Dreaming About Literature. Cultural Manifestos in Times of Transition

by Janek Kraavi

During the second half of the 1980s, Soviet Estonian literature gradually started to change. A new generation of writers appeared, introducing new topics and styles. Against the background of the ‘Singing Revolution’, at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, and social change, various texts appeared describing the new literary scene and cultural attitudes. The current article attempts to give a brief overview of these texts. 

First, a few words about the literary means of expression called the ‘manifesto’. ‘Manifesto’ (Latin manifestus: clear, obvious, to bring to light) originally, of course, belonged in the repository and to the methods of political activities. It is a type of public declaration, a text generally expressing political, religious, philosophical or literary convictions and beliefs. Various literary groups or movements have introduced their opinions on art in this specific form. The declarative texts of the early 20th century avant-garde movements have become part of the canonical history of literature and model manifestos of modern literature. The most famous is perhaps A. Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) or F. T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909). Considering the developments of the past century, the latter has sometimes been regarded as an archemanifesto, since the poetics used in promoting futurism – methods, ideology and ideals – were followed in literary declarations, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the century. The text naturally had an impact also on Estonian literature, when it first appeared and later in the last decade of the century. ‘Ethnofuturism’ and the manifestos of its movement, cultivated in the work of young poets who debuted at the end of the last decade, contain a lot of futurist Dionysian energy and ideals projected into the future.

   The social ideas and cultural situation of the transition period constitute a constantly changing and developing process. From this time, we find different possibilities of dissidence: from timid insubordination to rowdy straightforward utterance; from enthusiastic conservatism to playful radicalism. The arena, however, is increasingly characterised by free circumstances and the emerging impact of national organisations and ideas. It should be added here that the texts examined in this article mostly appeared in the alternative cultural publications founded at the end of the 1980s. These were almanacs with a nationalist orientation or newspapers that had playful or more radical attitudes toward cultural questions (Vagabund, Kostabi). Around them formed certain groups or circles of friends sharing common ideas and principles.

    The essence of Estonian nationhood lies in preserving and furthering Estonian culture. It is one of the abstract foundations of ‘Estonian-ness’. In the fervour of creating big words, people often forget the fact that constructing Estonian-ness is primarily connected with Baltic German intellectuals, as well as with other European influences and loans. In the light of post-colonialist theory, these rhetorical ideas about national culture might no longer have a single, straightforward meaning. Several manifestos in our sphere of interest also contain similar ambiguity. So, how do these texts see Estonian literature and the world depicted by it? What is the latent, hidden content of these texts? Such problems form an imaginary starting line: seeking an answer to the above-mentioned questions should also help delineate the main courses of Estonian literature written in the 1990s.
     The Wellesto society, founded in the late 1980s by humanitarians and writers, manifested the ideals of nationhood. The omnibus volume, published in 1989 in Oulu, Finland, starts with several programmatic writings. The background impulse of Wellesto manifestos is the reaction against the Russification policies and the ‘internationalisation’ of the 1980s. Hence, for example, the public contents of the manifesto compiled by Mati Hint. Its message lies in emphasising the central attributes of nationhood – language, culture, continuity, and the responsibility of creative people. To a considerable extent, this re-manifests tradition. However, the roots of a manifesto offering new possibilities might in fact lie in a certain treatment of history, former models, and rediscovered books. The main pattern of Estonian social life and culture can also be seen in these writings: opposing the eastern aggressor Russia, hopes are now tied to the re-opening of the more democratic and tolerant Europe. Back to our cultural home, Europe, as Estonians! More Estonian language, but European novels and poetry! Humanism, cosmopolitanism and Protestantism are the criteria of being cultured! These slogans in the Wellesto manifestos can be discovered between the lines.

Things are rather more complicated or unfamiliar with the ‘Manifesto of Congealed Blood’, written in 1990 (Vagabund 1990, no 1). The core feature of the poetics of manifestos is a rebellion against the old and the stagnated, but conflicts also emerge with other groups of movements that declare something new. Wellesto emphasised ‘civilised Europeanism’, whereas this text is accompanied by the slogan ‘in the name of Islamic revolution’. The manifesto was signed by a fraternity of young writers, journalists and critics, all starting their creative careers at the time. Today, fifteen years later, their names are synonymous with modern Estonian literary classics, e.g. Hasso Krull, Sven Kivisildnik, Andrus Kivirähk etc. This particular manifesto stands out for its highly radical and avant-garde attitude. On the other hand, we might say that the text balances on the border of powerful humour and extreme parody or exaggeration. The declaration starts quite harshly: “Our intellectual state is bad. We do not have words. Therefore what we write cannot be literature.” What follow are not merely suggestions about reforming literature, but reforming life in general: a gun permit, two-year compulsory distribution of hallucinogens, eugenic transformation of the ruined Ural-Ugrian breed by blood transfusion and transplanting body organs, improving the intellectual situation by the innovative means of war and ‘chemical words’ etc. What to make of all this? Two aspects should perhaps be mentioned: identity and language. The text does not emphasise Europeanism and Christianity learned in the 20th century (“We cannot believe the priests when they do not drink the blood of small children.”), but instead returns to the distant history of Estonia. It is remarkable that the ideas for reviving Ural-Ugrian genes come from Islamic cultural traditions (incidentally, criticism of Christianity is also the foundation of Franco Ilm’s radical manifesto ‘Our Battle’, which demands the re-establishment of the ancient Estonian pagan faith. This text, too, refers to a possibility of intellectual identity that has now vanished, a play with different possibilities. See Kostabi no 2-3, 1991). This process is, on the whole, characteristic of any start of a new stage in the transition of national literature – besides producing literature, an intensive identity-creation is taking place at the same time. The elaboration of aesthetic criteria comes later.

