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).