When the viewer vanishes

26 May 2015 | Essays, Non-fiction

Empty frame. Photo: 'Playingwithbrushes' / CC BY 2.0For the author Leena Krohn, there is no philosophy of art without moral philosophy

I lightheartedly promised to explain the foundations of my aesthetics without thinking at any great length about what is my very own that could be called aesthetics. Now I am forced to think about it. The foundations of my possible aesthetics – like those of all aesthetics – lie of course somewhere quite different from aesthetics itself. They lie in human consciousnesses and language, with all the associated indefiniteness.

It is my belief that we do not live in reality, but in metareality. The first virtual world, the simulated Pretend-land is inherent in us.

It is the human consciousness, spun by our own brains, which is shared by everyone belonging to this species. Thus it can be called a shared dream, as indeed I have done.

The social metareality of Homo sapiens does not have much to do with objective, let alone absolute, truth; the former is the subject of study, but we know nothing of the latter. But those shared dreams form the foundation of all the elements of society – religions, law, science, the arts and even market economics.

Civilisations are not based on the intellect and rational thought to nearly the extent we wish to believe. In fact, the opposite is the case. The human world is built up of strange connections, logically impossible constructions: conjoined facts and fancies, double helices of the concrete and the illusory.

I have sometimes used this idea to illustrate the concept of ‘tribar’. (This was originally the name given by the physicist Roger Penrose for a kind of triangle which can be drawn, although it cannot be constructed in three-dimensional reality.) For me, this ambivalence is one of the most important observations about the world: that our reality is never a matter of either–or, but always one of both–and.

Money is an excellent example of such a tribar. In Tribar (1993) I wrote: ‘The new electronic economy has made money into an increasingly spectral phenomenon. Exchange rates and share prices are no more than digital states that jump in time to imagined futures. But how concretely these poltergeists are able to rattle our lives.’

Decades have passed, and money has increasingly little to do with the real economy. Money, which does not really exist, turns the wheels of the global economy. Money borrowed from the future has already been spent. A temporary currency supported forcibly by means of immense sacrifice, the euro, has begun to be described with the absurd concept of ‘irreversible’.

In my youth I wasn’t in the least interested in financial matters or economic systems and I could not even imagine that such distant and incomprehensible things could ever influence my own work. I have subsequently been forced to abandon this ignorance, as I have so many others. Writers are not bystanders; they live as prisoners of the same delirious institutions as other citizens. They, too, live in the House of Usher.


Literature and mathematics appear to be poles apart, as if they were not only on different sides of culture, but completely different cultures. But they are not. Both language and mathematics are their own form of maps, without which human society cannot function. Does writing not originate from the same kind of need for reckoning as mathematics: lines and crosses drawn in the sand on the beach with a finger?

In writing, we are also concerned with causality and the arrow of time, but there is no time in mathematics. (One can certainly talk, however, about causality in mathematics.) Writing is always the writing of history. That is how our central nervous system works. Even when we dream, we see stories. This results from language and the distinctive quality of our own central nervous system.

But language is also an eye. I once wrote that it is, for human beings, a third eye. What we perceive, after we have acquired language, we perceive through language. What we see, we name, and we see only that which we can name. We can never again return to a fresh, wordless world of perception, but through art and poetry we can nevertheless seek a return.

The most peculiar property of language is its symbolic function. The writer exchanges meanings for marks, while the reader performs the opposite task. There are no meanings outside us, or if there are, we do not know them. Personal meanings are made with our own hands. Their preparation is a kind of alchemy. Everything that we call rationality demands imagination, and if we did not have the capacity to imagine, we could not even speak morality or conscience.

Literature, too, is a virtual cosmos within a larger cosmos, our consciousness. It is a mode of interaction between people (even between the living and the dead), but literature is at base a matter of messages to the unknown (belles lettres). No answers are received. Even the writer who sent messages from Tainaron never received an answer.


I began as a children’s writer, although when I was young that was not in the least my intention. Writing for children or adolescents is a difficult genre, and therefore one of the most fascinating. Such texts must be ‘short, clear, rich’, as H.C. Andersen described the muse of the new century.

During my last years at school I underwent an awakening, which was not pleasant, as awakenings often are not. I realised that humankind was, through its own actions, destroying both its own living conditions and other species. This understanding was influenced by both the alarming news from the world and by such writers as Pentti Linkola and Rachel Carson. I realised that there was a permanent and painful conflict between human civilisation and the environment. It was this pain I tried to depict in my fairytale-novel Ihmisen vaatteissa (‘In human clothing’, ditto).

A phrase that I used in this book has stayed with me since my youth: Under the paving stones is sand. This sentence was written on the wall of a Paris building in the crazy year of 1968. Who wrote it is unknown. That was the year I came of age. In its brevity, the sentence says something about the conditions necessary for human survival and of their fragility. What we forget and no longer see supports our civilisation and our entire existence.

Civilisations are born and disappear; beneath them is the original, the untouched, the not-made. But paving stones are the same material too, merely worked by man. But what is original is not unchanging.

