Sergei Eisenstein and Esperanto

Posted on 30. Jul, 2015 by in Literature, Movies

Sometimes I am amazed to see how little respect Esperanto receives. As recently as last week, I happened to read an article in The New Yorker about the murder of Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and though the fascinating story had nothing to do with our favorite constructed language, the author (Luke Slattery) threw in an unwarranted slight. Describing Pico’s philosophy, Slattery takes care to note that the thinker’s synthesis-heavy corpus did not result in “an unappealing Esperanto spirituality.” He uses the word “Esperanto” as a means of dilution, suggesting that it indicates a lack of discipline, or a line of thought so broad as to yield nothing of value. Surely the language does better things than that!

I don’t want to pick on Luke Slattery too much, though. The piece in question is a great read that’s well worth your time. It simply happens to betray a cultural attitude toward Esperanto that I find both worrisome and strange.

The reason I bring up this story is because it has me revisiting other thinkers and theorists who have been skeptical – or outright hostile – toward Esperanto. Slattery is far from the first thinker to dismiss Esperanto, after all. The language certainly has its famous champions (Tolkien, for starters), but it has detractors of similarly grand stature. Specifically, I am thinking of the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, one of the founding figures of world cinema, and the mind behind such classic films as The Battleship Potemkin [Броненосец «Потёмкин»] and October: Ten Days that Shook the World [Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир)].

You would think that Eisenstein would be fond of Esperanto by virtue of his own omnivorous intellectual tastes. Besides his films (and a rather suggestive photograph involving a cactus that I cannot in good conscience link to here), Eisenstein is famous for his diverse and wide-ranging body of written work. In his writings film theory and his diaries, Eisenstein brings together topics as seemingly disparate as Kabuki theater, Charles Dickens, Mickey Mouse, D.W. Griffith, and Chinese ideograms – yet synthesizes them into a coherent whole, playing them off of one another to arrive at intelligent conclusions that one might not otherwise reach. Surely this constitutes an “Esperanto” way of thinking!

Yet Eisenstein has nothing good to say about Esperanto – in fact, he attacks it directly. In part, this might have something to do with the Communist Party line at the time. Geoffrey Sutton notes in his Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto (2008) that many Esperanto writers suffered systemic purges under Stalinism (72)*, but since Sutton does not offer any citations for that claim, I have not been able to delve any further into it. (It is possible that there was no government order to attack Esperanto speakers, but rather, that the demographics Stalinism went after were also proponents of Esperanto.) If the Stalin regime did, in fact, persecute Esperantists, it would not surprise me to find that Eisenstein was on board with it – we cannot escape his complicity with one of the worst totalitarian governments in history, nor can we ignore that this same regime’s infrastructure enabled Eisenstein’s film endeavors. Consequently, it’s possible that Eisenstein’s objections to Esperanto are mere political toadying.

Even so, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at one of Eisenstein’s challenges to Esperanto. He attacks it from an artistic perspective, voicing a rather unique concern regarding the language’s aesthetic capabilities. Eisenstein insists that “art is always conflict” (24)**, which is to say that art emerges from the clash between an artist’s medium and his/her intentions, or the collision between conflicting ideas inside and out of the work in question. This leads Eisenstein to note that, for example, “in language . . . the strength, vitality, and dynamism derive from the irregularity of the particular relation to the rule governing the system as a whole” (26). For instance, consider the English poet Robert Browning. He reportedly hated words, because he could not always make them do what he wanted – he had a message or an idea to convey (“the particular relation”), and his task was to make his language fit it, even if it did not always have the words at hand to correspond to his thoughts (“the rule” and “the system”). This struggle is one of Eisenstein’s “clashes” – art emerging from the artist’s ongoing battle with his/her medium.

This same concept of the clash is what leads Eisenstein to discredit Esperanto: “In contrast to this [concept of language] we can see the sterility of expression in artificial, totally regulated languages like Esperanto. It is from this same principle that the whole charm of poetry derives: its rhythm emerges as a conflict between the metric measure adopted and the distribution of sounds that ambushes that measure” (26). For Eisenstein, the “problem” with Esperanto from an aesthetic perspective is that it is already optimized to suit one’s thoughts. One does not need to bludgeon the language into saying what cannot be spoken, as is often poetry’s aim; instead, one need only coin a word for it, using Esperanto’s precise system of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes. Eisenstein sees no artistic potential in such a system. If one’s medium does not resist one’s efforts, there is no clash or conflict, and therefore no art can emerge.

In practice, we have a quite a few Esperanto poets whose work disproves Eisenstein by virtue of its existence. But do you think Eisenstein is wrong on a theoretical level? Esperanto does behave a bit differently than most of the world’s languages, but does that mean it cannot produce the same kind of art? If Eisenstein is correct in his assessment on some level, is it possible that Esperanto poetry is doing different things – or is a different beast entirely – than the poetry of other languages?

 

 

* Sutton, Geoffrey. Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto. New York: Mondial, 2008. Print.

**Eisenstein’s quotes here are excerpts from his Film Form. The page citations are taken from Film Theory and Criticism (Seventh Edition), eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford UP, 2009, Print).

(Re)Introductions

Posted on 23. Jul, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Saluton! Long time no see! Mi esperas ke, vi fartis sane.

