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Beginner Utopian

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    Near the end of his speech, the translator stopped speaking. The color had fled his cheeks. “Do you realize who this guy is?” he whispered to me. “This guy is, like, the No. 2 terrorist in Ukraine.”

    A quick Google from our seats pulled up a news report with a photograph of the man who was standing at the podium. Garkavenko, it turned out, was the founder of a militant far-right Russian nationalist organization called the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army. In 1997, he was sent to prison for nine years for firebombing the offices of several Ukrainian political and cultural organizations, as well as the Israeli cultural center in Kharkov.

    I turned to my translator. “What in the world is this guy doing at a linguistics conference?”

    I leaned over to Quijada and told him what I had just read. We looked around the room at the collection of young men and women in attendance, and were suddenly struck by a question that probably ought to have dawned on us earlier: What were any of these people doing here?

    After the conference wrapped up, Quijada and I met over a cup of coffee to debrief, and to try to figure out what we had just taken part in. We ran Internet searches on Bakhtiyarov and Garkavenko, and, with the help of Google Translate, we decoded some of their writings in Russian, including a trail of Garkavenko’s anti-Semitic blog posts. “A considerable proportion of the populace knows the role of the State of Israel, and the élites related to it, in those disastrous processes that the peoples of the former Soviet Union are now living in,” one of his essays proclaimed. I read that one aloud to Quijada, who twiddled anxiously with the strap of his luggage, a look of devastation on his face.

    We discovered that Bakhtiyarov, in addition to his work on psychonetics, moonlights in politics. In 1994, he joined the leadership of the Party of Slavonic Unity, a short-lived ultra-nationalist movement whose goal was the reunification of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus into a Slavic confederation that would also include Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, and Bulgarians.

    In interviews, Bakhtiyarov talks of developing “intellectual special forces” that can bring about the “reëstablishment of a great power” in greater Russia, and give birth to a “new race . . . that can really be called superhuman.”

    An intellectual élite capable of seeing through the tissue of lies to the underlying essence of things needs a language capable of expressing their new way of thinking. Like Heinlein’s fictional secret society of geniuses, who train themselves in Speedtalk in order to think faster and more clearly, Bakhtiyarov and the psychoneticists believe that an Ithkuil training regimen has the potential to reshape human consciousness and help them “solve problems faster.” Though he denies that psychonetics is a political project, it’s hard to uncouple Bakhtiyarov’s dream of creating a Slavic superstate from his dream of creating a Slavic superman—perhaps one who speaks a disciplined, transparent language such as Ithkuil.

    “When I get home, the first thing I’m doing is draft a letter to Dr. Bakhtiyarov saying I don’t want to have anything else to do with psychonetics,” a dispirited Quijada told me. “What if, God forbid, this were labelled as pseudoscience, or some sort of cult? I wouldn’t want to be complicit in that. To find out that, when all is said and done, I’m ultimately a pawn for these misguided Nietzschean whatever-they-are . . . it just turns me off.”

    Quijada and I weren’t the only ones who had been using Google. Garkavenko blogged his account of the conference on Live Journal and posted the video he shot of me on YouTube.

    “At the conference, there was one person . . . with an interpreter,” he wrote on his blog. “To put it simply: he had Pentagon written all over him. I don’t know, it was plain and simple, a stereotypical caricature of the face of a government agent. . . . When he took the initiative and asked a question, it was always exactly the thing that a government agent would bluntly ask about.”

    Garkavenko had also noticed the moment when my translator and I realized who he was. “He changed right before our eyes. . . . It became clear that he had met me on the Internet. Afterward, I found out whom fate had brought. Joshua Foer . . . the well-known journalist . . . a descendant of Odessa Jews who had once fled to the West, at an inopportune time for them. Of course, they were confident in their intuitions. And how could they over there ignore a phenomenon like Oleg Bakhtiyarov’s project?”

