Monday, October 31, 2016

World’s Largest Camera Collection

This Mumbai Jeweler Amassed the World’s Largest Camera Collection

Portrait of Dilish Parekh in his Mumbai home by Dheerankur Upasak. 
In a two-bedroom apartment in Mumbai, 62-year-old Dilish Parekh lives among some 4,600 cameras—the largest camera collection in the world, which has made Parekh the Guinness record holder since 2003. “I probably need 10,000 square feet to lay them out, but that is impossible in this city,” he says of Mumbai, one of the world’s most overcrowded cities, where the average residential space for the estimated 18.4 million people hovers just above 86 square feet. Instead, stacks of cameras—including some of the rarest and most expensive models in the world—spill off shelves that line the walls of his bedroom, in a home overrun by the spoils of over four decades spent scooping up every camera in sight.
Parekh, a jeweler who moonlights as a photojournalist, began collecting cameras in the early 1970s after his grandfather gifted him a camera. From there, the teenage Parekh began placing classified ads in newspapers, or scouring Mumbai’s sprawling Chor Bazaar flea market, in search of more (he was known to hit the market at 6 a.m. with two men in tow, each brandishing bags in anticipation of a hefty prize).
Film stills from “The Light Collector” courtesy of Dheerankur Upasak. 
“Remember, these were the days before the internet,” he tells me with a mischievous smile. “Nobody had a clue as to the value or history of these items.” To this day, he says, he’s never spent more than $15 on a single camera in his collection.
Despite this, Parekh has amassed a treasure trove of rarities—from a vintage Daguerreotype plate camera from 1890, to a camera disguised as a Zippo lighter, to the string-operated WWII spy camera he scavenged from a junkyard in Nashik. He’s also keeper of a Tessina L, the world’s smallest half-frame 35mm camera, which weighs under six ounces. It helps, of course, that he frequently receives cameras as gifts, from donors ranging from India’s prime minister to “anonymous, unnamed folk” from across the country, who, after reading Parekh’s story, send their otherwise dust-collecting gems his way.
Portrait of Dilish Parekh in his Mumbai home by Dheerankur Upasak. 
While media attention has long taken note of his Guinness Book of World Records wins, Parekh and his collection gained a greater foothold in the public realm in 2014, when 40 of his antique cameras went on view in “A Vintage Camera Collection,” an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi. “It was an important moment for me and the collection,” says Parekh. He even lent his favorite camera to the show, his 1934 Leica 250 (valued at roughly $80,000, the camera is also among the most rare; out of 950 manufactured, Parekh says only seven remain today). Even rarer, perhaps, was the 1907 Royal Mail Postage Stamp Camera—a mahogany box with 15 lenses that can snap 15 stamp-sized portraits at once.
As pointed out by Mumbai-based filmmaker Dheerankur Upasak, whose stunning black-and-white short film about Parekh, “The Light Collector,” was released in August, every time Parekh acquires a new camera, he’s beating his own Guinness record. “Even if you buy a camera every day, it will take you 12 years. By that time, I will [be] way ahead,” Parekh notes playfully to any would-be challengers during the film. 
But Parekh’s admiration for cameras far surpasses this game of numbers. When he’s not breaking records, he takes the cameras out into the world, intent to document history.The oldest camera he’s shot with is the medium-format Rolleiflex from 1929; the newest is a Canon Mark 5.“We would not believe man’s visit to the moon had it not been for the camera,” says Parekh. In 2008, he captured the aftermath of the terror attacks in Mumbai with a Canon 7D, just a few hundred feet from his office. (He dropped more than $15 for the digital SLR, but it’s not part of his collection, which only comprises cameras made before 1960.)
Why Certain Photographs Quickly Come to Define a Movement
“Remember the riots in Gujarat in 2002?” he asks me, recalling the photograph of a tearful 29-year-old tailor Qutubuddin Ansari, his hands in prayer, that became the face of the riots. “That is still embedded in people’s memory,” he says. He also points to the iconic photograph of the Indian army holding their flag atop Tiger Hill in Kashmir in 1999, following their victory against Pakistan. “It has come to symbolize the Kargil War,” he says of the image. “Without a camera, these moments would be lost and forgotten.”
Portrait of Dilish Parekh in his Mumbai home by Dheerankur Upasak. 
Despite residing in a shrine of analog cameras in an increasingly digital landscape, Parekh is optimistic about the future of the medium, ultimately praising digital cameras and smartphone photography for having democratized the medium. And though his two sons, like the global population, are devoted to their cell phone cameras, they remain deeply respectful of their father’s wish for his collection: to house it in a museum that preserves the cameras as art objects, setting them on a historical timeline for coming generations who, without connoisseurs like Parekh, might forget what came before Snapchat filters and smartphones—and whatever comes next.

