The Garden of Forking Languages: Russian Struggles

My very first interaction with Russian culture and literature dates back to when I was thirteen years old and decided to read the Russian classic Anna Karenina. Although I was admittedly too young to fully comprehend and appreciate the complexity of that book, I was also at the age at which every one of my readings was not a way of seeking entertainment, but a quest for the author’s hidden message instead. I would constantly ask myself infinite questions about existing: existing in time and space, existing as a human being, existing as myself. Then I would also ask myself some meta-questions about whether those were the correct questions to be asking, or whether I should be asking myself any questions at all. In this inquisitive mindset, I was delighted by some of Tolstoy’s sentences which would skilfully conceal the writer’s point of view behind an intriguing veil of ambiguity.

In particular, I spent a long time pondering over the notorious first statement of the novel: ‘happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ When evaluating this concept, I would extend it to include every sort of association of humans – not exclusively families – and I would apply it to single individuals as well. What that enigmatic sentence seemed to suggest was that there are no more than a few stereotypical ways of being a happy, successful person, whereas there are infinite shades of human misery. Could this ever be true? After some reflection, it seemed to me like the routes to human misery were as limited as those to happiness. There seem to be, after all, a few popular ways of being unsuccessful in life. Perhaps Tolstoy was attempting to comfort the miserable by attributing to their position an originality that happiness appeared to lack. But was Anna Karenina really doing something extremely original when falling in love with someone who wasn’t her husband, which led to her adultery and to all to the subsequent troubles that made this story so famous? Were any of her struggles innovative at all? It certainly doesn’t seem so; on the contrary, it appears like a great number of unhappy people follow a similar path to Anna Karenina. But is it really that easy to determine whether someone is or isn’t happy as a person? Most importantly, does it even make sense to speak about happy and unhappy people, when happiness and misery are clearly states that most people experience as intertwined throughout their existence?

As soon as I got to university, I decided that Russian would be my major. I was drawn to it by the foreign alphabet, and by the fact that it belonged to a branch of languages that was entirely new to me. In addition, I was fascinated by the idea of reading more of Russian literature, and I did, as I explored the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev. My Cyrillic handwriting soon became neat and nice looking, which created a strong contrast with my notoriously messy Latin handwriting. I loved engaging in Russian-English translation, and I found great comfort in the mechanical technicalities of learning yet another language. The idea of travelling to Russia intrigued me, as I would avidly read La pose du Transsibérien by the French author Cendrars, in which he portrays a train journey through the Siberian landscape fuelled by the insatiable thirst for life typical of the youth.

Although I enjoyed learning the Russian language and was quite good at it for a beginner, I soon started to feel strongly unfulfilled by my linguistic career. The same nice, familiar grammatical technicalities that I used to find comforting suddenly started to make me feel trapped in a syntax I didn’t belong to. As a result of this, I began to doubt my entire career, and the strongly inquisitive feature of my personality re-emerged. It occurred to me that I needed to explore the questions that were so insistently raised by my brain whenever I approached a new piece of literature, or whenever I engaged in most activities. That is how I decided to pursue a philosophical career rather than a linguistic or literary one. However, I still think fondly of my Russian days, not only because I strongly appreciate the Russian language and literature, but also because I’m aware that it constitutes an important forking path in my personal history; it is the alternative I did not choose, the outcome that did not take place. As always when pondering over my personal what ifs, I’m tempted to ask myself whether picking that option would have made a significant difference in my own personal balance between happiness and misery. Then I proceed to think about some other equally unanswerable questions.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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