Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Beautiful lofty things

It is curious how often it seems necessary to hold a one sided, impossibly rosy view of the human nature in order to have progressive views of society and history – and how often it is seen reasonable that just to show otherwise is enough to disprove this progressivism. Certainly there is much else in us than just pure drives towards understanding, harmony and reason: there are dark, atavistic, animal impulses in the depths of all our minds. A large part of our integral experience is completely amoral. Our conscious being is ephemeral, disjointed, our experience far from unified, we exist only partially and are only too often panicky, fearful and aggressive, powered by ancient reflexes for flight or fight. There are grasping, ugly creatures within all of us, waiting for their chance to emerge and take control.

These instincts can’t be denied or willed out of existence (and it would be disastrous to even try), but all the same, their mere existence is surely no argument. We do have countering forces, intelligence, will to meaning and understanding, instincts for protection and solidarity, for beauty and truth, moments of coherence. We remain poised, seeing far beyond the prison walls, a kind of experiment: what will once emerge out of these disjointed beings? I would not think that this disharmony, this uneasy equilibrium would be satisfactory as a permanent solution, as much edge as it does give to our wild, untamed lives.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Time present and time past

The grandparents of my parents were children of the last great famine in Western Europe. In the late 1860's several concequent bad harvests led to widespread starvation and disease, and almost 10% of the population of Finland died. It can be said that I have been largely formed by people in whose immediate historical memory this disaster was. There is thus a tenuous living connection that undoubtedly will no more be carried over to the next generation. Our son was born ten months ago into a dynamic, postmodern and cosmopolitan high-tech society that is busily consuming and being amused by the global entertainment industry. He will have no real connection with that passed away rural civilization.

It is in fact almost inconceivable to think that this land of brightly lit shopping malls and cutting edge mobile techonology was starving to death by the roadsides only mere five generations ago. Certainly this is not much thought about now: we occupy ourselves almost entirely with the present and the near future. The speed is too high, too dangerous for any meaningful reflection. So much has changed so quickly. I myself - as can be seen so clearly in retrospect - witnessed the ending of the last remnants of the rural Ostrobothnia that was still the unquestioned mental and cultural background of my parents. This huge change happened with astonishing speed largely only after the Second World War with the social change skipping industrialization and shifting the emphasis directly from agriculture to services in one generation. I still believe that I have the feel, the texture of that rural civilization that now has vanished. It is a wild ride we are on, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

Many believe that there is no use in remembering even this quite recent past, only the previous half hour in historical terms - certainly such remembrance can sometimes hinder finding new perspectives and new solutions to largely unprecedented social situations. Still, without this long view we would surely get a wrong understanding of our position (on the crest of a huge wave racing towards an unknown destination), we would see the current moment out of all proportion, one-dimensional and shallow. It is hard to believe, even if civilization will eventually persist, that we are now done with all collapses and calamities. There is too little behind us though to know anything for sure: this mad, chaotic progress is only a few centuries old - there is no way of predicting how this process will continue or whether it will continue at all.

In any case it is difficult not to feel half-nostalgic about those times and meanings that were once so real and immediate and which now seem unimaginably distant and strange. I suppose it is more the fact of passing than the content of what has passed: most things are much better now. But so much has so easily vanished from living memory, and this is what will happen to our moment too - hard to imagine though that anyone would feel any nostalgia about this society but that no doubt also depends on what's to come.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The great tradition

I was recently reading a biography of George Eliot and was much struck by the majesty of the turn of the British non-conformist intellectual elite towards political liberalism, agnosticism and progress during the middle part of the 19th century. Yes, this great shift surely was absurdly highminded, demanding impossible moral and intellectual rigidity (and frigidity) from people, expecting things not remotely possible in this fallen world, doing not only much good but also much harm in the process. This said, compared with the contemporary high Tory wallowing in the miserableness of the human condition, there is a tone of great human decency in this partly absurd wish to create (and the expectation of seeing) a new Jerusalem on Earth. They were momentous times indeed and we still do feel the impact of this great hope for improvement and progress - even if it is ever weakening, being gradually drowned by the current Western orgy of consumerism and materialism. Of course, coming from the liberal Christian background of modern Finnish Pietism, there is much that is familiar with this peculiarly Protestant form of secular longing for a proper home in this world. There is an unmistakeable continuum of thought originating both in the sources of the Reformation and in the Reformation itself that is still supporting progressive political structures around the world - surely, naturally, getting gradually fainter as is any faith in conscious progress.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The winged chariot sung

It was on remarkably many levels that the news of the death of Jaan Kross were felt. Such an irreplaceable loss. Being an Estophile his unique broad perspective on his native country has of course been hugely influential in forming a personal understanding on Estonian history and culture. Still, I did not read him for information but for art: the excellent Finnish translations brought out the majestic rhythm of the language, the intricate beauty of the sentences. The texture is dense and deep - and the interplay between theme and language is mostly flawless. The result is a slow, universal, almost a mystical beat behind the surface action that the reader becomes only gradually aware of: a huge canvas is painted with sparse, understated strokes. The themes themselves were mostly Estonian but his was a universal Western voice, concerned with our particular modern predicament of unmoored individuals in time, at the mercy of history. There are not many such writers in any generation and it was quite a miracle that such an authoritative Western voice would be coming from such a small nation - quite like the improbable emergence of Sibelius from the nationalistically awakened and in many ways narrow confines of Finland. Such a body of work, such a life - we can only be grateful and priviledged to have been able to share even if only partially this majestic, polyphonic historical and cultural perspective.