—Himali Singh Soin

China is struggling to keep control over its version of the past

Nihil sine Xi

China is struggling to keep control over its version of the past

A battle is raging in the realm of historiography

THE Chinese Communist Party likes to describe threats to its grip on power in barely comprehensible terms. Over the past three decades, it has struggled against the menace of “bourgeois liberalisation” (leaving many wondering whether there is an acceptable proletarian kind) and fought against “peaceful evolution” (exceedingly dangerous, for some reason, unlike “reform and opening up”). Now Xi Jinping, China’s president, is waging war against “historical nihilism”, a peril as arcane-sounding as it is, to his mind, grave. As a state news agency recently warned, there is a “seething undercurrent” of it in China. Failure to stamp it out, officials say, could lead to Soviet-style collapse.
Days before the party’s 350 or so most senior officials gathered in Beijing this week for a secretive conclave (as they normally do in the autumn), a party website published a compendium of Mr Xi’s public remarks on the nihilist problem (intriguingly headlined: “Xi Jinping: There Can Be No Nothingness in History”). People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, marked the start of the meeting with a commentary laced with references to the lessons of history, including the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party.
In party-speak, historical nihilism means denying the “inevitability” of China’s march towards socialism (the country is currently deemed only to be in the early stages of it). It is a term that came into vogue among party officials after the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Jiang Zemin, who was then party chief, declared that historical nihilism was one of several ideological vices that had “seriously eroded” the party. Other, more obvious ones, included yearnings for freedom and democracy. By reviving Mr Jiang’s rhetoric on nihilism, Mr Xi is signalling that the party could again face regime-threatening danger unless it tightens its grip on the way history is told.
Against the flow
So what are the nihilists doing that so troubles China’s leaders? Mr Jiang’s main concern was a television series broadcast in 1988 called “River Elegy”, which had portrayed China as a country weighed down by a long history of backwardness and inward-looking conservatism. The documentary programmes had prompted energetic debate among intellectuals about how to reform China that helped foment the following year’s unrest.
No reflection on history has stirred the public in recent years as much as “River Elegy” did in the build-up to Tiananmen. But there has been a steady stream of articles chipping away at the party’s account of history. Some have appeared in officially published journals; the more revelatory ones have circulated in samizdat form in print and online. They have included a Chinese journalist’s investigation of the famine of 1958-1962 during which tens of millions died, and accounts of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.
Mr Xi sees such writings as a challenge to the legitimacy of party rule. Already in 2013 the party issued secret orders (subsequently leaked) that its members must be on guard against historical nihilism. The following year Mr Xi said an important reason for the Soviet party’s collapse had been historical nihilism, including attacks on Lenin and Stalin. Mr Xi sees Mao’s legacy as being under similar assault.
A journal specialising in historical critiques, Yanhuang Chunqiu, recently became the most prominent victim so far of Mr Xi’s campaign. To the horror of its liberal fans, the magazine was taken over in July by hardliners; its feisty staff resigned. In 2014 Yanhuang Chunqiu had published articles that daringly disputed the party line on historical nihilism. One of them said the party should focus on fighting those trying to reawaken the “old dreams of the Cultural Revolution”—in other words, take on diehard Maoists instead.
Mr Xi has enlisted the judiciary to help him. On October 19th the supreme court called a press conference to give its views on recent legal cases that state media have linked with historical nihilism. In one case a historian, Hong Zhenkuai, was told by a court to apologise for challenging the party’s story of how five Communist soldiers had jumped off a cliff during the second world war rather than surrender to the Japanese. Mr Hong said two of them may simply have slipped. Another case involved little more than black humour: JDB Group, a beverage-maker, and Sun Jie, a blogger, were ordered by a court in September to apologise for their tweets referring to a war hero who burned to death during the Korean war. Mr Sun had called him “barbecued meat”. JDB had jokingly offered to provide free drinks at Mr Sun’s barbecue restaurant, should he open one. At the press conference, a supreme-court official said those guilty had attempted to “unravel core socialist values”.
There have been other examples, too: a blogger who was detained for several days in 2013 for retweeting a claim that the cliff-leaping soldiers had bullied local civilians; four others who were hauled in that year for questioning the frugality of Lei Feng, another model soldier (two of them were later jailed for publishing these and other online “rumours”); and a television anchor, Bi Fujian, who was fired for poking fun at Mao at a private party.
Mr Xi has justified his vigilance by quoting the words of a Chinese reformist in the 19th century: “To annihilate a country, you must first eradicate its history”. Mr Xi takes that as a warning that rewriting history can cause catastrophe. When it comes to wiping out history, however, the party itself has been trying dangerously hard.

A Language to Unite Humankind

A Language to Unite Humankind

Ludovik Zamenhof created Esperanto in the hope of achieving world peace, but the movement was divided from the start.

