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· Wilsonian Democracy, Finnish-Style: To the Finland Station ·

You may recognize my allusion to Edmund Wilson's 1940 text, To the Finland Station. It marks Lenin's 1917 return to St. Petersburg and Wilson's stylish examination of philosophical-historical utopianism in the West. It's fair to say, of course, that such utopianism is still with us. Some advocate "regime change" and "nation building" in the interests of poltical democrary now, not of proletarian dictatorship. So if Czar Nicholas has become Saddam Hussein, maybe Lenin has today become George W. Bush (though I'm aware of the danger of this analogy).

What interests me today, though, is Wilson's contrastive approach to utopianism. Tipping his philosopical hand by nodding to Giambattista Vico's The New Science, Wilson invokes early an intellectual figure bearing on my subtler, even deeper allusion: Finnish-Style Wilsonian Democracy. But what I've in mind, in the words of historian Paul Hazard, is a still deeper question:

If Italy had listened to Giambattista Vico, and if, as at the time of the Renaissance, she had served to guide Europe, would not our intellectual destiny have been different? Our eighteenth-century ancestors would not have believed that all that was clear was true; but on the contrary that "clarity is the vice of human reason rather than its virtue," because a clear idea is a finished idea. They would not have believed that reason was our first faculty, but on the contrary that imagination was. Paul Hazard, La pens饠europ饮ne au XVIII譥 si飬e: de Montesquieu ࠌessing, Paris: Boivin, 1946, as quoted at www.vicoinstitute.org/Giambattista.htm.

What is significant here, of course, is the distinction between reason and imagination — between the political hardening of "state" arteries, as Vico would say, and the proper heartening of the "body politic." For Vico of course considered poetry, not dialectic (either material or otherwise), as the source of a people's unique national identity. That's the deeper idea underlying Edmund Wilson's book and the political emergence of another nation from Vladimir Lenin's storied 1917 trip: Finland.

 · Kalevala ·

Yesterday, February 28, was Finland's "Kalevala Day," the day Finns celebrate not the bloody start of their modern state, but their emergent, consciously democratic sense of national identity as prompted by a book of poems, Elias Lönnrot's Kalevala (1835). A compiled book of transcribed epic poems, Kalevala is called "The Finnish National Epic." Though I won't say what you can read about here, Lönnrot's significance to Finland's 1917 "regime change" and to its "nation building" before and after should not be underrated. To revise Shelley's great line, rather than being "unacknowledged legislators of the world," Finnish poets became — with Lönnrot's help — "the acknowledged legislators of a world."

Theirs, of course, is an an ongoing work, an unfinished work.

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If, as this report suggests, Russia's Joseph Stalin was in fact poisoned on February 28, 1953, by Lavrenti Beria, then we perhaps avoided (fifty years ago today) World War III. As Iraq's Saddam Hussein finds Stalin a model, I wonder if his chances now look any better than Stalin's did then. It's a question, as Paul Hazard says, of "imagination," and Lavrenti Beria at least seemed up to an answer.

Posted by Styles on March 5, 2003 04:21 PM

Louis Menand's New Yorker article, The Historical Romance: Edmund Wilsons Adventure with Communism, perhaps offers a corrective view of Wilson's historical work. By focusing directly on Finland's political example, I have, through Vico, made Menand's subtext something more like Wilson's text. But it is still there, of course, to be read.

Posted by Styles on March 18, 2003 02:00 PM

About the limits of clarity in both reason and imagination, here's Whitman: "Out of the dimness, opposite equals advance" (from "Song of Myself"). We cannot know everything with perfect clarity; nor, to advance, should we wait for perfect clarity to come. We "see through a glass darkly," Paul says. To advance human knowledge and understanding from the dimness toward the light without breaking the glass — that's enough.

Posted by Demos Nuova on January 5, 2004 10:26 AM


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