Friday, December 03, 2010

Come senators, congressmen

I believe much of the Obama administration's strange, even tragic inefficiency would be explained if he actually were centre-right instead of slightly centre-left as he was portrayed in the campaign. What lately used to be moderate Republican stances are quite identical to his apparent thinking and reflexes. This would then be at the core of this wasted opportunity: a system so broken that it does not appear reformable, it no longer lets serious reformers through. We'll see how far the wave of current Republican madness will reach. Surely some kind of a transformation will eventually occur, as this money-infested, decadent system won't be capable of self-correction. Strange, unpleasant times.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Reminiscences

It is strange how the past appears to us: as series of sharply recollected moments against a more general background of imprecise atmosphere. I have had reasons lately to recall a past conversation that for some reason has been etched very clearly to my mind. The words do echo through the still time. I was 18 at the time, and frozen. I was debating with a pietist friend about praying, I was already then a vague pietist-agnostic, not really much concerned with God, but still vehement on this issue. My friend had said that he would certainly pray for example in the case of a loved one being seriously ill. I disagreed very strongly: I would not beg for what is right. A question of pride then, largely. I thought I knew sorrow but I only knew pain; I was frozen and burning at that time, flaming ice. Now melted for many years with just vague memories of that all-pervading hurt. But not without sorrow.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Along the narrow path of grace

I was born in the middle of high-minded liberal Protestantism - and when it comes to stakes in high-mindedness there are few traditions, if any, to compete with liberal Protestantism. Luckily in my case it was much softened by the mysticism and radical existentialism of Finnish Pietism as high minded and as liberal as it is. It was handed on with love and acceptance (and in this we were luckier than the earlier generations), along, of course, with the unreal beauty and longing of the Pietist folk melodies. One can hardly think of better inheritance or one more at odds with the realities of our human world. Of course, there are many things besides sorrow here, but there is much sorrow - and if that sorrow and homesickness are not seen as an inherent part of our experience in the world, how deep can that experience be? I can well understand the rationalist critics, I share with Dawkins the estimation of the factual odds of a God existing (almost non-existent), but I have never thought that this was the point of the particular tradition that I was born in. It has a deeper point, a more serious point.

Philadelphia that the spiders ate

I guess it is my country background that makes me wince to see fields turned into suburbs. A strange, alarming sight. I never had to work on fields in any serious way but I still felt their importance in my boyhood. Not a long time had passed then, almost none at all. I suppose that names of the fields are one of the biggest groups of place names in Finland - how many names now forgotten, buried by streets or overgrown by trees? So much sweat, so many generations, so many tales. Now gone. A whole culture, a world has passed during the life time of my parents, their world, their culture. In Southern Ostrobothnia that is: in one generation we moved from agriculture into service industry and high technology. In many ways it has been all for the best, but not in all cases, not at all. So much of the world of my childhood now eaten by spiders, so much long gone that once seemed so permanent. We are like grass. Of course things are immeasureably better now, but this mad, blind change does not inspire much trust in it's long term direction. There is no memory and no control, only change.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Matter of England - A Canterbury Tale

Most of my Irish friends would better not read this post... I have been an anglophile since quite early childhood, strangely enough. Noel Streatfield, The Railway Children (oddly, our family seemed to specialice in classic English children's literature in our remote Southern Ostrobothnia of the 70's), only a bit later Rosemary Sutcliffe and Susan Cooper converted me before I even had encountered the English literary canon (which surely is one of the wonders of the world). Of course by an outsider anglophilia tends to be a romantic affair: for me England, even now, though not present day England, is the home of liberalism and reason, its literature the place where passion coheres with and is bounded by intellect. It certainly is, realistically, the place where my brand of middle way did historically originate. Of course it was only ever a part of the story, even if the best part, and has now mostly vanished anyway. The strange death of liberal England. I don't know why I should have been reminded of this and A Canterbury Tale and Emeric Pressburger this October morning. Perhaps it was the light of that magic movie in this foggy and relentlessly darkening and definitely un-English subarctic fall.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sex, lies and videotape

