Monday, December 31, 2012

What he might have written

Today I happened to come across a long forgotten study on English WW1 poets, a well rehearsed subject with me. And as I often do, I glanced at the section on Charles Sorley - and it happened to be very perceptive on him, so leaving that sense of bitter loss. Such a mind, such balance: mindlessly lost to humanity in a mindless war. As mentioned earlier Sorley has been a strangely alluring, central figure for me, having encountered him at the same age that he still had just time to experience. That is, at a very early age, and being so burningly different from him, his balance and his clarity, he burned into my mind, surely partially unjustly, unrealistically - but I think, after all these years, not essentially so. A strange meeting.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Beacons of civilization

The newly reopened Student Library of the Helsinki University is a miraculous place: it was that already in the late 80's when I was mostly a very solitary figure exploring the dusty shelves of the book storage sections in the basement, but now they have thrown open to non-students also all the libraries of the individual humanities departments. History and English Departments are naturally my favourites, and of course the book storage (consisting of former course books, some printed in the 19th century) which is still there, such a lovely and eccentric book collection of a house, open to all now.

The public library system is still one of the wonders of Finland: amazingly well stocked and well equipped also for the net era. Nurmo municipal library, the brightest flame of my river valley (to quote a juvenile poem), was my earliest paradise - an odd, lonely boy, even when teenager getting drunk on words, not on cheap vodka. Then getting to Helsinki with having just noticed that I can read in English just as easily as in Finnish, was quite something indeed: whole worlds were opened. The Student Library, the British Council Library, naturally the University Library plus the Helsinki Main Library were beacons of civilization for me, they still are: besides love, books are the best we can show of us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A horribly skewed process

Even in a slightly more ideal world there would be a place for Barack Obama in the presidential election: he is an admirable representative of what used to be the Republican mainstream and which probably still enjoys quite a bit of support among the Republican voters. As it is he's portrayed as a "radical socialist" by a deranged extreme right wing party (financed by deranged billionaires) that has barely been able to scrape up a candidate brazen and principle free enough to satisfy both the party hard core and still be presentable to the great - but diminishing - American middle class (which in most issues is broadly to the left of Obama). He is an ally, potentially a good ally, of the progressives but he is no progressive.
The process is so rotten with money, so distorted, so skewed towards great concentrations of capital that to call it democratic is quite daring. This didn't used to be so: there is no inexorable historical law that it should be so. In fact, this direction, these awful trends are not good to great concentrations of capital, to great inherited or speculated wealth, not at all. Nor are they good for the current global hegemony of the fast disappearing American Republic - I suppose a republic in name only: maybe we really do end up calling this period the Late Empire.

Anyway, an Obama victory will do nothing serious to reverse these trends, only slow them down a bit, no FDR here, maybe a somewhat more conservative version of Nelson Rockefeller instead. And so the global financial crisis of 2008 that so exposed the neo-liberal economy was let go unused.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Tõnisson and Päts

It is curious that both modern popular biographies of Tõnisson and Päts would be written by Finns. I read Turtola's book some years ago and was quite critical, echoing Estonian reactions: it seemed bit glib, wise after the fact criticism of Päts' handling of the Soviet ultimatums in -39 and -40. Tõnisson then, the icon of Estonian liberalism, is of course the more congenial historical figure for me, and has found an exemplary historian, one of my absolute favourites among Finnish politicians, the current Foreign Minister, Erkki Tuomioja. Well, about the only favourite but anyway. A man inexplicably wasting his considerable scholarly talents in politics, of all things.