As the book of Genesis tells it, God had no sooner made a covenant with the survivors of the Flood, agreeing that He would never again try to drown humankind, than they did something new to annoy Him. Settling on a Mesopotamian plain, they made bricks and mortar, and began building a tower whose top, as they planned it, would reach to Heaven—that is, to where God lived. God did not fail to notice what they were doing:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
According to Esther Schor, in her new book, “Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language” (Metropolitan), this famous story, of the Tower of Babel, represents a sort of second original sin. “If mortality is what it is like to live after Eden, misunderstanding,” she writes, “is what it is like to live after Babel.” This is not just a psychological misfortune but, more pressingly, a political one. Because we don’t speak the same language as our neighbors, we can’t see their point of view, and therefore we are more likely to rob them and kill them.
For thousands of years, people have taken this matter quite seriously. Ambitious organizations such as the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church made sure that their members, whatever their mother tongue, learned a second, common language. More recently, various thinkers have considered constructing universal languages from scratch. Schor gives a colorful summary. In the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon proposed that our written language switch to something like Chinese ideograms, bypassing words altogether, and John Wilkins, the first secretary of the Royal Society, proposed a new language with two thousand and thirty characters. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said that we should use a pictographic system, a little like Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came the rise of nationalism and, with it, linguistic nationalism, which held that the particularity of language was in fact an advantage, not a problem. Johann Gottfried Herder claimed that a people’s language contained its spiritual essence. Wilhelm von Humboldt believed that language, mediating between the mind and the world, actually created a people’s identity.
The language called Esperanto was born of such considerations, and one more—the so-called Jewish question. Esperanto’s creator, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), a short, sparkly-eyed, chain-smoking ophthalmologist, was a Jew, and, as he wrote to a friend, this made all the difference: “My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I gave myself completely to one crucial idea . . . the dream of the unity of humankind.”
By this he may have meant that Jews were broader in outlook. In any case, he felt that they needed to be. In the town where Zamenhof grew up—Białystok, now in Poland but at that time part of the Russian Empire—the population, he wrote, “consisted of four diverse elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each spoke a different language and was hostile to the other elements.” He went on, “I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews.”
In fact, the Russians, Poles, and Germans did see eye to eye on one thing: they all disliked the Jews. In 1881, this sentiment set off a great wave of pogroms in Russia, which, in turn, gave rise to Zionism, the effort to get the Jews out of harm’s way by relocating them to what was said to be their promised land, Palestine. Zamenhof was in his twenties when all this happened, and for a while, before devoting himself to the cause of Esperanto, he was an enthusiastic Zionist. He spent more than two years modernizing Yiddish, converting it to the Latin alphabet, revising the spelling, and constructing a grammar, the first Yiddish grammar ever recorded. (He did this while he was in medical school. Zamenhof was one of those nineteenth-century notables—Balzac, Dickens, Pasteur, Freud, Marie Curie—who seem to have slept only about three hours a night. In his adult years, when he was head of the Esperanto movement, he balanced this with a full-time ophthalmology practice. He also had a wife and three children.)
In time, Zamenhof became disillusioned with Zionism. Indeed, he turned away from all movements defined by ethnic or national identity. “Every nationalism presents for humanity only the greatest unhappiness,” he wrote. He deplored the Jews’ claim that God had made a covenant with them exclusively—that they were a chosen people. He wanted Judaism purged of all narrowness. Let the Jews keep some of their nice things, their High Holidays and the stories and the poetry in their Bible. But, as for theology and ethics, they should confine themselves to the teachings of Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.), which, according to Zamenhof, consisted of just three principles: that God exists and rules the world; that He resides within us as our conscience; and that the fundamental dictate of conscience is that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. “All other instructions,” Zamenhof declared, “are only human commentaries.”
The objective of Zionism had been to find for the Jews a safe place, where their separate culture could survive unharmed. Zamenhof’s objective was to open up Judaism, so that it would no longer require either separateness or protection. “Instead of being absorbed by the Christian world, we shall absorb them,” he said. “For that is our mission, to spread among humanity the truth of monotheism and the principles of justice and fraternity.” Then everybody could be Jewish!
For this to happen, though, all human beings would need to be able to speak to one another. There had to be a shared, universal language. Hence Esperanto.
He started work on it early. At his nineteenth-birthday party, in 1878, he surprised his guests by giving each of them a small dictionary and a grammar of a new language he had invented. He then made a speech in the language, and taught his friends a hymn in its honor:
Malamikete de las nacjes
Kadó, kadó, jam temp’está!
La tot’ homoze in familje
Konunigare so debá.

Let the hatred of the nations
Fall, fall! The time is already here;
All humanity must unite
In one family.
To Zamenhof’s disappointment, most of his friends forgot about his linguistic innovation once they left the party. That was when he drifted into Zionism. But eventually he returned to the project with renewed purpose. In 1887, he self-published his “Unua Libro,” or “First Book,” a primer on the proposed language, with explanatory materials in Russian. It contained a pronunciation guide, a dictionary, and a grammar, plus translations of the Lord’s Prayer, an excerpt from the Hebrew Bible, a poem by Heine, and other items. He called the language the lingvo internacia, but people soon began referring to it as Esperanto, after the nom de plume that he had given himself as the book’s author, Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful).

