Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Antichrist Speaks Esperanto

Father Benson
Said the Antichrist would
speak Esperanto
Quick check: does Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speak Esperanto? If so, some people might be afraid, very, very afraid. Let me be quite clear here that I am not suggesting that Senator Sanders is the Antichrist; the idea is utterly absurd. It’s just that on May 2, 1908, the New York Sun ran an article on Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel[1] The Lord of the World, in which the Antichrist is a Senator from Vermont who becomes President of Europe, and eventually President of the World, and imposes Esperanto on the world.[2] Benson was a Roman Catholic priest and writer, though Benson was raised in the Anglican Church, as his father was the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I’ll admit to never having heard of the novel before this, and my expectation was that it would turn out to be a forgotten early-twentieth century work. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, as Wikipedia notes, Popes Benedict XIV and Francis have praised the move. It seems to be favored reading among conservative Catholic intellectuals. It’s an apocalyptic novel, treating progressive social movements as harbingers of the End Times.[3] The novel makes it clear that the establishment of world peace is a rejection of God. A quick glance through it shows Father Benson’s fears were that modernity was a sign of the approach of the Antichrist, and so various internationalist movements like the Peace and Esperanto movements seem to have troubled him.[4]

A glance at the novel makes it clear that Esperanto would become the imposed world language[5] with the ascendancy of the Antichrist, without actually using a word of Esperanto.[6] Those opposed to Senator Felsenburg (even as Felsenburg is bringing peace to the world) take up Latin as their international language:
He had congratulated him upon his Latin then—for they had spoken in that language throughout this second interview; and Percy had explained how loyal Catholic England had been in obeying the order, given ten years before, that Latin should become to the Church what Esperanto was becoming to the world.
The synopsis (I confess: I haven’t read the novel; I was unaware of its existence before today) suggests that the world’s churches unify in a greatly reduced organization, under the leadership of the Catholic Church, all doctrinal differences and schisms forgotten against the common enemy of world peace. It sounds a lot like the claims made today by religious conservatives saying that churches need to band together against the common foe of same-sex marriage.

The article in the Sun is part of a larger piece on new books. This is their review:
When Felsenburgh Arose.
As we read Robert Hugh Benson’s story called “Lord of the World” (Dodd, Mead & Co.) we are reminded strongly again that the reverend hand may do that at which the lay hand would hesitate. We are told here of a personality who arose in the land of America. His name was Felsenburgh. It is said of him at first, “Felsenburgh, it seemed, had employed none of those methods common in modern politics. He controlled no newspapers, vituperated nobody, championed nobody.” He had clean hands and a stainless past. He was “a pare, clean compelling personality, like a radiant child.” He had arisen a century after “the extraordinary social revolution under Mr. Hearst’s disciples,” a revolution that had marked the end of plutocracy. His fame filled Europe, in which quarter of the world he was about to arrive. The story has one priest inquiring of another: “Father, who in God’s name is Felsenburgh?”

Following Italian example, the English world at the period of this story had expanded its method of keeping time. It was 22 o’clock when Felsenburgh was received in London. A newspaper that was “not hysterical” spoke of him as probably the greatest orator the world had ever known. In coming from America by way of Asia he had made speeches in fifteen tongues. “In no less than nine places—Damascus, Irkutsk, Constantinople, Calcutta, Benares, Nanking[7] among them—he was hailed as messiah by a Mohammedan mob.” In American is reputation was of the highest.

The London newspaper that was “not hysterical” said that Felsenburgh’s speech, which it did not report, was delivered in Esperanto and was very simple and brief. The newspaper added: “There was no response, but a sign which sounded in the ears of at least one who heard it as if the whole world drew breath for the first time and then that strange heart shaking silence fell again. Many were wearing silently, the lips of though ands moved without a sound, and all faces were turned to that simple figure, as if the hope of every soul were centred there. So, if we may believe it, the eyes of many, centuries ago, were turned on one known now to history as Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Mr. Felsenburgh had particularly to announce was the fact of universal brotherhood. The story goes on to tell of distressing scenes. It was said of Felsenburgh at this time: “He is the supreme force in the world.” France was in a ferment and had offered him dictatorship. Italy wanted to bestow upon him the title of Perpetual Ruder. The account says that he was only 32. “He has,” we read of his American power, “only been in office a few months. Before that he lived alone in Vermont. Then he stood for the Senate; then he made a speech or two; then he was appointed delegate.” It reads half like English politics, but that surely is proper enough. At least it is comprehensible.

