Saturday, December 31, 2011

But it still goes on

I believe I have mentioned how important an experience it was for me to read Paul Fussel's Great War and Modern Memory in my early 20's just having arrived to study in Helsinki. It was more a personal and literary experience at the time, an esthetic experience of the combination of literature and history and personal life, a theme ever since very important for me. But as the years have progressed the First War has become ever more central for me as an historical event in its own right, as a central event directly in our own continuum. It still does go on: our civilization has been largely shaped by that catastrophy and the one that shortly followed, and in many senses we are shell shocked survivors from those two twin collapses of the progressive and optimistic West. There is not much trust, confidence in non-material things any more here: wealth is our strongest support and main reason for action.

Another year ends this evening, and I wonder whether my sense of a new constellation being on its way is correct or whether we just will struggle on, untransformed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A shining city in a trough

In these past few years I have read various books on the George W. Bush administration's policies concerning Iraq and Afghanistan (the latest, the dry, academic, devastating study of Afghanistan by Tim Bird and Alex Marshall). The blindness, the pride, the ideological hubris of those years is beyond belief. The decadence: if you wield great power, you have great responsibility over people's lives - if you take decisions that will mean life or death for hundreds of thousands, for millions, you are then obligated to be extremely well versed, well adviced (and intelligently critical and questioning of your advice) about the people whose fates you will affect.

The moral and intellectual corruption of that administration is mind shattering, dispiriting. It is the clearest sign yet of the end of the American empire, this decadence, this casual ignorance of that president and his advisers.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Those were the times that were

Helsinki in November must be one of the most dismal places on earth: rotting leaves, darkness, subdued, tired people hurrying to get indoors, no sign of winter, of clear freezing air and snow reflected light. A moment in history too, as all moments are, this one surely better than most: no physical lacks, no war, silly, shortsighted elites certainly, but, more or less, that's what elites always are. (To be fair, this time Brussels cum Berlin seems to be outdoing itself in stupidity - no Lord Keynes around now, and these elites wouldn't listen anyway.)

Well, I should concentrate on other weightier matters, only this is not a time for concentration, November in Helsinki. Some years have earned their right to feel nostalgic about. Today I found myself bringing to mind one such... This is not to say that I would have regrets about this one: I have found my place, my voice - living life recklessly, to the full, seriously. But at times seriousness is not all you need. Not in this November.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Kaks naist, üks pilet ja pliaats ja paber

It is amazing, stunning how bad the trash media is, how reactionary, utterly supporting the existing structures while constantly working to make them even worse. This is surely no corporate conspiracy, as many on the left seem to think, any conscious, co-ordinated effort. It's much worse: it is how our society works, how it functions.

We have reached here, and will reach further, by taking small, relatively rational steps. There never was, or only briefly was, any deliberate awareness about the social democratic compromise, how satisfactorily it functioned. And it did, for a while. Now we are sliding, essentially randomly, towards something else - something that certainly does not seem to be as rational, as fair or as embracing of as wide social competition as possible.

There is no rational, calculated counter-force to this because that's not how our society works - there is also no rational, calculated effort to make things worse. Just human nature and ever unpredictably changing historical structures. Who knows where we will end, maybe at some stage we'll grow up and into rational control, but at the moment there is no control, only passion and short sightedness.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Love in a cold climate

Going through this dismal rainy fall morning was rewarded by an image of Turing entering mathematics in the 1930's Cambridge ("second only to Göttingen" in those times, according to Hodges' classic scientific biography, a classic biography - it hardly gets much better than that). That pure world independent of twisted human constructions, certainly fitting to Turing always so destined to be at the receiving end of that twistedness.

Not that I would really know whether that assesment of mathematics is totally true: that door has always been closed to me (maybe I have gotten occasional glimpses of glimpses of it), our human world, as twisted as it mostly is is, has been the centre of my interest, along with the process of experiencing it. But, I do suppose, suspect that it really is wholly independent, good that something is.

Art cannot do that, isn't that, but art does something similar, only in a radically different way. Extremes meet. I suppose I remain where I once began this blog (in the midst of a positively biblical decade of challenges): not far away from G.E. Moore and Principia Ethica - love, friendship, art, science, these are the long views, the constants.

Friday, September 23, 2011

θάλαττα! θάλαττα!

I still vividly remember reading in my early teens in the 80's John Fowles' magical description of the Greek landscape in "The Magus". Far in dismal north, in dismal circumstances such strange places were imagined. The merciless light, the stillness of Greek air, the awful, amoral brightness of the decidedly non-Nordic azure sea, the sense of the beauty of it all - the amazing power of literature (no film can ever be made, no place visited that would make justice to human imagination).

Such contrasts in that burning, painful life, such places visited ("only" in imagination, it is incomprehensibly said). But not only a half-forgotten private memory: ever since there has been an interest for antiquity, not Roman or Hellenistic, but for the brief, wild explosion of classical Greece. It is a central place, a central era for us, even now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The strange inheritance

There is really much in us that has come via Jerusalem - our vague, christian-agnostic humanism is basically just the New Testament translated into secular society. (In my personal case the connection is of course much stronger coming directly from a background of living, if very liberal, Christianity.) Liberalism, in the end is not a very Greek value. (And we don't hold it in the Greek way, but tepidly, half-heartedly.)

