Saturday, December 31, 2005

On seeing Narnia

The magic of the books of my childhood: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Noel Streatfield... (Culturally quite an anglophile list I notice). How they once lit my world (and the flame has never since been put out - to paraphrase Hugh Latimer).

I must confess that I watched the film today in a half-horrified, half-amused disbelief - such a crude story, so militant and militaristic, so coldly calculated to the last second. This is not what my imagination got out of it 25 years ago. Not at all. It is a boundless tragedy if the modern generations of children won't read the actual texts and end up substituting Hollywood's simplistic special effects for their minds' eyes. Dear me - such a remarkable experience: fundamentally, I think, of cultural decadence. Of course it was very competent entertainment, professionally done and will undoubtedly get a very healthy return for the investment - but oh how crude we are getting nowadays. And, bloody hell, the controversy about the Christian prozelytizing: please, let the children read the Bible, let them run to the priests if they want to know anything about the Christian religion. If they would get any idea of Christianity from this movie (which they anyway won't), it would be religion as a cheap magic trick or as an obviously non-credible fairy-story like any other. Atheists should insist on their children watching this horrible mangling of religion. To be honest, much of that was already in the original text - no wonder Tolkien was so furious about it. The movie only finished the touch with this crass, throughly calculated commercialism, and a sound investment it no doubt will turn out to be.

It is quite interesting how these Hollywood mega-productions just cleanly kill the real effect of these amazing stories. Peter Jackson's highly competent and outwardly even somewhat faithful storytelling did not leave a single trace of Tolkien's beautiful, deeply tragic, conservative vision of the long defeat that worldly human life was for him - and very little indeed of his obsessively crafted huge, slow vistas of histories and cultures, of landscapes painstakingly walked through. No doubt it would not have sold very well. But I think it also would not have been understood. We are beginning to forget even Christianity these days. These films, these investments, represent the triumph of crude, calculated materialism over any spiritual world view, whether religious or secular.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Philosophy of the Blog, Part Three: Escapism

I have been somewhat desperately searching for various justifications for this blog ever since I started it - fundamentally suspecting that there really are none. To me it has seemed like a pure vanity project, typical to its vain, pathetically egoistic age: these poor ramblings are either easily destroyed or expressed infinitely better elsewhere. In actual complex, reasoned texts and thoughts. But now I think I have found something else than pure ego, if nothing especially flattering: my professional life is filled with total, brain numbing trivia - to come here and address the long views is to clear my mind, to breath ice cold, refreshing mountain air. To do it privately would seem somewhat pointless. Of course also the act of serious public writing is in itself often a joy, so far removed from the crude, functional texts I have to "create" at work. The way we live now: so much energy is spent at so meaningless things. So, here I escape and address the long views, the permanent questions.

Monday, December 26, 2005

In praise of uncertainty

I wonder to what degree this is an educated guess (considering my lack of understanding of mathematics and modern physics, probably to an uncomfortably large degree), but I would say that any rational human action and thought must be based on probability. We lack so much experience, information and understanding - and what we have is bound in a very relative and complicated way to our narrow and non-stable cultural and personal perception - we simply do not have any way to base our thoughts and actions to any fixed certainty of their meaning and long term concequence.

In these circumstances the rational way to act is to base everything on uncertainty, probability and doubt. The historical problem with this is that most people will react in feverish, irrational, aggressive and immediate action and conviction, and will end up creating all sorts of power structures and organizations resulting in continuous blind, chaotic and uncontrollable change. While the rational few are in paralysis of doubt and uncertainty. Our whole existance is thus based on unstability and chaos - I actually doubt that there would be a way for us to act rationally as a collective. We would be something else if we would be able to do that. And I do wonder what this thought, if true, says about us, about our future in the world.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

History is linear

It seems to me that referring to history is often only one of those mental safety mechanisms that give us a sense of security rather than offer any serious new analysis of our present state and future course. Of course there are certain deeply meaningful themes and patterns (of which some words later) - yes, history is crucially relevant. But not in the way we popularly think. In reality we live in unprecedented times. Of our species history of ca 200 000 - 250 000 years 95% have been spent as hunter-gatherers, a majority of this time apparently without what we would today call specifically human culture, human language and self-awareness. After these huge expanses of time and experience followed then the agricultural era of ca 10 000 years, an age of empires and kingdoms, of great religions. The industrial age lasted roughly 200 years, ending with gigantic wars and holocausts.Now we are in most parts of the West and the "developed" world ca 50 years into the post-industrial age. Fifty years. How can we say, how could we imagine what will happen next?

