Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Goe, and catch a falling starre

History makes you sad, politics and ideology make you angry – literature, on the other hand... On the gloomy morning bus today, watching the ghastly Mormon angel on top of their shiny new temple in Espoo, I was somehow reminded of this memorable phrase in a poem by John Donne, such a pleasure his poetry has been in my life. How could this existence be possible without poetry, without art? This is not to say that art, that literature is only for entertainment or that it is for entertainment – the term does not begin to describe the centrality of art to our experience. As in many things its meaning for me has to be expressed in very old-fashioned terms (I seem to have completely missed the postmodern train): art for me is the fusion of ethics and esthetics. Something I suppose you might have heard from the mouth of George Eliot. When we engage with esthetics we are engaging with ethics. Our natural existence is something else, purely amoral and concrete.

Once out of nature... In some ways I would not see myself, any of us, as any bodily form, but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make – the point is not facile, or overly “poetic”: it fundamentally describes our predicament of being only pilgrims in art, only occasional visitors with our waking life being in the prison of history. Or is it the other way round? I see our mundane, everyday existence as quite unreal: where we have the long views, the meaningful things is in philosophy, in art. (Here, I strongly disagree with Plato though I see his critical point about art – but it does find shortcuts, vistas that are very hard or even impossible for pure philosophy to find.) I am currently being overwhelmed with work varyingly calmly wondering whether I will sink or swim, in a situation where there are few good alternatives should the answer be the former. And all meaning is somewhere else, in love and friendship, in art: go and catch a falling star, get with a child a mandrake root...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Leben und leben lassen

After yesterday I ended up thinking what makes the portrayal of Weimar Berlin decadence so powerful in Cabaret. More significant than the fairly slightly story itself would lead one to expect - obviously the viewer knows what dark fate is waiting all this, and powerful, mostly understated hints are given throughout the movie, but even beyond this quite self evident fact there is something centrally moving in the tale. I think that what is so skillfully portrayed there is in fact the heart of liberalism: it is not situated in dry englightenment rationality, though that is the intellectual foundation of it, the intellectual formulation of it. What we have is a muddled tolerance of variety, a tragic celebration of human potential amidst a bitterly funny satire of its actual, brutal constrictions. To state this so directly loses some of the purely hedonistic side of this particular liberal celebration but that I would argue is even in its most apolitical form infinitely better - and wiser - than the primitive religion or ideology that always aim for brutal control of these impulses. That aim for brutal control of whatever human activity.

Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists did not live and they did not let live. In this they are indistinguishable from the modern religious fundamentalists. That is the totalitarian connection that unites them all. That is also why such an issue as sexual rights are not a peripheral question for modern Liberalism, but a a central one: if we are anything in these fallen days it is an uncompromising movement of emancipation. Some would say that there is a contradiction here, that there can't be "uncompromising tolerance" but for me there is no contradiction at all: Liberalism is the arrangement, the only arrangement, that wants to keep people permanently free - we cannot compromise with those that would end that permanent state of uncertainty, that space of liberty. We can let people to choose to join primitive sects or insane political movements, but we cannot let these sects and these movements end the freedom to choose them. Without this limit tolerance would be empty of meaning, and this was the limit broken in the 1930's Berlin. I suspect, admittedly in totally different circumstances, that this position is fairly undefended also today - should there be a storm gathering would the line hold at all? Where is now the actual liberal self-confidence and conviction should it be needed? We have the forms left, but not much content.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

An Ireland the poets have imagined

I have lately been entertained and impressed by R.F. Foster's ever sharp analysis about the uses and misuses of Irish history, and, inspired, started to re-read his excellent biography of Yeats. It is amazing how much cultural significance Ireland seems to possess, out of all proportion to its size. I suppose, being both an Anglophile and an Hibernophile, I dare to say this: maybe it is due to the fateful fact of being next to England and the English language... In any case it has felt like a quite a priviledge to have lived a year and half in Dublin, that ugly, crowded town - witnessing the Celtic Tiger so removed from any grand, bloody history: seeing a replica poster for a Michael Collins speech for the election of 1922 on the wall of the Abbey Bar, underneath the young Dublin partying on regardless of any stony, narrow ground. Or the very understated tricolour silencing for a moment a restless party of tourists at the Kilmainham Gaol: the place where a terrible beauty was once born, a very un-Irish affair - a low mast with a small flag, surrounded by the high grey walls, a bleak small yard. Quite Finnish actually in some ways. I would not speak of Sweden, of Norway on these terms, very probably mistakenly - and there surely is a great danger of continuing the great Irish tradition of soft, sentimental national mythification - but, nevertheless, there seemed to be strange echoes there that could be faintly heard even in the midst of the mad life that we then led. At least they were audible for me, having so freshly studied Anglo-Irish history, loving Yeats in all his craziness: there were moments when I stopped, forgot my life and its attendant worries, and listened. Minute by minute we live.

