The aphorism reborn

Issue 4/1986 | Archives online, Authors, Essays, Non-fiction

Markku Envall. Photo: Pertti Nisonen

Markku Envall. Photo: Pertti Nisonen

With the passage of time a literary genre may continue, change or disappear. During the 1960s it was widely believed that the Finnish aphorism was dead. Modernism, which had consolidated its victory during that decade, was not favourable to the genre, and not one of the central figures of the post-war generation had touched the genre. Nevertheless, phoenix-like, the aphorism rose from the ashes, and by the 1970s it was strongly in evidence again, thanks, in the main, to just four writers, Mirkka Rekola, Paavo Haavikko, Samuli Paronen and Erno Paasilinna.

The renaissance took place between 1969 and 1972; in 1969 Mirkka Rekola’s first book of aphorisms was published, followed in 1972 by Paavo Haavikko’s. Rekola now has three books of aphorisms to her name, Haavikko four. The other two major aphorists have published one volume each. There have been a few other collections of aphorisms have appeared, but their authors are ‘merely’ aphorists, while these four are recognised as major authors in other fields too.

What was new in the renaissance of the aphorism? The question is easiest to answer in respect of the three men; Rekola is in many ways an exception. There were two major new features, one concerning meaning, the other form. The subject matter of the new writers was broader than the wisdom and teachings about life encompassed by the traditional aphorism. Their main subjects were nothing if not ambitious; the nature of the world, the progress of history, the structure of society.

The traditional aphorism answered the question, how should one live wisely? The genre languished as new answers began to be in short supply; it could acquire new life only by finding new questions. Traditionally, the aphorism had sought knowledge about human nature; the reborn genre seeks it in the way of the world and the structure of society. The source of evil, too, is located in new places: not in people, but in the world. The old aphorism had lessons to impart for the direction of the individual; the new, for the revelation of the world. The old aphorism offered rules, instructions and advice for use in a world that was considered in some sense fixed, immutable. The new aphorism is it reflects change, movement, aiming for richness of inter­ and paradox are more the rule than the exception.

This internal change was accompanied by an external development, of form. Where in the old aphorism, the fixed world as reflected in fixed rules, the new aphorism portrays the changing world in moving phrases. The aphoristic cluster is replaced by series of aphorisms in which perspectives change unpredictably, thought develops with sharp about-faces and phrases can be contradictory. In a series of aphorisms the individual statements can form a kind of constellation of meanings that is a picture of the world as a place of uncertainty, as a process rather than a state.

The mystic

Mirkka Rekola‘s aphoristic works are Muistikirja (‘Notebook’, 1969), Maailmat lumen vesistöissa (‘Worlds in the water systems of snow’, 1978) and Silmänkantama (‘As far as the eye can see’, 1984). Structurally they are all broadly similar: not divided into chapters or titled, they consist of alternating aphorisms and prose poems. But statements are not divided strictly into these two groups, for there is a third group of statements that examine the ground between aphorism and poem. In her habit of combining these genres, as well as in her own personal opinions, Rekola continues the work of the Finland­Swedish modernist Gunnar Björling.

Rekola’s aphorisms are astonishingly fertile in the interpretations they afford: prolific in sense and shape, hinting in many directions. She does not present a single, fixed thought; instead, she creates word-compositions that are given meaning – or meanings – by the reader. A statement is not a description of a state of affairs, still less a generalising explanation of a rule or law. If the traditional aphorism thought on behalf of the reader, Rekola does the opposite: forces the reader to think on the writer’s behalf. She creates an open and abstract form, some kind of frame, and a number of possibilities; the reader carriers on from there creating thoughts, meanings, interpretations. Rekola’s sentences are elliptical; often they acquire meaning only with the addition of words by the reader – a different meaning according to the particular words chosen. She favours abstract words that are not made clear by context: typical examples are ‘likeness’, ‘presence’, ‘absence’ and ‘image’.

Rekola’s resources are all directed at expressing her own view of life. Although her philosophy is not easy to classify, it is not far wrong to describe her as a mystic and a monist. The world for her is spiritual, a secret, a unified whole. Although there is no trace of conventional piety, Christianity is an important conceptual and doctrinal element in her work.

As a monist Rekola is in revolt against all distinctions and boundaries. For her, the world is in continual motion: so all rational statements made about it are either impossible or false. Continual motion destroys all boundaries; and where there are no boundaries there is unity. Apprehension of this oneness is the fundamental mystic experience. The underlying purpose of Rekola’s aphorisms is to oppose conceptual distinctions, dualisms, that threaten the experience of unity. The most important of these are the difference between self and other, self and the world, self and nature, past and future, and time and place. To reject these differences, or make them relative, and to point out the interchangeability of the opposing terms, constitute Rekola’s great lesson about the oneness of the world.

Rekola’s poetry is not merely difficult to grasp, it is also anti-rational. In disputing the conceptual distinctions that enable the human mind to work, she disputes rationality itself. All the same, there is one thing that Rekola can teach even the most dyed-in-the-wool rationalist: conventional literature exploits only a tiny part of the possibilities of language. She demonstrates that the grammatical rule we learn at school, that each sentence should express a thought, gives a very restricted view of the true scope of language.

