God and the incomplete

Issue 3/1993 | Archives online, Authors

It took 25 years for Gunnar Björling to be transformed from the madman traditionalists universally considered him to be into a writer the world could not ignore and, moreover, a poet who, in his at- tempts to capture silence and say the unsayable, supplied ‘equipment for living’. When the Swedish Literature Society of Finland finally gave him a prize after the Second World War – his breakthrough as a poet had taken place in 1933, with Solgrönt (‘Sungreen’) – there was an outcry. The Society’s long-time president, an anti-Nazi historian, could not stomach the work of the poet’s Sturm und Drang period, and resigned in protest.

Björling published his first collection with his own press in 1922, a year before the death of Edith Södergran. Along with Södergran and Elmer Diktonius, he is one of the three great figures of Finland- Swedish modernism. His friend, the poet Rabbe Enckell, one of the few people who understood and were in sympathy with him early on, called him Europe’s last Dadaist. He himself gave himself the title of Universal Dada-Individualist. After the publication of his first book, he spent some time drinking in pubs, carrying on debates and writing moral laxatives for the constipated bourgeoisie in the hope that it would have a spiritual bowel-movement. It responded by laugh ing at him. He became incomprehensibility personified. He gave generous quantities of copies of his books to friends and patrons of literature which he would sometimes find, their pages uncut, in second-hand bookshops.

His lyrical style derives from the monosyllabism he learned at the military academy he had attended in Fredrikshamn [Hamina]. It was just that he couldn’t write Swedish. This is what used to be said by those who wished to be polite and show they had no prejudices against even him.

There was to be something equivalent to this when he had been dead for 20 years. Some people wondered whether a writer who was so immersed in nature mysticism had something dark to conceal, perhaps concerning things he had taken part in during the Civil War of 1918. At school he had exhibited two suspicious traits: a tendency toward homosexuality and a sympathy for social democracy. When the Reds occupied Helsinki, however, he became a political activist for the Whites. He had a radio transmitter, and he shadowed and plotted the enemy’s movements. On 21 May 1918 he was in charge of the boat that was to send the Red writer Maiju Lassila [pseudonym: his real name was Algot Untola] from Helsingfors to Sandhamn [Santahamina] to be shot. Lassila broke free, jumped overboard and was shot by the guards. Björling remembered the event long afterward as a devilish tragedy.

The suspicions were increased by the fact that during the whole of his lifetime he lived in isolation in Brunnsparken [Kaivopuisto] in Helsingfors with a view of the sea. At first, Björling was alone and outcast, in opposition to all conventional wisdom that saw sentences as elements of thought. There was a question as to how far the incomprehensible could be driven. Gradually he was transformed from an angry rebel into a prophet with a poetry in which every word is a landscape.

It is no longer possible to cast aspersions on the linguistic technique, impossible to imitate, and the philosophy, inspiring to all who have tried to penetrate it. But since it is proper to call cults into question, fresh explanations have been sought for the poet’s Nordic light-worship and his tendency towards an increasing asceticism. Insinuating questions about guilt-complexes, themselves intended as answers, however, do not always hit the mark. What ought he to have done? Preserved the ironic mask and taste for practical jokes of his youth for the whole of his life? Some of the scholarly analyses of Björling’s texts are strained to breaking-point.

Taking a simpler approach, it may be said that one must differentiate between his poetry, aphorisms and prose pieces. Björling wrote a Swedish with archaic features that leads one to look for prophetic messages even in quite everyday ideas and reflections. His poetry has been called stammering, and this is one way of seeing it. He wanted words to stand for themselves and language thus be freed from its disguises. But even words have a limited validity: they are fixed symbols. He wanted to get away from this by making simple words meet in a new way and force the reader to a re-evaluation of his own experiences and conventions.

In the same year that Björling published his first collection, 1921, Bertrand Russell in London published The Analysis of Mind, in which he wrote: ‘To say that a world has a meaning is not to say that those who use the world correctly have ever thought out what the meaning is.’ ‘’When words were born, the spirit died or flew elsewhere,’ is how Björling puts it. He set himself the task of showing how words might be made to reach out beyond their limitation and be united with thought, as in the Bhagavad-Ghita or Lao-tzu.

The First World War had shown how far language and reality were from each other. It was part of the current trend to meditate upon the functions of language, to recreate it and adapt it to the spirit of the age, to try to make it function in a new world. Björling’s philosophical leitmotif is that existence is a flux and a play of forces. The ecstasy of life is a mystical insight, an experience of the divine. But making God real has another side to it. One must serve life both with feeling and with reason.

Organised religion is relative, like every truth about life, because God cannot be locked up in churches and denominations, but exists in everything. Christ must not be seen as a pastor or professor of morality; one can identify oneself with him and dissociate oneself from moralists and blackguards. The truth must in each case be striven for according to its merits; one must try to perceive for oneself those things that have an objective validity, and not rely on conventions.

But life cannot be understood. All one can do is grasp it and hold on to a notion of freedom from limitations, no matter what limits one is forced to. One of Björling’s definitions of his own task as a moral philosopher is ‘in a spiritual material to give a sense of the finite’. There are other definitions in which he says the same thing in a different way. Of course one can find contradictions in him if one is really determined to.

When death comes, it does not bring any liberation. Death gives life its meaning, but cuts everything off. It is significant that there were neither speeches nor flowers at Björling’s funeral one July day after he had died at the age of 73. That was the way he wanted it. His ‘I’ had dissolved in the universe, in the eternal flux.

Björling was well-read in the classics and felt at home in the rationalism of the 1880s. His life-worship proceeds from the notion that what we perceive is our reality. It gave him his antirationalism. Against reason’s right of scrutiny stand the demands of conscience. This results in an ethical relativism similar to that of his symbolic father, the Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck.

Björling’s poetry was a condensation of moods in which he was driven to an ever-greater simplification. Impatient surliness makes a transition to a quiet sense of loss. No one could write about space and love and capture the moment as he could. It is true that he leaves questions open. Is it God or a beloved person he writes about? But if God exists within us, does it make any difference? Life’s solution lies in the fact that there is no solution, that everything is complete.

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