After having lately read Tuomioja's book I reread Turtola - and partially had to reconsider. Both books are popular, but still solid scholarly work, and though Turtola clearly overstates his case he does have telling points. Päts certainly was more rational than the Finnish government in the fall of 1939: who could have known that madness would work better than calculation. But the summer of 1940 is simply a different matter - I wonder what threats Päts received from the thugs, threats that he was alone confronting, alone and isolated. With Tõnisson in charge, there would have been a civil society, legitimate organizations, the rule of law.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reason, its limits and discontents

I do suppose that fundamentally all definitions of rationality are local and provisional. The original attempt comes to mind, the chilling, brittle and utterly disastrous 18th century view devoid of any understanding of human passions and their great dangers. Nevertheless I cannot but privilege the view that the understanding of limits set to will and power by empirism and logic represents the best definition of reason that is available to us in this world, in our experience of being in this world. There are limits to human will and human power, objective limits. Now I understand that anything can be used for repression by humanity and against humanity, but I cannot see many very obvious concrete examples of this position being used so. Postmodernity, though valuable in many aspects, has done a great disservice to liberalism and progress by undermining this approach to reason, and furthered cynical forces of reaction and repression. (Not to mention being wrong, also.)

Reason is obviously a weakening force in our culture: both the Enlightenment and Christian/humanist morality are waning, and the positions we still have are maintained increasingly only by force of habit, unknowingly and unthinkingly. They are lightly held, and the signs of times don't point to any easy, unassaulting future. Well, to a degree this is what is always said, but I think we are in a different position, accountable to fiercer demands, and I do wonder how well do we measure...

Monday, September 17, 2012

An English unofficial rose

I had never realized what a disorganized, loose mess Grantchester is. I suppose I never read it carefully enough. Yet there is a certain, undeniable Englishness there, only not in a very good sense. And flashes of promise, naturally. There was much poetry in Brooke, whatever they may say. But an awful loose mess of sentiment and fake irony of a poem.

I sometimes wonder whether I am an especially sentimental, syrupy Anglophile, but I think I'm saved from sentimentality knowing that my England never quite existed, outside of words and thoughts, and some actions and sentiments. Yattenden hymnal, of pale green - the Liberal England which never really was dominant, which never quite was, but which is the heart of the central idea of England, that gentle land of liberty that never really has been that gentle, in truth, or that free (except for a small minority). At least until there is New Jerusalem built on it or at least a serious attempt to build it. The attempt, this always failing hope is the England I love.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In memory of WB Yeats

In the course of a typical morning I ran accross Auden's great elegy on the death of Yeats. Poetry shatters the commonplace. When Auden is good, he really is - how well the text is crafted, how beautiful, how serious:
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
          William Yeats is laid to rest.
          Let the Irish vessel lie
          Emptied of its poetry.
These are the long views that are hidden in our busy daily lives. The question to ask at the end is, how long did you ever stray, how much did go to waste?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Guarda e passa

I have been reading Egon Friedell's curious masterpiece Cultural History of the Modern Age - it's magnificent and I do suppose it's war, meaning fundamentally very serious history (surely still quite hated by the academics). Flashes of genius all over the pages building to a perceptive, idiosyncratic vision of our civilisation. I stopped for a while at his description of Montaigne (and the patronising attitude of serious philosophers to him), "too wide a thinker to be contained into the narrowness of a system". A view I'm very sympathetic to (though Montaigne most probably would have been able to build a system, as I'm very obviously not). That surely goes to describe Friedell too, a most curious person himself, a cabaret actor and literary critic turned great historian, politely warning the passers-by before plunging to his death in Vienna a few steps ahead the SA men come to arrest him. A memorable scene part of the cultural history of our modern Western Civilisation.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Dream landscapes

It is an odd experience to visit your childhood places after decades: what you see is partly what you don't see. Landscapes fuse, footfalls echo, quick said the bird. And what do we really have but echoes of echoes of echoes - memories of memories, and neither are the places real that we visit nightly, and it is not us visiting. Yet, our waking selves are thoroughly shaped by these passed things and places. It is a strange, strange thing, this life in time, and we are strange people.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


I have been enjoying Bertrand Russell's magnificent History of Western Philosophy - his quintessencially English waspishness on the distasteful continental metaphysical systems is very amusing. And, I can't help it, sense making. I suppose I'm so hopelessly and thoroughly anglophile that I can't avoid appreciating common sense empirism and rationality. Of course, Russell is hugely unfair towards the German idealistic tradition and clearly doesn't seem, for example, to get the point of Mad Friedrich, who, whatever else can be said of him, certainly had a point. But the others certainly could have been clearer and more amusing - I have always been partial to Kant, the most liberal of the Germans, but usually cannot make head or tail of his prose and rely on thinkers who can express themselves in some clarity and even humour even on such a humourless and byzantine subject as Kant's thought.