But the basic modern situation: freedom, passion, emptiness, is quite pure Athens. Not that many really would confront it. Some problems do arise in connecting liberal humanistic values with this Nietzschean condition of being in the world, but to my mind there is nothing inherently impossible in achieving a rational balance.

Art also is very a Greek thing - especially in the form where esthetics are seen as fusing with ethics (a view very close to my heart). Art is the central thing, next to it love and justice. Perhaps that is the fusion, our common inheritance - increasingly wasted inheritance, I suppose.

These recollections, echoes are indeed quickly fading. And not only of Athens but of Jerusalem as well, and there is a certain Roman luxury and opulence in our lifestyle, a certain decadence. One does wonder what is to follow all this, what rough beast.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

I admit I do see the present-day USA as largely a decadent society. This does not come from any traditional European anti-American world view - the USA has been indispensable for the preservation of the Western world in the last 100 years. Its leadership would even now be indispensable for the West. But there doesn't seem much energy left, only a dysfunctional, corrupt political system and ethically and intellectually failed elites.

I have been re-reading the excellent Battlecry of Freedom (in the Oxford American history series), and even though it was a bloody, violent era, there was also an unmistakeable austere, ethical, forceful spirit in the nation. There was corruption, naturally, and ethical collapses, but also a strong, intense and serious will to progress and reform. Of course we do still have intensity, awfully misplaced, intellectually corrupt intensity in the various right wing groups, but that seems more a symptom of a steep decline than a sign that there hasn't been much decline.

Oh well, I'm inclined to pessimism in any case and as regards the future only an open mind is a completely rational view: we cannot know what signs will prove to be significant and which won't, but certainly a depressing spectacle, this exhaustion.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What do you see my blue-eyed son?

I guess it is telling of my character that now having children, having experienced such intensity of affection and love, having seen such innocence and vulnerability that I don't think about the wonderfulness of the world but about the awfulness of its scope. How almost anything can happen, how there are no safety nets below us, below them.

I am not suited to this age in the sense of feeling like Donne: no person is an island - the awful, the crazily cruel things have already happened to us, are happening to us. A hard rain's a-falling right now, it has always been falling.

But of course this doesn't make the love, the innocence meaningless but only more meaningful, desperately meaningful. Our experience is a wild experience, as sharp, as real as it gets. It's an awful inheritance, but not only awful.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Introducing history into physics

It is not often that books outside literature and the study of it concern quite directly with my major preoccupations - but Philip Ball's Critical Mass does exactly that. Of course, it does not really offer even rudimentary approaches for the actual study of history, but surely natural science is the direction where the much needed paradigm change will eventually come. Actually, Ball's approach probably corresponds quite exactly to sociology, but I suspect that the kind of statistical understanding that goes for gaseous molecules will not do for humans - the particulars are too important for the overall state of affairs. But surely we will once be able to posit a functioning physical model of historical change and be rid of the current tools far too crude to capture any certain connections between historical occurences.

Maybe this sounds, even now, over-ambitious and mechanistic, nevertheless I have never been able to fathom the distinction between physical and human sciences. It is just that human affairs have been much too complex for the natural sciences that have been more gainfully employed with simpler matters, such as the origins and structures of the universe etc. Perhaps we are now, at long last, developing sophisticated enough tools for the natural sciences to engage with our own experience...

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The same old druid

For some reason the Finnish expression "sydämen maisema" sounds much more authentic than its English translation "a landscape of the heart" which has an odd literal feel to it. In any case there are places - should one be so lucky - that stay disproportionately sharp in mind, in memory. Places that somehow retain their original magic and thus distort time: strange, strange places.

I visited one such place this weekend, and can't really here make full sense of the experience: how 28 years vanished and became heightened, how one could hear very distinct echoes of long since passed words in the summer night, young voices over the still waters. How not much had changed: due to its nature this river had kept its name particularly well.

I cannot really regret my path, at all, apart from a universal sense that we all ought to, in this fallen world. But back then I could not take all in that was so generously on offer, and there is a certain sadness in recognizing this. But for the circumstances I took much in, and that place, those people did stay and do stay in my heart, sharply etched.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Shakespeare

It is a strange feeling to read even high quality literary criticism about the Bard. I have not yet encountered an approach that would make full justice to that scariest of writers. I don't think I'm romantizing him at all: he is as universal, as comprehensive as we have gotten to be in this civilization. And he was writing in the very beginning of it. Of course there is the period aspect, surely, but there is also that intimidating distance from it, that space. I have never had very intelligent things to say about him: he just doesn't leave much room for breathing. Something quite out of the normal scope of human discourse.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some people left for heaven without warning

