacock tail unfurled was the backdrop for his operations.

“Lighted candles cast shadows on their weary faces and gave raw emphasis to their infirmity. … Every day for two months they had scraped, fiddled and kept up a monotonous accompanying chant, while their audience jeered, banged tankards on the tables and screeched bawdy jokes. Now and again a drunken couple rose and danced in the street to the fantastic music. The rowdies who gathered at night stormed the blind men’s platform and would have demolished it in their exuberance but for a cordon of guards called in to keep order.

“Already the place was being renamed the Cafe des Aveugles [Café of the Blind]. Prints advertising the curious show were sold by M. Mondhar on the Rue St. Jacques, with a sketch of the scene, an announcement, and some misspelled doggerel verse.”

This extraordinary scene is woven into the origin story of the education of the blind, and it continues to haunt me because, after twenty years, I still doubt I’ll ever be able to shrug the moment off as being alarming, inexhaustible fodder for art. Here’s the first piece I ever wrote for The Spectator & the Blind Man, first published as flash fiction at Danse Macabre.

The Buffoon of Saint-Ovide

Hospice Quinze-Vingts, 1772

When the first fat coin smacked my face, I had to admit Monsieur might have been right about his strange money making venture. Of course that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was, “Ow, what the hell?” And my second thought was, “Shit! Where’d it go?” I wanted to look for it, but I thought that if Monsieur saw me groping around in the dirt for it, he’d be on my ass yelling, “Get back to your banging and scraping blind man!”

The scoundrel had got us to agree to divide The take fifty-fifty, i.e., He would get half and the ten of us would have to split the rest. So I bet you’re thinking, “Well now, doesn’t that sound fair.” And of course we recognized the bamboozle. After all, we’d be doing all the work, making asses of ourselves etc. But here’s the thing: it was his idea. I mean, how could we have known you people would be so easily entertained? The sighted have very strange taste!

Monsieur had also got us our costumes and instruments, such as they were. But he hadn’t warned us about coins being flung at our faces, so after the coin bounced off my face and into the dirt, I decided to do a subtle reconnaissance. It was a delicate operation considering the fact that I was supposed to be playing the fiddle with the stick or whatever it’s called, and all that scraping and banging and yelling and clapping made it pretty difficult to concentrate on the business of my big toe.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m used to a tranquil or meditative lifestyle. I mean, I live with three hundred blind people who are constantly bashing around and messing with each other. It’s not the Paris madhouse, but it sure can get crazy in here! Still, you cannot imagine how damn loud it was at the Saint-Ovide Fair that night. There must have been a thousand people greedily imbibing our blind buffoonery!

Anyway, while my big toe was still looking around for my coin, I heard Jacques (who was next to me), go “Oof!” I guessed that he’d been hit with a coin of his own.

Then I realized he was crawling around in the dirt for it. “Holy horse manure!” I said to myself, “So much for subtlety. That guy’s as subtle as an elephant in a tutu. As subtle as that skinny, syphilitic whore with the oozing boob who calls herself Jubilee. As subtle as the paper spectacles rimming my blind eyes and the dunce cap with ass’s ears sitting on my head. As subtle as Denis, who suddenly starts braying like an ass! Seriously? Does he think he’s singing? Amazing. The stupid crowd is eating it up. This is war!”

I was not about to be outdone by that clown, so I wagged my head a little and trotted in place like a dancing donkey. It worked! People banged their tankards and cheered. Encouraged, I wagged more vigorously and trotted with gusto, and yep, brayed out some bits of song too.

All of a sudden the coins came fast and furious, too many to count. For a few exhilarating moments I felt like I had found my calling. I would be an entertainer. Make a ton of money. Delusions of grandeur, as ridiculous as any of Jacques’s, who always comes home from a day’s begging, convinced that the grand lady who’d tossed him a penny would certainly adopt him as her blind pet project.

I don’t indulge in that kind of bullshit, and I’ll tell you why. Because just when you think you might be able to do something other than live with a bunch of disgusting blind guys who are so horny they rub against anything that breathes, and smell like piss and moldy cheese twenty four seven, just when you think you might be able to get a taste of some other life, that other life jumps up, smacks you on the forehead, and says, “Get real blind man. You will never amount to anything.”

Case in point: The coins were flying, high velocity, dropping all around. Excited and reckless, I bent over to do, I don’t know, some kind of spastic crouching jogging thing, and slammed my eyeball, such as it was, into the corner of the music stand in front of me.

The music stands had been set up in front of each of us with their sheets of music facing the spectators. Nice comic touch, eh? But I’d forgotten it was there. Being blind is so marvelous.

Anyway, it really hurt. Started gushing. People laughed. But I couldn’t keep up the dancing donkey routine anymore. Besides, now all the guys were dancing. They’d realized it was solid gold. I heard later that Monsieur wanted more dancing as the crowd loved it, but by then I was feeling quite miserable, to say the least.

My mangled eyeball got infected, of course, and for the next six weeks I lay on my cot, certain I was dying. To add to my misery, the guys came back every night from the “Café of the Blind,” as it had been dubbed in our honor, with full pockets, whores, and massively inflated egos. They thought they were made, but I knew it wouldn’t last. And I was right.

After a month the crowds lost interest. Monsieur said thanks but he wouldn’t be needing their services anymore. He told them to run along back to their pathetic lives. (Our pathetic lives.) But at least they got that month. All I got was this stupid empty eye socket.