The volor, or airship, takes Father Percy Franklin, the hero of the story, to Rome. His interview with the Pope is reported, Felsenburgh becomes progressively president of Europe and President of the World. His minor title in Esperanto reads: “Julian Felsenburgh, La Prezidante de Uropo.”[8] He survived that. The particularly shocking part of the story, perhaps, is that part which tells of the plot to wipe out Westminster Abbey, and of the counter plot to wipe out Rome. Seventy war volors left England for Rome at “15½ o’clock” and sixty more left Berlin half an hour later. The story then passes into highly disturbing extravagance. With this part we forbear to be concerned, because we feel that we should protect ourselves against too great agitation and alarm.
First, let me note that this is a dreadful book review, more like a mediocre student’s book report. Yes, anonymous book writer for the Sun, we’re certain you read the book, but would you please let us know if the book was worth reading? The other problem with this review is that it so lives in the world of the novel, portions of it taken out of context read as if they’re narrating current events, not fictional situations in the novel.

About that Esperanto: the language would have to change a lot (perhaps under the influence of the Antichrist) for “the President of Europe” to be, in Esperanto, “la Prezidante de Uropo.” The phrase should be “la Prezidento de Eŭropo,” though I’ll give Benson the fine distinction between prezidanto (the presiding officer; president in the non-political sense) and prezidento (the head of state of a republic), as the distinction does not seem to have been made at the time. The only citations I can find in the Esperanto literature contemporaneous with the novel use it in a manner out of accord with current practice, for example, the Revuo Orienta applying the term “prezidento” to Max Talmey in 1908 (as head of the New York Esperanto Society, Dr. Talmey would have been prezidanto.).

The novel is, in some way, science fiction, as the prologue set the novel in some period after 1989 (for those wishing to track to actual history, by Benson’s view, 1989 was the date of “the acceptance of Karl Marx’s doctrines”), so let’s just guess at 2007, a full century after Benson wrote it.[9] We might as well call it now, and marvel at just how far off Benson was. Of course, Europe does have at least one official who might be referred to as the President of Europe, though none of the people who hold the four (!) European presidencies come from Vermont. Given the favor that Lord of the World seems to be held among some Catholics they might find cause for worry, in that a pro-peace Vermont senator has announced his candidacy for President. And so again: Does Senator Sanders speak Esperanto?

I've seen a lot of terrible slurs against Esperanto, but Robert Hugh Benson's allegation that the Antichrist would enforce Esperanto is about as low as you can go.

  1. But published in March 1908 in the United States by Dodd, Mead.  ↩

  2. Yeah, Europe. The phrase “United States” doesn’t appear in the novel. I’m not certain under what justification a Vermonter becomes President of Europe. Beats me. I guess once you’re President of the World, President of the United States is superfluous.  ↩

  3. Spoiler Alert: That’s exactly how the novel ends.  ↩

  4. This based on skimming the novel. Again, I am discussing a novel I haven’t read, and my initial impressions, gained by looking up search terms and reading a few lines here and there.  ↩

  5. A mere eighteen years later, Adolph Hitler would make a similar claim about Esperanto in Mein Kampf.  ↩

  6. One phrase purports to be Esperanto, but isn’t.  ↩

  7. Apparently, there are mosques in Nanjing.  ↩

  8. You would think that Benson, a well-educated man, would take the trouble to learn a bit of Esperanto if he was going to make it the language of the Antichrist. This is just bad Esperanto, and I can’t blame the Sun, since the line is taken directly from the Dodd, Mead edition of 1908. The same text appears in the Pitman & Sons (London) edition of 1918, so it probably is in the original 1907 British publication.  ↩

  9. A common enough view of apocalyptic writings: “If this goes on for another century…”  ↩

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