Man stands like a narrow doorway in the landscape.

There probably isn’t much left. Those who are ahead of their time are no longer in it.

The gag is passed round, the disease spreads.

Once or twice I have found myself coming out of a door marked No entry or Danger. The notice could have been put up while I was inside, how can I tell?

Do not make images. Everything is.

The most difficult thing is to believe one’s eyes.

The world a table laid, there you see your hunger.

I don’t write thoughts, they do not give peace.

What a lot imagination can achieve. And you belittle faith.

The mistake of the ages, that we did not meet. We met, the ages were mistaken.

(from Muistikirja, ‘Notebook’, 1969))

The ironist

Paavo Haavikko began his career as an aphorist in 1972, three years after Rekola. His debut received more attention, for he was and is a more prominent writer, often, in fact, regarded as something of a national oracle. He has published four aphoristic works: Puhua, vastata, opettaa (‘To speak, to answer, to teach’ 1972), Ihmisen ääni (‘The human voice’, 1977), Ikuisen rauhan aika (‘The time of eternal peace’, 1981) and Pimeys (‘Darkness’, 1984). His aphorisms, too, are hard to interpret, but the causes of the difficulties are completely different from Rekola’s. The least of them is the oracular style he favours from time to time, the greatest his refined and constant irony.

Haavikko avoids calling things by their true names. He speaks of Prussia when everything indicates that he means East Germany. China is still, for him, the Central Kingdom. Close to the oracular style is another, greater, difficulty: Haavikko does not always believe in dictionary definitions. Concepts are, for him, problems, which he is apt to solve in an unfamiliar manner. A concept we have always known as negative may turn, in his hands, into something positive. For in­ stance, opportunism is, for him, the only successful political means by which the small man or state can survive in the battle for existence. Haavikko broadens the meaning of the term fascism, too: for him it is the synonym of all centralised and effective power. In Puhua, vastata, opettaa he dissects the anatomy of fascism; and he does it in such a way that his analysis applies equally to the Soviet Union and the United States. In fascism ‘the state owns economic life or, what amounts to the same thing, economic life owns the state’. This is Haavikko’s way of describing and nullifying the opposition of two ideologies of power, socialism and capitalism. He examines the logic of the behaviour of states, revealing how their ideologies are merely attempts to justify, in different ways or different languages, exactly the same behaviour.

But the feature of Haavikko’s work that causes the reader the severest difficulties is without doubt his irony: deceitful and all-embracing, it is to be expected and feared in every sentence. The titles of his books give a good indication of what is to come, for they raise expectations that are not fulfilled. Puhua, vastata, opettaa could be the title of a didactic work, but when the words appear in the text their meaning is changed: the speaker paints a picture of himself, but insists that he does not want it ‘to speak, to answer, to teach, and to bring ruin on many people’.

As a typical member of the literary generation that matured in the 1950s, Haavikko is a critic of ideals and ideologies. Grown on the ruins of a lost war and of nationalist idealism, this generation saw it as its duty to cleanse language and mind from dangerous and unreliable abstractions. Although, on the one hand, Haavikko speaks and teaches, on the other he warns of the dangers of these actions: the critic of ideals must deny his own ideals, too, and present his case ambivalently. One of the refrains of Ihmisen ääni is that the speaker is not a human being, certainly not a good one. The idea seems to be to break free from the many mistaken habits of thought of humanism. Ikuisen rauhan aika, too, dashes the expectations it raises: it tells of a ‘relentless war against the whole world, the human mind, trees and grass. / Zum ewigen Frieden.’ Instead of the utopia of peace, the title of Immanuel Kant’s book signifies the world after a nuclear or ecological catastrophe, the only way in which human activity and eternal peace can coexist. Only Pimeys delivers what it promises: darkness, despair, the threat of annihilation.

Pimeys consists of a plethora of suggestions, hypotheticals. These suggestions are triumphs of the imagination in which sense, nonsense and humour are inextricably mixed. But it is difficult to gauge with what intention they are put forward. My own interpretation is that they are Haavikko’s way of expressing how impossible it would be for the world to be as it should, if it followed common sense to the least degree. The rationality of the world is a laughable and impossible ideal, that is the lesson of these proposals. Having been in his earlier work a critic of utopias, in Pimeys he constructs them himself: demonstrate his own position, as it from both inside and out. From the suggestions just one example: clearly, the language of a completed legal proposal, we are presented with a system in which the judge who signs a prisoner’s death warrant must at the same time sign his own, which is to be put into effect immediately if his judgement ‘proves to be in need of correction’. The reasoning is incontrovertible: an erroneous death sentence is a murder that must be punished. It is not difficult to guess the source of inspiration: the widespread occurrence of rehabilitation after execution. At the end of his proposal, Haavikko says why it is impossible: ‘No one would be prepared to be a judge or a signatory any more’.