    In order to develop such a future-fantasy identity, another type of relation to the language through which a new reality is constructed and new literature created, is necessary. On a wider scale, this is a reaction against a trend in Estonian literature characterised by rigid ethical-Christian principles and a language rich in metaphor and image. The text, in fact, tackles the coming developments of Estonian literature in the 1990s, primarily described by the decreasing role of belles-lettres as the bearer of the ideas of nationhood, and advancing another kind of language of fiction (obscenities, spoken language, language play, usage of “foreign words” etc). This manifesto with its Nietzschean uncompromising spirit and futuristic arrogance can still, despite its Utopian contents, be seen as one of the central texts in which exaggerations and radical humour sum up the past, present and future of Estonian literature.

The ideals of ‘ethno-futurism’, a significant literary-cultural movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, are partly carried by a similar pathos. Here the avant-garde constituted the literary group Hirohal”. Among several texts with elements of a manifesto, mention should first of all be made of Sven Kivisildnik’s ‘Ethno-futuristic Ideals’ (Vikerkaar no 5, 1990). The essential image of this short text is parallelism and the mode is irony. Parallelism stresses the future outlook of the nation and culture, in co-operation with different exterior factors. National literature cannot be directed by a one-dimensional compass: “We cannot follow a gadget that points in two opposite directions”. There is no need to desperately yearn for the past, which instead must be made part of the present and directed towards the future. Parallelism signifies creative playfulness deriving from the collaboration of differences in Estonian culture, but also a complex-free dialogue or exchange of ideas with other cultures. A ‘very small history of Estonian literature’ is presented as well, consisting of Estonian authors who come from the border areas of several cultural or linguistic traditions (German, Setu, Latvian, and Jewish). The usual nationalist ideology of the whole is here discarded in favour of a post-colonial approach: differences are found in the national entity itself and shown as crossroads of various identities of Estonian culture.

   The most prolific manifesto-type texts were certainly written by the poet and critic Hasso Krull. Krull’s critical texts with theoretical and deconstructivist leanings later influenced his own work and that of several other writer-critics. We will now briefly look at two texts: ‘On Behalf of a Small Literature’ and ‘Art for Art’s Sake. Theses’.

   ‘On Behalf’, published in autumn 1991, was probably influenced by the idea of a ‘small literature’ presented in the book ‘Kafka’ by G. Deleuze – F. Guattari. “Small no longer characterises certain literatures, but the revolutionary conditions of any literature within the framework of what is called big,” runs the explanation in French. The more general background of Krull’s manifesto is connected with the re-evaluation of “big literature” or the canon of national literature. This is a call for conscious marginality and rejection of the previous official literature. New reading and writing strategies are emphasised. Such literature should perhaps focus on quite different, marginal topics and impressions, aesthetics and ethics. This also involves different perceptual relations with the world and language. The advantage of a small literature, according to Krull, lies in searching for alien elements in itself, in its cultural and linguistic experience, art etc. “To write as if in a foreign language. In Estonian. As if I were someone else but I don’t know him”, writes Krull. The canonical topic of Estonian literature has derived from nationalism and European philosophy and ethics (e.g. the historical allegorical novels of Jaan Kross), whereas a small literature no longer has such obligations – it puts a distance between itself and the ‘big’ literature.
In the manifesto “Art for Art’s Sake. Theses” (Wellesto Infoleht no 1, 1988), Krull presents a possibility for a ‘small literature’. The idea of a slogan instead of a title dates from the late 19th century cultural period of European decadence. Krull adjusts this symbolist-aesthetic art ideal in order to achieve the possible aims of late 20th century poetry. The twenty complicated and imaginative theses were largely influenced by the structuralist and post-structuralist treatment of language in the last century. ‘Art for art’s sake’ for Krull means ridding poetic language of everything empirical. Such “abstract poetry” focuses on the grammatical component of poetic language -- it is not keen on anything lexical. The text is dominated by grammatical image and meaning. Krull is talking here of the dictates of form in European poetry or the reign of rigid schemes (metre, rhyme etc). This attitude, however, had led to the emergence of the ‘greenhouse effect of poetry’. The mentioned artificial conditions can be abandoned via a method that Krull calls ‘para-grammatism, which creates dialogue with other texts’. What he means here is playing grammatical possibilities against one another, the existence of discourses and social sub-languages side-by-side in the text, and also intertextuality. This emerges ‘bloody and energetic, alien New’, which cannot be traditionally interpreted or function differently from poetry which derives from abstracting aesthetics.

All the texts described above reflect the wishful thinking of the group of writers in the 1990s about post-occupational new literature. They are like dreams about literature. Freud regarded a dream as wish fulfilment. There is no knowing whether the wish in the subconscious is going to be fulfilled, and this produces fear – therefore the dream’s public, or manifesto-like, contents are sometimes transformed. The described manifestos could thus be the transition period’s disguised image of the coming literature of the 1990s. This is why I have tried in this article to reveal the latent or hidden contents and context of these manifestos. At least in my opinion, the development of the literary practice of the 1990s generally corresponded to the latent contents of these texts. The dreams came true.