Meditations on utopia, documentaries, Zamenhof & Esperanto culture

Written 29 June 2010:

I had some additional thoughts on Zamenhof while trapped on the malfunctioning Red Line yesterday evening en route to a play on the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza. The play, however, wiped my memory of this cerebumado. I believe these were the things I was thinking about:

(1) Could an argument be made that Zamenhof kicked off the utopian dreams of the 20th century? (Not really, but . . . ) How does the Esperanto movement relate to other key events and innovations of that historical moment in Western civilization? We could take the 1905 Universal Congress as a landmark. Possible points of comparison: the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, Einstein's "miracle year", the birth of cubism and futurism a few years later, the technological breakthroughs / inventions I mentioned in my radio interview . . .

(2) A more thorough treatment of Zamenhof's alleged naivete is needed. I've been involved in a limited discussion of this topic on another list. I've forgotten most of what I remember from reading various biographies 35-40 years ago, which were published before the wave of scholarship since the '70s which brought to light the centrality of Zamenhof's Jewish concerns. This material, however, helps me make sense of why Zamenhof thought the way he did, and though there were serious limitations in his social world view, it would be incorrect to dismiss him as naive, especially not with the old saw that he thought a common language would yield world peace. In context, even a "neutral" movement espousing internationalism in a world in which human rights were universally disrespected was a political intervention that could disturb the powers that be, regardless of the practical advantages adoption of such a universal auxiliary language might bring.

(3) Of the various video documentaries and informational material I've been looking at recently, what do we have in the way of a intensive video documentary of a certain period of Esperanto history, say from 1887-1937 (first 50 years), or maybe through 1945, 1947, or maybe even up through the UNESCO victory in 1954? The bits of visual footage of the Esperanto movement from Zamenhof himself through the 1930s in Sam Green's film made a striking impact on me, and I'd like to see more compiled in one place. For instance, you could add the SAT congresses, the role of Esperanto in the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi and Stalin persecutions, Esperanto in the Resistance, relief efforts in postwar Europe . . . It's interesting that great efforts, even enlisting important filmmakers, are now being made to document the Esperanto movement for promotional purposes, covering various angles. But as a person interested in history, I'm stuck in the past, and oddly, it's the first 60 years of Esperanto, all having transpired before I was born, in radically different social and cultural circumstances, that most interest me.

(4) I had the strangest feeling looking at footage of young people dancing to Esperanto rock, punk, hiphop, or whatever I saw. This seems to unreal to me; maybe I should witness this myself one day and it won't seem so preposterous. But it also reminds me of my own reaction to the limited part of the Esperanto world I encountered in the '70s. It seemed so dated, quaint, exotically anachronistic, so thoroughly old fashioned and behind the times, so totally out of touch with popular culture, not to mention reality . . . I found Esperanto charming as a survival from the past, something to be experienced anachronistically rather than contemporaneously. Anyone attempting to write poetry in American English in the way Esperantists wrote poems would induce hysterical laughter. Maybe it was the provincial Buffalonian in me that found this internationally based provincialism irresistible. But there is also the premium on print culture, the lifeblood of Esperanto for those who didn't travel much. Monda Kulturo, Norda Prismo, Hungara Vivo, etc.--whatever was lacking in terms of original ideas, one could nonetheless find a serious attitude towards literacy and literature. Decades before I completed my little poem for the Zamenhof-Tago in 2007, I wrote the first line: "Ho, orfo de Eŭropo orienta" . . .

This is the best I can recall of my delirious meditations while fuming in a stalled subway car.

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