Sand moves, it is labile. We build on sand, and beneath it is the changing planet. What is it we call solid ground? Moving plates, which drift on the churning mantle…. Our cities, with their skyscrapers, sushi bars, cathedrals, supermarkets, are as temporary as the nests of animals.

My first book intended for adults, a collection of short stories whose dryish name is Kertomuksia (‘Stories’, 1976), includes the same motifs to which I have found myself returning again and again. Ever since I was a child, I have wondered at the world of the creatures that are the most foreign to human beings, almost like aliens: insects. The first story in the book, ‘Ranatra’, views the fauna of a pond through a child’s eyes.

Just as every heart has its landscape, whether it be open water, a flowering meadow or a room in a childhood home, so the landscape of Janne’s heart was the kind of calm pond in which Ranatra lived.

The collection’s last short story, ‘Puhdas omatunto’ (‘A clean conscience’), on the other hand, describes a young man, Joel Jäävi, who could no longer eat. He was not anorexic, like the little girl in my story-book Tyttö, joka kasvoi (‘The girl who grew’). That girl did not wish to eat because she did not wish to grow. Because the world of adults frightened him, and for good reason. Joel Jäävi, on the other hand, stopped eating purely through the sensitivity of his conscience, after reading an article on the feelings and suffering of plants.


In my early youth, I approached moral questions with the same indifference as economics. Now I am steadfastly of the opinion that no work of art can be significant or lasting if it propagates hatred, injustice and violence. In other words: for me, there is no philosophy of art without moral philosophy.

What does conscience mean, and is there any such thing as universal morals? Can people distinguish between right and wrong, and how does it happen? I have touched on these issues both in my essays and in many of my stories, such as Umbra, Matemaattisia olioita (‘Mathematical beings’, 1992) and Valeikkuna (‘The false mirror’, 2009).

The eponymous character of Umbra, a doctor, works at Aid for the Overstrained among rape victims, but also in the Institute for Negative Influences, where he has to ‘treat’ violent offenders themselves. Umbra is also putting together an archive of paradoxes. ‘The minotaur who lived at the heart of the labyrinth was the paradox, an irreconcilable contradiction.’ The most difficult of Umbra’s paradoxes, however, is infinity: ‘It was a disturbing background murmur which he could hear through his stethoscope at the heart of life itself. A problem in whose understanding he had not taken even the first step.’

I think, like Umbra: Our lives are based on a true paradox which human intelligence can never (or will never be allowed, to) solve.


When I began to read about artificial intelligence and artificial life, I realised how technology will change even the definition of life, how the borders of biology and synthetic evolution will be redrawn and how the same laws of complexity function in all systems.

Collective intelligence can be examined in the worlds of insects and mathematical beings as well as humans. We belong to various smaller and larger collectives, but each one of them is contained with the main collective, humankind. What will happen to us, how will we change, when synthetic evolution continues to progress, but ethical evolution has perhaps not even begun? Or is the situation still more shocking? Will the decline of morality and the deepening of inhumanity spread still further?

The idea of a certain Mr Tortshiner, a character in one of Isaac Singer’s novels, has long terrified me. For he thought that the last human being would be both a lunatic and a criminal. But a contemporary European might ask: will that last person be both a lunatic and a terrorist?


One of the products of synthetic evolution is Pereat mundus’ son of the Chimera and the artilect Arthur B4. I do not quite believe, with Maurice Blanchot, that we always write about catastrophe, disaster. Pereat mundus (1998), however, is a novel about the last catastrophe, about the countless ways in which the world could end.

The nuns of Hotel Sapiens (2013), only half biological carers, and the Restored, great men conjured up from history, are also new species brought about by synthetic evolution. Hotel Sapiens describes the period after two singularities, when computers (or, more accurately, data networks) have overtaken Homo sapiens in both intellect and ethical intuition. Hotel Sapiens is just one of the possible last shores on which mankind will perhaps one day tread.

In Tainaron (1985), the world of insects lives in its own city and time, in which the traveller finds herself and in which she finally overwinters in her cocoon-cradle, like the other citizens. I took as the motto for Tainaron a line from Angelus Silesius’s hymn: ‘You are not in place; place is in you.’ This is one of these phrases that have changed my entire world-view. It means the same as I referred to before: reality is inherent in us.

As we know, aesthetics the study of beauty as well as the philosophy of art. I see beauty as one of the most enigmatic characteristics of the universe. When the viewer disappears, beauty remains, and it is not only in his or her eyes.

My short novel Erehdys (‘The mistake’, 2015), has an inner story in which the old photographer Viktor says: ‘Believe me, Beeda dear, it was not the German aestheticians who invented beauty. Beauty, Beeda, is a basic principle of nature. It is a truth that penetrates all existence. That is why everyone on earth is parched by the thirst for beauty. Beauty is the universe’s most enduring quality, it is repeated in atoms and galaxies, numbers and relations and the way a tree grows.’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

This essay is published by kind permission of Parnasso magazine

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