Round and round

2 December 2011 | Essays, Non-fiction

In this essay, Olli Löytty imagines himself in a revolving door that is able to spin his old family home and its inhabitants backwards in time – as far as prehistory. In addition to his own family’s past, Löytty zooms back into the history of the world’s great changes, for a moment playing the part of a cosmic god examining our globe

An essay from Kulttuurin sekakäyttäjät (‘Culture-users’, Teos, 2011)

If a film camera had stood outside my home from the time when it was built, I would rewind the movie it made from the end to the beginning. The story would begin with my children, one autumn morning in 2011, walking backwards home from school. The speed of the rewind would be so fast that they would quickly grow smaller; I, too, would get thinner and start smoking. I would curiously seek out the point where my wife and I are seen together for the last time, stepping out of the front door, back first, and setting out on our own paths, to live our own separate young lives.

At that time my grandmother still lives in the house with her two daughters and their husbands, and lodgers upstairs. The next time I would slow the rewind would be the point where, at the age of 18, finally move out of the house. The freeze-frame reveals a strange figure: almost like me, but not quite. In the face of the lanky youth I seek my own children’s features.

When I let the film continue its backwards story, I seek glimpses of myself as a child. Even though we lived in distant Savo [in eastern Finland], we went to see my grandmother in the city of Tampere relatively often. We called her our Pispala grandmother, although her house was located to the west of the suburb limit, in Hyhky. I follow the arrival of my grown-up cousins, their transformation into children, the juvenation of my grandmother and her daughters, the changing lodgers. At some point the film becomes black-and-white.

My grandfather moves in when my mother is 11. I follow the young family’s life with interest up to the point when the house’s inhabitants move out and demolition begins. There are many people on the job, for the work is done carefully from top to bottom; planks are removed one at a time until all that is left is the house’s skeleton, which is itself soon dismembered into its parts. At the end of the film all that is left is an empty site. There my grandfather walks backwards sketching the external dimensions of his future – or, in this version of the story, his former – house.

When you increase the speed of the movie, you realise that many people go in and out of the house’s doors. It looks as if a revolving door has gone made and is, by turns, sucking people in and chucking them out – them and their belongings. The changing seasons follow their even cycle, leaves changing from browny-red and –yellow to deep green and then pale buds, finally disappearing completely into the wrinkles of the bare branches. The colour of the house brightens and fades, and the birch trees that stand outside it atrophy to saplings that are then dug up and carried away.

I derive particular pleasure from seeing the pastel-coloured two-storey buildings that went up behind the house in the 1980s and 1980s demolished; in their place rise little wooden houses with vegetable gardens. At some point, too, potatoes grow in the garden of my house.

I have been told that gazing backwards is an activity that increases with age. People begin to seek explanations of themselves in the past, their family roots, the places they have visited. Perhaps, in every person’s life, there is a watershed; once one has passed it, one turns one’s gaze back in the direction from which one has come. I myself am still travelling with my gaze fixed firmly forward, but on the level of ideas I understand the wisdom that is hidden in history. It is clear that I would not be as I am if I had not lived the kind of life I have lived, if my parents’ backgrounds and choices had not been those they were. And I would not be myself if I had not lived where I have lived, moved from place to place and finally ended up in the family home, the same house where my grandmother brought up her family and where my parents celebrated their wedding. My family’s path is a circular one, and I have clearly been unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to stray from it.

As well as revealing the ingredients of the individual identity and the youth of the built environment, looking at the past backwards demonstrates the fact that history is constant motion. People travel in groups of different sizes, first in aeroplanes, cars, trains and ocean-going ships, then in horse-drawn waggons and finally walking backwards, toward their place of birth, their starting point, their home. Stopping is always temporary, a break in the torrent of history.

If you continue rewinding far enough, there is no trace of nation-states, civilisations, cities or villages, not stone upon another stone, not even the first sign of them. If the camera had stood in the same place before my home since the ice age, I would be able to follow backwards human life right back to the appearance of the ice masses. Standing on the best crossing-point on the ridge between Lake Pyhäjärvi and Lake Näsijärvi, Hyhky was already an important route for the people of the stone age.

In his essay Die grosse Wanderung (‘The great migration’), the German essayist and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger examines the world from the top of a great pile of books. His pen encompasses both the movement of nations on the surface of the earth and the most secret aims and motives of individuals. Enzensberger writes directly in the tradition of European knowledge and understanding.

