The Helsinki Poetics Conference: Paavo Haavikko’s Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (One and Twenty) Revisited, August 22, 2006

Note: the author would like to thank Anselm Hollo for his translation and Leevi Lehto for his invitation to participate in this conference.

Any tradition is permanently under construction, disestablished and rewoven, negated and affirmed by the acts of cultural interventions, themselves acting within and acting upon society and the world at large. Any tradition is multiple, open at all ends, but critique and torquing does not come from nowhere. What, in the early 1970s, made Paavo Haavikko construct this intense foray simultaneously into Finnish poetry-the Kalevala, and into other poetry of the West, aggressively weaving together indigenous and exogenous narrative traditions, poised between a modernist universalizing imagination and a localist, critical and mordant vision? This author’s motivation and goal give rise to many interlocking questions, but the person who can address this question would have to know Finnish history and society and the nature of Haavikko’s cultural ambitions to answer. I do not; I speak as an outsider. Therefore I will talk about genre and world view to try to trace the impact of this work on someone outside this specific culture.

One and Twenty (in the new translation into English by poet Anselm Hollo) isn’t exactly an epic. First, it not a long book. It is more like a novella than a novel, divided into a number of brisk cantos, some even rather short. It’s action is decentered and even-deliberately-unfocused. Further, and interestingly, Haavikko’s poem does not follow one hero, nor one consolidating action and its social implications, constructing a nation-state mentality by evoking the mythic past of one’s ancestors. It could be a little late in the day for that idea, of course, with the decisive ”power [comes] from crimes” observation in Canto 2. Besides, the book is aslant of any territory-holding or rooted ”ancestors” in the first place; we do not know where the band of Twenty-One comes from precisely (in the North is what is indicated-are they from ”Finland” avant la lettre, from ”Russia” avant that letter?); we know only that their adventures propel them over a wide territory, from Novgorod to Byzantium. They are like nomadic mercenaries, and as such they witness a number of city-state and imperial power struggles in the 11th-13th centuries, well before the nation state consolidations of modernity that might call forth the idealizing of particular ”national” epics.

So this poem precisely does not make any national glorification claims; one might say Haavikko refuses to do this kind of cultural-ideological task, and his refusal alludes to the work taken to be the Finnish national epic-the Kalevala (1835), a work collected by Elias Lönnrot from folk materials and sutured and sequenced-indeed, constructed by him. Indeed, Haavikko’s turn to medieval Russian history for the final cantos suggests that nation as such is-what? Mooted? Unstable? Of no interest? Simply non-existent at this time? That Finnish national culture was affected by medieval Russian struggles? (Finland certainly was affected by Russian history, as well as Swedish history.) That the borders of nation are derisory? I am not sure. Yet certainly there has been a definite refusal of invoking or idealizing the ”national epic.”

One and Twenty is ”the” story of a band of Northland adventurers who sail into the Black Sea via Russia (through river and lake passages, and overland by portage) and then back, beginning in 1041; they and their sons live through the history of several centuries. The action takes about 300 years, but it’s not one action; it’s various events all piled into one poem. For example, when the sons of the original group sail back, they get involved in a long retelling of Russian history-the stand against the Tartar invasion and the double-crossing, back-stabbing, and cunning interplay among the rival cities of Moscow, Tver, and Novgorod that characterized this period. But this has little to do with other parts of the story (the Byzantium adventures). It is as if Haavikko produced a cross-section of various unrelated historical struggles. Yet perhaps the timeframe is elongated and ”unrealistic” because the issues of power, war, conquest, inheritance, dynastic passage, strategic cunning, and kingdoms are the same as now.

This band of Twenty-One witnesses an allegorized history of some long-ago time with analogies to our time. For instance, the mob storming the Byzantine Palace has analogues with various popular uprisings in modernity: ”the people/ were coming to take what had been gathered for them/ in the palaces, in the palace.” Most powerful figures exist to be tricked and outfoxed mainly by each other, in endless and cruel games for power, no matter how well-meaning they are. (And, indeed, few are well-meaning.). The band of Northlanders generally resists by being always marginal to the action, but serious players, trying to gain their advantage. The band of Twenty-One seem to be a mix of a Praetorian guard and an avant-garde. It is not clear to me for whom or for what they are working, and whether their actions are politically astute, especially as the scene changes from Constantinople to Russia, but the men seem to be pretty good fighters and, no matter their allegiances, they are fine strategists on a local scale.

In genre, I’d say this is an epyllion-a work alluding to the epic but with different trimmings. An epyllion can be defined as a short epic with too many vectors, a distracted epic, one characterized by plot digressions. That is certainly the case here-indeed, the work is possibly all digression. It is hard to find the narrative center, although that is probably the incident with the Sampo. So I want to comment on how this work as an epyllion plays against and with the tradition of the epic. Indeed, I think Haavikko consciously uses the epyllion genre to critique or torque the epic. In some definitions of epyllion, the erotic or romantic elements play a central role; this is not the case here-or, as I will argue later, the erotic charge does enter, but hardly through the expected channels.