Nevertheless, as much as I appreaciate the cool and clear English/British common sense analytical thought, it is easy to see that it leaves  much out of our human experience of being in the world. And I suppose we do need, in part, some complicated metaphysics to get deeper insights of this radical experience. But it is very easy to get over the top (think of Hegel) and out of the shared empirical world completely. Heidegger comes to mind as someone who very deceptively seems to make deep sense, fundamentally, but who obviously to a high extent, actually doesn't. So, these complicated systems will need waspish common sense correctives and the insights of more concrete, more empirically rooted philosophies.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

широкая натура

Culturally we surely live in a twilight era: both Christianity and Enlightenment humanism are fading, and they have not been replaced by anything more than spiritually dead consumerism. That's a hoary complaint I'm sure many would feel and object that there never was an era that wouldn't have been, at heart, crassly, graspingly materialistic - but that's not really an actual rebuttal. Ideals differ and change by era, and as ideals go Christianity and Enlightenment humanism are not too bad at all. We now have, increasingly freely expressed, a certain frozen narrowness of mind dominating, a certain totally bogus righteoussness that would have felt at home in the early Victorian era though devoid of the fundamentalist Christian cum primitive capitalistic justification for it. A cynical, narrow era. I don't think that it's the Net that creates this impression though it surely has removed many constraints - it mostly just reflects our current reality. Not a good time, this.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The great hatred

I'm reading Rentola's excellent and chilling description of the elimination of the Finnish Communist Party by Stalin (via NKVD) in the 1930's Soviet Russia. Such times: these people had bitterly fought White Finland but were now ludicrously destroyed as "nationalists" and "spies". In Soviet Karelia the campaing got to genocidal proportions as all Finnishness was brutally eliminated and erased. We cannot really imagine the atmosphere of that era, the hysteria and the fear - those years were called "Great Hatred" by the Soviet Finns. It was a strange scattered bunch of leaders that finally emerged, mainly from Finnish prisons, in 1944-45. Those that survived could never forget and never condemn this senseless slaughter, the price would have been too high, but it was too high in any case. They lacked all flexibility, all independence and without the Red Army were always outplayed by the liberal-democratic mainstream. They took no risks, no independent steps. Those few that were left.

Stalin then destroyed Finnish communism, Paasikivi and Kekkonen only finished the job. It was a dead movement at heart, morally dead, and got what it deserved. That's a great tragedy as there was also much idealism in the beginning, with great crimes committed against them in 1918 by the Whites. Such a sad story that they should have encountered and embraced even more hateful and brutal violence in the Soviet Union than in the Civil War Finland. And that year was already the nadir of Finland, progress and liberalism had been recovering ever since while the Soviet Union got steadily worse. Doubly betrayed generations, but one can never excuse or forgive the silence of the survivors - in that moral collapse we can locate the weakness and hatefullness of Marxism-Leninism. We are well rid of that horrible ideology.

(postscript: Rentola's work on Finnish communism is great history of such amazing quality. He has produced three absolute masterpieces that I return to time after time. He keeps his distance, but the story itself is enough and would only suffer from obvious biases. I hope that these studies are constantly read: they show how profound can the study of history be, how illuminating. With such exceptions the rule of unambitious, unimaginative and superficial historiography is even more disheartening. But when historians are good, they exceed pretty much anything there is. Well, maybe theoretical physics would offer some little competition...)