History is linear, it has meaningful themes and patterns - a very controversial statement actually in today's postmodern academia. But apart from the various cul-de-sacs of French theory there are two basic competing ways to see this huge, inexplicable arc from scattered animal like groups without human culture to reality-tv and global capitalism. Or maybe they fundamentally complete each other. The optimistic school sees stubborn movement towards greater sophistication and complexity leading to increased self-awareness and control. History as a painfully slow and chaotic process of enlightenment. The more pessimistic version sees continuous gravitation to greater and greater forms of power fueled by our permanent, animal reflexes outside any rational control. Here we are: panicky apes with weapons of mass destruction. As usual, I have tried to construct a messy, unsatisfactory middle way - I simply think there is no way to know yet which trend will turn out to be more significant. This experience with complex societies has been so recent, so short that we might only be witnessing the painful birth pangs of something unimaginably better. Certainly much also points towards the pessimistic, even apocalyptic views: so much aggressive, instinctual passion, so little wisdom and control. So many weapons, so many structural problems. We live in unprecedented times - and I do have a certain fearful sense that we are engaged in a race with time. Trends collapse, histories end, species die out. Who could say: we live in unprecedented times.

Postscript: There is of course a third, and currently quite prevalent, view with which I have some sympathy - to deny all coherence from history, and to see all constructions of logic and shape exactly as such, as purely "artificial" constructions out of fundamental formlessness. I too think that history is fundamentally random in the sense that nothing is pretermined and everything is determined by chaotic, unique constellations. At the moment. Of course, to say even this is to say that history has coherence beyond any individual view point, that it has unmistakeable linearity and direction. We only are not in the position to say how temporary those apparent trends turn out to be: what we have now is only this one brilliantly shooting arc with no ability as yet to determine its fundamental nature and direction or lack of them.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The silvery springs of Rökstubacken

If I would ever doubt the deep connection between Finland and Sweden, Dan Andersson would convince me otherwise. I have to confess that Tommy Tabermann's translations sound more authentic than the Swedish originals. These are the Finnish forests of Central Sweden, and the poems are full of Finnish longing for home, of Swedish longing. He has such a feeling for the landscape, for nature, such a touch: beauty and sadness become one. Much of that, I would argue, originates directly from the experience of the Finnish forests - losing your language, your home. A universal message from a very unique, very local perspective. The texts were of course originally written in Swedish but listening to the Finnish translations it is almost impossible to believe to be true: such familiar sound. Our common Nordic lack of home in the middle of these dark, beautiful, hostile forests...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Economics of unreason

It is always amusing to see the market economy characterized as a rational process. Of all adjectives. Of course, I can understand this on the individual level, but since when has individual short term rationality (we almost all are individually and in the short term rational within our own varyingly eccentric perceptions and definitions of rational behaviour), but since when has this translated into reason on any collective level? The thing that keeps the bubblenomics that is the American economy going at the moment, is the irrational trust in it. By now this trust has been going on for so long (about 3-4 years) that already the first voices are being heard to say that this will go on for ever, that this is now the "new economics" and the old rules are no longer in force. Which is the surest of signs that the bubble is about to burst. And burst it will: American private and public deficit financing can't continue for ever. The trust will turn out to be brittle and the longer the grim reality is referred the more painful the adjustment will be. For all the world. This time things might actually get very nasty indeed. If only we would be able to operate a rational economy... (Which we obviously aren't for a very long time to come.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Down with Friedrich

It has been a longstanding visceral, deepseated reflex of mine to abhor Nietzsche – no doubt largely thanks also to my protestant pietist background (and the rational-liberal present) to which this constant strutting, this ridiculous posturing is a total anathema. I hardly can read the bloody stuff: the feverish hysteria, the girlish exclamations... That is supposed to be good style? God is dead, most likely, but why should we have a collective tantrum about such a thing? And is it not ridiculous to aim to be “masters” of our own fate, when firstly we definitely are not, and secondly, are not even capable of defining what that mastery could really mean.

But, and there is so often a but with him, in later years there has grown some reluctant respect for his thinking. Or, more accurately, for his attitude towards the experience of being in the world. In this vehement insistance to think, to be for yourself, to make your own definitions, there is actually much to admire. Of course we must live like that – life would not be meaningfully lived otherwise. But (hmm, another one) apart from that I still have very little actual interest for him. He either says self-evident things or obviously silly and meaningless things. And not at all innocently: I can well see how the Nazi misreading grew out of his thought - if profound, theoretical strutting is aped, you will get nasty, brutal and primitive real life strutting. And worse. Himmler’s misreading for example was very chilling indeed. Nietzsche is not innocent in this as little “Nazi” as he actually so obviously was.