I guess it's a sign of age (and of maturity) to be shaken about people aruptly leaving for ever who once were thought, if thought spesifically at all, to be permanent. We have a strange stage, a brutal stage for our brief stay here, however beautiful, breath taking the vistas. I wonder if we will ever be able to respond to these eternities, to this borderlessness with the seriousness it requires. (Of course it doesn't only require seriousness.) A strange experience this, a strange journey. So, one more farewell in this off-hand fashion. No paying nothing back, but I guess it was never expected, never calculated to be a trade.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dynamics of radicalism

We have now had in our recent elections interestingly a very slight whiff of actual radicalism. The "True Finn" party as a whole is more a renewal of our venerable rural populist party SMP just in somewhat more urban circumstances, and not really remotely radical in a serious way. But they do have a Southern metropolitan and fairly educated wing that is a relatively nasty, polarizing force somehow getting energy from the pitifully few immigrants from culturally more distant countries that we now have in Finland. This is probably neither here nor there, a passing phenomenon (Western populations getting to terms with globalization), but it got me thinking about circumstances where the centre does not hold, where liberal democracy is either weak or non-existant.

I myself go instinctively for the extreme middle way, aiming to cohere, construct, approving of messy, pragmatic compromizes, rational dialogues. These reflexes are the fundamental base of our Western liberal democracy. The true radicals, on any issue, aim to polarize, to weaken the centre, to disrupt the rational discourse. If they are weak, it is them who are marginalized, if they are strong enough, it's the rational centre that gets marginalized. Terry Eagleton characterizes liberalism as an ideology that would seek a compromize between fascists and non-fascists, but that's deeply unfair and misleading. Inherent in liberalism is a distrust of passion and fanatism, a lesson learned from our bitter historical experience that rational dialogue must not be extinguished. A radical for me is a person who in the fight against fascism chooses Stalinism, or vice versa. It is the extremes that get hard to distinguish from each other, never the centre.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tea, anyone?

I am not hugely interested in party politics. It's mostly surface froth anyway and these days absolutely divorced from any high ideals of citizenship and collective responsibility. (I think there was a period when the situation was noticeably better though that's probably a controversial opinion - but there was a moment, I do believe, when it was seriously thought that participatory politics mattered.) Still, there is a sort of groundswell coming in Finland with our version of the Tea Party (angry, not highly educated middle-aged men) rising remarkably in the polls. Much misdirected anger and rage fuelling the "movement". We have so few immigrants that it is quite an acrobatic achievement to create a huge national problem out of them. I guess it is something manageable, something tangible that you can understand and do something about it.

The actual, genuine problems seem to be so far out of the citizens' hands that it's easier just not to see them. In the end it will probably not amount to much anything. An opportunity once again lost - we would need real reform of the political process and social structures in general, but this wave of populism will likely not establish any and will probably make this real reform even more difficult. Oh well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dies irae

I have been delighting in the majestic language of James Baldwin in his Collected Essays. It is almost always an exceptional treat to read non-fiction by great fiction writers. Most of them seem to have an automatic knack how not to write in bad language. In great contrast with academics - especially academic literary critics (odd, but there you are). Baldwin certainly writes great prose, but that's only one aspect of the essays - the language fuses with the thinking: the thoughts and the medium they are expressed in fuse (this must surely be true of all great writing). I don't know much about Baldwin, I'm sure the private person is different from the public writer, probably less likeable.

I don't much care - here he takes painful issue with American racial tensions (always at the heart of the republic which should never be forgotten) and African-American experience not in a particularist way, but in a universal way (which universality can only be reached through particular experience, particular circumstances).

I am supposedly that rare thing, a white liberal without personal historical guilt, but I am a Burkean liberal after all. We should remember the particular awful, unspeakable things done in the past, being done today, but they are fundamentally universal failings, humankind's failings. Our failings.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The History Boys

Even while watching the opening scenes I was wondering whether I should really enjoy the movie - it was very obvious, from the opening scenes, that I would. But it was not wholly indulgent and not wholly sentimental. There were genuinely good bits there. Apart from the various buttons of mine that it very expertly happened to push. Sentimentality is one of the worst sins, if not the worst, and much loved by Hollywood (and West End and Broadway). Indulgence is the invariable companion to it: things too pretty, solutions too easy, all sugared by cheap sentiment, sugaring it in turn. You can of course err in the other direction as well with too easy cynicism, killing all emotion, all sympathy. A narrow path to negotiate. Anyway, history is a curious beast - and we curious pray (but we are not only pray). This state of affairs was not totally hidden by the movie, so I think my enjoyment was permissible after all...

Friday, January 07, 2011

Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa (thrice)

I'm sure Tom Stoppard has been amply punished by the academics for the glittering of his language. You cannot fundamentally be a serious writer if your text is madly funny and witty, and if you time comic dialogue like an angel. That's unserious. I am currently re-reading Arcadia - have seen it only once, a very polished Gate Theatre performance in Dublin - and it never ceases to amaze how well someone can write. Stoppardian wit, seriousness and language correspond very closely with my own esthetic ideals - it's very liberal art, very liberal concerns. It's not all there is, naturally, but through his skill, through his language Stoppard surpasses such limitations, and easily, effortlessly approaches universality. That is how it should be done. And there's a deadly seriousness in it.