At the beginning of his essay, Enzensberger leafs through a world atlas: ‘Clusters of blue and red arrows that thicken into eddies and then disperse in opposite directions.’ The freeze-frame of a page of the atlas toes not, however, reveal turbulence to be the normal state of the climate. The same is true of the population of the globe, Enzensberger comments. The history of the world is the history of great migration.

In his essay on the great migration Enzensberger is attempting – so I believe – a dynamic image of a dynamic phenomenon. One method he uses is some human experiments he presents as a thought experiment: There is a train compartment in which two travellers are sitting. The train stops, and two new travellers attempt to enter the compartment in which the original travellers, irrespective of whether they already know each other, feel their position to be under threat: ‘They appear, in the eyes of the new arrivals, to form a group. The compartment is their territory. Every new traveller is, for them, an intruder.’ The essay’s characters are, of course, theoretical constructions whose intention is to demonstrate social laws.

The essayist knows how to package the phenomena he describes as aphorisms: ‘Group egoism and xenophobia are anthropological constants which existed before reasons for them were expressed. Their global spread speak for the fact that they are older than any known social form.’ In a masterly way, the essayist’s pen shapes a rational explanation of complex historical developments such as the birth of hospitality. Its taboos and rituals were invented, Enzensberger comments, ‘to make it possible for even minimum exchange and communication between different clans, tribes and ethnic groups’. The mechanisms and dynamics of the great migration, with their causes and consequences, are drawn for the reader in broad, convincing strokes.

But where is the essay’s narrator? Although his gaze is unlimited in terms of either time or geography, it does not appear to be located anywhere – unless the European essayistic tradition is considered some kind of point of view.

I test Enzensberger’s writerly location by exchanging my fixed historical camera for a divine perspective. I rise to the height of a satellite and orbit the Earth beneath me in whatever way I wish. Oceans and deserts, forests and cities flash by, blue, yellow, green and black on the surface of the ball as it spins on its axis. If I notice something interesting I zoom in to look at it. As I examine people on the move I narrow my eyes until all I see is motion, currents, streaks of light. Seen from a suitable distance, the Earth’s crust begins to live like the surface of an ant-heap. I am a great and powerful anthropographer; I see the forest but not the trees, the torrent but not the droplets.

As a celestial statistician I am able to see at one glance that 214 million people live permanently outside their native lands. I am able to abstract the movements of groups of human beings into arrows pointing from south to north, east to west. The stream is, however, the strongest in the southern hemisphere. The demographic calculations I make confirm my visual observations: among the lands people are leaving Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia are the top three, while the best results for receptor countries are Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

As an all-knowing narrator, I have the ability to move in time. I set the clock of history so that I am able to follow the complex movement of peoples across the Earth. Migrations that have lasted centuries take place before my eyes in a few minutes. I watch as people spread throughout the world, encounter one another, settle down and then continue on their travels, endlessly. I focus on situations in which two peoples approach each other from opposite directions. I see mergings into one, trade, exchange of ideas and goods, but also battles and wars, genocides and conquests. The movements of peoples on the atlas of history, however, do not move me a great deal, for what, seen close up, forces one to ponder the senselessness of human activity is, from the cosmological perspective, a meaningless glimpse in the rushing stream of time.

Enzensberger, too, emphasises the importance of scale: ‘It is difficult to imagine big numbers.’ Charities offering help in catastrophes, too, focus on ‘just one small child with its big, inconsolable eyes’. Nevertheless, Enzensberger does not ponder the role of science, and the tradition of thought that he represents does not question the position of the narrator. The fact that the essayist examines the world from the outside is such a well-worn device that it is no longer considered a device. We are unable to wonder at the omnipotence, the impartiality, of the writer who comments on the world as God.

For this reason the essayist must write himself into the story, must step into and inhabit the world he wishes to describe and understand.

The return to the surface of the ant-heap is not easy, for the powers of vision of the almighty have intoxicated me. Whereas, just a moment ago, I was examining human life at the scale of the universe and understood the insignificance of the individual in the torrent of history, now I stand, toes numb, in the autumnal garden of my home, the burden of meanings on my shoulders. I gaze around me, but in every direction my gaze founders on trees, hedges and houses squatting in their gardens. I can no longer see farther than my everyday life. There is no sign of the historical movie camera, there is only this moment, which itself dissolves second by second beyond reach.

Absentmindedly, I move the children’s bikes strewn around the garden to lean against the walls of the house, out of the way of cars. Just a moment ago I unscrewed the auxiliary wheels and pushed both children, turn by turn, along the nearby park road, until, after many falls and tears, they learned to ride without support. Fortunately I still have time before the revolving door of history chucks them out of our home.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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