I am a Liberal

Watched The Cabaret today after a couple decades, a surprisingly good movie, I was surprised by it. And somehow I ended up thinking about the nightmares that gave birth to us, that we are not supposed to remember in any significant way: the hopeless prison that was Siberia, the living horror of Auschwitz. Those images are our bitter heritage. Yes, our hopes will collapse, any progress will no doubt turn out to be hollow, only good for selling a few movie tickets. But still the mere failing attempt is full of honour, full of gentleness. We have not built up the prisons, we have not done the slaughter and torture, we have dared to imagine something better. No doubt it is a doomed dream, maybe even the slow holocaust of history might have been a slight degree or two milder if it would never have existed. But it is something else, something absurdly gentle in this harsh world, something outside of our animal nature however permanent that will turn out to be.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Finland's War 1939-45

This was written after some debate in a Finnish forum about the war years. Probably heavy going for any foreigner but these are quite significant issues for Finns: this was the decisive time for the nation and our modern mentality. In my somewhat controversial view it has never been fully realized just how successful and lucky we actually were. At the time it was actually seen as a terrible and unjust loss and for the latter years of Kekkonen we were obliged to think that it all could have been avoided with just trusting, yes, of all people, Stalin.

Never have we really been able to understand the reality of the only realistic alternative for a small country of our geographical location in those awful years: occupation by either the Nazis or the Stalinists or both successively. This is what happened to Estonia: by 1945 it had lost one quarter of its citizenry. More losses, proportionally, than the Soviet Union suffered in the WW2. Unimaginable losses, in fact.

Today there are ca 1 million descendants of the Estonian population of 1939. The Estonian population in 1939 was about the same size. That is a horrible, chilling sentence: in Finland we had ca 3,5 million people in 1939. Today there are 5,2 million. If the same had happened and it easily could (with us having even more deep rooted pluralistic structures and even easier access to Sweden), we would be missing almost 2 million people in this country. That is the fate we avoided. Of course all this is quite beyond imagination now in our high-tech Nordic welfare state.

Against the background of the coming war it really does beggar belief how tragically positive Finland’s position was on the eve of the WW2. We had left behind the divisive, terrible early years of the decade – the Social Democrats and Agrarians were in broad and stable coalition, the economy was growing healthily, in the foreign policy we aimed towards Scandinavian neutrality, had almost no debt and no big investments in the army. Overall the country was quickly developing along Nordic lines. This optimistic, forwardlooking society was brutally shattered by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939. Quite insanely, irrationally we refused to agree to Stalin’s demands and so the nightmarish attack began in November 1939.

In retrospect it is very hard to see any other path that would have kept Finland free of occupation and avoided the destruction of its democracy and Nordic social structures. But what a terrible path it was. We almost collapsed in the desperate Winter War, without allies, largely without any modern heavy weaponry (though with widespread international sympathy and significant Swedish material and voluntary help). We were saved by the Allied intervention plans (as selfish and ineffective as they would have turned out to be), the coming thaw (making the ground impossible for tanks for weeks to come) – and of course due to the heroic fight of the armed forces supported by a united nation.

Such was the naivety of the times that many actually thought that we would win in the end – as we were fighting for a just cause, and just causes always win. Naturally, this did not happen, but we were not occupied by Stalin (with all the unimaginable destruction and horror that the sovietization of our Nordic society would have meant). But the situation was still filled with horrible danger even after the war. Our immediate move was to try ally ourselves with Sweden in the aftermath of the hard peace. But this was immediately torpedoed by both Stalin and Hitler: they both preferred Finland isolated and defenceless.

The Baltic countries were brutally occupied by the Soviets in June 1940 in connection with the collapse of France (as Hitler’s attention was firmly fixed to the West). When the Battle of Britain began, the Soviet Union begun massing troops behind our borders – in early August Mannerheim considered full mobilization (the army had not been fully demobilized after the war). No doubt the last, bitter struggle would have started in the event of the German invasion of England. But Britain held, and there never was the dreaded ultimatum that Paasikivi kept fearing for that long, awful summer of 1940 in Moscow.