He said later that he wanted his language to be “unlimitedly rich, flexible, full of every ‘bagatelle’ that gives life to language,” but, above all, he wanted it to be easy to learn, and that is how he promoted it. He claimed that even uneducated people could master it in a week. Maybe he was right, if the people were Western, because Esperanto is closely based on Indo-European languages, or the ones that Zamenhof knew best. Though he eventually acquired almost a dozen languages, his mother tongues were Russian and Yiddish (which is related to German), and he learned German and French at an early age from his father, who was a language teacher.
Esperanto does not stray far from those sources. It has an alphabet of twenty-eight letters, in Latin script. About three-quarters of the words are derived from Romance languages; most of the remainder are based on Germanic languages. The phonology, or sound system, is fundamentally Slavic. The language is very simple. There is almost no distinction between masculine and feminine nouns. With some exceptions, common nouns used as subjects end in “-o” (singular) or “-oj” (plural), and adjectives modifying them end in “-a” (singular) or “-aj” (plural). Most adverbs end in “-e.” Verbs are not adjusted for person or number: “I sing” is mi kantas; “you sing,” vi kantas; “they sing,” ili kantas. Verb endings change with tense, but only once. No matter who sang or will sing—I, you, we, they—the verb is always kantis (past) or kantos (future).
In “Unua Libro,” Zamenhof offered about nine hundred roots, and although he added some more later, Esperanto remains a language with a very small pantry of staples. This frugality, its most basic trait, is then tempered by its second most basic trait, its agglutinative nature—the construction of words by the incessant addition of prefixes and suffixes to the roots. “Jet lag” is horzonozo: hor (“time”) plus zon (“zone”) plus ozo (“illness”). A samideano is a fellow-Esperantist, someone who has the “same idea” as you about Zamenhof’s creation. These words can now be found in Esperanto dictionaries, but you didn’t have to wait for permission: Esperantists were invited to construct words, and they did. Schor, trading improvisations with another Esperantist, comes up with elmuri—“to take something out of a wall”—for getting cash from an A.T.M.
The compounds give Esperanto a playful, almost childlike, character. (So do some of the roots. “Toast” is toasto.) Something else they call to mind is Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, stitched together from so many parts—an ear here, a nose there. Schor, a professor of English at Princeton, is the editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley.” She points out the connection, and she seems to think that Zamenhof may have experienced something like Dr. Frankenstein’s amazement when he saw what he had created. She quotes a letter in which Zamenhof tells a friend that, in using Esperanto, he eventually stopped translating in his head and began to think in the language. Suddenly, he says, it “received its own spirit, its own life, its own definite and clearly expressed physiognomy.” Oh, my God, it’s alive!
As for how it sounded, there have been some rude remarks. William Alden, the London correspondent for the Times, described it as “a sort of Italian gone wrong in company with some Slavonic tongue.” But that was in 1903, when probably no one yet spoke it confidently. If, today, you go to YouTube and listen to people who have spoken Esperanto from early childhood, you will hear something that sounds vaguely Eastern European and, though unmusical, perfectly O.K.
But Zamenhof did not put together Esperanto in order to show that he could invent a language. He was trying to achieve world peace. As usual, he gave his project a rather naïve coloration. In “Unua Libro,” he inserted a page printed with eight identical coupons—one for you and seven, presumably, to distribute to friends—on which you promised that if ten million other people agreed to learn the new language you would, too. You were supposed to sign the coupon and send it in. Zamenhof was disappointed to receive only a thousand responses.
Within two years of the original, Russian publication of “Unua Libro,” it had been republished in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Swedish, Latvian, Danish, Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish, French, and Czech. There were two English editions. In 1908, a Universal Esperanto Association was established, but even before that Esperantists had begun holding international congresses every year. By the time of the first congress, in 1905, there were Esperantists as far afield as Argentina, Algeria, Australia, and French Indochina. For a while, there was a campaign to make Esperanto the official language of proceedings at the League of Nations and even to establish an Esperanto-speaking state, to be known as Amikejo (“friendship place”), in Neutral Moresnet, a tiny territory that at that time was on the border of Belgium and Germany. Pioneering Esperantists began teaching the language to their children, and a first generation of native speakers sprang up. Among their number was George Soros, the son of a prominent Hungarian lawyer who had helped found an Esperantist literary journal in Budapest. Soros used the occasion of the 1947 congress, in Bern, to escape to the West.
But the history of Esperanto has been far from smooth. The movement was divided from the start. Esperanto attracted leftists and freethinkers of various stripes—Goebbels called it “a language of Jews and communists,” not entirely inaccurately—and the majority of those people, like Zamenhof, conceived of the language as an ethical program. But many others were interested in it primarily as a linguistic novelty. French intellectuals, in particular, were put off by Zamenhof’s brotherhood-of-man effusions, as became clear at the first international congress, in 1905, which was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
At that time, France was still in the grip of the Dreyfus affair. A decade earlier, the French Army, trying to cover a security leak, had arrested a Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus, tried him for treason, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. From the beginning, it was suspected that Dreyfus had been framed, and the resulting conflict tore French society in two, exposing and fortifying a deep vein of anti-Semitism. When the Esperantists gathered for their conference, Dreyfus still had not been exonerated, and it did not help the movement’s cause that Zamenhof was Jewish. The conference committee asked to see the text of Zamenhof’s keynote address. “Through the air of our hall mysterious sounds are travelling,” he had written, “very low sounds, not perceptible by the ear, but audible to every sensitive soul: the sound of something great that is now being born.” He ended with a prayer to the spirit of brotherhood that, under the banner of Esperantism, would unite humankind: “To thee, O powerful incorporeal mystery,” etc.
A French Esperantist, a lawyer named Alfred Michaux, described the committee’s reaction: “One can hardly grasp the wonderment and scandal of these French intellectuals, with their Cartesian and rational spirit, representatives of lay universities and supporters of secular government, accustomed to and identified with freethinking and atheism, when they heard this flaming prayer.” They told Zamenhof to revise his speech and to drop the prayer. “Tearful, isolated, apprehensive, he refused to change the speech,” Schor writes, but he deleted the final stanza of the prayer, which proclaimed that Christians, Jews, and Muslims were all children of God. Meanwhile, the conference leaders were doing all they could to keep the bad news of Zamenhof’s ethnic origins out of the press. One of the organizers, Louis Émile Javal, himself a Jew, later wrote proudly that only one of the seven hundred articles about the congress mentioned that Zamenhof was Jewish.
On the surface, the congress was a great success. Almost seven hundred people attended. There were concerts and banquets. Stalls sold Esperanto-themed pencils, pens, plates, and even a liqueur—Esperantine. Zamenhof’s speech received a loud ovation. (One wonders how many people understood it.) But the occasion cannot have seemed a triumph to Zamenhof. Not only did the Congress Committee pressure him to tone down his address; it also issued a declaration that moral commitments had no bearing on Esperanto. The movement was an “endeavor to spread throughout the entire world the use of this neutral, human language,” the committee said. “All other ideals or hopes tied with Esperantism by any Esperantist is his or her purely private affair.” This was the exact opposite of what Zamenhof intended. The whole point of his Esperanto—what he called its interna ideo—was to teach the brotherhood of man.
