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Hans Selo.

Hans Selo (b. 1945) caused a sensation in 1970 when he published Diiva (The Poseur), a stream-of-consciousness novel about the 1960s, which won the prestigious Erkko Prize for the best literary debut. Fifteen years of silence followed before the appearance of Pilvihipiainen (Cloudcomplexion) in 1985, and a third novel is expected in 1996. A metalworker with no academic training, Selo is entirely self-educated. He is known for his linguistic inventiveness: he coins words at will and flagrantly exploits the agglutinative and suffixal resources of Finnish. Pilvihipiainen, the novel sampled here, is not a work of plot, character, or action, but a fluid verbal tapestry. The burden of description keeps shifting from mouth to mouth, and political, philosophical, and theological debate mingle with slangy, self-mocking portrayals of bohemian self-indulgence. Selo's characters live for erudition and aestheticism. These would-be cogniscenti are hard put to maintain appearances as they feed their alcoholic, sexual, and intellectual appetites with Dionysian relish. Through the shifting perspectives emerges a blurred portrait of one Anders Holm, a hypercerebral artist manque, autodidact, self-proclaimed prodigy, and author of a single acclaimed novel. We share his memories of childhood privation and psychiatric hospitalization, his lighthearted intellectual dandyism, and his philosophical roamings. Celebrating the sheer abundance of the world's texture, Selo dismisses all rules of decorum, blending mysticism and polysyllabic erudition with obscene slang. He employs a stream-of-consciousness technique to rigorous ends as a means of evoking the vitality of the self's interactive relationship with the world. Paterian hedonist, Wildean poseur, and genuine lover of ideas, Selo is Finland's most wonderful literary eccentric.

Novels: Diiva (The Poseur) 1970, Pilvihipiainen (Cloudcomplexion) 1985.


PHILIP LANDON: Can you name any shared characteristics of contemporary Finnish fiction? Do you identify with any of your international or domestic contemporaries?

HANS SELO: Given my somewhat reclusive lifestyle, I must make do with the stylistically conventional prose transmitted by the Finnish media, prose that necessarily lacks sophistication and individuality. In Finland literature of quality is disseminated only through hearsay. For good literature to find its way into the media on its own terms, better literary criticism and greater openness would be needed. Alternative: aimlessness, blindness.

Books are about life. Only life can possess value. All forms of life are based on analytical progress. Even plants analyze, through their reactions to the sun, water, etc. Every sensation transcends the merely quantitative in containing an element of consciousness. From quantity, quality: a species that has fallen into a ravine a thousand times eventually learns from its suffering the consequences of its falling; millions of experiences, torments, and emotions crystallizing into new quality. The ability to reason. Being, primitive intelligence. The crystallization of remembering into human consciousness, perfection.

The Finnish impulse to keep literature and criticism quantitative, suppressing the implicit quality (a precondition of life) in each sensation, is based on structural violence. Suffering becomes an end in itself. Stifling prevails. Finland has an exceptionally high suicide rate, for purely cultural reasons. Criticism evens everything out, trivializing it, restricting freedom of speech. Curbing democracy and equality.

To each according to his ability, for the good of all.

Given my focus on content and quality, I belong squarely within the Western tradition; I continue the spirit of the Enlightenment.

PL: How would you situate fiction in general and your own work in particular in relation to mass culture and the mass media?

HS: As an eye for crystallizing the social and the interactive in general, literature has immense capacities. It can fire at all the senses from the power of the imagination. Because of its conceptual acuity, it can be receptive to the sciences; being their mother, it can be receptive to the father: philosophy. The present global society, with its technology, its spaceships, is perhaps best understood through literature's views of it. The crystallizing, formative eyes (the sciences) owe their high standard to their mother's milk: literature. Which focuses on the words you, I, we. Focuses, in fact, on the analysis of a single, synoptic word: I. As does philosophy.

All forms of culture share the same brainstem, moral codes (which, for example, the Bible articulates in the Sermon on the Mount). All culture is a contemplation of the validity of these codes. It is impossible to live without being in some degree conscious of them. Evaluation is indistinguishable from morality and partakes of its end: spiritual growth. Interpretations of morality can, by definition, fail. But even unwitting purposiveness yields evaluation, the possibility of consciousness.

