The son of the
A short story from Pereat mundus
In Leena Krohn's most recent novel, Pereat
mundus, the central role is played by a number of characters
called Håkan. All of them are different, living in different
times and different places, but they are still Everymans: you
In the following e-mail interview, Maria Säntti asks Krohn
about her relationship with language, imagination, the world –
and virtual reality
Date: Fri Jul 23 18:04:24 1999 To: Leena Krohn <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: Maria Santti <email@example.com> Subject: Let the interview
I have just read your most recent work,
Pereat mundus (1998), which I like very much. I have many questions
to ask you about it; I shall try to gather my thoughts, but I think
I am troubled by the problem of the first sentence. I am alarmed even
to contemplate the maze of questions and answers the first question
will lead us to.
Over the past thirty years you have
published a couple of dozen collections of poetry, short stories and
essays, and, since Tainaron (1985), 'novels, sort of'. This
is how your most recent book, Pereat mundus (1998), defines
its own genre on its title page. Sometimes your works incline toward
novels, as in Umbra, 1990, sometimes toward collections of short stories
– Matemaattisia olioita ja jaettuja unia ('Mathematical
creatures and shared dreams', 1992) and sometimes collections of essays
– Rapina ja muita papereita ('Rustle and other papers',
1989). How did you find this open 'epistolary novel' form for your
Date: Fri, 23 Jul 1999 22:31:47 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Let the interview
In fact, Donna Quijote ('Doña
Quixote', 1983) is already a representative of this kind of open novel
form. There came a point where I realised that I had reached a dead
end as a writer. I was writing impersonally; I was writing badly.
Finding my way out of this situation was an imperative but also tiring
and time-consuming process. It was not merely a question of somehow
changing my way of writing. I had to change the whole of myself –
almost as in the metamorphoses of Tainaron. There was, of course,
a great deal in this phase of my life that was not writing: I had
a job, and above all I was a single mother with a small child to look
The letter is the earliest form of literature,
the epistolary form of Tainaron appeared unbidden, self-evidently.
Tainaron began with a little entomological novel (I have lost
the original text) and a place-name associated with Greek mythology,
which happened to catch my eye. The 'you' to whom the letters in Tainaron
are addressed and who never replies is not merely the loved one but
– as I have noted in Rapina ('Rustle') – the nameless
and fleeting object of human yearning. He – or she – is
like the dead, like the gods.
Leena, the formal design and fictive nature of
your books could also be called simulation. For example, there are
36 stories in Pereat mundus, whose main character is either
the very many-faceted Håkan or a considerably more solid person,
Dr Fakelove, who runs a therapy service on the internet. There are
a couple of dozen Håkans. He is a researcher into artificial
life whose brain is moved on to the information networks, or he is
a human-animal cross, the son of the chimera, or a secondary-school
teacher whose pupils no longer even know how to read, and so on.
Date: Fri 23 Jul 22:54:43 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: More about form – and
Your stories seem to me to be like simulations
because they do not look back in time or attempt to describe what
has been, but sketch various future alternatives. Did you find the
simulative structure in the ways of using the information networks?
In your essays and lectures –
some of which have also been published on the internet – you
write that literature is not a question of literature, aesthetic or
formal choices, or even books or writers, but of much more fundamental
choices which are dealt with through and with the help of literature.
What sorts of questions or choices does literature deal with?
I do not believe that information technology
has influenced my choices of form, interested though I have been in
the new technology. It has certainly taught me a great deal, but more
about nature than about writing or machines.
Date: Fri, 23 Jul 1999 23:15:25 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: More about form –
The fact that you see some kind of simulation
in my works is new to me. I have used all possible material and all
the information that I have succeeded in begging, borrowing or stealing.
I have seen many of the Håkans in Pereat mundus with
my own eyes, and heard them with my own ears. How could it be otherwise?
As for fundamental choices, this was
my answer in Kynä ja kone ('The pen and the machine',
1996) and I am still of the same opinion: 'our relationship to essential
relationships, and by this I mean the most fundamental human interactions.'
Essential relationships include the relationship with time, which
means the relationship with change, the relationship with other consciousnesses,
with the body, with the self, with consciousness, with right and wrong,
with the infinite, and with beauty.
