]> In Finland

In Finland

Part 2 of 11
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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, 2010-2011 and 2013-.

Civilization and Autochthony

November 6, 2010

Starting where Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary end, and far to the north across the Baltic sea, Finland exists on the edge of cultural Europe. Religion, science, technology, and industry: all of these Finland has received from the southwest, and always later, always more diffused, than its more western brethren. Quite often later than its eastern neighbor (Russia) as well, owing to its northerly position and natural barriers.

There's another country in a similar position, though in a far different area. Situated approximately 4,500 miles southeast off the eastern coast of Asia, this country is Japan. Japan, advanced as it may seem today, was actually last in line for developments that came from China, India, and other early nuclei of civilization on the eastern half of the great Eurasian continent. The great scholar and humanist Joseph Campbell wrote on this topic in the Oriental Mythology volume of his survey of cultural mythos, The Masks of God. He suggests that this aspect of Japan's position, particularly that it was the last to receive and assimilate Buddhism -- gives rise to a paradoxical strength. The simple recency of purer, simpler imaginings from the past in cultural memory provides them with a greater strength to influence current ideation. Modern Japanese culture is in an important sense younger than its continental counterparts, closer to its childhood, with a less tempered enthusiasm for the dreams and fantasies running around within the collective mind.

I recommend Campbell's highly readable original works for the expanded version, but we can easily see signs of what Campbell meant for ourselves. Japanese legends of spirits and heroes are alive and accessible today. Shrines in natural areas still commemorate their inhabitation by spirits known as kami. We can see it too in Japan's uniquely romantic approach to modern technology. Yes, American innovation brought us the transistor, the circuit board, and the foundations of modern electronics, but it was Japan that molded these raw ingredients into the delightful mix of design, functionality, and wizardry that makes people go "wow". Though we may wonder whether the cult of the gadget that seems to have locked our society in a stranglehold is ultimately a good or bad thing, we cannot deny that the Japanese vision took us beyond the merely utilitarian and brought art and emotion to technology.

We see it too, in the fanciful comic books and animations that we call by their native names "manga" and "anime". Swords mix with personal hovercraft, robots with giant dinosaurs, techno cyberscapes with the beauty of nature. We may see this as strange and artificial, but for Japan, the distances and boundaries between the fantastic and unreal imaginings of our past and the practical accomplishments of our scientific present are the artificial, and we can find in both the same sources of wonder and excitement.

To return to Finland. Christianity reached the country from two directions more than a thousand years after its origins. Beginning in the 11th century Catholicism came east from Sweden, and Russian Orthodoxy came west. It slowly established itself, dioceses forming in the western towns, in time reformed by Luther's ideas, and monasteries in the eastern forests of Karelia. Meanwhile pagan traditions slowly died out, only being seriously oppressed beginning in the 16th century after reformation. Finnish myth and legend lived on in epic verses sung in Karelia into the 19th century when Elias Lönnrot collected them into the Kalevala. This national epic is a living, breathing part of Finnish culture today while equivalents like the sagas from other parts of Scandinavia, the Arthurian legends, and Roman/Greek mythology exist only as historical curiosities. You can go to musical and theatrical performances based on the Kalavala. Childrens books tell its story and introduce its characters, and companies and much else are named after them. You can even buy jewelry inspired by the Kalevala.

Somehow the imaginative mode brought on by the continuing presence of these Kalevala heros and the magic-imbued lands they inhabited influences the direction Finnish culture has taken. Although starting from a drab base in agriculture, paper milling, and shipbuilding, Finland is today disproportionately represented in information technology, particularly mobile devices (Japanese gadgets, again) and computer software, especially games. The demoscene, the original grassroots computer graphics / art community, has strong roots here. Architecture and design are other strong areas.

Another interesting parallel between Finland and Japan is they are the only two countries I'm aware of that elevate the stimulation and relaxation of the physical body to an art form -- and practice it regularly. I'm talking about hot baths in Japan, and the sauna in Finland. While the rest of the developed world hurries along with efficient showering, the Japanese and the Finns take the time to relax and soak in some physically and mentally restorative warmth.

In various other areas, ranging from the holding of air guitar "world championships", to the existence of special words for activities like berry-picking and ice swimming, to the deep-seated need of the population to get back to the countryside at regular intervals, be it to lakeside retreats or the "shires" of mini-cottages outside the cities, Finnish culture shows a vibrant connection to a time when life was closer to nature. What this may lead to in the future we will see only then.

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