But the most striking image of all are of his later years: his lost sanity, his incoherent, mad, pitiful ravings - and the awful misuse of his philosophy by his poisonous sister. Not a master of his fate then, not a master at all. As none of us ever is and never will be.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Passionate intensity

I am quite a structuralist when it comes to power: in my view elites don’t use power, power uses elites. The common theme of human history has been a struggle for power based on our atavistic, primal fear, almost panic and the concequent craving for instant, short-term security. These actions create organizations and structures that in turn shape the individual actions and interact chaotically and unpredictably with each other. That’s how at the core of any human institution are the impulses of a permanently scared animal. Reason and enlightenment have had some limited effect towards rational, measured behaviour, but so far any real progress has been minimal.

So, power is structural and behaves structurally but depends on primal human impulses. On the individual level we concequently see how it continually keeps ending up in the wrong hands. The best do lack much conviction, as they are rational and base their actions on doubt and probability. The worst instead are full of passionate intensity and act accordingly: decisively and aggressively. And end up with the short term perceived security, short term power. Some institutions do curb this pattern and let reason prevail to an extent at least (rarely, if ever, fully). Most don’t. And so we stagger on.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

This ecstatic air

I did not choose the name for the blog by complete accident or for purely esthetic reasons (as important as those always are for me). Botanist on Alp (No. 1) has always been a very essential poem for me as it brilliantly, fiercely accurately sketches our historical situation (in haunting, beautiful language) : what composition there really could be in all this - only statues and stars without a theme? And still, surely, despair cannot be the specialty of this ecstatic air. Can it? But here we are, gradually forgetting Christianity (echoes of Botanist No. 2 here - I wonder if I could tolerate the earth without it) and our Classical heritage, inventing all variety of practical things, enjoying previously unimaginable material wealth - getting lost. Poised, I suppose, confusedly between two worlds, currently having none. Botanist on Alp defines our present location but only asks questions of our future course: will it nevertheless end up in despair and incoherence?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Lines are straight and swift between the stars

In a positively Standish O'Gradian fashion, in a state of fairly high drunkenness on the train between Pitäjänmäki and Leppävaara I was wondering what way ever there could have been to extrapolate from that quietest of quiet villages in the summer of 1968 to this place and moment in time, through those paths and those landscapes, and concluded that lines are not straight nor swift between the stars. Strange, very strange our lives are: who could have ever foretold such a story?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

One cheer for postmodern thought

Despite of most of the ”new theory” having proven to be such a blind alley for humanities it must be acknowleged that it has raised awareness of the polyfony of human experience: it has listened to silenced voices, to minorities, to the marginalized. There is much true value in that. The whole postmodern family of theories and schools of thought have also very analytically focused on the complex way that language interacts with the structures culture and society, and vitally important questions have been thus raised. Even if never satisfactorily answered. Yes, enormous amounts of energy have been wasted, incredibly much time has been lost to scholastic trivialities, but even amidst this gathering backlash we should remember the genuinely valuable contributions which have profoundly changed our perspectives for the better.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Life and death - and life

Our lives give us an illusion of permanence: there are slow years, decades, and in the beginning not even a real sense of their eventual ending. But in reality it is such a brief moment we spend in the world. At heart we are rootless, nomadic species, at the mercy of random fate: in no place and in no time do we truly settle in. The Enlightenment is not very effective in capturing this truth: it is not good with impermanence and insecurity, with tragedy, if you may. Art and religion do much better, are more tuned to long views, to this human predicament, human condition. These darkish thoughts I suppose are largely due to the fact that this weekend we will begin burying another generation of my family after a 20 years break since the previous one. In the coming years there will be many of these occasions, and some that I am still very much afraid of - in the 80's these leavings did not touch me this personally: now I see to the both directions, to youth and to old age, and many of those that will be going, that are going were once the permanent, loved cornerstones of my own life. They seemed permanent. It is a very brief, fleeting moment that we spend in this world.

Dark thoughts? I wonder. It would seem meaningless to complain. This is the human condition, this has been our strange fate. And of course, this impermanence gives us a high value to our lives, to our brief and fundamentally tragic moment. It is all we have and it can be taken away or wrecked so easily. Much of our feverish modern activity is aimed to conceal this truth. But yes, there is also wild exhilaration in this beautiful landscape with its ice cold air of chaos and danger. And boundless sadness.


A brief postscript. I would not address here the hope of the Christian theology (such that is not so clearly stated in what is reported of Christ's actual teachings) that is so widely shared in my family - it would seem to be a separate matter, out of our hands, something that cold Enlightenment reason is better in handling. For me religion is not very much about its literal truth but of its description of the human experience in the world, in a sense also of its potential worthiness of being made true. And that seems a very far away thing in relation with the current reality of death and human impermanence. This is a very abstract, and in many ways a very mystical way of seeing religion, far beyond the literalness and crudeness of its mainstream practice, and in many ways not very far from some aspects of Finnish Pietism that so much dominates my family's spiritual heritage.