JP Siili's movie The Panopticon (and no, that's not its name, instead we have, absurdly, "Young Gods") got a very chilly critical reception in its time. It was accused of being titillating, pointless semi-pornography - and that surely was a reasonable expectation (especially concerning his later productions, slick and calculated, though not especially daring or pornographic). The viewers though hated it almost as much as the critics, and there are very few things that are more beloved by movie goers than titillating, pointless semi-pornography. I guess it still qualifies as such for some. I wouldn't say it myself - nudity, genitals, our various sexual activities seem rather commonplace, matter of fact things. This is what we are and what we do, not very elegant, perhaps, but there we are. Yes, surely there is also an element of titillation, often at least, but if the movie is any good, the story absorbs it: nudity, genitals, the various (and invariably quite banal) acrobatics will connect seemlessly with the rest of the action. And if they don't, well, then it does tend to become pointless semi-pornography and, so, much beloved by most people. The Panopticon is an odd movie, I guess it's not really good, very clumsy in parts (and one wonders what the intentions really were), unpleasant, but it works in its fashion, and is strangely impressive. One of the very few modern Finnish mainstream movies that doesn't treat sex sentimentally and/or commercially. Sex really isn't a very sentimental business, in the final analysis. Or even commercial.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Look into your heart, you will find a county Sligo

Once again reading ancient Irish history (which can only be bettered by the taste of whiskey). Rehearsing familiar scenes, Collins dying, de Valera definitely living (might have been better the other way round). Strange how early I became interested in Irish history (especially the years between 1880-1923). But it was only a lengthy stay in Ireland that got me to combine my even older anglophilia with the hibernian equivalent. Yeats, of course, and the Anglo-Irish tradition, but seeing and feeling the place made the difference. There are many parallels with Finland of course, not only in history and politics, but in mentality. Swedes I think mix better with the middle class English. A certain common narrowness also, but I think the cultural barrenness lasted longer in Ireland though Finland never reached such heigths from where to descend. High ideals seem to have a universal way of transforming into mundane and dispiriting realities...

Friday, August 20, 2010

From the shadow of the factory

I have been reading the excellent literary biography of Toivo Pekkanen by Matti Mäkelä. To write about this is of course very esoteric on many levels. But first and foremost because of the subject matter. Pekkanen is probably the most remote novelist imaginable to our current middle class consumer society. He emerged from the poorest working class in the early part of the 20th century, knew actual hunger and wrote in the context of a rigid and deeply divided class society. Mäkelä makes a very good point that the fact that Pekkanen is remote and unknown today is partly due to his own significant influence. He rejected the hate filled dichotomies and despite being resolutely non party political was a most social democratic writer, compromizer, integrator. He pointed, mapped out, the way to the future. These days he is obscure, but these days also serious literature itself is obscure, seriousness, I suppose, is obscure. Having so thoroughly immersed myself in literature and literary culture, I am a walking anachronism in this amnesiastic, hedonist society. Is there anything meaningful to say about this state of affairs? I suppose our postmodern answer would be, no. Can't help it though. A writer writing about a writer, intelligently, penetratingly, skillfully is such a joy, and not only a joy: long vistas are opened, thoughts provoked. Mäkelä is playful but his playfulness hides a fundamental - and, yes, anachronistic - seriousness. Strange to be concerned, moved by such long forgotten things.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kaunim linn Eestis

I guess I'm lucky that Tartu is not so well known a place with my Estonia travelling compatriots. The crawling distance from Tallinn harbour to the Old Town is thankfully good enough for most. (You don't actually need to leave the harbour nowadays at all for your cheap booze and grub, very practical.) But the hectic rough and tumble of Tallinn is nothing compared with the friendly cerebral Tartu - the first place in Estonia I ever visited, and the best. Estonia is such a lovely country for a Scandinavian traveller. Ideologically I absolutely prefer my native Nordic society with its idiosyncratic Finno-Ugric variations to the very hard and tough, often ice cold Estonian structures, but culturally Estonia feels much more cosmopolitan, both more connected to Central Europe and Russia than our culturally isolated, perennially towards Stockholm turned Finland. You can see this in shops, restaurants and cafés whose quality and variety far exceed our monotonous Scandinavian style industrialized fare. To lazily spend time in summery Tartu is such a luxurious experience, much missed, as these days chances for that don't come very often. Such a lovely place.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

On hearing about a 2 years old boy's disappearance

Seeing this news made me almost physically sick - whereas before it would have merited only a glance and just abstract sympathy. Such hostages to fortune in this random world. I suspect that children dying is the fundamental reason why we still employ gods, as little of use as they appear to be. God is the only abstraction that can deal with this issue. No science, no reason, nothing human is able to correct such an unspeakable thing, only God can, should he/she/it only exist. Which isn't very likely, so in practice we can only close our eyes and trust our luck and pretend that every man is an island, that no such loss is a common loss. What else is there to be done?