The world of epics is palpable in One and Twenty but regarded askew and askance. As for the hero, or non-hero: Here the heroes are twenty-one men, who are one man, sailing to the Southland, which is soft and ready for plundering. (There are twenty fighters and one puny person, the coxswain for the boat.) This is a band of cunning helper figures, always just marginal to the power struggles, the smaller people, but not marginal to action (they are boatmen when you need a boat, for instance). Thus we have a collective protagonist, which is a formation always poised to critique singleness and the apparent nobility of individual heroism. Most epics are invested in one heroic man. Yet we should not forget that Odysseus lost all his men one way or another; he was the only Greek to return home from his band. In One and Twenty several of the male characters make it, limpingly, home. In their slow return to their homeland, a number of the original party have, of course, died-no surprise after three centuries; only seven or so are left, plus assorted unparticularized females.

But at least one character (Crow’s Son) is given some heroic interest. Here I would argue that Haavikko accomplishes this to resist conventional narrative investments in the hero. It is unclear whether Crow’s Son is alive or dead. It first appears that he has died, falling impaled on stakes while stalking erotic adventure (analogous to the drunk, logy Elpenor in the Odyssey). But after Canto 8 concerning the Sampo as minting engine or money machine, then it looks like Crow’s Son is alive (Canto 9). By Canto 12, he is making moves, in Crete, parallel to actions of Odysseus-trying to trick the gods, that sort of thing. This early incident of the character’s apparent death suggests that this whole book is written (as is true of important modern epic-like works) in the nekuia position-like Book XI of the Odyssey, or the underworld ”golden bough” scene in the Aeneid (Book VI). This could be a journey to the underworld on ”Deathland River” that never gets out of the underworld. That is, in Haavikko’s work, the world is the underworld. Eliot writes The Waste Land in the nekuia position; Pound writes many cantos there (but probably not enough); to me this nekuia position is a measure of the degree to which we are trapped in modernity not freed by it. I mean that this whole story concerns ghosts, endlessly sailing under the sign of the sturgeon’s skull.

A second reason for the interest of Crow’s Son as an unstable un-”hero” is that he receives the fairy tale gift of three wishes, in three coins. This piece of luck usually comes to a character considered a hero. However the person who gives this magical bag says (in an editorial burst of heart-felt advice):

I’m not so crazy as to ever make a wish.
        Never.  Ever.
I wish for nothing.

Never wish, never, for anything,
                                                ever,
        three wishes, and I want to get rid of them,
not to be tempted to wish for something,
        here, take them, and here’s the pouch:
Inside, on its leather, is inscribed a list of men  
        who have not used these coins,
                               have not stacked them on a table.
Who have gone their way without wishing or bargaining with their luck.
         Because, what would you dare wish for?

I have known how to live without wishing.
         Now I’ll leave that burden to you.

(Canto 9)

Later, this motif is reprised when the Twenty-One are in some danger, having stolen the Sampo:

Don’t wish!
Of all the monsters, hope is the most cruel, the most deceptive, the
                                                      most persistent,
          fear, the most useful, hubris, the all-destroyer.

(Canto 11)

This is fascinating because it alludes to classic fairy tale materials taken as deluded. Indeed, it alludes to hope as deluded for Haavikko links wishes to hope. And this is frightening because somewhat hyper-realist or disdainful. It is certainly a critique of mythography, fairy tales, and happy ending melodrama, certainly a resistance to ideologies of consolation and meliorism. The resistance to hope marks this work emotionally for me. It is distant and implacable.

What happens to Crow’s Son’s wishes is the lesson-by trying to undo the deaths of twin soldiers with the same name (Bent and Bent), his wish that they be alive has the unintended consequence of making time roll backwards, and thus of stopping and undoing other effects, and upsetting the course of time and of the world, including the seasons and the stars. The second wish therefore must be used to undo the first. The third is used to stop the Tartar invasion of Russia in the Cantos at the end, but that takes a couple of hundred years, and so Haavikko wants us to see that probably wishing didn’t do it. So much for three wishes. We can see the degree to which conventions of resolution and magical pleasures are undermined in this work along with the happy wish fulfillments of one mode of narrative. We can also see the force of unintended consequences-a rich political-historical didacticism marks this work.

Certainly a few passages about military strategy have a very high interest. Perhaps pure Clauswitz laced with an awareness of Machiavelli, perhaps a very judgmental allegory about bad leadership (you can fill names in at your discretion), these are brilliant passages about gaining advantage through the pretense of disadvantage, and they deal with trapping one’s enemy by the fake weakness deployed with real cunning.