As late as in November 1940 Molotov asked in Berlin for free hands in Finland. But this time Hitler refused (our national fate hang in balance in those moments). Barbarossa was already being planned for and Finland could serve him as a useful ally. Ryti and Mannerheim abhorred the Nazis (“cut throats and gangsters” wrote Mannerheim in a private letter), but options were brutally limited in those nightmarish conditions when the liberal-democratic West had been shut out of mainland Europe. It is very likely that any attempt at neutrality had been violated immediately and the vital grain imports cut if Barbarossa would have started without Finnish participation.

Nevertheless it was a controversial decision: the atmosphere was more of cold, cynical realism than the idealistic defence of the nation a year and half below, and many disagreed. But those nightmarish, awful 18 months had been such an education to this country that it has never since been forgotten: just causes don’t prevail, neutrality can be violated, murdereous attacks can come out of the blue. The nation lost its innocence and gained a hardheaded cynicism about great powers and about the need to pragmatically adjust to their moves (that often baffles our more idealistic cousins in Sweden – the happy country that has been at peace for 200 years).

By and large we kept our hands clean in the Continuation War even as allies of Nazi-Germany. No Finnish Jews were given to Gestapo – there was a Finnish field synagogue a couple of kilometres away from the positions of the German 163rd Division, surely something unique in the Eastern Front, something uniquely honorable. But we did deport some Jewish and other anti-Nazi refugees to Germany (at least 8 died in Auschwitz) and among a few thousands of Russian POW:s that we gave over to Germans there were hundreds of Jews.

The refugee deportations ended when the Helsinki Synagogue contacted Social Democrat cabinet ministers and the Social Democratic and Liberal press made an outcry, but we should never forget this crime, nor the likely concequences of a possible German victory in the war: I’m afraid heavy atrocities would have been committed against the Russian population in the occupied territories in any New Europe dominated by Hitler, and some already were committed during the fighting and the brief wartime occupation.

But we had not the luxury of the long views in the desperate and immediate struggle to stay free, and we also - in the end, luckily - escaped the temptations created by a victory. Mannerheim was justly received in October 1944 in the Helsinki Synagogue as an honourable - and much honoured - soldier and statesman. We had stopped the overpowering Soviet attack in the nick of time in the previous July and concluded a harsh peace but with our army intact and the front holding. Soon Paasikivi took over and basing on the successful armed struggle and our firm Nordic social structures, his skillful diplomacy achieved a working relationship with Stalin who by now was finally ready to negotiate reasonably with Finland.

In retrospect it was an amazing survival against all odds – we managed to avoid occupation by either of the terror states, and that was the crux of it all: they were such traumatic, awful years that held us back for long decades and contributed to our insularity and certain, deepseated suspicion of all outside influences, but we did keep to our Nordic, democratic course, stubbornly, heroically.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

These fragments against the ruins

A counterpoint to the previous bleak posting: there would not be any meaning to pessimism without the context of ideals, the context of hope. What I see as the only possible practical solution for our terrible dilemmas is determined, conscious enlightenment liberalism using science as a tool for its ends. This is both a very controversial and very old fashioned statement these days. My presuppositions here are that enlightenment is inherently both rational and pluralistic and open ended - and that science, fundamentally, is naturally compatible with it, conducive to it. Of course science can be horribly misused and is very easy to misuse: that's why it needs enlightened control and conviction. Natural science on its own is not much anything: a mundane language about the material world. Technology can then never be the fundamental solution to our condition, but it can relieve the awful scarcity that makes the historical concequences of our primitive instincts so destructive and aggressive. At its best it could prepare the conditions for the deep transformation that is needed - as the fundamental solution for our problems is of course to change, to become enlightened, rational. The problem is exactly how likely it is that we will have the time, the ability and the luck to achieve this transformation?

