an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Observations and Thoughts on Culture, Languages and Entelechies
A Lecture at Moscow State Open Pedagogical University, 27 November 2001, at the Conference: “Languages of the World, the World of Languages”

I would like to speak today from a “philosophical” view of these topics, in history, of the history of ideas.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563)
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563)

Whether Adam, or Adam and Eve, were monolingual or polyglots, linguistic provincials in Eden, or multi-lingual cosmopolitans...is something serious intellectuals might have fun joking about, but which religious believers often still take very seriously. Mythic attempts to comprehend linguistic and human diversity using Noah’s sons: Shem, Ham and Japeth, or the Tower of Babel, are still “Biblical Truth” of the Divine Word of God for those not yet disenchanted – at least in their religious ideas – by the ideas and ratio of the Enlightenment.

Greek, Latin, French, English – civilizations do seem to move westward. The Austrian philosopher and seer Rudolf Steiner already in January 1917, at the closing of World War I, clearly stated that the coming period in world civilization would in basis be a purely industrial-commercial-economic one, and that, founded in the Anglo-American world, English would be the language in which humanity in general – irrespective of caste and class – would speak to each other. The dollar bills in all of our pockets here in Moscow shows how right he was already even then. (Just at the time of the Russian Revolution.)

In ancient Zoroastrian lore – and at the origin of what would come to be called “Western Civilization” – there was a belief that at one’s death, one came onto a bridge whereupon one met one’s own spirit (daena) coming to meet its own earthly self – beautiful or ugly, depending on one’s good or bad “thoughts, words and deeds” in life. This ancient image still lies at the mythic-historical base of all deeper ideas of “conscience” [See Letter to President Vaclav Havel and Thoughts on Vaclav Havel’s Anthropology and Cosmology] of present-day religious moralities, and is discernible in for example Vaclav Havel’s idea of a “Memory of Being”, wherein all our earthly acts are recorded. “Thought, words and deeds”...the mysteries of man, of the mind, of meaning, and the voice and acts of men and women of Man are here to be probed.

The Languages of the World, the World of Languages...the Languages of Adam, the Adam of Languages...Adam was told to name the beasts of the earth and sky...need he also in our time name his own inner beasts.

Culture... Nurture... Language... Incarnation...

As an American who has lived and observed in one of the most socially-conservative states of the USA, and then lived in one of the most liberal, even “radical” areas of California, with a serious stint in Germany, and now some seven consecutive years in Russia of often daily observations in Moscow in the great transition from Soviet to what I call Dollar Russia, I have been able to come to what I believe to be some close, accurate observations and insights on the relation of cultures, national characters (“American”, “Russian”, “German”), psychologies, languages, and the question of the “entelechy”.

It is more or less normal to translate, or “interpret”, from one language to another: Russian to English, English to Russian, French, German, what have you; but it is very difficult to “translate”, to “re-act”, body language, gestures, facial expressions,...from one “language” to another. As anyone who knows well two or more languages can experience, something is unavoidably lost in the translation. Here, translating some more or less rational idea or word – perhaps easiest in science, most difficult in poetry – seems rather (as we now can say in US English) “do-able”, possible, even easy compared to the heights of inner consciousness and self-knowledge which would be required to consciously – with body movements, with all the muscles of the face – to express the emotions, attitudes, social references, etc, – to translate one cultural-psychic “language” into another. Indeed it is not fully possible; and there are few so fully conscious observers, humans, and actors in the world. Possible; but very rare.

Here we touch the question of “globalization”: will the homogenization of cultures lead to a homogenized homo sapiens. Viva la difference (we say in the USA)...or will “globalization” of films and TV lead to a mono-psychic global type of human? Provincialisms, regional differences and prides, civilizational and cultural contrasts, will surely long yet work to counter such homogenization. Yet still, we see that not only “blue jeans” from California, or multi-national brand logos and slogans from New York’s Madison Avenue spread in the world; ideas, expressions, words, clichés, even bodily gestures grow, perhaps slowly, increasingly the same. Even how people “make love” world-wide is being influenced by Hollywood.

Daily watching Russians in the Metro wagons as an American “anthropologist”, I can see how these people – “Russian” – of this or that family, racial, cultural or social origin – how most of them, except perhaps in language, do not know how Russian they are, or how they are Russian. However, as Nicholas Berdyayev mentioned the more penetrating minds of the West may see this.