Attack where you know that your opponent
         (they all have their own character, you must know it,)
does not want to refrain from counterattacking
         and strikes you, without fortification, against the fortified,
strikes you where you want him, you favor his attack,
          you, the attacking defender, yourself,
who now has the initiative, the time and place, the will,
                                         the advantage of defense,
plant a stockade passage where he will always try
          to destroy it and believe he’s attacking,
as you lead his advance upward,
          across a swamp, up a slope, into a blinding
                                          sand storm.
He wants to destroy you where you are, and expel you.
          Let him want.
Because that want is your want.
(Canto 9)

Yet it’s all skirmish-no one ever fully wins, gains, or finishes anything. The history of the world is endless skirmishes. This is not so much a cynical vision as an implacable one. It sees world history as an open-ended, never concluded tragedy. As Canto 8 remarks: ”because war is eternal, as is Byzantium” (the city name indicates a complex of money, power, and manipulative cruelty).

Seen another way, the action is a citational/ allusive sail thru many mythographies and epic histories. (Incidentally, Christian doctrine is treated with a parodic literalness in a few lines in Canto 7; that’s the end of it.) That is, the band of Twenty-One enters action in such a way as to evoke traces of historical mythography of the ancient world-the wonders and the adventures-like Herodotus’s mode of seeing. The Kalevala is of first importance for a variety of materials and the general style or tone. It is imitated in Haavikko’s recursive, repetitive and inferential style, repetition and anaphora creating a pulse of action. The work values will, risk, clarity about the nature of action, yet its repetition covers important elements over. It is quite oblique. In terms of important allusions, the history of Byzantium is next narratively (two years, four emperors); then there is the Odyssey with explicit reminiscence of names and actions, and a touch of a Shakespearean play within the play (retelling Byzantine history in Egypt), both Beowulf and the Iliad figure in the descriptions of warfare and individual death. When the band goes to find the source of the Nile (with an American action film Gee-Whiz-Why-Not attitude), African stories and narrations are alluded to. Then there is the Russian historical epic, struggles for hegemony around the rival cities and the Tartar invasion and the attempt to get home (nostos) that doesn’t quite seem to work all that well, or be all that meaningful when it happens. It’s as if the epic motifs and allusions have been torqued against themselves.

In this collage of narrative allusions to traditional epics and mythographic history, no story is completed, or rarely so. Each story has unintended consequences and collateral damage, or, as I like to say, collateral wreckage, which makes one adventure interrupt the next before it is done, or gives a strange air of temporariness and incompleteness to adventures even when they appear finished. There seems to be no permanent gain anywhere. One thing bubbles up, wells up, pulses forth under the next, emerges, and floods it. This happens repeatedly, on every scale from syntactic transitions, to stanza sequencing, to canto following canto. ”The deal was made. But deals never end there,/ ever” (Canto 16) is the motif.

The narrative rhythm is therefore both very detailed (like the Kalevala-eque repetitions) and very incomplete. It is like a whole book about ”nothing”-because ”deals never end/ there” and no effect can ever be counted on to be final. In that sense this is a very nihilistic work. Human life is disposable unless you have power. And even if you do. So-for sure there is no moral. Power is self-annihilating–but so is lack of power. And there is hardly one ”national state” for which the epic impulses can be claimed, but rather a skeptically regarded plethora of adventurist adventures.

In classic epics, female figures are sometimes noble figures who exercise some interesting power-Penelope, some queenly mead-bearing figures in Beowulf, and female good-advice relatives in the Malian epic Sundiata-these are characters who strategize and observe and whose loyalty is unimpeachable. Then there are Helen and Dido-characters whose sexuality and sexual allure are their sources of power. Then Grendel’s mother-beastly strength motivated by vengence. All these figures, one way or another, are depicted making calculations, sometimes using the powers of ”women’s roles”– sexuality/seduction, motherhood (including its rages), emotions ”proper” to women like mourning or depression, sometimes using more gender-neutral traits: observation or spying, cunning, political acumen, sense of situational possibility-just as men do. There are many female figures in the Kalevala and that work seems to have a rough-and-ready complementarity and balanced attitude toward the skills and mutual interdependence of the genders.

The notable female figures in Haavikko’s work, mainly Zoe and Theodora, are empresses, but like most figures of power in this work (male or female), they use their power in predatory fashion (Zoe is a sexual predator in Canto 6 and 10). The interiorized relationships of men in relation to women are not articulated; nor are the interiorized relationships of the men to each other in the homosocial band. The characters don’t have an inner life, particularly. This is part of the implacable realpolitik world view in this work-an inner life doesn’t matter one way or the other to what happens, seems to be the attitude. It may therefore be a mono-ocular work; female figures in One and Twenty are not particularly good strategists. More than in the other epics I’ve mentioned, they seem to be on the margins, not noted particularly, only sexual and plunder, except for Theodora and Zoe, who are eventually left behind in the narrative dust. This may pass for a realist attitude, but, as my survey of other epics suggests, that might not be so. One and Twenty maintains a mono-ocular focus on male virtù (bravery, calculation, strategic planning, risk) but by a closing off of any path to the bi-ocular sense of gender. That is not a negative judgment; it is simply an observation. Because male virtù is also tragic; you must use it, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and you die.