Quite an uninvited "et in Arcadia ego" moment into this high Nordic summer of brilliant blue skies and warm and light nights. There is not much to compare to this schizophrenic subarctic nature, from dark and grim November to this sudden explosion of life and light. And that's how it goes here: we remain perpetually poised, for our brief moment here, between great beauty and certain loss. There is also hope and proportion in this sentiment as grim as it may sound. We give hostages to fortune should we be so lucky, and I have been very lucky in my life, every moment a gift.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Not altogether encouraging

I'm not given to linking, for laziness mainly, or commenting on current affairs (surface froth), but there is something in this Krugman column that seems, feels, to capture something of this moment. Our political system in the West truly is becoming more dysfunctional, more decadent. And, yes, structural deficit spending is one of the symptoms (one that can be, btw, also addressed by tax rises and not just cuts), but at this particular moment it does make much sense to make large scale public investments (that would not for the most part become structural and permanent). Perhaps we are too far out of balance to be able to do the rational, the sensible thing. That's always an indication of systemic failure. Which really would not be very encouraging. Rather alarming, unsettled times to my mind, these.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bringing Actaeon to Mrs Porter no more

Today's reading consisted of contemporary reviews of T.S.Eliot's early poetry. I expected to find much silliness, and there certainly was some, but I was more struck by the quality of the writing, and not only quality - there was an intensity and seriousness in the tone, a belief that literature is of vital importance... How quaint is that. And how quaint to find literary criticism that is beautifully written and not filled with the latest unintelligible jargon from Paris or with journalistic shallowness and crowd pleasing. Those seem to be the two choices these days when debating serious literature is a peripheral, rather eccentric past-time, mostly practiced in the campuses, and not practiced, evidently, with much faith in the importance of the activity.

Well, perhaps this nostalgia is mistaken. Most nostalgia is. But I do wonder - how can we expect to keep civilization going if we are not civilized ourselves, not educated in this oldfashioned sense which translates roughly into having a civilizational memory, a dialogue with the past, a serious, living connection with it? Very elitist, I'm sure, to have these worries, but I can't help having a certain sense of foreboding in seeing this cultural amnesia advancing so quickly. What can be the end result, what brave new ahistorical, non-literary world?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The last of Europe's stone age race

This was occasioned by the surprising similarity of (constructed) Proto-Uralic with modern Finnish - an image comes of scattered tribes wandering in the endless forests of Northern Eurasia while more to the south agriculture is already breeding much bigger, much more quickly changing and evolving populations. Wandering westward and ending up by the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia: endless forests ending to the sea and history beginning. Strange to have such ancient connections in this era of general amnesia. Well, hopefully not only a litter of bones and chronicles in our Finno-Ugric hearts: I have seen some strange, not altogether pleasant conclusions rising from this rather odd heritage. But surely it is not a bad thing to have a memory.

The limits of art

I am reading a biography of Anne Sexton, a poet previously quite unknown to me. Especially her early poems are remarkable stuff: at heart serious speech in lovely, quite strict and complex form. Quite a contrast to her messy, often unkind personal life and self, like so often with serious artists. We are not measured by our exalted moments, by our exalted thoughts and beliefs, but by deeds, only by deeds, of love or otherwise. The limits to art are our human limits. But to say this is to leave much unsaid: the serious speech, the exalted thoughts are not made meaningless by life, by deeds, by human failure. Larkin always comes to mind in this context: a miserable man if there ever was one, whose poetry was not miserable at all. The poems stand independent but not separate from the poet. They stand witness to life, to humanity. They measure our potential reach and the extent of our failure to reach it in this cold, cruel world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Kjell Westö

I read pitifully little Finnish literature, but when I make the effort, I'm often surprised by the excellent, fierce quality. Kjell Westö's Helsinki quartet is deceptive reading, certainly quite uneven at places (though this might be partly due to the translation, I'm not able to read him in his native Swedish), but oddly impressive. I read recently a relatively lukewarm review of him in a Swedish magazine where he was criticized for the "shallowness" of his characters. That is very understandable, there is a strange, gimmicky smoothness there, a sense of passing over things - understandable but still quite mistaken: there is an ambitious scope in those smooth storylines, a grasping for history, for generations.