Good morning Leena,
Date: Sat 24 Jul 10:55:38 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Fiction
Why do you think these relationships
must be dealt with through and with the help of fiction?
Good morning Maria,
Date: Sat, 24 Jul 1999 11:12:42 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Fiction
They don't, necessarily. They are dealt
with in very different ways, but everyone must encounter them, for
they are imperatives. Writers and readers to it through fiction, among
other things – those to whom literature is important; in other
words, not many. Without the compulsion of these relationships there
would be no fiction.
Is this also the case with poetry, which directs
attention specifically to words themselves, making them creatures
in themselves, almost subjects?
Date: Sat 24 Jul 12:12:01 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: What about poetry?
Yes, I think this is true of poetry, too. It
always seeks to reach beyond words, to pure experience, silence, from
which words drop away. Through the magic of words, poetry transcends
Date: Sat, 24 Jul 1999 12:34:04 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: What about poetry?
Good afternoon, Leena – I have another
question: if questions of a more fundamental nature can be dealt with
by other means than literature, what is it that makes literary thinking
special? Associated with this, too, is the question of the special
nature of fiction as a human experience. Not all fiction is literature,
after all, and not all literature fiction.
Date: Sun Jul 25 14:05:12 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Let's continue!
Maria, people construct fictions all the time,
both when asleep and when awake. Everyone, and not just artists. It
is an essential part of our humanity. Our phrases and thoughts, our
knowledge and religion are stories. All the reality that we know and
share is the product of the common fiction of humanity. In our dreams
we spin other kinds of private fictions.
Date: Sun, Jul 25 1999 15:38:15 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Let's continue!
Literature, too, is a form of dreaming,
a kind of lucid dreaming during which the individual knows he is dreaming
and can himself direct his dream. But these dreams can be shared because
they are lived and read as words. At best they are both extremely
personal and universal.
I do not believe that we will ever lose
our sense of fiction, for it arises from our humanity. But undoubtedly
it is somehow changing its form. But in other senses what is known
as literature is made up of such mutually paradoxical aspirations
that the exterior similarity of books sometimes seems quite unsuitable:
the fact that all of them have white pages and lines of black marks
and covers that can be opened and closed.
Date: Mon Jul 26 14:52:24 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Human body and the 'I'
Thank you for yesterday's mail: today's
question concerns the human body and its relationship with consciousness.
Perhaps the contrast between the Håkans and Doctor Fakelove
simulates one of your fundamental questions: 'Is a person not, after
all, something individual, something separate, his or her own self,
a limited "I"?'
In many of the Håkan stories,
the body is considered an imperfect and wretched thing that disturbs
people's peace of mind. The individual is imprisoned in his time and
place. On the other hand, 'the mind is a complex algorithm which can...
continue its existence outside the co-ordinates of time and place,'
especially if it is moved to the information networks, as is Ur-Håkan's
However, another, more positive attitude
to the body goes alongside the ideal of leaving the body. In the story
Kirjavin lyhdyin ('With gaudy lanterns'), another Håkan
of the future mourns the fact that people's eyes have atrophied. For
this reasons the names of the colours have become 'words whose meaning
no one knew for certain any more'. Leena, do you think that his girlfriend
Liisa is right in hinting that without an organic, personal body there
can be no thinking, soul or consciousness?
Maria, an individual's self can be found in his
unique relationship with time, the environment and other consciousnesses.
In other words: interaction.
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 17:19:55 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Human body and the
Unlike Liisa, I nevertheless consider
it possible that consciousness and self-consciousness may before long
be developed by artificial intelligence, in other words without a
human body. I am also fascinated by the conception of panconsciousness,
which Spinoza, for example, preached and according to which the entire
universe, even apparently lifeless nature, has some kind of consciousness.
Another question is consciousness after death, of which near-death
and out-of-the-body experiences are considered evidence. Here, of
course, we are approaching the mind-body problem, which does not wither
away even though many philosophers and physicists have declared it
only an apparent problem. I do not believe it is.
