Books, Law

Russian words

The deputy leader of the Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has proposed a Russian law forbidding the use of non-Russian words in public. He is the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrat party and has said “We are sick of these Americanisms and Anglicisms. We will be making a list of words that are forbidden from use when there are normal Russian words.” The bill was approved last week by the parliament’s culture committee, whose deputy said that the law should be passed out of respect for his country and its language “The language of Tolstoy, Pushkin and so on”.

Here are the opening two sentences of War and Peace in the Russian edition:

Eh bien, mon prince, Genes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des estates, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous previens, que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encoure de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocities de cet Anticrist (ma parole, j’y crois) – je ne vous connais plus, vous n’etres plus mon ami, vous n’etres plus my faithful slave, comme vous dites.

The Tolstoy estate would have been much diminished by the fines if this was published after the implementation of the new law. The novel has substantial French passages and German and as well.

Pushkin’s poem To Natalie 1813 uses the word vokzals to mean ‘amusement park’ after the world famous Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in south London. The word vokzal is used daily in Russian now to mean central railway station. A Russian delegation visited the area in 1840 to inspect the London and South Western Railway. They mistook the sign at the platform at Vauxhall for the generic name of a railway station. Does Vladimir Zhirinovsky know? The Russian rail network could be bust in a month.

Instead of Mr Zhirinovsky legislating for others’ language, perhaps he could mind his own words. Last month after being asked a question about Ukraine at a press conference he told two of his aides to rape the female journalist who asked it.


Selfish Giant or Selfish Gene?

Richard Dawkins, the biologist and controversialist, has said at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this week that the reading of fairy tales by children encourages a lack of critical thinking.
Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?…I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.
He wants instead to train children to be good rationalists and future scientists and ward off any sense of the religious.

The fairy tales collected two hundred years ago in Germany have a powerful hold on our culture with their strong sense of the surrounding forest and its dangers. For Bruno Bettelheim* the tales allow children to examine secret fears and preoccupations, an early examination of the existential predicament, and are of irreplaceable importance. Dawkins makes the mistake of thinking that reading fairy tales fosters a misunderstanding of plausibility and thereby stunts a child. Can he identify a single adult who holds the view that frogs do turn into princes? It is a mistake to think that children’s minds should be forced to operate as an adult’s does.

Expecting literature to train young people to be rationalists and logical thinkers is to mistake what literature actually is. Literature (and art) for adults can be as fantastical as fairy tales: Norse mythology, Le Morte d’Artur, The Thousand and One Nights, Sir Gawain and the Green Night. And more recently Ionesco, Beckett, Bunuel, Dali, Lewis Carroll, Gunter Grass. There has always been a deep connection between storytelling and myth; imagination and the absurd. The enchantment of literature is for the curious and the intelligent, young and old. There is plenty of time in life for the rational – we get enough of that anyway.

Can I invite Professor Dawkins to re-read his Schiller: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”

*The Uses of Enchantment, 1976