LEENA KROHN PEREAT MUNDUS

You @ me

Krohn[1]
In Leena Krohn's novel, Pereat mundus. Romaani, eräänlainen ('Pereat mundus. A novel, sort of', WSOY, 1998), 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 and me. In the following interview Maria Säntti and Leena Krohn discuss our relationship with language, imagination, the world and virtual reality.

MARIA SÄNTTI (MS)
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 Pereat mundus defines its own genre on its title page. Sometimes your works incline toward novels, as in Umbra, 1990, sometimes toward collections of short stories and sometimes collections of essays. How did you find this open 'epistolary novel' form for your work?

LEENA KROHN (LK)
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 after.

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 the nameless and fleeting object of human yearning. He - or she - is like the dead, like the gods.

MS
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 - as in the story published here - or a secondary-school teacher whose pupils no longer even know how to read, and so on.

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 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?

LK
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.

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, with other consciousnesses, with the body, with the self, with consciousness, with right and wrong, with the infinite, and with beauty.

MS
Why do you think these relationships must be dealt with through and with the help of fiction?

LK
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.

MS
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.

LK
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 actions.

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.

MS
Perhaps the contrast between the Håkans and Doctor Fakelove simulates one of your fundamental questions, the body and its relationship with consciousness: '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 mind.

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'. 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?

LK
I think an individual's self can be found in his unique relationship with time, the environment and other consciousnesses. In other words: interaction. 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.

MS
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 develop. Does the individual not lose anything in losing contact with his own body? Can it even be that virtual reality destroys reality?

LK
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.
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.

MS
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 the names of the colours 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?

LK
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.

This problem 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.

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 and insulator.

MS
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?

LK
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?

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.

MS
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 from 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?

LK
A Finnish newspaper critic wrote that I wanted to say with my work: 'Repent!' I did 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.

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.


A version of Leena Krohn's novel Tainaron (1985), translated by Hildi Hawkins and designed by Ralph Amissah, and Sfinksi vai robotti, (Sphinx or Robot, 1996), illustrated with a 3D programme by the author herself, can be read on the internet at www.kaapeli.fi/krohn.










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