Many phenomenologists of the body anchor the
selfhood of the individual in his living body. For example, according
to Maurice Merleau-Ponty we are able to live space, time and
world before any consciousness begins to examine and interpret it.
Thus the individual is able to make – without thought or examination
– many complicated things that machines are as yet unable to
do: walk straight down a street without falling over, ride a bicycle,
play the organ and dance. A physical entwinement with the world is
primary, and only subsequently do consciousness, imagination and language
Date: Mon 26 Jul 19:10:22 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From: <email@example.com>
Subject: Human body and virtual reality?
Does the individual not lose anything
in losing contact with his own body? Can it even be that virtual reality
The reality in which we live with our bodies
and possessions, too, is a kind of virtual reality. We have created
it partially ourselves, through our consciousnesses, because our nervous
system is as it is. It is, in any case, the primary reality of humankind,
to which we compare all other 'realities'. Our senses and instruments
are unable to capture the entirety of the universe, which includes
this shared human reality. Undoubedtly, however, we know something
for certain about it; undoubtedly it is much more durable than all
the worlds we have deliberately created ourselves. This reality cannot
be destroyed by any virtual reality.
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 22:15:09 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Re: Human body and virtual reality?
An individual does not entirely lose
his body even if he wanders through distant virtual worlds. After
all, he is still, even there, using his senses and his motor system,
even if his body has in some sense become no more than a remote control.
But no one can live permanently in such
surroundings. The body forces the individual to return and to take
care of physical reality.
Maria, now I shall be away from my computer
until tomorrow evening. So – until tomorrow.
Leena, let me return for a moment to Merleau-Ponty's
concept of language. According to him, language is not so much an
analogy of the mind as a continuation of the gestures and movements
of the body; for this reason, speaking one's own mother tongue takes
place with the certainty of a sleepwalker. For example, the words
square, parallelogram, far, near, under, next to, before and after,
like thenames of the colours – as in Kirjavin lyhdyin
– would be incomprehensible if we had not walked through squares
shaped like a square or a parallelogam with awnings of different colours.
But what are the mutual relationships of language, mind and body?
Date: Tue Jul 27 15:44:28 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: More on language
Maria, one could also say: we would not discern
squares and parallelograms if we did not know them to be squares and
parallelograms. Both knowledge and imagination are needed for discernment.
Date: Tue, Jul 27 1999 22:56:30 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: More on language
This problem field is immense, and it
can be approached from different directions. If, according to Merleau-Ponty,
language is analogical to the body and according to antoher concept
analogical to the mind, is the paradox unresolvable? I do not think
so. Language is now – to a certain extent – freeing itself
from humanity and corporality as it becomes used by artificial intelligence.
But of course its origin lies in the evolution of the human race,
and above all that of the brain.
What do I think of the relationship
between language, mind and body? I don't really have an opinion; I
ask and fumble my way forward. If we were not (also) physical and
bodily beings, we would surely not have become the prisoners of so
complex a system as human language. Or if we were as 'telepathic'
a species as some insect species or flocking birds, we would be able
to survive without words. (But not necessarily without some kind of
language. We must not forget that species other than Homo sapiens
also have their own languages, although they may be based, for example,
on chemical communication.) We pay for our higher degree of individuality
and freedom through the fact that we do not immediately understand
one another. Language is always between us – both as communicator
Leena, in your books and lectures, you have often
located the basis of morality primarily in the imagination: the capacity
to imagine what will follow from various actions, and the capacity
to imagine oneself in the role of the other: what causes suffering
to me will also be bad for you, if I were you. Moral sense is based
on the linear sense of time that is given us by our mortal bodies:
what is done cannot be undone; actions cannot be retracted. 'Thus
the loss of memory and a sense of time also entail the destruction
of the image of the self. There is no self without time and no time
without the self.' But in cyberspace time and place and the body lose
their value. Is it still to be hoped that human beings will, at some
stage of evolution, become immortal and non-linear?
