Literature as a National Project: The Taboo of Decadence in Finnish Literature
By Pirjo Lyytikäinen
Finnish literature was more or less created as part of the nationalist movement in the 19th century. Literature was required to sustain idealistic national aims. The bias in criticism was anti-naturalistic: there was a tendency to prefer edifying literature and to interpret existing literature in that light. This meant remaining blind to the transgressive or decadent elements of literary texts. The most important instance of glossing over the transgressive elements of a major text in Finnish literary history is the reception of Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi.
Aleksis Kivi was the first great Finnish author to write in Finnish and the author in Finnish literary history his founding position in Finnish literature is such that it is impossible to imagine Finnish literature without him. In many respects, he is also ideal from the point of view of nationalistic history writing. He was a son of a village tailor from the Finnish countryside, where most of his stories are set. In his plays and epic works, he wrote about common village people, described Finnish landscapes, and created the basic Finnish character types, which still serve the process of national identification. His only novel, Seven Brothers, published in 1870, is a national icon, the novel of Finnish literature.
The novel is a tale about the seven sons of a farmer who neglect their farm and come into conflict with the local village community and its leaders. The brothers leave the village and their farmhouse and go to live in the great forests, at the mercy of nature but free from any social constraints. In all literary histories the novel is interpreted as a "Bildungsroman", an edifying story of the development of the brothers. The transgressive and decadent features of the novel are explained away in spite of the fact that the main body of the text concentrates on the adventures of the brothers in the forest. They have brutal fights with the men of a neighbouring village as well as with each other; they are prone to sudden fits of murderous anger, and they spend their days playing or hunting and disdaining their duties toward the community. Finally, after several disasters, they abandon their way of life to become law-abiding citizens, but, as the edifying end of the novel is only a small part of the text and has its own ambivalence, the interpretation as a Buildungsroman is, at least in the eyes of a modern reader, one-sided and even naïve. The antisocial and melancholic overtones of the text are actually reinforced by Kivis lyrics, and especially by the poems he includes in the novel. In them, freedom and peace only exist apart from the world and the community, and happiness only beyond life, in death.
- The deliberately ignorant patriot by Henrik Meinander (October 1997)
- The 'disciplinisation' of Finnish historiography by Tuomas M.S. Lehtonen (October 1997)
- How one novel resolved a national trauma by Henrik Stenius (October 1997)
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