“Fundamentals of Esperanto” by Srikanth Reddy

Posted on 31. Aug, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Continuing the trend of the last couple of posts, I wanted to share another cultural artifact that speaks to Esperanto’s global reception. This time, I have a poem for you: “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” by Srikanth Reddy. It is a relatively new publication, coming from Reddy’s 2005 collection Facts for Visitors. As I understand it, the poem is less about the Esperanto language than the Esperanto mindset, and can be read as a reminder of why humanity needs a language like Esperanto.

The poem begins by tricking you into thinking it is a grammatical primer. Between its title and its first few lines, you would be forgiven for believing the poem is going to teach you how Esperanto works. The opening lines: “The grammatical rules of this language can be learned in one / sitting. / Nouns have no gender & end in -o; the plural terminates in -oj / (pronounced -oy) & the accusative, -on (plural 0ojn)” (1-4). Reddy quickly throws a wrench into this otherwise straightforward grammar, however, for the persona in the poem quickly botches the grammar s/he has laid out: “Ma amiko is my friend” (9), s/he writes, when mia amiko would be appropriate; “La bonaj amiko estas ie. The good friend is here” (14), s/he says a few lines later, failing to make the subject and descriptor agree.

I must assume, per Stephen Dedalus’s instruction in Ulysses, that errors in art are volitional and are the portals to discovery. Otherwise, this poem would seem like a fatuous attempt to appropriate Esperanto for aesthetic purposes. What is going on here, then?

Reddy briefly restores the facade of Esperanto education in the next section of the poem, dropping a block of prose that talks about some aspects of Esperanto’s past and present. The section after that seems as if it will continue discussing Esperanto history – “Esperanto is an artificial language / constructed in 1887 by L. / L. Zamenhof, a polish / oculist” (29-32) – but soon reveals that Esperanto history in an ancillary concern, joining the persona’s recollections to Zamenhof’s great achievement. The other half of Line 32 marks the first time the persona acknowledges him-/herself, and situates how s/he first encountered the language: “I first came / across Fundamento Esperanto, the text / which introduced this system / to the world, as I travelled abroad / following a somewhat difficult period / in my life” (32-37). The persona here has invoked a major theme in Esperanto-language autobiography: how and why one became an Esperantist. I won’t spoil the details of the persona’s story, as they’re rather humorous. However, it worth noting that the poem shifts in this moment from a grammar lesson to something less concrete – and, arguably, something more pressing.

In the next section, the persona discusses purple martins, birds that s/he describes as “the Cadillac of swallows” (56), all of which are “dying or dead” (57). Again, we are treading in metaphorical territory – the purple martin is known for competing with (and losing to) sparrows and starlings for living space, but it is not classified as a threatened species. Reddy’s persona seems to be calling attention to their vulnerability, which s/he accomplishes by ascribing high intelligence to them: “Brainscans of grown purple martins suggest / these creatures feel the same levels of doubt / & bliss as an eight-year-old girl in captivity” (58-60). The rest of this section recalls a story of a man who devoted his life to building shelters for the purple martins, a task which the persona finds admirable, and seems to regret not undertaking him-/herself. This section, then, links the concepts of labor and doing good by it, establishing them as central themes in the poem. The persona’s observation of his/her own inertia when it comes to doing good works explains why the word “sitting” occurs as its own line early in the poem – there is something appealing about a language that, at least by the persona’s understanding, can be learned lazily. Thus, the poem posits another connection: Esperanto is joined to labor. Since labor is only discussed in terms of working good in the world, the poem suggests that Esperanto’s purpose is also to bring about more good.

The final section, as I read it, lays bare the persona’s hand, and reveals why s/he has been obsessing over purple martins. The persona bemoans Esperanto’s “competitor” languages – “Interlingua, / Klingon, Java & various cryptophasic tongues” (92-93) – and declares that Esperanto needs to produce an epic in order to be saved. The remainder of the poem is devoted to describing what this epic should entail. Before launching into this description, however, the persona mentions what the epic ought to do for humankind: “Through its grandeur / & homegrown humility, it will spur men / to freeze the mutating patios so the children / of our children’s children may dwell in this song / & find comfort in its true texture & frame” (94-99). The imagined Esperanto epic will accomplish what all great art should – comfort people through its greatness, its “true texture & frame,” and benefit them thereby. In this manner, the work of writing the epic is likened to the act of building houses for purple martins. Both are ultimately charitable works, done for the benefit of others.

I realize you could probably read the poem as a critique of Esperanto if you were so inclined. The lazy protagonist who never accomplishes anything, talks a big game but never follows through, and doesn’t even grasp the language s/he purports to champion could well be a caricature of the Esperantist. But I read Reddy’s poem as an explanation of what motivates the Esperantist. It is less a fixation on proper grammar than it is a philanthropic outlook. For every language has a grammar that would-be linguists can dissect, but few languages have a mission behind them.

Freeciv and Esperanto

Posted on 10. Aug, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Saluton, amikoj! Today I wanted to discuss a more lighthearted topic than the last time, and point out one of the amusing ways Esperanto is being put to use on the Internet. Have you ever played the Civilization games before, in any of their incarnations? If not, the Civilization games task you with controlling a nation throughout all of history, from its incipient stages as a small village, to its future incarnations as progressively larger powers. The series is a staple of computer gaming, and so beloved that some enterprising open-source software developers have designed a freeware spin-off of the first game, calling it Freeciv.

Besides being a fun – and thoroughly engrossing – strategy game, my favorite aspect of Freeciv is that it embraces Esperanto. You can employ a full Esperanto user interface if you so desire. The main Freeciv site even has an Esperanto masthead (though it’s in need of some translation help, if you’re at all interested).

The game, of course, is not without its preposterous aspects.

When selecting the nation you wish to guide to world domination, you can play as “the Esperants.” Flying the flag of the verda stelo, you can march through history as a country founded upon the world’s most successful constructed language, and led by one of several figures from Esperanto’s history. There are no female leaders in the game yet for the Esperants, unfortunately. Any suggestions?

Freeciv EO 1

Evidently your country is not one founded on the principles of Esperanto, however! You are allowed – if not encouraged – to build an army, and flatten rival nations! Didn’t anybody tell the Freeciv development team that Esperanto is the language of peace? Something feels wrong about commanding a military that waves the banner of Esperanto…

While it probably goes against most of our principles to command a tank brigade and conquer other countries in historically impossible scenarios, there is something to be said for the absurdity of it all. Plus, I can’t imagine Dr. Zamenhof choosing despotism as his preferred form of government, but it’s rather funny to imagine it. Give Freeciv a try if you like strategy games.

…And do your best to win without resorting to war, and make Dr. Zamenhof proud!

Freeciv EO 2

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 on 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).