But if this is an epyllion, classic ”epic” depictions of female figures don’t matter. Romance and the erotic are generically important to the epyllion, but, in a superficial sense, there is very little erotic play here. Sexual desire happens (to men) and it often leads them to their deaths. Period. Female characters are often very whorish. Period. So what is the erotic/romance charge in this epyllion? Where does eros reside?

This brings me to the Sampo. O the Sampo. When I first opened the Kalevala (The Kalevala: An epic poem after oral tradition by Elias Lönnrot, Translated from the Finnish by Keith Bosley. Oxford: Oxford U.P.1989), you’ll be amused that I happened to open to incidents about the Sampo. Hmmmm, what is a Sampo? I thought to myself, but then figured that I had opened the book in the middle and somehow, someone would tell me. Wrong. Turns out that the Sampo is an unclear item, subject of some debate. It might be called the McGuffin of Finnish literature. A McGuffin is that motivating item in an adventure, often wealth or a ”treasure,” that everyone is chasing after for reasons that are possibly obscure. Thus it is the pretext for narrative adventures, like the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name.

Here is my interim report on the Sampo. It appears to be a mill operating on many potential scales-as small as a coffee grinder, as large as a flour mill. It is also a vast piece of mysterious machinery that to have the magical property of changing sizes when necessary. The Sampo, for some reason, has a lid-one might think of the box of Pandora whose lid it is temptingly forbidden to open. One might say that the Sampo masquerades as ego but in fact it is pure id. A book published by the recent International Economic History Conference held in Helsinki in 2006 (held at the same time as the Helsinki Poetics Conference) states that the Sampo is ”a magic device that brought wealth, nourishment and good fortune to the people.” (The Road to Prosperity: An Economic History of Finland, published for the conference.) And as they are economic historians, is it amusing or ironic to have them call attention to this culturally interesting, obscure thing that creates wealth?

In One and Twenty the Sampo is a money-coining machine, a mint, indeed, the famous Mint at Byzantium, metaphorically gendered female:

the place where money is born,
where the money womb extrudes its golden bees.
          It must have an enormous pelvis, a terrifying waistline!
A terrible birthing apparatus.
(Beginning of Canto 8)

(Incidentally, the bee imagery in Kalevala is a lot more pleasant and benign.) The Sampo is the thing that turns gold to coins. And Haavikko thereupon treats the reader to a sustained passage about coinage and power that one can only call a numismatic romance of high rhetorical splendor-a terrific and maybe terrifying sense of ”follow the money” in establishing narrative and historical cause and effect. Therefore, the ”romance” aspect of this epyllion is not the sexuality of people, but the coinage of gold, the eros of money. Desire, eros, yearning are all focused on the Sampo.

The Sampo in this book is very valuable, heavy, large, and fixed in one spot. It’s heavily guarded, and so on. Having a Sampo is power, not having it is wanting it, yearning for it. Thus-of course, the band of Twenty-One steals it, using all their various talents of engineering, ingenuity, strength and trickiness. Needless to say, they are pursued through the sea. To get out of the situation, out of danger, they throw the thing overboard, where it lurks under the ocean just waiting to make trouble in the future.

They watch the Sampo sink,

        slide into the depths, like a fish, a sturgeon
with its bumpy neck,
        there it went, the Sampo, one summer’s day.


This land is poor, the sea is wealthy,
        because the Sampo fell into the sea.
(Canto 11)

The allusion to the dangerous sturgeon here, picked up from the beginning of the work should be marked. The last line of the epyllion, many pages after this statement, simply repeats these final two lines, reminding us that the Sampo is still there, a meta-form that creates the potential for more action.

So what is a Sampo, really? It is pure desirable Making-it makes something that you want. It is a mini-factory that churns out powerful product. It also makes things happen, it makes action occur, with all the potential for loss and gain, triumph and wreckage. The Sampo-at least in the way I’m talking about it here-has a kind of agency, an almost implacable agency. Thus in two ways the Sampo makes the potential for plot: it generates the desire, and it represents the machinery. The Sampo is therefore the engine of narration itself. Even the engine of history. It creates wealth, and therefore it creates trouble. It is pure desire, pure manufacture, pure urge. And it is also like poesis, as poets know. It wants to be Making.

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