Tag Archives: Finnish

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.”

The wanderer’s return

I come back to Helsinki to find that the Winter still disappoints with a measly one degree above zero. As I step off the plane onto the tarmac, my foot finds slippery sleet-water on top of ice, and I fall on my new case, painfully pulling a neck muscle which still hurts.

I’m back just in time for the start of my new Finnish course (“Once more unto the breach dear friends!“). It turns out to be a toughie. The seemingly most able teacher gives us an assessment test and the comprehension text – which seems to be something about the financial condition of the postal service – is otherwise incomprehensible to me. And I can’t quite bring myself to just randomly tick the multiple choice questions in order to gamble on getting at least 25 per cent.  Having taken courses provided by Helsinki Summer University which are almost exclusively about pumping you full of Finnish grammar, I think I do OK on that part of the test, but less well on finding the “dictionary forms” of declined and conjugated nouns and verbs. Time will tell if I’ve been too ambitious in choosing this higher-level course.

After a remarkably long and deep sleep I awake to the darkness of the kaamos, on a day with temperatures happily a couple of degrees below. And with Mrs Kaamos, still on GMT, sleeping late, I sip green tea and look across the rear courtyards to the lights of the office building opposite, wondering what it must be like to go out to work in the dark, and come home when the sun has long set.

[Haven’t found a better pic for this post yet. Do pop back later and I’ll find you one.]

Lost in music

Gidon Kremer

Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival gives me the chance to lose myself in two of my greatest pleasures: beautiful music and natural beauty. After listening to a morning concert including violinist Gidon Kremer (photo) playing Tchaicovsky, I take a swim in the refreshing water of the lake. For a moment I pause and stare across to the opposite shore, verdant with thick pine forests.


For a moment, everything is forgotten: my work, my worries, even my krapula.

Hesari answers its critics

We are pleased to report that a reply has arrived at the offices of Instant Kaamos from  Reetta Meriläinen, Editor-in-Chief of Helsingin Sanomat about the Holocaust cartoons which appeared in her newspaper (see previous post and comments). For the time being, I am just posting her email with my original message in full. (By the way, the English word “lowly” means the same as “humble” or “junior” and was not used by me to insult the artist, . The closest Finnish translation might be nöyrä .)

We are considering our response to Reetta Meriläinen’s message. One thing that immediately springs to mind is that she does not mention my suggestion that Hesari should offer a right of reply to an organisation representing the Jewish or Roma communities, or one that works with Holocaust survivors and their families. And although I didn’t ask for one, there doesn’t seem to be anything that sounds like an apology. Sometimes sori seems to be the hardest word…

If you have any other ideas that you’d like to see included in Instant Kaamos’ reply, feel free to post them here as a comment. I will be getting on the case in the near future…

…well, as soon as I’ve finished tidying my room.

From: Meriläinen Reetta
To: Instant Kaamos
Sent: Tue, June 1, 2010 10:43:01 AM
Subject: VS: Holocaust ‘Humour’

Dear Ike Moss,

Thank you for your mail and request. I know that explaining this kind of cases is doomed, but I try:

Fingerpori cartoons represent slapstick humour, which very often balances between bad and very bad taste. It ridicules almost everything between earth and heaven. It makes jokes about everything including Jews, Hitler and Nazis. Yet I can say that the basics of this cartoon are human. For a publisher this kind of cartoon always is a risk. It may sometimes cause grief and fury among the readers.

After publishing the first cartoon you mentioned we discussed seriously with the artist. We never asked the artist – who is not low – to apologise. That was the artist´s own decision. We had a spirited internal discussion about freedom of word, responsibility and content control.

The second cartoon was meant to be the artist´s extended apology, so I was told. It was meant to ridicule ignorant Finns, who don´t know the tragedies of history. Now it seems that the point was misinterpreted and caused more anger and grief.

That anger and grief I totally understand. Holocaust is in its own category among genocides and atrocities of history and need special discretion.