Still, he capitulated. He could never stop his ears to the argument that his universalist values, by sounding Jewish, would put people off Esperanto—indeed, that his mere Jewishness, never mind his values, was a burden to the movement he had created. But his coöperation could not last. In the same year as the Boulogne congress, there was another spate of pogroms. Preparing his speech for the next international conference, in Geneva, in 1906, Zamenhof described the events in his home town of Białystok. “Savages with axes and iron stakes have flung themselves, like the fiercest beasts, against the quiet villagers,” he said. “They smashed the skulls and poked out the eyes of men and women, of broken old men and helpless infants!” At the conference after that, in Cambridge, in 1907, he said flatly that Esperanto would “become a school for future brotherly humanity.” In the end, he had decided that if the others wanted to regard Esperanto as a neutral business that was their private affair. Through various disputes and difficulties, backslidings and recoveries, he remained faithful to his interna ideo for the remaining years of his life.
They weren’t many. As early as his forties, he began to suffer cardiac symptoms. He died, of heart failure, in 1917, at the age of fifty-seven. It is good that he quit the scene early. Zamenhof was exactly the kind of person that the Third Reich would set itself to eliminate. And by dying before they took over he also spared himself the experience of seeing his children die. His son was shot by the Nazis in 1940. Both of his daughters were sent to Treblinka and did not return.
The story of Ludovik Zamenhof and the language he invented occupies the first third of Schor’s book, and it is by far the best part. That the rest falls flatter is not really Schor’s fault. “For sheer dirtiness of fighting the feuds between the inventors of various of the international languages would take some beating,” George Orwell once wrote. His Aunt Nellie had a lover who headed the Esperanto movement for some years in the twenties and thirties, and Orwell spent a lot of time with them in Paris during that period. Dirty fighting, if prolonged, does not necessarily make for good reading. Of course, there was fighting in Esperanto’s early years, too. What could be more distasteful than the French Esperantists’ treatment of Zamenhof’s Jewishness? But that whole thing reads like a novel, at least in Schor’s hands—she is a lively writer—and Zamenhof is a real hero, whom she clearly loves. By contrast, many of the people who came after him were the sort of nasty little demagogues whom one tends to find battling one another to the death for control over small, marginal movements, often on the left. Esperanto saw no end of sects, schisms, secessions, coups. Members set up rival languages: Ido, Arulo (later renamed Gloro), Poliespo. These sound like something out of “Gulliver’s Travels.”
When the Esperantists weren’t attacking one another, they were being attacked from the outside. Zamenhof had hoped that the United States would become the headquarters of Esperanto. This made sense to him: America was already multiethnic. There the Esperantists would not have to fight tribalism the way they had to in Europe. But that was part of the problem: many Americans felt that they were multiethnic enough, thank you. Many were also perfectly happy to embrace nationalism, as they are today. So, between the two World Wars, most Esperantists remained in Central Europe and the U.S.S.R. (also in Japan). There, though they were steadily persecuted, their movement managed to survive. Indeed, this period seems to have been the high-water mark of Esperanto, though, even then, its principles were so contested and revised that it’s hard, at times, to figure out which version of Esperanto Schor is talking about.
The fall of the Soviet Union, by letting the steam out of Communism, greatly weakened the Esperanto movement. In the twenty years following the end of the U.S.S.R., the Universal Esperanto Association’s membership fell by nearly sixty per cent. Equally important was the year-by-year expansion of English-language training. If Zamenhof felt that we needed an international language, we now more or less have one, though it’s not the one Zamenhof wanted. More recently, the rise of the Internet has changed the profile of Esperanto, albeit in ambiguous ways. On the one hand, it has made the Anglicizing of international communications ever more unstoppable. Next to English, Esperanto looks like a very small thing. On the other hand, the Internet has made this small thing much easier to learn. One no longer has to join organizations or subscribe to journals or attend congresses. Since 2002, the Web site Lernu! (“Learn!”) has taught Esperanto to people coming from thirty different mother tongues.
Schor isn’t certain how she feels about this. She is faithful to Zamenhof, to the idea that Esperanto is not so much a language as the bearer of an idea. To absorb the idea, she says, one must subscribe to the journals and go to the conferences. One must affiliate—meet Esperantists, talk to them. She does, and she takes us with her. In the book are four chapters describing her visits to congresses in Hanoi, Havana, Iznik (in Turkey), and Białystok. But, again, it’s not easy to figure out how she feels, or to what extent she is actually affiliating. At one conference, she lists the subgroups present: the gay Esperantists, the Green Party, the vegetarians, the pacifists, the cat lovers. She describes the slogan-bearing T-shirts—“Vivu! Revu! Amu! ” (“Live! Dream! Love!”)—and the “gray-braided elders dressed more or less like John the Baptist.”
The scene is a little like science fiction—a collection of radicals from the sixties who didn’t “sell out”—and it’s quite witty, until, after a few pages, it isn’t. Schor may have sensed this, because she starts unloading personal matters: how her interest in Esperanto coincided with a life crisis, during the course of which she split up with her husband of thirty years—“kind Leo; funny, brilliant Leo”—and wept daily, “sometimes most of the day.” Like the conference diaries, this material feels like something she decided to give us when she suspected that we’d be missing Zamenhof.
But she pulls herself together and ends on a strong, high note, taking on a number of what she calls myths about Esperanto: that its intent was to standardize us all, that it had its heyday and is over with. Above all, she attacks the idea that the Boulogne Congress Committee tried to force down Zamenhof’s throat: that Esperanto is essentially nonpolitical.
I don’t think she had to tell us that this was mistaken. To readers today, Esperanto may look quite political, and not necessarily in an appealing way. It may look like the family-of-man idea that had been sold to the unfortunate over the centuries, to discourage them from complaining that they hadn’t got a very good seat at the family table. In particular, it may seem directly opposed to the identity politics that many have now embraced, in order to end those injustices. They are not part of the family of man, they say. They are part of the family of women or African-Americans or gay people, and never mind individualism and case-by-case judgment. But Schor believes that it is precisely this division—the great political quarrel of our time—that Esperanto may be able to heal, by reconnecting us, through a common language, to a shared earth.
People are apt to make fun of other people’s habit of talking about the weather to their neighbors in the elevator. They shouldn’t make fun. By invoking the one thing that we know we have in common with others, we throw a rope across the divide, asserting that, whatever our differences, we do share something: when it rains on one of us, it’s going to rain on the other one, too. Schor quotes the Spanish Esperantist Jorge Camacho: “Esperanto continues to give me something . . . which I don’t find anywhere else, an irrational sense of directly belonging to the world.” A language in common, a few words that we can say to one another or, even if we don’t learn the words, an awareness of the interna ideo: it’s something, a hook. 