Date: Wed 28 Jul 12:56:30 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Imagination and morality
I do not remember ever having said that it was
actually to be hoped. In very recent years, some semi-scientific books
have appeared whose authors believe, quite seriously, that medicine
will soon be able to conquer death. They even claim that we are perhaps
the last generation that has to die or even the first that does not
need to. This claim horrifies me. The thought of death is also a great
comfort: 'O Death, old captain, let your ship leave! This place is
gloomy, let us raise the anchor.' Who would have the energy to drag
a memory growing heavier and heavier across the centuries and millennia,
even if the organs of his body could be replaced again and again over
their course? And if his memory, too, were to be renewed, how would
he be the same person? Where is his immortality?
Date: Wed, 28 Jul 1999 13:34:03 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Imagination and morality
Language does not disappear in the information
networks. It is a new dimension achieved by humankind, which really
changes his sense-world. The laws of arithmetic also hold true there.
The same goes, I think, for ethical intuition.
One of the Håkans in Pereat mundus
is a patient of Doctor Fakelove. He is not troubled by any particular
phobia, but by the fact that he really has found out how many ways
the world can end. If Håkan is to be believed, there are about
thirty of them that threaten the world. In some of the stories, the
world really is destroyed. Of what do you want to warn humankind in
your work? What realisation is lacking form us whose achieving would
save the world from destruction? Or is it part of the marching order
of normal evolution that it is our turn to disappear from here?
Date: Wed 28 Jul 14:22:28 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Fakelove and the end of the
A Finnish newspaper critic wrote that I wanted
to say with my work: 'Repent!' I have not wished to do this, or in
fact to give a warning. I am not so foolish to think that, with one
novel (even 'sort of'), I could be the saviour of humankind. Environmental
scientists and biologists, physicists and philosophers, popular movements
and environmentalist organisations play that role better and more
publicly. We do not need Håkans to tell us what to expect. Pereat
mundus is just a little bittersweet fantasy which I happened to tell
and to offer to readers.
Date: Wed, 28 Jul 17:01:55 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Fakelove and the end
of the world
Humankind is, after all, far from lacking
in realisations. Enough of them, or too many. But even humankind cannot
demand eternal life for itself on this planet. Evolution will not
stop with people or for people. It is certain that every species lives
its time, disappears completely and suddenly in some catastrophe,
fades gradually or develops into something completely new. Who can
say whether our leaving will be quick and dramatic or slow and unnoticeable.
Date: Wed 28 Jul 20:19:23 1999 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Final questions
One more question. Since 1996 your work
Sfinksi vai robotti ('Sphinx or robot') has been on the internet.
You have also illustrated your own works digitally. What are your
experiences of combining image and text? And what about publishing
on the internet? How does it differ from publishing as a book, which
in this case will take place only this autumn?
Thank you for the discussion, and let
us continue our lives. I appreciate it that you have so patiently
answered many big questions that are quite impossible in an interview
Thank you for your thoughtful questions, which
I should really have answered with a series of novels.
Date: Wed, 28 Jul 1999 22:15:45 To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From:
<email@example.com> Subject: Re: Final questions
Sfinksi vai robotti was designed
and laid out specifically for the internet. It is a small work, but
its publication was a surprisingly demanding and complicated process.
I could not have done it alone. The other members of the working group
were Marjaana Virta (who has designed all my books) and Mikael Böök.
When a publisher publishes a book, the
writer does not need to worry much about practical matters. Of course
one may offer one's opinion about the cover picture and correct mistakes
in the proofs to the best of one's ability. In publishing on the internet,
the responsibility lies with the author, but the work will never sell
out or be invalidated, and the author can change it whenever he wishes.
An internet writer does not really receive
criticism. I have received a great deal of feedback about Sfinksi
from individual people by e-mail. On the other hand, I have not seen
a single public review. Of course, one can say the same of many Gutenbergian
books. The Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art has bought Sfinksi
vai robotti, but there is no other copyright income. The work
can be read freely on the internet, in English, at www.kaapeli.fi/krohn/sphinx.
As an illustrator I am, of course, a
childish amateur, but making pictures with a 3D programme is something
that I find amusing and satisfying. When one has listened to the hubbub
of the stream of words, images are like still pools where all is suddenly
Top of page
A version of Leena Krohn's novel Tainaron
(1985), translated by Hildi Hawkins and designed by Ralph Amissah,
can be read on the internet at www.kaapeli.fi/krohn.