Monday, April 30, 2012

Dan Andersson, a Finnish poet

It is eerie, reading Dan Andersson in Swedish: he sounds so strangely familiar, homely - and listening to his translations into Finnish, I cannot help thinking that they are even truer to his vision than the original. That's probably presumptuous of me, but Finnish surely is the darker, the more melancholic language, even more fitting for these sad, beautiful songs from the depths of the Finnish forests. And Sweden by far the closest, the most familiar nation to us. Free peoples lost in the midst of dark, northern forests...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spring rites, like something almost being said

It has been a late and slow spring this year, so we are experiencing a more arctic pace for the coming of summer even here on the south coast of Finland. Even in more ordinary years the speed of the green explosion is exhilarating, but now it will be concentrated into mere 3-4 weeks with still having the last flecks of snow on the pale-yellow gray ground as I write today and a full green summer in the latter half of May... This subarctic year of extremes is certainly eventful with dramatic changes in light and nature. When younger I was not much affected by this schizophrenic northern climate but with each increasing year I seem to feel the changes more strongly. Now we have the exhilarating part of the year coming and the endless, dismal winter is only a rapidly fading memory...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Second second thoughts

A very esoteric subject to use the English language for, concerning very un-English things. Kalle Päätalo, a self-learned Finnish author, was in his time a hugely popular writer bringing back the rapidly vanished rural Finland to the couple of generations that still had a living connection with it. His most loved creation was his exhaustive Ii River series in which he (in mindboggling detail) describes his dramatic life story from great poverty and hard forestry work in really only semi-civilized North Eastern Finland through the WW2 to a relatively comfortable urban life and the beginning of his writing career. He truly was revered by his many readers and hugely patronized by university educated, sophisticated literary circles.

I was quite snobbish too in my teens and early 20's about his plodding, clumsy, incredibly slow moving style. My first reconsideration concerned the historical value of the story and its internal dramas: it really is amazing social historical description, a treasure of forgotten things, forgotten attitudes, and his brutal honesty about his own failures and repeated humiliations is actually a good, interesting story. I only gave up when the action moved away from the dramatic and interesting war years (he served for five years), and when the regular 500 - 600 pages for half or full year concentrated on endless fights with his intolerable first wife in more familiar urban circumstances. It just did not seem worth the effort, especially with the knowledge that there will be a divorce, one only prayed that he would just have gone with it and divorced the bloody woman...

Now, 20 years later I'm re-reading the series and having second second thoughts. Yes, the style feels plodding, clumsy, incredibly slow - but I think there might actually be quite a huge amount of thought and sophistication behind it. He might actually be a good, even great writer. Of course, as social history, as an exceptional historical experience it still is an amazing treasure, a storage of very rare things, but now, with more perspective, I sense a steely, majestic purpose there, a very intelligent and almost obsessively well hidden subtext, and feel somewhat chastened by this realization. One is maybe not as sophisticated as one thinks... It is awfully deceptive, awfully devious stuff, hugely interesting.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The forbidden national flag (or some words on Betti Alver)

I have been enjoying Juhani Salokannel's excellent Letters part of Jaan Kross' Life and Letters. The author himself took care of the life in his exceedingly interesting, crafty and quite odd memoirs, which led Salokannel to concentrate on literary analysis with very fortunate results. He does breach also some broader subjects and makes very fascinating comparisons between Estonia and Finland and their literary traditions.

Of course one massive difference is the cultural wasteland created by the Soviet system: so many people fled, were deported, died, and those that survived were not able to write, or publish. After Stalin things admittedly became easier, even as pure an artist as Kross could write, but with a careful balancing act in what at heart remained a terror system. This reality is very hard for us to comprehend having comfortably lived in an unoccupied Nordic welfare state. We have no real idea of that national tragedy, of how comprehensive the disaster was.

Betti Alver stood out in Salokannel's text - I had heard her name, but had not known her substantial influence on Kross, or even her distinctive poetic approach. She wasn't a nationalist writer, but she surely was a national writer, one that would have been undoubtedly quite productive and much celebrated (and later rebelled against) in a Finnish type post-war Estonia. That never happened: Heiti Talvik died (in effect was murdered) in Siberia, Betti Alver was silent for five decades. That's quite a difference indeed, something that is not easily communicated accross national experiences - but Salokannel does impressive work in this regard.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Oakeshott and Burke - and Keynes

I believe Keynes would have approved much of post-war Oakeshott. This is based on the fact that he approved much of Burke. I wonder why they don't make conservatives like them any more? Modern conservatism is actually pretty much radical early Victorian moralistic liberalism. That is if it's anything any longer but a mindless reflection of irrational powerstructures based on stupendous concentrations of capital.

