Stealing a Window: Estonian Y-Lit

by Aare Pilv, Berk Vaher

In the last couple of years, several peculiar literary works have been published in Estonia which have a certain ‘family resemblance’ in their bold departure from the mainstream of literature and their subsequent fall into a kind of receptive blank or twilight zone.
Authors and works who have inspired this article are1:

14NÜ, the members of which are Mait Laas, Paavo Matsin, Maarja Vaino, mystificational Marianne Ravi and, posthumously, Johannes Üksi, a marginal man-of-letters from the 1920s; also, Tripp Jarvis is sometimes included. The literary grouping has released approximately ten publications since 1993, playing with the book design and the ontology of text - their main format is the so-called stripbook, which has sparked from the idea of binding the cut-off edges of books and printing their own text on them. The latest release to date is ‘Tour Guide’s Laptop 1891-2003’, also the first of their books to gain slightly more than a cult status.

Valdur Mikita, a PhD in Semiotics, on ‘A Comparison of Creativity Treatments in Semiotics and Psychology’; his two volumes ‘Joy of Mishap’ (2000) and ‘Journey to the State of Impamp Poetry’ (2001) contain practical examples to his theory, experimental exercises in creativity. Mikita’s domain is linguality, seeing language everywhere beside the verbal - the Babel-like essence of the world which is charted by Mikita with the consistency of a scientist and the passion of a gambler. Mikita suggests all and sundry modes of reading the worldly phenomena as languages out of which poetry can be shaped (e.g. movement of the branches of a tree as a language of sorts), or of reading verbal language in an unconventional manner, so that the attention is focused on the peripheral strategies of decoding as opposed to dominant ones (e.g. by replacing some words in a sentence with symbols while maintaining the comprehensible grammatical structure). In addition, he brings examples of ‘impossible texts’ (e.g. a picture assembled of points in a frame, claimed to be a poem which claims its own illegibility; or a reflection in the mirror accompanied by questions assuming the mirror to be a poem.)

Erkki Luuk, likewise a semiotician, has published poetry and criticism in magazines and released a book called ‘0rnitologist’s Commencement’ which was awarded the Betti Alver Newcomer Prize in 2003. It presents a text which could be compared to abstract art, with deep structures of sentences instead of colours and shapes. At the same time, the text includes a consistent narrative, especially surprising in this kind of approach to language.

Kiwa (spelled ki’wa or ki wa), who has been known for a while as painter and video artist, has dabbled in experimental electronic music and is currently also the spoken-word vocalist in the Estonian cult group Luarvik Luarvik. He has released a collection of poems called ‘Wayward Toys from the Children’s Hospital’ (2002) and essays in the Vihik quarterly, and published a longer prose work ‘The Way of the Robot is Displacement’. His texts bear resemblance to Luuk’s but are more impulsive and florid, more intent on a kind of blitzkrieg exhaustion of different discourses until obtaining a completely free-flowing incessant chant. In his writings, techno-shamanist mysticism merges into fascination with the unbridled associativeness which Kiwa infers from the speech and sensibility of pre-pubescent girls.

 Kaspar, who has published ‘Ummakumma’, a stylish self-illustrated compilation of miniatures (bagatelle) - he comes across as a jolly dandy and bubble-blower who dallies with the free yet manneristically composed associations of words and high literary clichés.

Also deserving a mention is the Vihik quarterly, established in 2002 in Tartu and in fact serving as one of the main venues for most of the above listed authors. The emergence of a new alternative literary and cultural magazine is certainly one of the preconditions for the visibility of the discussed formation in the Estonian literary field.          

Why ‘Y’?

There is probably no need to declare them entirely unprecedented on a global scale (futurism and dada, the cut-ups of Gysin and Burroughs, e.e. cummings, Lev Rubinstein and the Russian conceptualism, Oulipo would be but a few possible parallels; indeed, ‘Pharos’ by the German avant-garde writer Arno Schmidt, recently translated into Estonian, has several touching points with Erkki Luuk’s ‘0rnitologist’s Commencement’.) The precedents have still not made the Estonians any easier to comprehend for the mainstream literary criticism.

One can well expect a counter-argument that to speak of some kind of coherent mainstream is a purely rhetoric device with no actual content and in fact there is no mainstream whatsoever in literature, nor could be. Still, taking a long perspective view of literary history, one might be able to detect certain constants - in the judgement of literary ‘experts’ just as in the ‘readership at large’ (although the mutual causality of those contingents is evident as well). In prose, for example, we can consider narrative to be a constant of the mainstream - critics as well as readers tend to expect ‘stories’ as a rule; fragmentary as well as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writings are much less likely to make it to the canon. On a broader scale, ‘contemporaneity’ would be another constant of the mainstream, in the sense of a generally accepted understanding of current or historical reality.