Socially, even more crucial than consciousness-heightening literature are the mass media responsible for literature's critical transmission. They are necessary for the fastest possible comprehensive progress. They can also be used destructively. Where this happens, they are always used with a quantitative emphasis. Mass culture that aspires to nothing more than quantity is pursuing consumption for the sake of consumption. Even as a term that elides the individual, mass culture is violent, whether we are dealing with sport or with life as a whole--whenever victory is considered more important than participation, in which case participation is reduced to a necessary evil, and content is overridden by quantity. Like the gambler, who wants to win by pure coincidence, without merit, interiority, skills, consciousness. Read: greed.

Consciously or not, through all his actions, each person is writing the book of his life. Which is more important than all other books.

PL: Kai Laitinen has written, "The traditional Finnish novel is close to nature. Nature features in the role of a friend or an enemy or both." Can we read your work as part of this tradition? Does nature require a new approach from writers?

HS: Like all Finns, I was born out of the 180,000 lakes of Finland. Sparsely populated, Finland only has a handful of inhabitants: five million. I'm an urban writer, yet I too am moved by the Finnish landscape, its twin midnight suns, on either side of the reflection-veiled forest-lace on the opposite shore.

To define nature is to define humanity. The ascent to humanity from the mineral, vegetable, animal kingdoms, being the work of nature as a whole, implies that human consciousness is not qualitatively reducible to its quantitative foundation. What has once acquired quality, human consciousness, is always a rehearsal in a more crystalline form of the incarnation of what has been learned. Skill becomes flesh. A sloughing off of burdens, possessions.

Humanization. It epitomizes the one and only conceivable freedom: creation beyond quantity. A cat sees monochromatically. Why do we see polychromatically? Culture stresses quality, and rightly so. How many black-and-white TVs must I bring into your home in order to compensate for a single color TV?

PL: From the Kalevala to postwar fiction, much of Finnish literature has been intimately bound up with the question of national identity. Do you see yourself as a member of a more international generation?

HS: A cultural achievement of international stature can also be distinctly national. Your somewhat tortuously formulated question anticipates a personal reply. I don't have enough space for that; national identity would need to be conceptually investigated.

Were I to take the question literally, I would ask: Has Finland's national identity been teleologically fathomed profoundly and creatively enough for it to problematize itself internationally? National identity, like criticism, is ideological and exists only in individuals, luminous paths.

Identity is immediate identification with the self as its own goal. The immediate identification of the path with itself. Identity-as-path; a self-penetrating process. For identity not to become fragmented into absolute separateness, it must trace and proceed through the unity that controls it, the self. The sum transcending its constituent parts. To be immediately itself.

What is at stake is the relationship between cause and effect. The cause, rent open, immediately analyzing itself; its consequent realization in people, in nations. To evoke an ancient metaphor for the universe: the whale identifies itself with the ocean and devours and digests that ocean, so as to shower water over itself out of emptiness, wine, Plato's epigenesis. Unbridled creativity beyond our universe and its logic; the gods at play. For the unification of the individual whale, transunification, divinification. Without such Other logic, it's impossible to define humanity, freedom, life. Progress presupposes both limitation and its transcendence.

Presumably, the various creating gods reflect a number of principles. As absolute exceptions, extreme individuals, they create across one another by means of immediate knowledge of each other: In the beginning gods created the heavens and earth--Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. When I have created an image of a vase, I don't claim that the vase thinks, has consciousness. The conscious one is me.

Normally, national identity is defined by means of some vague reference to romanticism. Ignoring the structure of consciousness, which contains everything. Any kind of identity, even a dog's, is fundamentally a path, not a list of goods.

Defining my position in relation to Finnish literature would be guesswork. I'm a couch commentator. Finland lacks literary criticism, whose function, in the interest of freedom of speech, would be to fuse the citizens' rays of thought into a sun: national identity.

PL: Contemporary Finnish writers frequently use autobiographical and mock-autobiographical forms. Why?