Strange to find such things in these ahistorical times - he certainly earns his popularity with those narrative skills but the popularity might cost him some critical acclaim. Interestingly, I find myself unable to make any very definitive conclusions, apart from the sense that there is something there. These texts will have to be revisited, and that is very rare with any contemporary fiction, no matter in which language.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A rose rabbi

Sometimes when I watch our two little boys I think that this ride is too wild for me, too unsafe, cruel. With this age - still feebly painting lakes - one already gets a sense of generations, dear people forever passed: we truly are like grass. It is bewildering that so many don't seem to be in awe of all the sorrow, the pain and the beauty of this experience, this life. No protection, no safety, and all will be lost in the end, all have to be given up. You have to be exceptionally well wadded to pass through this untouched. But I am not, and thus often filled with dread because filled with love, and, thus, lucky...

The once arsenal of democracy

Now with the waning of American influence and the rise of China and India and, of course, particularly, with the accompanying decadence and moral corruption of the Late Empire, we are in danger of forgetting that it was not always so. I am currently reading about the building of the Berlin Wall, the initial days of Western confusion and the elation of the West Berliners when the USA finally made a visible show of support and sent in a symbolic force of arms - hundreds of thousands rushed to streets to greet the forces. Now could we imagine the same situation in East Berlin, what kind of greeting would have a Soviet battle group gotten? With a wall built to stop the selfsame people from leaving?

It is hard for me then to understand people who see the Cold War as having been waged by moral equivalents. Of course the Western corruption and decadence, the calculations and machinations always were there even then, naturally they were - what else can you expect of liberal democracy, of human nature? The divide was cynically used to build a gigantic, absurdly outsized and deadly influential military-industrial complex, but despite of that, the divide was real, a chasm. And when American forces, American might poured to fronts during the WW2, it was the only thing capable of keeping the West safe from genuinely mad terror states - despite of the accompanying decadence and moral corruption. The difference is that then those destructive forces were being kept in check. Where do we now have effective counterforces to all this cynicism, greed and manipulation? Who would now have enough faith in our structures, enough idealism to defend them?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Happy ever after in the market place

The First World War ended in 1991. The fighting had quite petered out well before the end in any case. All that remained were some colonial wars administered by the successor of the Royal Navy guarding the world trade lanes. This is how the short century now appears to us but this provisional perspective will probably change as our view gets longer. It might be, though it does not appear that likely at the moment, that we will once have such continuous spans that one can see this mad half millennium of explosion of information, technology and people as one single, brief moment in history. At this crest (and that's where we have always been), there is no way of knowing, no certainty of direction, no finality of judgement on the past. It is a gloomy moment, surely, with this decadent triumph of capital (which once seemed like a very messy, partial victory of reason, progress and social liberalism, but a victory nevertheless) - it is only a brief moment though. Who knows what will come, this particular constellation will shortly pass.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scientism

There are not many more miraculous things than natural science in our human world. What has been established is strange beyond anything imaginable, and it does say quite a bit of us that we have been able to establish this strangeness. However, every now and then there creeps a certain imperious arrogance into the tones of many defenders of science (in these surprisinginly superstitious and credulous times) - a certain sense of finiteness. Of all things. A sense that we have already established pretty much everything there is to be established, only some closing touches needed for the Theory of Everything in physics, and that will be it. This appears very silly to me: it is quite evident that we haven't even begun to touch the beginnings of the possibilities of our experience. Who knows what will be established in the future, who knows what we will come to realize about the potential of our awareness? It appears self-evident to me that we are only at the very beginning of our journey, and it seems quite possible that we will never even get a chance to seriously set on it (in these surprisingly superstitious and credulous, hysterical times).