It would be easy to classify off-the-mainstream literature as ‘avant-garde’ (which already in itself would suggest approval) or as ‘periphery’ (which in its ambivalence would provide more freedom of judgement), yet those concepts do not quite correspond with our understanding of the nature of the presently analysed works in relation to the more traditional literature. For ‘avant-garde’ as ‘vanguard’ is by no means destined to depart from the mainstream high literature but indeed can be its mighty punching fist which would ‘bring the people back to books’ (or, according to Jürgen Rooste, a young Estonian poet and essayist full of social criticism: literature needs the avant-garde, not the elite).

‘Periphery’ is a similarly clumsy term: not only ‘avant-garde’ is regarded as literary periphery, but also - not to say, rather - bad, effete, witless, hackneyed literature, the main drawback of which actually consists in the excessive loyalty to the values of the centre, turning it into the rotten core of literature, as it were. (Its methodology is by no means restricted to maudlin provincial aunts/uncles or sixth-form goths forever doomed to outsiderdom; well-recognised authors may lapse into the same aesthetics when they get used to success - not even with a conscious twist but in earnest, and that can be just as bad as the ‘periphery’, but would still be more readily noticed due to the author’s position or earlier creation.)

In order to avoid the various unwelcome connotations of ‘avant-garde’ or ‘periphery’, we will label the literary current in question with an ad hoc blank term Y-lit.

The Art of Window Stealing

Y turns into ‘avant-garde’ or ‘periphery’ only if Y entails some kind of tendency or bias towards becoming part of the canon, if it has some kind of ambition for ‘power’2.  Pure Y, however, smashes the windows of a canonical literary ‘hall of fame’, but in order to pick up the splinters, not to get into the hall. Y-lit is a ‘thief’ who smashes the window because it needs the broken glass, not anything from the room. Indeed, perhaps the greatest problem of Y-lit is the futile hope that the splinters will retain the colours of the view in and the view out. And perhaps the greatest artistic successes of Y-lit consist in actually managing to retain the colours. What happens with the canon (the hall) meanwhile is that fresh or cold air flows in from the window hole, a new pane is needed; the new one, however, is always more lucid and provides a clearer view.

Still, few people can and will read this kind of literature. The attitude to it is if not hostile, then at least superficial, lacking the ability to draw from it what it has on offer. One might argue that the ‘ordinary’, more conventional literature is likewise rarely exhausted; the rate of supply and demand is always at a loss to literature, and that is what turns it into art. Yet the reception of conventional literature treats its object always as literature (proper), recognising its great or small literary value. The reception of Y-lit is restricted: even if it is taken seriously, conventional literary theory tends to fit ill with it, but often it is not even regarded as worthy of serious literary analysis - it is taken for a mere game, ‘experiment in form’, which might well be jolly but would not stand the test of literature proper.3

How to analyse and evaluate Y-lit - in relation to the canon as well as in itself? In a culture where literature and the arts in general are increasingly focused on anomalies from the social norms, this is in fact a significant question for society as a whole.

Taking a risk of seeming abstract and obscure to the uninitiated reader, we will still concentrate on the recognitions useful for the reading and judgement of Y-lit, while providing the analysis of particular works and authors merely as an the illustrative purpose.
Such an approach appears isomorphic with the object of study, even as the initial vantage point for defining or recognising Y could well be non-integration. The ignorance is precisely a cultivated one, not genuine, for in order to get the splinters, one has to know where the window is or indeed what it is. (All Estonian Y-writers seem to be remarkably well-read.) At the same time, if one is to treat the window in the conventionally ‘knowledgeable’ manner, then the knowledge holds that the window can be opened, it has hinges and cremone bolts, it ought not to be smashed for letting the air into the room (and that the window pane would be of no use on its own, not to speak of splinters.)

