Monday, October 30, 2006

The history of Finnish anxiety

When historians are good, they are scarily good. Of course it very rarely happens - I wonder whether there is any other academic field where so much meaningless drivel is being published, where incredibly muddled "common sense" passes for sophisticated analytic thought, where so much energy is devoted into getting a superficial but selling media profile. Typically this last happens as a ritual patricide of the previous generation: a non-specified "myth" is being non-specifically "disproved" while usually simultaneously a confused faith into relativistically interpreted post-modern theory is endorsed - never mind that it would take into question the whole idea of "objectively disproving" anything. But when there are exceptions, they truly are scarily good. One such brilliant exception in Finland is Juha Siltala whose two first books of an ongoing trilogy of study on the formation of the Finnish mind are by far the best and most significant historical studies published in Finland in the last 20 years. It is strange how undervalued "Suomalainen ahdistus" and "Valkoisen äidin pojat" are considering their brilliant and groundbreaking approach. Of course there are some faults: at times Siltala's psychological approach does seem overly deterministic and underestimating our human capabilities to self-awareness and self-control - but these observations, as significant as they are, are much beside the point. Siltala approaches historical experience with such analytical seriousness that has never been matched in the Finnish study of history. Processes and structures are revealed and analysed in the most comprehensive of ways, the iron controls of history are brought to light and discussed. A joy to behold such penetration and reach of thought in humanities.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

That would be waving and that would be crying

In earnest, liberal, quite Victorian tones I have seen art as fusion of ethics and esthetics. This is to be most oldfashioned, passé, in these, hmm, more dynamic times with all things being in our coldly certain flux, perpetually indetermined and under doubt. Not that they weren't for earnest liberal Victorians. Maybe unjustly, George Eliot comes to mind here: to me she is the epitome of the high liberal worry as regards the cold ways of the godless world. Yes, things certainly were in flux also for them - but in a different way, the structure of doubt itself had not been undermined by any grand and fashionable French theory. Doubt meant the ultimate integrity - as it still does for me.

So, I do see literature, poetry especially, as the most serious form of human thought even when including the theory of natural science or ancient and modern philosophy, and even religion. Or, rather, I see art, literature, as the place where these majestic traditions and languages come together, fuse in the most meaningful way possible to humankind. Esthetics for us is the most direct route of expressing our otherhood, of being on this strange pilgrimage that we are being on. And so we continue wondering whether the fault is with the soul and its sovereigns or perhaps then with the lions. And if so, let us by all means send them back to Monsieur Dufy's Hamburg.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Godgame

Talk about pleasures recalled in tranquility. Last week I encountered and bought for 50 cents "The Magus" by John Fowles in Kauniainen Library. It is the revised edition - I am not totally certain but I think I read exactly this version of the text (in Finnish) for the first time in the tender age of 13. I was burningly unhappy, just beginning a desert of long, painful years, and it was such a sublime experience to forget my surroundings in that dark winter month. I happened to be in a hospital and asked my parents to bring it in order to finish it. Such ecstasy. It is a novel to be read when young. It actually was one of the many literary, artistic gates that opened my way and expanded the sometimes cruelly narrow circumstances that I unluckily (and through personal inadequacies) found myself in, in that now very distant youth. I have of course reread it since and largely share the author's own views (as expressed in the Preface to the revised edition): it is not disciplined, mature enough, disguising undoubtedly deep personal uncertainties. That is why it so strongly appeals to young people. Of course, those faults in a strange way are its strengths. A hugely meaningful book indeed.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Eesti ajaloost

I think that ever since I read Jaan Kross's subtle, but defiantly Western tones in "Czar's Madman" (I must have been twelve or thirteen) I have felt particular sympathy towards Estonia. Of course the whole cultural climate of Southern Ostrobothnia and its Pietist circles was very positive towards the Estonians even in the middle of the blackest Finlandization. (Realpolitics aside, the way the majority of our late Kekkonen era intellectual elite chose not to see, not to hear and not to understand the Soviet crimes against humanity is unforgivable.) Jaan Kross has remained a great favourite and my understanding of the incredibly tragic history of modern Estonia has slowly developed and deepened along the years. By 1945 Estonia had lost a quarter of her 1939 population and was in the grip of the triumphant, hysterical Stalinist state that immediately started to undermine her national traditions, her language and culture after having already destroyed Estonian elites, economy and state. From those ruins this astonishingly determined, astonishingly rooted nation has risen to be a full member of the EU, Nato and the UN.

