Silence and the void

Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Authors

The tragic and the comic, the lyrical and the grotesque, blend seamlessly in the language and characters of Eeva-Liisa Manner‘s Poltettu oranssi (‘Burnt orange’, 1968), a ballad-like, uncompromising drama about the ineluctable destruction of a ‘mad girl’.

The girl’s emotions have been violated since childhood. She has been repeatedly raped, both figuratively and literally, and always in the name of love. Her mind develops its own secret language and logic, beheading people because ‘It is from the face that all bad words and hurtful expressions come.’ When, as part of a psychiatric test, she is shown a cavalcade of portraits of great men, the image of Nietzsche causes loathing to be replaced by a tender whisper: ‘Father. A stupid little dog.’ The exception of Nietzsche, an early interpreter of the modern World and the linguistic crisis of art, is apt. The experience of uncertainty and questioning of the meaning of language, on the one hand as a limitation of life and on the other as the enabler of a full existence, are in many ways central to Manners work.

At the level of plot, the girl’s excessive regression beyond normal language is not a happy solution, but it is highly successful at the level of poetic and dramatic language. Poltettu oranssi was first performed in Tallinn, Estonia, in the spring of 1969; in Finland it ran uninterruptedly at the Workers’ Theatre in Tampere throughout the 1970s.

Manner wrote one of her most important collections of poetry, Fahrenheit 121 (1968), alongside Poltettu oranssi. Here, the writer sets against the social turbulence and speculation of the time her own ‘programme’: the question of the metaphysical. In the poems, layer after layer of historical, social and cultural conditioning is removed from the individual. The collection Jos suru savuaisi (‘If grief should smoulder’) appeared later the same year, a rapid, shocked reaction to the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. A philosophical and historical vision of the conditions of human existence is illuminated against a background of the experience of the void. In its questioning of metaphysics, emptiness and the nature of poetry, Fahrenheit 121 is a passionate rejection of superficial political trends. The poet descends ever deeper into the chasm of emptiness in her search for the grounds of being. In the chilly climate of the time, the poetics of Manner’s mad femininity and the void glow orange.

In the late 1960s, Manner was living through her profoundest creative period. Behind her were the breakthrough work of Finnish 1950s modernism, Tämä matka (‘This journey’, 1956), and a series of varied works – Orfiset laulut (‘Orphic songs’, 1960), Niin vaihtuvat vuoden ajat (‘Thus change the ages of the year’, 1964) and Kirjoitettu kivi (‘The inscribed stone’, 1964) – which had established her name as a modernist. Behind her, too, was an unexpected dramatic debut, a fierce play about the intelligentsia entitled Uudenvuodenyö (‘New Year’s night’, 1965).

Her impressive list of translations already included Georg Büchner, Yasunari Kawabata, Willy Kyrklund and William Shakespeare. The focus of Manner’s work as a critic and essayist was shifting from Finnish poetry to foreign prose and cinema. Her writing took place, then as now, within the triangle formed by the summer shores of the lakes of Häme, the prosperous Finnish industrial city of Tampere and Mediterranean Spain. Her depictions of nature, the life of the intelligentsia and Latin culture derive from these locations. Behind them is a still deeper source of memory and yearning, the rich atmosphere of the eastern city of Viipuri (Vyborg), ceded to the Soviet Union after the second world war.

For Manner, writing is listening, hearing, recalling to mind. It is closer to the language of flesh and feeling, gesture and passion, perception and intuition than to the logic of ideas. Poetry opens the door to the transcendental, meaningful, mysterious silence within the word. Transparency and transcendence are the brightness and lucidity of expression itself. Writing is the continuous process of besieging and rewriting silence, articulated into poetry and culture; but articulation is only the periphery, against the silent, empty centre.

In the poems of Kuolleet vedet (‘Dead waters’, 1977) and the short stories of Kävelymusiikkia pienille virtahevoille (‘Promenade music for small hippopotami’, 1957), the poet has listened to mute stone, to the story of evolution, or to the child and the body-language behind the silent adult. The poems travel back in time to the point where the factors of alienation from nature and self disappear and many possibilities are still open: there are ‘mammal-birds’, there are primitive animals, ‘crawling flesh and spirit’, there are fossils like a memory of the lost unity of man and nature, there is child who drinks music as milk. Fossils, sea-shells, coral, brains, wallpaper patterns, spinning tops, pupae, recur in an iconography that contains within it the possibility of metamorphosis, of the layering of animate and inanimate, of the bifurcation of good and evil, of the alternation of ecstasy and analysis.