The individualist

The two remaining aphorists, Samuli Paronen and Erno Paasilinna, spring from the ideological background of the labour movement. The former is highly original, while the work of the latter shows some similarity to Haavikko’s. Paronen could be discribed as a totally individual thinker, while Paasilinna is often characterised as a dissident.

Samuli Paronen is a rare phenomenon in the Finnish literary world: a manual worker until the age of 47, he then, in the space of then years, published ten visionary works. In them a minority social group that had until then been almost unknown to the literary public found its voice: the sector of the proletariat that has become estranged from the normal activities of society, including the trade union movement. Paronen poses dossers and ragged vagrants as an authentic value against a civilisation that has gone wrong.

Paronen’s 1974 collection of aphorisms, Maailma on sana (‘The world is the word’), is his last work. The book is regarded as the summation of its author’s thought, and his major work. It concentrates Paronen’s social message into an admirably clear form.

Much of the book’s value is in the extraordinary originality of the aphorisms: it is very seldom that they repeat familiar ideas. Formally, Maailma on sana represents the very best of the Finnish aphorism: charged and biting, full of paradoxes and word games. The 353 aphorisms in the book are divided into ten untitled chapters, covering, roughly, the following subject areas: Competition, ‘They’, The Finns, War, Law, Democracy, Religion, Culture and Trade, Know­ ledge and The World is the Word.

Paronen believes that society and culture have developed in a way that is fundamentally warped. Efficiency, technology and competition are worshipped; but while the official indices of material well-being rise, people are suffering, falling ill and becoming frustrated and alienated. The trampling underfoot of life’s authentic values by competition and efficiency is the subject of the book’s first chapter. ‘When well-being is mechanised, suffering becomes flesh.’ ‘When murders are mechanised, they are called accidents.’ The book’s second chapter, ‘They’, best illustrates the position from which Paronen himself views society. ‘They’ is his collective name for the people who have come to terms with the twisted development of society and culture. ‘They’ are established, competitive, consumers, victors, technocrats, officials, ‘right’ thinkers – in a word, ‘decent people’. Paronen wants to expose the basic rottenness of such people: their inhumanity and dishonesty. In the third chapter he directs his venom at Finland and The Finns. To Paronen Finland is a country in which inequality, prohibitions and conformity rule. The army and militarism, the class bias in the administration of justice, the commercialisation of culture and the stupidity of those who call themselves experts, all come in for criticism. The last chapter ponders the nature of language, concluding that in many senses ‘the world is the word’.

The dissident

Erno Paasilinna’s collection of aphorisms Musta aukko (‘The black hole’) appeared in 1977, but the genre had already made its appearance in a volume of satirical writings, Kirjoituksia kaikille (‘Writings for everybody’), published two years earlier.

Paasilinna’s writing is clearly influenced by Haavikko in both form and thematic material. Like Haavikko’s Puhua, vastata, opettaa, Musta aukko consists of a number of series of aphorisms.

Each series (with a few exceptions) consists of five aphorisms in a dynamic relationship with each other. An individual aphorism may be laconic, but it will also play its part in the series as a whole. Paasilinna addresses himself to the same important matters as Haavikko: history, war, money, power. Both writers have a tendency towards determinism: towards a philosophy of history in which the effect of the will of the individual on the world is challenged. Both of them deal with war and economics in parallel, almost, it seems, as each others’ apologists and in each others’ language. Their major ideological difference lies in the fact that their similar trains of thought are linked, in Haavikko’s case, to the political Right, whereas in Paasilinna’s they tend toward the Left.

The book’s title is taken from the world of modern astrophysics. Paasilinna uses the term metaphorically to point up his own anarchic views: in the almost totalitarian structure of the state there are black holes that are the home and operational area of revolutionaries and dissidents.

Like Paronen, Paasilinna believes that society has developed in a fundamentally wrong direction. He is a pessimist and a prophet of doom. The book’s aphorisms work on two levels: on the one hand they describe the world, while on the other they assess the nature of thought itself – in the course of which the author appears to be defining the nature of his own book. ‘It is not necessary to understand everything. It is enough to understand the worst.’ ‘It is necessary to practise thinking wrongly, otherwise it is impossible to understand the order of the system.’ In making statements about the world Paasilinnas sometimes simplistic; indeed, he does not always avoid the pitfalls and dangers that contributed to the downfall of the traditional aphorism. The book does contain a few expositions of rules or laws that appear, quite simply, trivial: ‘Everything that it is possible to buy, it is possible to sell.’

But, at their best, Paasilinna’s aphorisms are both enlightening and visionary paradoxes, new ways of outlining a problem. ‘In a sparsely populated country people can be controlled by putting them out of sight.’ The plight of people who live on the periphery has always interested Paasilinna. He is a scholar of Lapland and its literature; his most extensive work is a two-part history of Petsamo, the northerly province that belonged to Finland between the First and Second World Wars. Such marginal areas receive the least of the communal good and, at the same time, the most is taken from them in terms of their own riches; this is the universal thesis in whose light Paasilinna examines the contradiction between centres of power and its objects.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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