How to Ask Big Questions With Art

The Montreal Biennial Is a MasterClass in How to Ask Big Questions With Art

Contemporary art meets Old World philosophy in the North

Angst 3, Anne Imhof, 18. and 19. October 2016, 19h–23h, Musée d’art contemporain Montreal.
Angst 3, Anne Imhof, 18. and 19. October 2016, 19h–23h, Musée d’art contemporain Montreal. - Photo by Jonas Leihener, Courtesy La Biennale de Montréal
Bienvenue à Montreal: North America’s seat of “Francophone culture.” La Biennale de Montréal curator Philippe Pirotte pointedly reminded journalists at the exhibition preview last week that Montreal remains the cultural crossroads for two major colonial forces, the French and the British. Perhaps it’s fitting that the heart of a province which almost seceded from the rest of Canada just a few decades ago, has managed to beat out Toronto, Vancouver and even the capital city of Ottawa as the home of the country’s only biennial exhibition for contemporary art.
During his opening remarks, the Belgian-born Pirotte addressed attendees only in French—a legal obligation—that left him with the daunting (but fairly standard) task of repeating himself again later in English, and provided a less than clear entry point for those of us whose French is spotty into a show laden with literary references. And while contemporary Quebec has undoubtedly evolved into an offspring completely unique from its European parents (poutine is just a Montreal thing it turns out), artworks in the show make steady use of the Socratic method, such that it’s nearly impossible to forget you’re in a place with French roots.
A singular theme, it turns out, is nowhere to be found in ‘Le Grand Balcon’ intentionally.
Just as some prefer not to read wall text before viewing artwork, an in depth explanation of the Biennale’s loose inspiration from Jean Genet’s famous play Le Grand Balcon (The Balcony) is unnecessary. A singular theme, it turns out, is nowhere to be found in the exhibition intentionally, according to director Sylvie Fortin. Rather, Biennale organizers seek to spark conversation around a constellation of timely topics and arresting visuals from works by 55 participating artists and collectives, letting one image lead viewers to the next through a web of connecting threads and heady discourse. Disassembled pages from Lima-born, Toronto-based artist Luis Jacob’s scrapbook album of pictures cut from magazines and books, simply titled Album XII (on view at the Galerie de l’UQUAM) captures organizers’ intentions most literally: an image of natural rock formations might appear next to sculptured organic forms, while a picture of gloved hands holding a black-and-white photo of a crowd all staring up toward the sky is placed directly above a still from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, featuring Shelley Duvall staring down in horror at the gibberish Jack Nicholson has been typing on his typewriter. Themes and visual tropes flow and morph into closely related topics from one page of Jacob’s book to the next. But while his clippings weave a seamless narrative arc, the exhaustive image bank as a whole doesn’t provide firm answers for any of the visual relationships he’s underscored.
Initially, Pirotte said, he wanted to create an exhibition about hedonism, but decided against it when he concluded that the selfish urge for pleasure lacked an “ongoing philosophy.” Nonetheless, hedonism (in many forms) has crept into the halls of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Galerie de l’UQAM, and 19 other venues where the Biennale will take place through January 15, 2017, along with other themes such as violence, politics, identity and sexuality.
Lucas Cranach the Elder's Portrait of a Lady.
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of a Lady. - Montreal Biennial
If viewers begin where Pirotte did in his research for the show, they’d do well to start with the oldest work on view: a mysterious portrait painting by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, which dates to 1540. Just what is an Old Master portrait doing in a gallery alongside works by Nicole Eisenman, Hassan Khan, Luc Tuymans and Moyra Davey, you might ask?
“We live in an art world that’s so good at self-censorship,” said Pirotte, pointing out that sections of the female figure’s hands have been visibly altered to obscure what some believe to be the head of Holofernes or John the Baptist. Most likely, he said, the fair woman depicted by Cranach was Sidonia of Saxony, and even more likely is that she was meant as a stand-in for the allegorical character Judith or Salome. But despite efforts by conservators in the 1930s to hide her identity by adding flowers in place of a head, “she imposes herself on the overpainting,” he said—a more poetic way of saying that conservators did a terrible job at suppressing Sidonia’s confident femininity.
This push and pull between seemingly oppositional forces is among those few themes borrowed from Genet’s original source material, as is the hazy veil that exists between reality and illusion, which took literal form in German artist Anne Imhof’s marathon four-hour-long performance, Angst 3, at the MAC on Tuesday and Wednesday evening. The third in a series of self-proclaimed operas—absent of any scripted singing or dialogue—Imhof filled the MAC’s performance hall with thick smoke, droning music, cases of Diet Pepsi, shaving cream and razors, live falcons, bongs, e-cigarettes, sleeping bags, smartphones, drones and seven dancers (or models, it was hard to tell) dressed in tattered athleisure brands such as Adidas and graphic heavy metal-themed sweatshirts. Performers lazed around and smoked while reclining on colorful rugs, surrounded by paraphernalia and the blindfolded falcons on pedestals. At times they stood, apathetically flipped-off the audience while rolling on the floor, lifted and tossed each other about, kissed, scribbled on the walls, picked up the birds, stomped back and forth, and stared at their phone screens.
Imhof creates something of a living tableau here, ripped from one of Delacroix’s painted harem scenes, except her IRL version exoticizes the millennial and places the vapidness of consumerism and digital culture on a pedestal. If there’s a higher meaning (beyond nodding to the meta-theater of Le Grand Balcon) in inviting audiences to endure four hours choked by smoke, while worrying about the safety of birds and getting the finger from really emo dancers, it remains elusive, but it’s still enticing enough to inspire continued thought well after the performers have abandoned the stage.  
