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(from the name of the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop), a special type of cryptographic or allegorical writing used in literature, criticism, and journalism in order to circumvent censorship when such literary activity is denied freedom of expression.
An example of Aesopian language was the technique worked out in the Russian press between the late 18th and the early 20th century—that is, the system of “deceptive means,” or of encoding (and decoding) freely conceived ideas—as a reaction against the ban that forbade mention of certain ideas, subjects, events, and persons. Specific examples of such techniques were the use of images derived from fables and of allegorical “fairy-tale descriptions,” particularly in the work of M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, who in fact popularized the term “Aesopian language”; semi-transparent circumlocutions and pseudonyms, such as those used by A. V. Amfiteatrov in The Obmanovs (Deceivers), his feuilleton about the tsar’s family (the Romanovs); more or less covert allusions; and irony—which, when “clothed in tactfulness,” was invulnerable to censorship. “Foreign” subject matter was used to disguise condemnations of actual conditions in Russia, and common phrases became gibes, as in the case of the expression “At your service, Sir,” which was a reference to A. S. Suvorin’s newspaper Novoe vremia. Readers knew that “the big job” stood for “revolution,” that “the realist” was K. Marx, and that “those missing from the anthologies” meant V. G. Belinskii or N. G. Chernyshevskii. When so used, Aesopian language was accessible to the general reader and served as a tool not only of political struggle but also of realistic literary craftsmanship. In France, H. Rochefort was master of the Aesopian language.
In time, the typical techniques used in Aesopian language became part of the satiric style, and today’s writers resort to such techniques independently of censorship pressures. Whether used separately or combined with other means of creative linguistic expression, these techniques have become attributes of specific writers’ styles, as exemplified by A. France’s Penguin Island, the works of M. A. Bulgakov, K. Čapek’s The War With the Newts, and various literary genres of science fiction and humor.
REFERENCESChukovskii, K. Masterstvo Nekrasova, 4th ed. Moscow, 1962.
Bushmin, A. S. Satira Saltykova-Shchedrina. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959. Chapter 6.
Efimov, A. I. lazyk satiry Saltykova-Shchedrina. Moscow, 1953. Chapter 8.
Paklina, L. Ia. Iskusstvo inoskazatel’noi rechi: Ezopovskoe slovo v khudozhestvennoi literature i publitsistike. Saratov, 1971.
V. P. GRIGOR’EV