restricted access Esperantic Modernism: Joyce, Universal Language, and Political Gesture
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Esperantic Modernism:
Joyce, Universal Language, and Political Gesture

Incubation Period

In the 1965 movie Incubus, a pre-Star Trek William Shatner plays, with characteristic avidity, the role of Marc, a wounded soldier who comes to the village of Nomen Tuum in search of curative water. While there, he is seduced by a beautiful young succubus, whose appointed task is to prevent Marc’s recuperation and instead deliver his soul to hell. What transpires is a bit too complicated, or silly, to merit recounting in detail, but suffice it to say, in Hollywood-speak, that the film is an arena where Twilight meets The Twilight Zone meets Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols. The director of Incubus, Leslie Stevens, creator of the recently cancelled Outer Limits television series, was seeking a way to make the low-budget black-and-white film distinctively eerie and to market it to the burgeoning art house cinema circuit. He settled on a clever strategy: Incubus’s dialogue would be in the constructed international auxiliary language, Esperanto. Asserting his newly found auteur status, Stevens would not allow the film to be dubbed into any single national language; it would thus always require subtitles. In this case, Esperanto was viewed not as a means of communicating across national borders and promoting universal brotherhood, but of preserving those boundaries, of maintaining an uncanny and succubus-like kernel of foreignness in language itself.1

Ne ĉiam estis tiel—or, to translate Esperanto into English, this was not always so. Esperanto emerged in 1887 with the publication of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof’s Unua Libro (First [End Page 1] Book). Zamenhof, who lived from 1859 until 1917, was a Bialystok (Russian Empire)-born Lithuanian-Jewish ophthalmologist and amateur philologist, who spoke Russian, Yiddish, Polish, and German as a child and taught himself French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English in early adulthood. In Unua Libro, writing under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor One-Who-Hopes), Zamenhof created the language that would surpass its early rival Volapük to become the world’s best-known and most widely spoken constructed international tongue.2 Zamenhof’s fervent “hope” was to create an auxiliary language that would be easy to learn and could combat the parochialism of national languages that in part generated inter-ethnic and international conflict, these linguistic differences obscuring more fundamental similarities and connections between peoples.3 Almost a decade before the publication of Unua Libro, a teenaged Zamenhof and his friends “canonized” the “universal tongue” by writing and—it is claimed—enthusiastically singing a four-line anthem in proto-Esperanto, expressing the fundamental aims of the movement:

Malamikete de las nacjes, Kadó, kadó, jam temp’ está! La tot’ homoze in familje Konunigare so debá.

(Korzhenkov, Zamenhof, 14)

(Hostile barriers between peoples, Fall, fall, it is time! The whole of humanity Must come together as one family.)4

Within a dozen years of the anthem’s creation, and a mere three years after the initial publication of Unua Libro, Zamenhof’s booklet had been translated (often by Zamenhof himself, sometimes by Esperanto aficionados) into Polish, French, German, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Swedish, Lithuanian, Danish, Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish, and Czech. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the language’s popularity grew rapidly, especially among European intellectuals. It was spoken by Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry (1904), Physics (1906), and Peace (1911); it was also advocated by well-known politicians, including French socialist Jean Jaurès, and celebrated writers such as Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw.5

As indicated in its anthemic embrace of “the whole of humanity,” Esperanto from its inception was associated with a progressive democratic socialism and internationalism that defended such universal humanist principles as women’s suffrage, freedom of expression, and widespread literacy. Many of these principles would eventually form the political basis for the League of Nations, where there was sustained debate about making Esperanto an official language of the League.6 It is noteworthy that Zamenhof was an opthalmologist, as Unua Libro draws heavily on the rhetoric of clear vision propounded throughout Western Enlightenment discourse: if one could only see clearly the root causes of international conflict, the argument went, then one could...


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