I watch Russian beggars, asking for money in a certain special, culturally-unique, even perhaps traditional “Russian” manner and voice (even the cadence of their pleas); how a certain Russian attitude or mood is expressed in the movements of the face, in a way distinct from German, American, Japanese; how even well-educated Russians have often a predictable laugh or facial response to some occurrence around them. Two young Russian girls in a metro car – not only do their clothes and make-up come from one inexpensive mass magazine or other, but their very pronunciation, their laughter, the movements of their very faces and hands are all unconsciously, naturally “Russian”. (I like trying to determine people’s national origins by their hand movements for example.) One can say of these two girls, that they are Russian...or that ‘Russian is them’.

All language, all words are in a way a cliché, a formula, sometimes almost a verbal corpse, which we use to communicate most of our common, routine, thoughts, experiences, comments, moods, feelings, etc. Whether the First (androgynous) Adam was much more vivid, fresh and even fiery when he named the things of the world around him – we fallen “adams” and “eves” most often are intellectually dormant when we think and speak (and act). And even if we become experientially conscious of our own languages’ limitations and contours (perhaps in relation to another language with its differing mentality, or in another country where our transported language, ideas and mentality do not “fit”) – few ever penetrate behind their own body, their own feelings, emotions, laughter, gestures, their own immediate, unconscious thoughts and reactions,...to become aware of their own often culturally-determined psychologies.

Our “Russian” or “American”, or “German” or “French” [or completely non-European] mentalities (and are they not much more similar now than a century, even a quarter-century, ago?), our very ways of laughing, making a point with our hands, are – in relation to our purported transcendent “entelechies” – like unconscious psychic costumes, masks. Many know “All the world’s a stage, and all men and women only actors” – yet how few realize, like Arjuna talking with Krishna in the opening of the Bhagavad-Gita, that the body, the culture, the face, emotions and thoughts which most consider “natural”, are also a part of “the stage”? Incarnation. Our personality, our national (or tribal, racial, cultural) character, is the closest, the most convincing (and deceiving!) part of the world in which we live. Herzen, Walter Schubart, Nicholas Berdyayev and others spoke of how the meeting, the contrast of East and West, of Russian and European, or American, can lead one to the deepest philosophical self-reflections. “Oh man, know thyself”. Few, of the human pyramid, at any time become aware of such problems; fewer still perhaps are sufficiently “otherworldly” (philosophical) to be deeply fascinated by the depths of the questions of the relations of the body, soul, and spirit, of the cultures, languages and psychologies of men and women of Man into which they lead.

Living in a very different culture, a different “language of personality and nationality” can lead to such reflections and insights.

The otherworldly “entelechy” (pre-incarnate, post-mortem) – like the Zoroastrian higher, spiritual, transcendent “self” that we are said to meet after death – is something somehow above and beyond our cultures, languages and psychologies; even above our most well-educated, intelligent and cultured selves. But, to adapt the familiar Goethe’s quote that ‘he who only knows one language does not know that either’: he who only knows one cultural mentality...one national character, does not know that one either.

As “God” certainly does not speak only, or mostly, “American” or “Russian”; so if we wish to glimpse that in each of us which is more than passing and mortal, we can realize – in our contrasts – at least something of what we are said to be “transcendentally”, above our passing earthly identities, languages and nationalities.

Being “Russian”, being “American”, or of any other mother (or father) culture...even trying to transcend each and/or both...is also a part of “the stage”. From this point of view, sub specie aeternitatis, the body is “stage”, soul and national character are “stage”, our language and speech, even our emotions and thoughts, are most often a socially-determined part of “the stage”. Few will have the time, inclination, determination, and capacity perhaps, to realize that they are actors in this sense. But I myself am convinced that in this way we can discern how our languages, our cultures, our nationalities, are subservient to our legendary spiritual selves – our “entelechies” – whose post-mortem brightness and beauty is said to completely depend on the consciousness or dullness, goodness or malevolence, nobility or ignobility, of our earthly “thoughts, words and deeds” of which “language”, for our inner identities, for our social associations and love of others, and even our practical earthly existence, is clearly essential.


First published in the magazine English, #48, 2001, p. 6.