 

*This is essay 21 of #52essays2017. Read #20 From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream to learn more about the history of the education of the blind and The Spectator & the Blind Man*

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From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream, Essay 20 of #52essays2017

Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:

Diderot by Louis-Michel vanLoo, 1767.“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.

Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.

Encyclopedie de D'Alembert et Diderot Premiere Page.Diderot is probably most famous as one of the editors and main contributors to the Encyclopédie (1751-66), a work that flouted notions of high and low disciplines by putting Christianity alongside Chemistry , Farm Laborer alongside Poet.

But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.

Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.

Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:

”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.

” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind).So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.

Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.

The following is my piece of flash fiction imagining Diderot’s explanation to a friend for why he would do his best to never piss the authorities off again. The reading is by George Ashiotis with musical composition by Alabaster Rhumb.

 

THE PHILOSOPHE’S DREAM

Dungeon of Vincennes, 1749

No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!

I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.

Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.

The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.

Nicholas Saunderson.As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”

“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”

I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon   beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”

Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”

As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”

Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”

I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”

I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”

With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.

*This is essay 20 of #52essays2017. Read #19 Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake*

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Nothing Can Hurt Me Now, as told by Marie Antoinette

Continue reading Nothing Can Hurt Me Now, as told by Marie Antoinette

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The Genius and his Awl, a blind history

[School for the Young Blind, 1829]

 

I have heard of The Death of Marat. Marat was, they say, dotted with ugly holes in his skin that oozed and gave pain. He only found relief in the bath, so that is where he stayed. With his writing table hovering above the surface of the water, he took the names of traitors and wrote them on his Guillotine list. He was stabbed by mademoiselle Corday, a girl who hoped to stop the madness. David, ever the sycophantic whore of the revolution, bathed the scene in a holy light, forever casting the mastermind of the REIGN OF TERROR a martyr in the gullible eye of the viewer. Once again, the eye deceives the mind!

 

 

Now my professors paint me a rebel because I dare to teach a writing system that works better than that of poor old father Haüy. So much for progress. These petty pedants wouldn’t recognize progress if it bumped them on the back of their heads. Ha, bumps, that’s what we’re talking about! You would have laughed to see me point at them in my tribunal and say, “You are all no better than a lot of Oedipuses and I, like Tiresias, warn you to reconsider your folly!” They did not like that at all. Not at all. Sighted people have very fragile egos!

 

How can they not see that nothing man creates is perfect? Fine-tuning—even the most magnificent instrument—is always possible. Consider the organ. With each new great one built, the air pumps more efficiently, the levers glide more smoothly and the stops are placed ever more precisely. There is something divine in progress. Perhaps even God is a tinkerer? One could wish for some improvements. Hear me Lord, my suggestion for the next version of Man: please make the eyeball a little less delicate. It seems a very important organ to be so vulnerable. Or else make us humans less clumsy…

 

My father was a saddler,

A sad saddler was he,

For I, his little boy,

Would be a saddler too.

Sitting at my father’s bench,

I took the awl in hand,

The awl missed its mark

And found my eye!

 

The infection spread from the poked out eyeball to the other and made me blind. Happily, my sad parents did not let me fall into helplessness. They encouraged me to study with my sisters. Then we learned of this place. I was so excited—they said there would be books for me! And, to be fair, there were books…three books! Each of them: a grammar book, a prayer book and a history of France, weighed more than I did!

They were made before the revolution when the aristocracy was feeling panicky and philanthropic. Ever since the fight for liberté and égalité seized the soul of France, there’s been no money for making blind people books. Not only are these embossed books enormous and expensive to produce, but they are really hard to read. The raised letters are so big and take so long to feel that by the time you get to the end of a sentence, you’ve forgotten the beginning! Nonetheless, I read them. I reread them. The whole time thinking, there must be a better way.

 

Then, when I was twelve, Captain Barbier brought us his Night Writing, a sonography he had invented for Napoleon. The dots and dashes he poked out on thick paper represented sounds, military intelligence that could be read in the dark, without a torch, without alerting the enemy. It was a revelation!! The raised dots were so much easier to feel than raised lines. Not only could we read the dotted signs but, with a small pointed tool, we could poke out dots of our own. Still, there was room for improvement: the captain’s system, while more compact than embossed Latin characters, was still too bulky and the symbols corresponded to sounds rather than letters. In order to read like sighted people, we would need an alphabet.

 

For eight years I’ve worked on my system. Making it readable. Making it easy to learn. Making it into something that is truly useful and life changing. And what do I get? Greif from Barbier and obstinacy from my professors! Imagine, ten men arguing the fate of my invention with more gusto than they would the fate of my head! They act as if my dotted letters threatened the very existence of writing. As if the Latin script had been handed down to Moses with the Ten Commandments!

 

I would not trade my blindness for theirs. I accept the burden of my prophetic vision as have so many of my blind brothers before me. I see bump, no bump, bump, no bump, bump, no bump, bump, as a binary code that will someday link blind technology to that of the sighted in a language so precise as to reveal their Latin characters as chicken scratch!

 

So be it. My bumpy little system does not need their support. That is, dare I say, the genius of it. We can poke out our letters without books…but some books would be nice! And yes, I have noticed that the instrument I use to poke my alphabet looks a lot like a little awl. The irony is not lost on me. It is a very clever awl that pokes holes in whatever it is asked: saddles, harnesses, belts, boots, corsets, hearts, eyes, minds, time!

 

Thus, my blind eyes are the ultimate awl that burst through time to look to you, spectators of the future, to see that I, Braille, invented.

 

 

*First published as “The Awl” at FLAPPERHOUSE*

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