HS: Because of personality cults. Which allow autobiographical material to stand out from the huge flood of books published. The best books go unnoticed. Throughout Finnish history, the critics have massacred works of quality. Indeed, the critical guillotine killed and buried the national author, Aleksis Kivi, in the nineteenth century, before Finnish independence. Subjective criticism, which claims the right to err, is ultimately relativistic, arbitrary. In the end, all writing is autobiographical. What matters is quality. Someone may write ten masterpieces about his life on a boat. Someone else, ten quantitative books consisting of varying quantities of plot. Quantitative criticism will weigh them, sifting the "good" from the "bad" without disclosing the unit of measurement it's using.

Finland is not yet a civilized country. Take the annual Finlandia Prize, which was launched in 1984 and dwarfs all the other prizes in value. In 1993, in a television interview, the leading newspaper critic attacked the judges for being too highbrow: "They're basically rewarding their own cleverness. The Finlandia Prize should not be given to the best books." No justification given.

Thus are creative souls forced into mediocrity! Driven to despair, silenced.

PL: In 1992 your first novel, Diiva (1970), was voted one of the most important works published during the first seventy-five years of Finnish independence. Diiva departs defiantly and flamboyantly from the Finnish realist tradition. What do you think is the secret behind the lasting appeal of the book?

HS: What lasting appeal? Before the occasion you mention, Diiva had been pilloried for years! Having made it onto that famous list, I find myself something of a rarity in Finland: a living author, safely ensconced in the official canon! Albeit as a living corpse. With empty pockets, without the chance to write full-time.

You see, the result of that vote astonished the public at large. The 150-odd electors were drawn from the intelligentsia--only a handful of newspaper critics were included. The winning novel, Volter Kilpi's Alastalon salissa [see introduction], had been kept secret from the public, in ignominy, for sixty years! But its author clambered out of the grave and made a fresh debut!

In life, if you can identify with nothing, self-consciousness means playacting, a role. The protagonist of Diiva grows weary of everything. Life may be over, once you really see what it has to offer. Why live--unless your life is voluntary, chosen? Chosen against the fearful void, the voidlike richness, of life itself.

My novel Pilvihipiainen, an extract from which is printed here, makes the human divine. It speaks about the illusory, dreamlike nature of all phenomena.

PL: In your prose obscure words and esoteric topics intermingle with earthy urban slang. The combination is exhilarating and has won praise from Finnish critics and philosophers. Do you worry that you might be writing only for the intellectual elite? Can good literature be popular?

HS: Should people live below their potential? Stunt their brains? Shouldn't they rather try their best, nurturing life? What should prevent them? Why?

The main obstacle is the wrong attitude, willfully propagated: reluctance to analyze, to be elastic, to empathize, to open out.

PL: The sheer exuberance of your prose suggests an almost pantheistic sense of wonder. Do you reject materialism?

HS: Sense perceptions collide with furniture, trees, drawing mountain ranges, ravines, to rise transformed, out of the tempestuous ocean, as humanity, walking across the ocean as its master.

The problem posited by your question is--what? I'm a rigorous monist and can't understand your question. What's the context? The conditions of Western materialism and idealism? The notion of weightless energy they both embrace? I'm in favor of analysis that cuts through all labels; scientific rigor, precise consciousness. Elasticity, compassion. I'm against religious warfare. Religions interpreting themselves quantitatively, which yields a kind of materialism, as also happens with the Christian religion in the versions whereby a person can be saved through time, quantity, waiting--that is, through hypocrisy--without any need for content, consciousness.

PL: Your novels are full of neologisms and wildly heterogeneous material. They are, in this sense, unashamedly artificial; they openly celebrate their own textuality. How do you feel about the currently popular theories, whereby language has no power to refer to a solid reality beyond itself?

HS: Lacking familiarity with such theories, I can respond only in general terms. Consciousness is not identical with thought. Thought, which deals in relations, must subject itself to language, is language. A child on a beach, engrossed in producing sand cakes, has no worries about the future. Eternity as pure presence has become an aimful path, interior, immediate, active. Outside reality is ignorance of unity, mere property. The self-conscious human role instrumentalizes outside reality, turning what is mediated into immediacy. Having spoken a line a thousand times, an actor will know it by heart. Yet a good actor will project the role so intensely that every syllable is fresh and unexpected.
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Title Annotation:Interview
Author:Landon, Philip
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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