Keynes of course was a progressive and thoroughly rational. But he was so thoroughly rational that he saw much wisdom in Burke (and would have seen in post-war Oakeshott). Practice and experience really are crucial, so are local contexts and conditions which have to be taken into account whenever we attempt reforms. Where he differed from these conservative thinkers is that his focus was on pragmatic reform and progress. It is the pragmatism that leads to respect of experience and practice and local contexts.

Burke and Oakeshott formulated great truths about collective human behaviour. They lived in times that made them especially wary of progressive, rationalist thought, and went partially overboard. Burke's idealization of the painted, decadent dolls of high French aristocracy and Oakeshott's overly positive view of private enterprises are examples of that partial blindness. Keynes, as ever, exhibits very little blindness in his political thought and action. He is my ideal statesman and thinker, unifying realism and idealism, reacting rationally and respectfully to local contexts while aiming to improve them.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Nottingham lace of the curtains

I was today reading an account of the Oscar Wilde scandal by Hesketh Pearson, and wish not to have done it. Not a pleasant scene, no. I don't know at which stage the feverish revisionism and counter-revisionism of historiography currently resides, but the last time I looked (and it was in the early 90's, I'm afraid) it was fashionable to claim that "the Victorians" were not at all as prudish and inhibited about sexuality as it was once common to think.

And of course there is a point to that: most people in any age are lustful and carnal, naturally. Victoria herself with her thirty-odd (as memory serves) children was surely no stranger to sex and would undoubtedly have been bored to death thinking only of England while engaging in it. But to admit this obvious fact does not mean that there did not also exist awful and disgusting public middle class taboos about sexuality and sex. There did, and Oscar Wilde was one of countless of victims to them.

There is a certain peculiarly Anglo-Saxon (it seems) mode of hypocritical moral outrage even today - perhaps not as strong as it once was, but it's certainly still capable of rising to feeding frenzy every now and then. Not to speak of the unspeakable Anglo-American justice systems which seem to exist pretty much just to make a particularly nasty and sadistic section of the middle class to feel smug about itself. Och aye, shouldn't have touched that story this morning...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Furious affections

Thinking back to more tumultuous times of my life I am struck how little we change in some respects: love is an almost constant, no matter the age group. I'm now in much contact with very young persons, and though there is an immaturity there, in most, there is also a maturity that comes from the very fierceness of the feelings. Once again, or maybe actually only too rarely, I am reminded of my own luck: I never would have thought that I would turn out to be lucky in such central matters, in being able of fierceness... Anyway, youth is a kind of an automatic immunization against non-fierceness, non-furiousness - it's no good to advice, and I don't, but the young surely would do well to remember that it is only too possible to lose that immunity with age ("the only enemy"). But if they do find love, and surely many will, they will keep their connection to the essential and not lose it in the routine triviality of daily life.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Yeats is... - Yeats is one of the wonders of the Western world. I believe literature is the most humanity has ever achieved: really, all we pretty much have to show for ourselves are our books, and now that we are slowly but surely distancing ourselves from literature, are we not regressing? This thought came to my mind once again as I was delighting myself in R.F. Forsters great, great biography of Yeats.

It is very hard to characterize Yeats - of course, one can say, and I have, that he was completely dotty, disconnected, and he was, but that's actually almost totally misleading: he was very, very shrewd even in his dottiness (and compare that with Pound's quite pathological version). He was no politician, no idealogue, and that he knew - in some ways he really knew himself. And the poetry: light of evening, Lissadell... It's quite something, quite something else, and equally hard to characterize. I often find myself ambivalent: it's no ancient dusty tomb, it engages, enrages, delights, one of the wonders of the Western world.

And that is really what we have to show for ourselves, as much civilization as we have ever had: art, literature. Increasingly unimportant things.