Tag Archives: Finland

Laughing with God

And sometimes I wonder why I feel a kind of affinity with Finnishness. It’s not just the food, though that helps…the Eastern European comfortingly unhealthy fried herrings and boiled or mashed potatoes, which echo  the  salt beef and latkes of my childhood. But more so it’s the fixed grin, the hardened smile, the sardonic uncontrollable laughter in face of tragedy, the melancholic absurdity expressed and befriended by Tove Jansson and Aki Kaurismäki and of course, Finnish Tango (or should I say just, “tango”?).

And to find a voice for this, try listening if you can to the words of the writer Elie Wiesel, who as a teenager survived Auschwitz but granted survival, that blessing and that curse, testified to the horrors through a torrent of books, including a play, “The Trial of God.”
Elie Wiesel NYC 3.9.07 075
A group of travelling minstrel’s appear in an inn in seventeenth-century Ukraine, planning to perform a Purim schpiel a traditional play of the biblical Book of Esther, on this most joyful, drunken and raucous of the Jewish festivals. But as Berish, the innkeeper reveals, all the Jews in the village are dead, murdered in a pogrom; only he and his crazed daughter survived. Instead he insists that they perform a different kind of play, a trial. In the dock stands God, though absent. Berish takes the part of the prosecutor.

The story is based on an actual event which Wiesel witnessed in Auschwitz. Three great Jewish scholars assembled a rabbinic court of law to indict the Almighty for allowing the massacre of His children. The verdict was unanimous: God, the Creator of heaven and earth was found guilty of crimes against creation and humanity.

After what Wiesel described as “an infinity of silence” one of the scholars looked at the sky and said, “It’s time for evening prayers.” And the members of the tribunal began to recite the evening service.

What can we do in the face of such horror? What can we say against the din of unbearable silence? Berish the Innkeeper, says this:

I am ready to invite all people to come and eat, drink, sing and celebrate – and together drive away the curse that transforms certain people into killers and others into their victims…And listen to a clown who makes people laugh. And then, I realize that the clown, that’s me.


The rest is silence


Finns are world experts in reticence. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht  is reported to have described the bilingual Finns as “a people who are silent in two languages.”

On Friday evening, I heard a rabbi give her final sermon to the community she was leaving, centring on the mysterious silence of Aaron after the destruction of his two sons with fire by God for what seems to us to be the most minor ritual infraction  (Leviticus 10:2). The gist of her drash – if I understood it correctly – was that sometimes we must remain inconsolable, and when nothing either can or should be said to ease our pain, the only appropriate response is silence.

I was reminded of Wittgenstein’s  concluding sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

 The word drash is short for the Hebrew word midrash, which means “investigation” or “interpretation”, generally of a text, usually of a portion of the Bible. So what would it mean to investigate the meaning of silence: the silence of another, or of ourselves?

I sometimes go and stay at a  retreat centre in the West of England, which continues an ancient tradition known as Noble Silence. The guests are asked to refrain from speech as far as possible during their stay, which is mainly taken up with periods of silent sitting and walking meditation. At first this being speechless with others seemed strange, awkward and uncomfortable, but after a number of visits, I’ve found the silence richly supportive,  holding me fast in a risky space of enquiry and self-discovery. Last time I was there, I saw on the wall of the laundry a sign with this rather lovely line from the thirteenth century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

 Let silence whisper you the secrets of the universe.

And it seems to me at least that even with the near ceaseless chattering of my mind, the stillness of my tongue helps me to hear the undertones and to see the world afresh.

The Shakyamuni Buddha was famous for his meaningful silences, often held when asked metaphysical questions such as whether the self is real. To answer such a question either in the positive or in the negative, he said, would only lead to more confusion. In fact if the Buddha had had it his way, he would never have spoken at all, as he thought that for his generation, enjoying attachment as it did would not be able to see what he saw:

And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.

According to legend, it was only through the pleading of a deity known as Brahma Sahampati that the Buddha broke his silence and showed others his way to freedom, though there are probably many people who think he would have been better off sticking to his original decision. Which raises the question, how many great saints and sages have passed unnoticed in this world as they wisely choose to refrain from speaking or writing?