Please allow me to introduce myself… Or rather, re-introduce myself. You can call me by my Esperanto nickname, Leks. I used to be the one who posted on Transparent Language’s Esperanto blog back in its earliest days – almost seven years ago, if my memory serves. I had a great time sharing strange and interesting things I found regarding the Esperanto language, and an even better time learning from the comments of experienced Esperantists. But then life intervened – I found I couldn’t balance the demands of my undergraduate program and be a competent blogger at the same time – so I had to “retire” for a little while.

Yet here I am again! I was told that Transparent Language needed a replacement Esperanto blogger, and now that I’m older, wiser, and considerably better at time management, I think I might be well-suited to the task at hand. Chuck is a difficult act to follow, but I will do my best.

I’m on the tail end of a Ph.D. in kompara literaturo [comparative literature], where I have been studying – among other things – film, autobiography, and philosophy. (I have been living in the films of Hollis Frampton, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Mercedes Álvarez for the last year!) All of the books I’ve been reading and films I’ve been watching have given me lots of Esperanto-related blog topics, and I would to share some of them with you over the coming months.

I hope to approach this blog as both a scholar and a hobbyist, investigating our favorite constructed language through the lenses of film and literature – and maybe philosophy, if it won’t incite a mutiny among the readers. Let’s use this platform as an opportunity to show that Esperanto artists really know what they’re doing, and introduce the uninitiated to the world of great works they’ve been missing! (I have a good idea of who and what I’d like to tackle in the next few weeks, but I welcome suggestions for future posts, in case there is a film, novel, poem, or other work you would to see discussed here.)

Until next time! Se vi estas bone, do mi estas bone.

Best Articles about Esperanto

Posted on 29. Jun, 2015 by in Uncategorized

I’m sad to announce this will be my last post for Transparent Language’s Esperanto blog. It’s been wonderful working with Transparent Language and our community here. So, for my final article, I’ve decided to highlight our top ten most read articles as well as a few of my personal favorites.

Top Ten Most Popular Articles

Start Reading Esperanto Literature
This guest post is still the most popular article on this blog and for good reason. Many Esperanto speakers want to read Esperanto and just don’t know where to start. This will guide you with a quick overview, so you can get started! For a more in-depth look at Esperanto literature, I’d recommend the Concise Encyclopedia of Literature in Esperanto.

Facila Vento — Easy Reading in Esperanto
If you just want to start reading Esperanto, Facila Vento is an excellent place to start. Most articles also provide the text read aloud, so you can train your listening comprehension while you read too.

Muzaiko: 24 Hour Radio Station
Who would’ve thought this 24/7 Esperanto radio station would still be around 4 years later? Well, it’s still alive and well. In the meantime, be sure to also check out Esperanto-TV.

New Comic about Esperanto
The American comic artist, Dan Mazur, published an interesting 12-page comic about native Esperanto speakers.

Chinese Learns Esperanto in Just 5 Months
Some criticize Esperanto as being too European and thus too difficult for Asians. However, Zhu Xin proves the ease of Esperanto as he speaks Esperanto better after 5 months of study than English after 7 years! Still think Esperanto is too European? Check out this article by Claude Piron: Esperanto: European or Asiatic Language.

3rd Gen Native Esperanto Speaker: Nils
It’s been a real pleasure to interview some native Esperanto speakers, which resulted in finding a 3rd gen native speakers: Nils! Read his story along with his father’s, an Esperanto DJ and a school teacher. Later we ended up creating this video about natives:

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Is Your Hobby a Waste of Time?
It’s funny how people criticize others for learning Esperanto, but make no judgment when it comes to other niche hobbies. Enjoy what you want and let life lead you on the most interesting adventures in whatever language you want!

Quick Esperanto Pronunciation Guide for English Speakers
I made this guide to help actors get up to speed as fast as possible in order to play Esperanto roles. However, it can also be useful to anyone who wants to start speaking Esperanto fast.

Trans in Esperanto
With the recent supreme court judgment, gay rights have been in the forefront in the news. However, transexuals are still often overlooked. This unique guest post gives us a glance at what it’s like to be trans in the Esperanto community.

How Esperanto Changed My Life
Do you really think Esperanto is useless? Here is my personal story of how Esperanto has been more useful than every other foreign language I’ve ever studied… and I’ve lived in Germany for the past ten years!

My Personal Favorites

The most popular is not always what was most dear to my heart. Here are articles I’m particularly proud of:

Lauren’s 6 Week Mission to Learn Esperanto
Benny Lewis set the Internet ablaze with his unusual mission to coach Lauren to learn Esperanto in 6 weeks! Also, don’t miss Benny’s famous post about how learning Esperanto can get you ahead in learning another language. Tim Morley continues on this topic in his TEDx Talk below:

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Founding the Esperanto Wikipedia
In this four part series, I chronicled the founding of the Esperanto Wikipedia. Also, did you know the Czech Wikipedia was translated from Esperanto?

Tale of Two Keyboards
This was my experiment to test the waters of the Esperanto iOS app market. $240 earned until someone released their own free Esperanto keyboard forcing me to match it by making mine free as well.

New Games in Esperanto
I personally want to spend more time producing more Esperanto games as I feel this is an area of Esperanto culture that needs more work. Also, don’t miss Evildea’s amazing series teaching Esperanto with World of Warcraft.

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Ĝis la revido! [Until the re-seeing!]

While it’s sad to write my last post for this blog, I want to give a special shout out to Transparent Language for giving our community a voice to tell our story to our many readers and wish them the best. I also want to thank our community from the bottom of my heart for all of your support and wish you the best with learning and using the international language in the years to come.