Thirteen Black Cats, Corpse Cleaner.
Thirteen Black Cats, Corpse Cleaner. - Courtesy of the artists
That spectre effect of imagery and idea is a powerful force successfully executed by several of the Biennale’s artists, all of whom explored an impressive variety of themes. At the Galerie de l’UQAM, a film by collective Thirteen Black Cats (Vic Brooks, Lucy Raven and Evan Calder Williams) took viewers on a slow-rolling tracking shot through a props warehouse in Queens, filled floor-to-ceiling with Hollywood’s leftovers, while a voiceover dictates the correspondence of WWII air force pilot Claude Eatherly (who was involved in the bombing of Hiroshima) and German philosopher Günther Anders (he worked as a Hollywood studio janitor during the war). In Corpse Cleaner, the juxtaposition of fake swords and chariots with Anders’ concerns over the destruction of real treasures in Europe is disturbing, especially today in a new era of cultural destruction lead by ISIS in the Middle East.
The juxtaposition of fake swords and chariots with Günther Anders’ concerns over the destruction of real treasures in Europe is disturbing, especially today in a new era of cultural destruction lead by ISIS in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in the MAC’s lobby gallery, Belgian artist David Gheron Tretiakoff’s 20-minute film A God Passing documents the 2007 transport of a colossal statue of Ramses from the Cairo train station to the Giza Museum. The statue slowly moves through the city streets atop a massive truck, while swarms of people cheer and watch in awe as the physical manifestation of Egypt’s mythic cultural history lumbers forward above power lines and rooftops. Only a few short years later, in 2011, protests forced Hosni Mubarak to resign and the Egypt that exists in Tretiakoff’s film has been completely transformed.
Still from David Gheron Tretiakof’s film A God Passing.
Still from David Gheron Tretiakof’s film A God Passing. - Courtesy of the artist
“Art is never on time, art is always too late,” Pirotte said, of the difficulty that exists within contemporary art to tackle current events. His statement certainly rings true in both the aforementioned films, where the haunting power of images of the past allow the viewer to draw conclusions on the present, only because time has elapsed and the event’s influence has run its course.
Everywhere in the works of the Biennale, philosophical discourse is the name of the game. But what’s the point of asking such weighted questions if not to find some answers? A biennial is not a philosophy class after all, and talking too much theory runs the risk of alienating audiences.
Thankfully, organizers have provided some entry points close to home: Canadian artists are well represented (18 total), and smartly so considering a spokesperson from the MAC told me that turnout for openings by local artists typically draw larger crowds than those by foreigners. And while several of the more well-known Canadian artists, such as Moyra Davey and Janice Kerbel, now call other nations home, their participation is still a noteworthy homecoming for the country’s small but tight-knit art scene.
Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest.
Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest. - Montreal Biennale
Davey’s newest video work, Hemlock Forest, is an intimate portrait of the artist and her family framed within scenes borrowed from Belgian artist Chantal Akerman’s film News from Home. “We all sample, we all do covers, it’s a way of showing love,” Davey says in the narration. The film jumps between a view from her Washington Heights window, glimpses of her talking to the camera while pacing her apartment, photos taken by her son hanging on the wall, and re-stagings of Akerman scenes painstakingly shot in the New York City subway or half-nude in her own bed. Davey discloses details about a death in the family, grappling with chronic illness and empty-nest syndrome, which all serve to bring the viewer in closer though she skillfully holds her audience at an arm’s distance.
Moyra Davey’s work, as well as drawings and watercolors by Brian Jungen and light box sculptures by American art star Kerry James Marshall, help ground the philosophical discourse of the Biennale in substantive, timely and personal conversations.
Davey’s work, as well as drawings and watercolors by Brian Jungen and light box sculptures by American art star Kerry James Marshall, help ground the philosophical discourse of the Biennale in substantive, timely and personal conversations. While Davey draws on the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and Akerman to make sense of her own life, Marshall seeks to redraw the figures left out of canonical history, specifically black bodies. Jungen, who is one of three artists of First Nations descent included in the show, directly addresses Canada’s unresolved relationship with its indigenous population in his imagery. In his simple watercolor depicting two directional signs, one reading “FIRST NATION” points one way while the other, “SECOND NATURE,” points the opposite. Pirotte addressed the choice to include work on First Nations issues (which are more widely discussed in Canada than in the U.S.) as a double-edged sword which felt both exploitative and necessary.  
Brian Jungen.
Untitled watercolor by Brian Jungen. - Alanna Martinez
A talk between Marshall and Tuymans, moderated by Pirotte, perhaps best sums up the myriad opposing forces at play in Montreal’s sprawling biennial. “Reality is something that informs you. You can’t make art from art,” Tuymans told the audience, while discussing how his paintings are largely based on photographs and existing imagery. In contrast, Marshall had this to say about painting: “The reality of my work is only in the picture.”
If the ambitious Montreal Biennial suffers from anything, it’s an overabundance of content—some real, some entirely fictional, and a good lot of it appropriated. I can’t say that I left Montreal with any firm conclusions about the state of the world, or contemporary art, but the show reaffirmed my belief that artists are the shrewd pundits this world so badly needs. Pirotte phrased the burden of the artist eloquently: “Art is a vessel to transfer knowledge.” Let artists ask the big questions, it’s up to the rest of us to find answers. 