On the other hand, I’ve always been suspicious of “the ineffable”, as it sometimes seems an excuse to shut down a discussion, to close down the investigation. People sometimes say things like, “I can’t explain it; I just feel it’s true” just when the conversation is getting interesting (for me at least) – a defensive unwillingness to to expose cherished but delicate beliefs to the light of scrutiny.

At such moments, I really don’t have the heart to press the point.  I would have to admit that some profound emotional, aesthetic, contemplative or religious experiences, are to be expected to be beyond the capacity of the literal. For some, it is this inadequacy of language to the task of addressing the nameless – and the golden residue that remains after a description has been attempted – that defines the mystical, a realm in which the most educated is the least articulate. It’s not about facts, theories or propositions but insights which can only be spoken of, as the Israeli scholar  Joseph Dan says, apophaticly, through “a language of unsaying” –  or else through metaphor, parable or paradox.

Going back to Wittgenstein, who, for a philosopher in the analytic tradition,  makes some remarkable references to mysticism,  he writes (again in the Tractatus):

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

And then…

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

Or, as my Finnish friend Mikko once put it, when I complained of the difficulty I had in speaking the Finnish language, “The best thing is to say very little. That way you make very few mistakes.”

On meeting anger

Being out of the country in May, I missed the depressing news about yet another senseless shooting, this time in Hyvinkää; a teenage boy opening fire on a crowd of people, in what appeared to be a random act, leaving two dead and seven injured.

I learned about it from two other aliens I was chatting with after the Finnish Language Café at Pasila Library. Wondering why these incidents are sadly becoming all too frequent in Finland, one of them speculated that it has something to do with the Finnish male’s inability to talk about his feelings. Unable to express feelings of anger or hatred,  it comes out in senseless acts of violence.

I’m not sure I quite buy that. First of all, I question whether there’s anything specially problematic about Finns. After all, you can go into any English provinicial town centre on a Saturday night and experience testosterone-fuelled explosions of anger. It just so happens that gun ownership is considerably lower in the UK than in Finland.

There is a long history to what might be called a hydraulic theory of the emotions: that somehow keeping them bottled up means that they must explode at a later date, or as Freud suggested, find expression in our neuroses.

The English poet William Blake, seems to be thinking along these lines in The Poison Tree:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul proposed a theory as to why, as he saw it, people who anger “makes flush” and even cry, are less dangerous than those “it makes turn pale”.Descartes' physiognomy of anger

In the first group, those who are only able to avenge themselves by looks and words employ all their strength and fervour as soon as they are moved.

On the other hand, others who plan to delay their vengeance are saddened by thinking of themselves as “bound to do so by the action that angers them” as well as being afraid of the consequences that their vengeance will have. This makes them “pale, cold and trembling.” Then when they have their revenge, “they warm up all the more for having been cooler at first, just as we see that fevers that begin with chills are usually the most severe.”

However, I feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that we simply have to act out our anger, or even necessarily talk about it. Often it seems that  rehearsing the case for the prosecution – telling ourselves or a friend just how much we’ve been wronged –  just seems to feed the anger. And if we go the whole hog and let loose the full force of our rage against the wrongdoer, this often leads to unpleasant and unpredictable consequences, including quite often, further personal humiliation.
As so often, perhaps there is a middle way between the seeming polarities of pent or vent. One alternative might be to learn to understand that the anger is part of ourselves and not something in the person or people we feel angry with.  The next step is to familiarise ourselves with it in order to learn how to manage it.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a walking meditation using six sentences:

Breathing in, I know that anger is here.
Breathing out, I know that the anger is me.
Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant.
Breathing out, I know this feeling will pass.
Breathing in, I am calm.
Breathing out, I am strong enough to take care of this anger.

What I like about this exercise is that it is rounded off by a statement that embodies our ability and intention to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. In relation to the confused and angry adolescent, it’s like the development from teenage frustration to quiet, confident adulthood, the child being father to the man.

The vital ingredient for maturity in anger is self-knowledge. As Descartes puts it, wisdom “teaches us to render ourselves such masters of [the passions], and to manage them with such ingenuity, that the evils they cause can be easily borne, and we even derive Joy from them all.”

