Sunday, 30 July 2017

From Blitz To Bliss?

'Lord of all hopefulness' remains my earworm at the minute. The hymn ends  "Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day"- so when I heard part of a radio programme which kept referring to bliss, I just had to come home and check it out on BBC i-player.
I knew nothing about the man born in 1897 as Karl Kasiel Blitz, who graduated as a chemical engineer from Vienna University. As a Jew, in WW2 he was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp and then Buchenwald. Eventually his wife Claire, secured his release - because he was a brilliant mandolin player. The pair of them were reunited in Shanghai in 1940 - where they were interned in the ghetto.
Because of the blitz in England, he changed his name to Charles Bliss. He was haunted by the horrors of what he had witness in the camps, and committed to promoting peace, and harmony between the nations.
In Shanghai, Bliss became fascinated by Chinese ideograms. He felt that if only there was a universal language of symbols, then communication betweek nations would be so much easier. He had unconsciously picked up the idea of Leibniz,the mathematician, who had proposed 'Universal Symbolism' almost 30 years earlier.

Bliss developed a whole system of ideograms, initially calling it 

World Writing but then changing the name to Semantography.
This system has 2,000 basic symbols which can be combined together to create a huge variety of new symbols. The symbols can be formed into sentences and their order is based on English word order. The symbols are made up of simple shapes designed to be easy to write. 
Charles and Claire settled in Sydney and became Australian citizens. He worked as a labourer to finance the publication of his book "International Semantography" in 1949. But received no positive response. For the next four years he wrote to over 6000 Universities and professors. But his ideas met with rejection - almost everywhere. He was very disheartened. 
Here are two charts showing how the simple symbols combine to make compound words.

And then in 1961,Claire died, and Bliss set about reworking his book. In 1965 Semantography [Blissymbolics] was published.
In 1971, Bliss found out that for the previous 6 years, a Canadian centre for people with cerebral palsy had been using his symbols to help people communicate.
He was angry - this was not the purpose of his work, it was designed for world peace, and they were misappropriating his ideas ! For ten years he was engaged in a legal battle to try and stop them using it. Eventually he acknowledged that actually, it was a genuine help to people with speech and physical impairments. The Blissymbolics Communication International was set up in 1975, as a worldwide, nonprofit charity, to enable this system to be used to help others. But Bliss was still unhappy, and claimed they were misusing his system. Ten years later he was in relative poverty, a bitter and lonely man, living in his attic, renting rooms in his house to generate an income. Then one tenant got into a rage and smashed his precious mandolin. It was the final straw, his depression worsened, and he died of a broken heart in 1985 aged 88. 
I had not come across this system before I heard the programme, and was fascinated by the stories told of children and adults who had learned to communicate with these symbols. 
Here's a man, who drinks blood, at night!
You can find all sorts of fascinating words here
The system appears to be helping so many people - and somehow it seems terribly sad that the one thing its creator did not have at the end of the day was bliss in his heart. 
[That programme link is here, if you missed it]


  1. Oh what a sad story for a man with such a good vision! What a great pity given that his idea was such a wonderful, peaceful one.
    The vision of the mandolin being smashed fills me with complete dread! I remember seeing one Eastenders episode at someone's house where some bullies smashed a girl's guitar and I cried for that girl and her guitar, I can't imagine how Bliss and this character felt-if that was my instrument...

    1. I know how much you value musical instruments Kezzie. I do hope Saturday improved for you...

  2. Our dear son died in November, but up until the age of ten he went to a school for the physically disabled (he was mentally unimpaired) When he was ten we took him out and home educated - using all resources and outside activities available.

    I was a parent governor whilst he was at school and used to spend a lot of time helping out. This was prior to computers - think the Sinclair ZX had just come out! - Bliss charts were used with many of the other children. It was hard work for those children with the most complex difficulties (I used them with the children) but it was a means of communication and so important. Do you know, until I read your post, I'd never even thought about who had designed them.

    1. Dear Blossom, thank you for sharing this. I remember when you posted about M's death, my heart ached for you as you shared your sadness then. I am glad that the Bliss charts were so useful in his school. May God comfort you as you travel on without your precious child beside you


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