Book read: Zamenhof

Aleksander Korzhenkov, Zamenhof: The Life, Works and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto (2010)

Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, a Russian Jewish ophthalmologist, created Esperanto, an artificial language intended to serve as an international auxiliary language. Aleksander Korzhenkov’s biography is the first to appear in English since Marjorie Boulton’s 1960 biography. In this abridged translation of his original Esperanto bibliography, Korzhenkov presents Zamenhof’s life, with an emphasis on his origin and his spiritual beliefs. I wasn’t terribly familiar with Zamenhof’s life beyond a brief outline, so much of the story Korzhenkov presents was a revelation to me.

In particular, I was greatly suprised by the details related in Zamenhof’s transition from Zionism to Hillelism to Homaranism. I had always thought of Homaranism as a generic belief in the brotherhood of all peoples. Korzhenkov makes it quite clear that the initial religious version of Hillelism (soon renamed to Homaranism) was quite radical. In short, all traces of national, ethnic, relgious, and tribal characteristics and beliefs are to give way to common, neutral practices and beliefs!

I was also surprised by Zamenhof’s belief that the later version of his language did have flaws that should be fixed. Korzhenkov relates this in the description of the Idist schism, the presentation of which I found a bit confusing and would have liked more detail about. This might also because the brief, popular accounts I had read before simplistically portray Louis de Beaufront as the villainous mastermind in this, whereas the actual history is more complex.

I liked this brief (90-odd pages) biography and would recommend it to others looking for a brief introduction to Zamenhof’s life that gives some account of its complexity. However, reading this short work makes me wish for a more in-depth treatment, and I am eagerly awaiting the forthcoming biography of Zamenhof by Esther Schor.

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2 Responses to Book read: Zamenhof

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    Thanks for pointing out that this book has appeared in English. I had read the Esperanto version, and I was very impressed with it as a critical biography. Zamenhof’s call for a kind of dogma-free religion is an interesting one. He was no saint and did not believe he had produced a perfect language, and he himself produced proposals for reforms in 1894. Interestingly the early adepts of the language saw the need for some sort of linguistic continuity and they rejected the proposals. Perhaps they were right. Other viable language projects such as Ido tore themselves apart over linguistic minutiae.

    You’re right that the approach to Louis de Beaufront (really Chevreux) has been over-simplified; he was a complex character, and was acting in an era where reform proposals were two-a-penny. Louis Couturat was certainly thinking of reforms to Esperanto in 1906, according to an article in the February 2011 edition of the UEA magazine “Esperanto”. In addition to critical biographies, we need studies of all sorts of aspects of Esperanto’s history, such as Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda. A critical biography of its founder Lanti appeared some years ago in Esperanto, but little critical attention has been given to that movement.

    • Bill Logan says:

      One of my goals for the year is to relearn Esperanto—20 years later! This English translation is an abridgment of Korzhenkov’s work (although prepared by Korzhenkov himself), so I don’t know what was omitted from the original Esperanto version.

      I was struck by your description of de Beaufront as “acting in an era where reform proposals were two-a-penny.” The association it triggered in my mind was the famous example of the Nuremberg Volapük club, which switched en masse to Esperanto only to later side with the Idists. Korzhenkov unhelpfully mentions that by the time the club switched to Ido, they had already rejected Esperanto for Idiom Neutral! I suspect (by which I mean, I’m guessing) that the standard picture (hagiography?) of Zamenhof’s life is largely derived from Privat’s biography.

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