And the winner is…

…Sauli Niinistö who becomes Finland’s first conservative president since 1956. He replaces the popular, Social Democrat president, Tarja Halonen in March.

I’m still not completely clear what the role of the president is in Finland as it seems that unlike say in the US, the executive functions of government are performed by ministers. Apparently, the job is largely a ceremonial one, for example hosting a big shindig on Independence Day.

Coming myself from a country where the head of state is always conservative, as well as being unelected, the idea of the president being from the right-wing Kokoomus (National Coalition) Party doesn’t sound too many alarm bells.

As for Mr Haavisto and his supporters, I think they can be more than satisfied with a result which, after the success of the populist and anti-immigration ‘Basic’ Finns in parliamentary elections last year, has restored many people’s faith in the Finnish electorate.

In a vane attempt to follow Pekka Haavisto’s successful use of social media, Instant Kaamos is now on Twitter: @instantkaamos.

Finland makes up its mind

Today’s flying of flags in Finland was rather overdetermined. Not only is it Runeberg’s Day – of which more later – but it’s the day for the second-round election for the country’s president. The frontrunner Sauli Niinistö of the conservative Coalition Party failed to secure more than the fifty percent on the first ballot which would have immediately given him the lease on the presidential palace for the next six years. More surprisingly, the runner-up did not come from the Social Democrats – who have held the presidency since Urho Kekkonen left power in 1982 – nor from the Centre Party whose Paavo Vayrynen came third, but from the Green League.

Pekka Haavisto is a former UN peace negotiator and opted to do social service rather than go in the army in a country where military service is still obligatory. Much has been made of the fact that he is gay and in a registered partnership with a hairdresser from Ecuador. It has even been suggested in some quarters that his sexuality would make relations with Muslim nations more awkward, to which others reply that no one suggested that having a female president might make things tricky with, say, Saudi Arabia.

The outcome, in terms of who’s going to win, seems to be in little doubt, with two thirds of advanced votes being cast for Niinistö who is the odds-on favourite. All the same, the remarkable success of a politician from what has previously been seen as a relatively marginal party may be a sign of a changing political landscape.

Meanwhile, Finns returned home from the polling stations to enjoy a Runerbergin Torttu, a rather tasty flour and breadcrumb cake. The cakes were the invention of the wife of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland’s national poet, whose day is celebrated today. Runeberg, who wrote in Swedish, penned the words for Finland’s National Anthem Vårt land (Our Land or Maamme in Finnish). The tune is also used by Estonia for their national anthem Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm and so, in a way the song celebrates not only Finland’s multicultural heritage but also its international connections.

Some have apparently argued that Sibelius’ Finlandia, performed here in a rather beautiful flashmob version in Helsinki Railway Station, would make a better national anthem. But on this issue, as on that of who would make the best president, this blog remains diplomatically  neutral.

+++++ UPDATE  ++++++

With almost all the votes counted,  YLE reports that Niinistö will be the next president with 62.6 per cent of the vote. All the same, Haavisto has reason to be pleased with the result. In Helsinki, he took almost 50 per cent of votes cast.

Seasonal #2


Covering of snow

lies effortlessly silent

on the frozen sea.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Sunrise in Utsjoiki

Some confusion this morning in the Instant Kaamos office concerning the news carried by Selkouutiset of the end of the kaamos in Northern Finland. Apparently yesterday, the sun showed it’s face again in Utsjoki — Finland’s most northerly municipality —   for the first time in 51 days, bringing the period of polar night to an end.

There’s quite a difference within the parts of Finland that fall inside the Arctic Circle. In Rovaniemi, for example, sitting just about on the circle, it is only on the day of the winter solstice that the sun doesn’t rise.

But when I checked the Gaisma site, it seems that Utsjoki will today enjoy a day nearly an hour and a half long. This does not compute. Any suggestions or explanations, however implausible, will be warmly welcomed.

This blog supports the blackout by Wikipedia against legislation passing through the US Congress that would limit internet freedom. For this reason, today’s links are Wikipedia-free.