Slouching towards Betlehem

I don't believe that there is a plan and ultimate goal in history - it may have a logic, but it is a logic of chaos. Structures have of course a lifespan, a certain independence of their own but they interact with each other randomly, unpredictably: they are not at all in control of their environment. The only thing that might have change this uncontrollability of history would be our changing, our becoming collectively aware and rational. Our stopping these panicky, murderous reflexes. This seems a very remote possibility. So while I am tempted to say that the awful horrors of the 20th century put the enlightened, liberal West out of its natural course, I really can't. Nevertheless I am struggling to say something dangerously much like it while trying not to posit a universal plan and predetermined course to history. This is no doubt very esoteric but what the hell: let us make a try. So, what I what I would argue is that within the local structures of our civilization, within their limited logic, we do have become unmoored, dissociated from the foundations of our culture. We have the forms of liberalism left, but not their content, we have no conviction left. It perished in the massacres. The solution has been to turn towards pure, empty materialism: to making, selling and buying things. Bad citizens have become good consumers - religion and ideology have been replaced by the entertainment industry. History ends at the mall.

Except that it doesn't. The blind struggle goes on: the world is in a constant state of chaotic change and bloody power struggle. Some core natural resources are running out, the climate looks like changing rapidly, weapons of mass destruction spread and become more sophisticated, irrational fundamentalisms flourish. What we in the West possess to now to counter this seems to consist solely of trust in the invisible hand: the markets will adapt, supply and demand will take care of the actions that the elected governments are unable to execute. To me this seems the purest of follies, the most typical of confidences before the fall. We have had a fairly functioning global economy for 50 years now, before that the system almost collapsed in gigantic, unpredictable convulsions. These are unprecedented times: the only thing we can be sure is that all will change, all familiar structures will come to an end at some point (and judging from the past it is only decades or at most a century or two that we are talking about). And if our trust in enlightenment reason and liberalism, if our conviction of them is already this shallow, this non-existent, what are the chances of their continuation for long? And how likely it is that they will be replaced by something better with these murderous, panicky instincts in control?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A serious house on serious earth

It is such a tragedy that in the modern West Christianity is now most alive in its most shallow, primitive forms. Today's Christian fundamentalism is nothing but the mirror image of the 19th Century positivist science - it has no mystery, no breadth, no deep understanding of the tragic human condition - it is totally dominated by pure materialism. I was very lucky to have experienced in my Southern Ostrobothnian childhood a living, non-fundamentalist Christianity in the warm cadences and traditions of Finnish pietism. The Christian calendar was a living, meaningful way to measure the year. You felt living in a place with a natural context, the past and the present were fused together. The Twelth Night was not a random holiday from work and consuming but a day with its own precise meaning and traditions. I do feel a gigantic emptiness in the West where Christianity used to be - of course, I would not want the Church dominance back, but I would think that all world views must at heart be spiritual, mystical. To be significant. Natural science without this dimension would be totally empty of meaning. What we have now left are the Christian traditions of morality and ethics as translated into the secular world by Enlightenment liberalism. But Enlightenment itself is quickly being discarded from being in the way of the global market and its folk religion, the entertainment industry. We have no beliefs left.

Friday, January 06, 2006

We are only measured by time

I have never been much of a thinker but neither have I thought anyone else's thoughts. A profound weakness but also a kind of strength. I have seen much more intelligent people than me not living their learned by heart second hand thoughts. What is the point of thought, of intelligence, if you don't live by it? My natural experience was Cartesian - and a shock it was to discover and understand the structuralist and poststructuralist objections to the logical coherence of the autonomous subject. Wittgenstein, in contrast, never really moved me either way: he seemed to be in an obscure cul-de-sac of his own, happily debating toothaches. (Not in reality of course, but that is how he appeared, and appears, to me.) Heidegger was as obviously bonkers with his Blut und Boden, finding justifications for all sorts of idiocies, and worse.

Instead, what I have found inexplicable is this experience of being in the world - that is the way I would describe it: we are in the world, but simultaneously, or little after, we experience it also. That difference, that delay makes us what we are: uncertain, individual, capable of great reason and wisdom, so rarely showing them for our panicky reflexes, our hunger for security and comfort. There is a great mystery in this human experience. The greatest mystery, I would argue. I have been talking about history in terms of natural science, but that is not to say that I would value, say, physics over the study of human history. I don't. The former is a fairly simple, uncontroversial matter of working out a theory of everything, or whatever it is, the latter an impenetrable mystery: unique, desperate.