Of course for us Finns there is this special bond of linguistic closeness - I'm listening at the moment to Justament's "Petseri tsura ja Hiitola ätt", you basically physically feel how the languages are situated so near to mutual intelligibility:

Mis on salmide sisu, mis on jutu moraal.
Igaühel on isu meist surra isade maal.
Las see eestlane aasib, las see soomlane neab,
et poliitilist fraasi “loll” laulu sisuks vaid seab.

Minge elage nädal või paar parem Laadoga rannal.
Minge Petserimaale ja tehke seal tilluke tiir.
Ja siis küsige endalt miks igatsus koju on kallal,
ja siis pärige poistelt kust kohalt küll jooksma peaks piir.

And yes, there also are some common, very bitter historical experiences... "Läevad tunnid ja päevad ja kuud aga rahu ei anna, et üks naaber võib olla nii kuradi sitt ja nii sant!"

But we are also divided by this closeness as it hides the differences: whereas Finland still enjoying the long period of post-war peace and stability looks towards Scandinavia, many of the structures of the deeply wounded Estonian culture are more Central European. There is also much too little understanding in Finland of the cruel trials and traumas of recent Estonian history, and too much easy Nordic arrogance that comes with this profound lack of imagination and knowledge. Still, the bonds easily are far more significant than these temporary discords. Our solutions might differ but the geopolitical challenge is quite the same - an archaic, still very militarized and territorial great power next door. This is not to say anything about the great Russian nation and its brilliant cultural tradition - but the state that rapes Chechnya in the way it has raped Chechnya, the state that lets Anna Politkovskaja be slaughtered at her own doorstep, the state that makes mockery of liberal democracy will remain deeply corrupt and immoral, deeply unpredictable, a perpetual problem for all its small, civilized and Western neighbours.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

In praise of the English language

As a native speaker I surely would not be so impressed. I love my dark, emotional Finnish and would not have an idea of this deep and slow dimension as a pure Anglophone. But this said, Shakespeare began our modern age, and basically ended it as well. All this when we had only painfully clumsy devotional literature in Sweden and Finland. Donne was surpassing that left and right without even attempting accompanied by Milton, Dryden and all the others. Such a literary tradition that we have never seen anywhere else on Earth. Perhaps it will end up as condemned and discarded should this liberal civilization not prevail (as seems to be increasingly likely) but in the meanwhile, in this moment: such exhilaration in the flexibility and nuance of meaning, in the breadth of imagination and clarity of feeling. I would really not accept this praise from any native speaker: how could one tell, not knowing anything else, being insular, selfsatisfied, narrow in scope. But for outsiders there is cause for admiration and celebration. We have sparse Latin and abstract, intellectual Greek at the heart of our civilization, but their modern heir is English, Shakespeare's language.

The attraction - and repulsion - of religion

Had I been born in any other context, I would surely have adopted a troublefree, unquestioning materialist-atheist position. (Unless my parents would have been militant materialist atheists on the make for new converts...) But I happened to be born in the middle of quiet, unproselytyzing, universal tones of Finnish Pietism. As a concequence I have never been able to totally dismiss religion - especially as our secular culture so stubbornly refuses to infuse our inexclicable experience in the world with any mystical dimension. This is really not to say anything about any literal interpretation of any religious tradition. Those truly are opium for people - and tools of power and aggression for the random elites and organizations. There is no way that we can talk meaningfully about our human experience within those traditions. For the fundamentalists we are not autonomous human beings but obedient "children" in a self-evidently "empirical" context. No matter that this "empirism" is totally based on scared, wishful thinking, on fiction. But to say this does not dispose of religion, not even close.

Strange that without my personal exposure to a mystical local Christian tradition, I would probably never had realized this. Religion begins where primitive fundamentalism ends. Not to posit anything about an empirical, pre-existing God (a concept I find very esoteric and non-essential). We lack a proper language to talk about these issues: religious dogma does more harm than good in its attempt to do so (being anyway coincidental to temporal power struggles). At some level I would no doubt like to fuse art, philosophy and religion into one universal world view. Surely our experience of being in the world does require such a universal vision - the only problem being that we lack the words, the wisdom to have one... So, I am constantly disgusted by almost all actual religious practice and thought but still can't dismiss religion as one of the most serious, if not the most serious, attempt to formulate a worthwhile response to this astonishing fact of our being in existence, to our being in the world. "Käy isänmaataan kohti ain..."