    Releasing a newborn language into the wild, where it can evolve and be corrupted in the mouths of others, has consistently proved difficult for language creators. More than once, it has been accompanied by the same sense of destructive disappointment that the Biblical God experienced after he released his own perfect creations into the world and discovered that they weren’t so perfect after all. Charles Bliss, a survivor of Buchenwald and the inventor of the pictographic language Blissymbolics, became unhinged when he learned that teachers were modifying his language to make it a tool for children with cerebral palsy to learn English. Volapük, a language created in the nineteenth century by a German Catholic priest named Johann Martin Schleyer, once had two hundred and eighty clubs around the world and more speakers than Esperanto. But its audience collapsed when Schleyer refused to allow anyone other than himself to coin new words.

    Toward the end of the Kiev conference, one of the professors from the University of Effective Development told Quijada that she couldn’t understand why he had no interest in building a movement of Ithkuil speakers and students. “Your language is taking on a life of its own,” she told him. “You should become a part of it.”

    “It’s not my passion,” Quijada told her politely. “It was a twenty-five-year itch that I needed to scratch. I scratched it. If others can pick it up and run with it, that’s wonderful, but I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. You’ve shown me that you understand my work far better than I would have thought other persons could understand it. Indeed, perhaps you understand its potential better than I do.”

    A few months after returning from Kiev, Quijada finally had the opportunity to meet George Lakoff, at his home in Berkeley. Lakoff was laid out on his sofa after a back operation that kept him from going in to work. At my urging, he had agreed to see Quijada.

    As we walked up the front-yard path to the house, Quijada was as adrenalized as I’d ever seen him. “This is one more step in the adventure, I guess,” he said.

    Lakoff’s wife opened the door and escorted us to the living room.

    “Why me?” Lakoff asked Quijada, from his spot on the couch.

    “Because you’re my hero,” he said.

    Lakoff, who is seventy-one, bearded, and, like Quijada, broadly built, seemed to have read a fair portion of the Ithkuil manuscript and familiarized himself with the language’s nuances.

    “There are a whole lot of questions I have about this,” he told Quijada, and then explained how he felt Quijada had misread his work on metaphor. “Metaphors don’t just show up in language,” he said. “The metaphor isn’t in the word, it’s in the idea,” and it can’t be wished away with grammar.

    “For me, as a linguist looking at this, I have to say, ‘O.K., this isn’t going to be used.’ It has an assumption of efficiency that really isn’t efficient, given how the brain works. It misses the metaphor stuff. But the parts that are successful are really nontrivial. This may be an impossible language,” he said. “But if you think of it as a conceptual-art project I think it’s fascinating.”

    In the months that I’d known him, Quijada had compared himself to a painter several times, and spoken often of the impulse to create, but this was the first time I’d heard him or anyone refer to Ithkuil simply as a work of art. And yet that description of his project seemed to sit better with Quijada than any other set of words that anyone else had used to describe it.

    “If linguistics is the best window into the mind that we have, why wouldn’t you want to manipulate it for artistic purposes?” he said to Lakoff.

    “The beauty of this for me is that you went through the world’s languages and collected all these features, as if to say, Look at what human language is capable of. I say, bless you!” Lakoff told him. The meeting lasted almost five hours.

    When Quijada returned home, he made a final set of tweaks to the Ithkuil grammar, and declared his thirty-four-year project complete. Then he self-published a definitive, four-hundred-and-thirty-nine-page description of the language. Though he dedicated the book to Alla Vishneva, he politely declined Bakhtiyarov’s invitation to speak at another conference, in Moscow.

    Once the deflation of Kiev and the excitement of the meeting with Lakoff had worn off, I wrote to Quijada and asked if there might be a brief phrase in Ithkuil to summarize the journey that he and his language have taken during the past year. He sent me a sentence: “Eipkalindhöll te uvölîlpa ípçatörza üxt rî’ekçuöbös abzeikhouxhtoù eqarpaň dhai’eickòbüm öt eužmackûnáň xhai’ékc’oxtîmmalt te qhoec îtyatuith.” “I am privileged to have had the rare experience of having what I think of as a hobby propel me to faraway places where one encounters new ideas along with new cultures and new peoples generous in their hospitality and respect, leading me to humble introspection and a new appreciation for the human spirit and the wonders of the world.”

    Of course, that’s not quite right, either. ♦


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