Since the early beginning Helsingin Sanomat has been for democracy and human dignity. You can be sure that the paper will never hurt or insult victims of Nazi holocaust on purpose. On the other hand the paper has always been liberal and has strongly supported freedom of word. I write this knowing that freedom always goes or should go together with the responsibility.

Publishing practises need trust and control. In these cases we had more trust than control.

Kind regards,

Reetta Meriläinen


Helsingin Sanomat



Lähettäjä: Instant Kaamos
Lähetetty: 27. toukokuuta 2010 0:50
Vastaanottaja: Meriläinen Reetta
Aihe: Holocaust ‘Humour’

Dear Reeta Meriläinen,

I am writing to you to ask for an explanation as to why you decided to print two cartoons ridiculing and insulting the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. To trivialise genocide in this way seems to give a poor example to young people who may know little about the atrocities of  Nazi Germany. You will also almost certainly give comfort to neo-Nazi and other far-right groups. The apology that appeared after the first cartoon was shown to be empty when the second Holocaust-themed strip appeared last Saturday. One might also ask why it is only the lowly artist  is made to apologise when the decision to publish is ultimately your responsibility.

I feel I should tell you that I have written about this on my blog which appears here: https://instantkaamos.wordpress.com

Since I criticise your conduct, I would like to offer you the right of reply. Whatever you wish to say in your defence can be posted either as a comment or if you prefer to send it by email, it will appear on a new posting. However, I am not prepared to publish a response from one of your junior members of staff.

I only hope that you yourself are prepared to offer a right of reply to Finland’s Jewish and Roma communities and to Holocaust survivors and their families around the world. I also hope that you are prepared for the consequences, especially for Finland’s image in Europe, when these cartoons are reported in the international press.

Yours sincerely,

Ike Moss

Sanon, sanon, sanon!

A Finnish detective goes up to Utsjoki to interrogate a murder suspect.

“Where were you on the night of November 22nd to January 16th?”

Language but no words

A short visit to Helsinki leaves me with more questions than answers. Does sisu still exist in Finland and if so, where could I buy some? Why did Descartes vacillate between there being a multitude of extended substances and just one? What do ice-breaker crews do in the summer? But no question is more strange than the one that is the subject of today’s post and it concerns non-ambulant spiritual beings and child labour.

On Friday night we went to see/hear the Finnish National Opera’s production of Gounod’s Faustpacts with the devil, lust, witches sabbats, deception, eternal damnation…you know the kind of thing.  Some point in the third act, during Magueritte’s nightmare something happened that for any but an educated Finnish audience would have seemed bizarre and surreal.

Two child actors walk across the stage, slowly from right to left, one in front of the other. They carry between them a kind of stretcher or rather a primitive sedan chair on which is seated the unmistakable form of an angel. Identifiable as a member of the celestial classes by her feathered wings, the angel is also blindfolded.

The respectful hush was broken as a knowing whisper went around the auditorium. What I and most the audience recognised in this seemingly incongruous sequence was an allusion to a painting by the Finnish artist, Hugo Simberg. This strange and melancholy painting has the title of the Wounded Angel (Haavoittunut enkeli in Finnish). Simberg  painted it in 1903 after recovering from meningitis for which he was treated in the Helsingin Diakonissalaitos hospital. Today it hangs in the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki and Simberg also created another version as a mural for Tampere Catheadral. No doubt many PhD students have spent there days contriving detailed theories to explain the symbolism. Why is the angel wounded? What do her bare feet signify? Why does the boy on the right look so sullen? Grove’s Art Online suggests that the work refers to the expulsion from paradise. In fact the landscape depicted is that of Eläintarha park in Helsinki.

So far as I can discover, Simberg was laudably silent about the symbolism of the painting, preferring the audience to draw their own conclusions . Verbosity is an ailment that is rare among the Finns.

There’s a way to understand a painting that’s rather gone out of fashion in these days of audioguides and accompanying texts taking up more wall space than the paintings themselves.  That is, to look at it. And then look at it some more.

Now what was the question again?