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

BONUS: Here’s The Spooky Poem ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Was Based On

Tim Burton told the 1982 story in an eerie animation read by Christopher Lee. (Read more here.)

Here’s The Spooky Poem ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Was Based On

Tim Burton told the 1982 story in an eerie animation read by Christopher Lee.

10/25/2016 02:23 pm ET
“It was the nightmare before Christmas / And all through the house / Not a creature was peaceful / Not even a mouse,” Tim Burton wrote in a riff on the popular holiday rhyme, “The Night Before Christmas.” His poetic parody would go on to inspire one of his most beloved films, not least because it can be enjoyed during two separate holidays.
In the above 10-minute video, the late Christopher Lee reads Burton’s original poem, on which the “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is based, detailing the frustrations of Jack Skellington, the spookiness of Halloween Town, and the terror bestowed upon young children after Santa Claus is kidnapped and replaced by a bonier doppelgänger.
Notably, Burton’s original 1982 story has no romantic component ― Sally, Jack’s rag doll admirer in the movie, doesn’t make an appearance. Otherwise, the movie is faithful to the original vision, a lyrically wrought first draft.
“Then out from the grave with a curl and a twist / came a whimpering, whining, spectral mist,” Lee reads when introducing Jack’s dog and best friend, Zero.
The poem, capable of eliciting fear and wonder, was written years before “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was released in 1993, when the good-intentioned Jack was finally introduced to a wider audience. At the time, Disney didn’t market the movie for kids, fearing that it would be too scary for young viewers.
Today, of course, Jack and his friends are celebrated by movie-lovers of all ages.

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