The distance between the nature poems of Niin vaihtuvat vuoden ajat and the cultural philosophy of Fahrenheit 121 or the satirical, carnival laughter of Kamala kissa (‘That dreadful cat’, 1976) may seem great, but it is not incomprehensible. The demonic, grotesque or linguistically playful aspects and the musicality that can already be seen in Manner’s work of the 1940s form the basis for later extension, paradox and individuality. From the beginning, the sensitivity, sublime lyricism and tragic conception of life of Manner’s expressive language glimmers and glints
 with playful or wild grotesquerie. It is through this that the writer arrives at both drama and prose, and at the depiction of the possibilities of the life of women or other marginal creatures that is so central to them.

Manner’s plays of the 1960s contain variations on the theme, already present in Eros ja Psykhe (‘Eros and Psyche’, 1960), of the destiny of woman as possession by death. On the thematic level, the plays Toukokuun lumi (‘Snow in May’, 1966) and Poltettu oranssi present a world in which there is no space for a woman’s way of loving, for woman as a loving subject. Dialogue, in Manner’s works, generally means oppressive, aggressive confrontation. It is the language of control and submission, not of interaction. The impasse of dialogue is shown in many ways: a character creates his or her own private or secret language, or witty conversation becomes monologue, drama becomes poetry, or the main character is simply speechless; silenced, erased or absent. In the novel Varokaa, voittajat (‘Beware, victors’, 1972) and the plays Yön Kaspar, eli Kaspar Hauserin tarina (‘Kaspar of the Night, or the story of Kaspar Hauser’, 1984) and Santakujan Otello (‘Othello of Sand Alley’, 1987) the protagonists, already dead, locate the problems of the dumbstruck characters in society rather than in themselves. What happens, when not-being becomes discernible. Manner is interested in the individual who does not speak, who is silent. Generally he or she has been silenced by violence. Although Marcos, hardly noticeable when alive, has been killed and his body destroyed, his influence when dead is catastrophic. Although Woyzeck has been executed and Kaspar murdered, there is plenty of talk about them. A similar depiction of a mute and marginal, blessedly innocent, vanishing creature appears in the lyrical and musical radio monologue, Metsäkauris (‘The roe deer’, 1982).

Not-being, death, is what really endures, exists. In Manner’s world-order, nothing can disappear. Time, in its omnitemporality, takes care of that. The radio plays Varjoon jäänyt unien lähde (‘The overshadowed source of dreams’, 1969) and Vuorilla sataa aina (‘It always rains in the mountains’, 1970) explore the role of love and creativity as the power behind a woman’s intellectual work and life. A mythic, Orphic retrospect appears in variations on a broad fundamental motif in one play after another. Human will is bound to some early event, and to a destiny that is largely determined by it. It may lead to destruction, as for Marina in Poltettu oranssi, or function as an inexhaustible source of strength, as does the loving atmosphere of the early childhood of the poet in Varjoon jäänyt unien lähde.

Largely within a Freudian framework, if in antipathy to it, Manner experiments with and establishes her own poetic ‘social psychology’, in which even over-sensitive, childish people, regarded to a greater or lesser extent as mad, have a critical task to fulfil that, even in negation, gives cause for hope. This is worked out concretely and paradoxically in the abrupt social conflicts that tear apart the poor country in which the prose work Varokaa, voittajat is set. Maria, released from mental hospital, travels in a kindly driver’s waggon to stay with her matriarchal mother-in-law, where she gives birth to a child. At the end of the novel, the forces of life and death sway back and forth against the background of a vision of world-wide entropy, and at the same time the narrator’s language changes into mirror-writing. It is no longer the backwards language of Marina in Poltettu oranssi, but the language of the fate of the whole of mankind, ‘the alpha of a tragic history, the cradle of bloody deeds’. The worst options also exist in potential form, in anti-reality.

The theme of silence and the void receives its own variations in the marginal protagonists of the plays and novels. It is as if Manner’s work poses a question: is there, ultimately, any language but that of silence and the grotesque? In her diffidence concerning speech and her habit of listening to the unsaid, Manner is thoroughly Finnish. Silence provides for her, in the Finnish manner, a spacious home. As a portrayer of the silent or the silenced, she is a deeply social, humanist writer.

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