My intelligence, my understanding tells me that there are no certainties, no final answers in our human life, but what I feel, sense, being true is that time is all we have, that eventually everything, everyone will be lost, everything will turn out to be transitory. I can't construe any final consolation, other than resignation to losing all you have in the end. It does not make the good things, the long views - love, friendship, art - any less valuable, it makes them desperately more valuable. They are all we really have. We give hostages to fortune with our lives, with our loves - if we are lucky. And I have been lucky in my life, passionate, after all, insistent on living in truth, having finally also found love and friendship - even coming to this moment, this week that has had so many hours beyond description, seeing landscapes I had thought were far behind me. We are only measured by time: I have been lucky in my life.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

On historical change

Historians never cease to amaze me: their perverse, cheerful lack of any rigorous theoretical framework is truly astonishing. They feel able to make any sorts of statements only based on rhetorical formulations, at the same time adamantly declaring that all is relative and every generation writes its own histories - then happily proceeding to “disprove” old viewpoints. Based on what exactly giving the premise? I simply regard this as intellectual laziness or worse (fairly common to all human studies nowadays). In my view causation is the key: how can we write about history without addressing causality in any way? We can make all sorts suppositions based on vague “common sense” about “deep currents” and “surface froth” but as long as we lack an actual theory of historical causation, what can we really say? Tolstoi’s point in the preface of War and Peace that history is not at all dependent on individuals seems utterly meaningless to me. History obviously consists only of a myriad of individuals - it is also a gigantically complex web with an almost infinite number of mutually reacting factors. This seems like the definition of a chaotic process to me: small factors can have great effect. Who can say? The total constellation of circumstances will determine the immediate consequences but is itself unique and irreproducible, "random", and there is no way that we could extrapolate long to the future based on it. Or so I feel, lacking a theory of historical causation. It does seem like a hindrance to me.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Changes in the air

I am soon starting in a new job, relieved certainly to be rid of the previous position that developed into something quite dismal indeed but also with certain anxiety that is quite new. IT work has no charm for me: it has no esthetic or ethical value whatsoever - but I am reasonably well versed in my modest field and have fairly easy self-confidence in handling the issues. Which is not totally bad from a person with a degree in history of all things. (It does not train you into any practical living but is marvellous education in quite an old fashioned sense.)

But what worries me is the way we are worked nowadays in the industry. It is simple, and I believe totally calculated, psychology, or should I say economics: before you used to routinely require roughly 1 person's workload from one employee and you usually did get something like that, maybe 1.3 if you were lucky and 0.7 if you were not. But these days you can point blank demand for 2,5 or even 3 persons' reasonable workload and you will even get maybe 2, maybe 1,5 - and less after the person inevitably gets less and less effective after being systematically overworked. It is very simple and in the short term effective: if you demand for more than is reasonable, you will get more than what you would get by asking for only that reasonable amount - well, initially that is, and nowadays all the future you need is the next quarter. This is more or less what happened to me in the place I quit in December. I would not be totally surprised to encounter a similar demand in the new firm but after my very recent experience of near total exhaustion I am no longer that confident that I am able to deliver such efficiency at the moment.

I am in the field by accident and have never planned to stay for good: it was almost a lark initially. I often felt like an impostor and had to pretend to know things I had never heard about and absorb huge amounts of new information quickly and efficiently (something the history department was very good in teaching me to do). Now, after almost 7 years I would claim to be a good, experienced professional in the narrow (and relatively non-technical) area I work in. But what started by accident and also through some curiosity has now grown heavy and uninteresting, and at times even scary. I claim to practice intelligent drifting: just making very rough plans if any and take chances if they should appear - but not forcing things, having deadlines, detailed plans of action and ambition. I have aimed to be fundamentally free of these restricting, iron structures of our primitive and brutal society. At weak moments I wonder if that is only a comforting illusion that gets me to work every morning like any good corporate citizen. There are some bleak lines by Larkin that sometimes come to mind: "Half life is over now, / And I meet full face in dark mornings / The bestial visor, bent in / By the blows of what happened to happen." Though it is quite exactly the sentiment that I do not share that I have grown not to share: this air is brutally cold and full of random, deadly danger but it is incredibly beautiful also, and a mystery worth of serious exploration and interest. This is what I think, believe - and also live. When not dead tired, when not exhausted and emptied by the unstoppable flow of daily trivia.

So I do now look for changes in the air: not this current trivial change of work, but for a new course, a better, more organic connection between private happiness and earning an unhappy living to support it. Maybe, probably, nothing immediate but I will keep eyes open for an exit now, for a new beginning. There is change in the air.