Monday, November 27, 2006

Not washed into rinds by rotting winter rains

The weather has continued to be unseasonably mild in Finland (one wonders what connotations this type of innocent phrase will have in the coming decades). For the most part I have quite enjoyed these subdued November colours and mists - as dismal as I have usually considered this time of the year be even with better weather: so little light, people busy and tired, withdrawn inwards to withstand the subarctic winter. There is now actual clear daylight for about 3-4 hours but most days even the midday feels dark with heavy grey clouds overhead and no snow in sight. A strange, still atmosphere: quiet earth waiting for winter to come. Snow would instantly bring more light and a certain wintry sharpness into the landscape, blue colours lit by the city lamps. This Friday on my afternoon train back from work I was thinking of just these bleak joys of Finnish November (in the native tongue it is called 'marraskuu', "dead month") and was struck by how little I remembered of last November: I staggered to work and back home in darkness, literal and mental, often seeing none of the daylight hours, with no resources anyway left for esthetic observation. What a difference a year can make.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Some say the Devil is dead and buried in Killarney

Having a long, though comfortable, early morning work trip I have succumbed to a MP3 player instead of the customary book. This week has been quite Irish: The Pogues, Cruiskeen, The Dubliners and the excellent Tartu band Paddy have been providing Celtic mornings and afternoons. Listening to those familiar and confident, defiant cadences I have been reflecting on this wonder of Irish anti-imperialism - the colonization of the English language itself. It is undeniable that Ireland, real and imagined, has stayed triumphantly un-English even with the loss of the native language. This is an interesting fact for a Finnish person coming from a tradition of very strictly language centred nationalism (albeit in many senses a bilingual tradition). Nationalism is not necessarily bounded with language, it can have many, even polyphonic and pluralist incarnations.

Of course it is an ideology that has very negative connotations - often expressed by writers and thinkers from great powers. Somehow, they do not often seem to notice that their imperial and metropolitan nation is also nationalist and narrow, so English, French, Russian, American nationalisms go often unnoticed, excused. Non-threatening, non-expansionist small nation nationalism is something not even perceived. I welcome a world with vibrant and thriving small nations and national cultures, such as Finland, Ireland, Estonia and many others - the tradition of Finnish nationalism has been one of the central factors preventing this country from being subsumed into the Russian imperial sphere and gradually losing her language, her uniqueness. A process that is now heart breakingly happening for several small Finno-Ugric peoples and languages within the neo-aggressive and uncaring Russia. Of course we have to always beware exclusivist, aggressive and narrow ideas and movements everywhere, perhaps especially when they are disguised under false "universalist" labels of selfish great power politics.

I say he rose again and joined the British Army...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Being Descartes

I just finished an excellent biography of Descartes by Desmond M. Clarke. I had been curiously ignorant of his life and personality despite being well familiar with his gigantic impact for philosophy and Western thought. So, it was most interesting reading - I had for example no idea how effectively he isolated himself both from ordinary human society and from his intellectual peers. On the whole Clarke's portrait is not very flattering: he was reclusive, secretive, quarrelsome man more gifted in making enemies than friends, always paranoidicallyfearful of seeming to be openly defying the Church. But then again, it was an age when you could get burned on the stake for denying the orthodox geocentric and thoroughly Aristotelian world view. Descartes emerged through such deep mists of scholastic thought and irrational religious and social ideas that it can be easily seen that the society around him was so violent, so paranoid, so mad that his own isolation, his own paranoia and caution can be understood.

He might have been a fearful, difficult man but his thinking was revolutionary and proudly free of nonsensical conformist schackles. We have now largely forgotten the arcane pre-Cartesian philosophy that once reigned over Christendom but his times were still dominated by it. In that sense there is a straight line from Descartes to Enlightenment and to our present Western mind. The post-modern attacks against many Cartesian crudities are understandable but one wonders where the aim really is. Probably not in any clumsy and unreal dichotomies of body and mind.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Fundamentalist mind

I am now pleasurably rereading Siltala’s wide reaching analysis of 19th century Finland and was much struck by his description of the ”totalitarian personality”. Nothing really new there as such but it is strange how specifically modern and widespread that mentality still is. The typical individual has deep inner contradictions (often violently repressed) seen in millennial and apocalyptic terms – and millennial and apocalyptic visions of their total redemption through outside ideology. The personality and its extension, the world, is seen in absolute, black and white terms. Fanatical ideology is the externalized, barely hidden rage towards self and other. Naturally this does awful violence to both of them. I was recently visiting a fairly moderate conservative Christian forum and was struck by the aridity and rigidity of thought there. A great fear seemed to be lurking behind the compulsive urge to view the “Doctrine” as something absolute, unchangeable – and thus, unreal. I was eerily reminded of my long forgotten youth and my own deep contradictions and conflicts, and the unreal, unrealistic way I connected them with ideology and philosophy. Luckily I was able to gradually resolve them, to come to more inclusive and balanced terms with myself and the world. A long and painful road it was, and it seems that for scarily many people in the modern world, one that is not taken, out of fear, out of rage.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Praising Billmon

This is already a second post on the subject, but I just can't stop marvelling that there is to be found in these sad, all accepting, all ignoring times a political commentator that really is reaching the levels of Mencken and Orwell. Billmon is easily as savage as Mencken (though without Mencken's Nietzschean amusement) and as politically radical as Orwell (without Orwell's grim optimism or his English sentimentalism - this latter really a weakness rather than strength, it was this eccentric warmth that elevated Orwell into greatness). Even if you would not agree with his politics (I by and large do) the mercilessly hardhitting language itself is joy to read although it doesn't yet quite reach up to Orwell's personal majesty or Mencken's steely intricacy. Strange that the Internet these days really does beat the mainstream media hands down as regards political criticism and satire. The centralization of the media into giant corporations and news merging into a branch of the entertainment industry plays a role here no doubt. Luckily we still have these fiercely independent voices, hopefully amplified in the future - talking of which: a book of political essays by Billmon would be treasured, an instant classic surely if it would have the same quality as his blog.