Getting to the ‘Y’ in Reality

The literature which gets included in the canon will reproduce tradition as it appears to demand imitation (by inspiring in readers and critics the rules of ‘good literature’ to justify the elevation of a work). Hardly does the author itself strive to be exemplary in the sense of imitability but neither would he try to rule out the possibility (evidently being concerned with capturing something of ‘human nature’ and representing reality in a way that would be generally regarded as adequate). Thus his/her writing does cause imitations all the same, willy-nilly, for better or worse - and all that only fortifies the position of ‘original’ and yet also the tradition in the canon. Meanwhile, Y appears to severely break the rules of ‘making literature’, ostentatiously setting up an act to follow - and yet the author has consciously excluded any imitation of equivalent worth, shrugging off the responsibility for establishing new rules. The ‘burglar’ breaks the window and gets away with the splinters (thus in fact not even breaking in or becoming a thief! if only a hooligan); whereas a follower who would step into the room through a broken window (s/he would be unable to smash the same glass!), could already be accused of burglary (which s/he in fact has not committed!) on the purpose of squattery or theft. (And as customary, the captured one will be submitted to attempts at rehabilitating him/her into ‘homely’ tameness - whereas the one who refrained from breaking in will stay free.)

Unlike mere ‘avant-garde’, Y is characterised by the pursuit of true non-traditionality, obviating the possibility of tracing it back to literary tradition. Even for those who go on preferring to talk about Y as ‘avant-garde’ will gain from this differentiation a possibility for a further distinction between the ontological avant-garde and the political one (the latter in a very un-topical sense; and whereas we mean literary politics in particular, we have no illusions of its total annihilation - literary politics is inevitable insofar as it is conceived in the name of organisation of reading and systematicity of knowledge.)

Y, however, is bound to be conceived by deep dissatisfaction with literature, uses of the written word, eventually with language itself or its customary manifestations. One of Y’s key questions is - what is the third option beside language and silence? (A few authors more complacent with tradition and the canon might be likely to ask that as well but in case of Y the question seems downright unavoidable.)
That is connected with a question of limits and inevitabilities of language (including the allegedly normal use of it) in literature, in establishing its mainstream and margins, analogously with the above mentioned constants. Is Tammsaare a classic because he writes the way normal people perceive language? But does he indeed? Or does he seem normal/normative insofar as he himself has influenced that conventional perception of language?
Or, more precisely: does Tammsaare hold his position because he has been played up to there by the literary politics which has mimicked the evaluative patterns of society, or is he there purely because of his placement in the field of lingual conventions? Naturally, the two are connected, but which is primary - for if the literary field is primary, then we would always have a chance of playing at the contingency of the formation of the canon and that makes it possible to see Y as ‘avant-garde’ and ‘periphery’ (in the given case, essentially a somewhat suppressed and misunderstood literature which by its nature deserves better treatment); whereas if the lingual field is primary, then the situation refers to the inevitability of the canon, for the internal possibilities of language are less contingent than social patterns, and in this case the marginal status of Y is entirely lawful and natural and even recommended. (That is the choice between a democratic and an aristocratic treatment of literature.)

The first possibility inspires speculations: could Y be something else (push the limits of language even further) if the canonical literature were something else? If Mikita were Tammsaare, would Tammsaare then be Mikita or would there be something utterly unimaginable in the place of Mikita?

The second possibility at least suggests an assertion: Tammsaare is a classic because people perceive their perception of language in a manner which corresponds with his writings. How they really perceive language is an altogether different matter4, and indeed it is the principal task of Y to explicate that; but that could not be canonical, just as one cannot inhabit the permanent psychoanalytical reality. Thus, Mikita will never become Tammsaare, and neither would he benefit anything from becoming Tammsaare, for it would be accompanied by inevitable adaptation and ‘classrooming’, as it were, which Mikita does not need.

Both possibilities lead to a constant of Y - redefining realism. The correspondence of art/literature to reality has been significant at all times, the sole questions being how this reality is defined and by which patterns of translation the correspondence of literature with that reality is achieved. The dilemma is whether to discover a new reality and new ‘things’ through language or to find from it the explanation/justification to the validity of the incumbent reality. Always a realism is invented, never an art which would not speak of the ‘really’ existing. Thus, literary history can be presented as a sequence of statements ‘but it is really like this’, ‘but it is really like that’, etc. In this case, Y is what says ‘but really’. The relationship between the canon and Y is a war fought over the survival of reality. The canon keeps its reality alive, Y brings its reality to life - victory is gained by the one who’s reality is currently more active, reactive, proactive.

Sine ira et studio

What might make Y significant at any rate for the whole of literature and culture, however, is that it bears a sine ira et studio attitude to language and human lingual capacity; that is, without over- or underrating them (even though Y does find it hard to avoid overrating).

An example of an overrating text would be a transcription of Mikita’s tree poem without any comment; let us imagine that it is a recording of the rustle of the branches of a tree with a mathematical graph of the movements of all the leaves, accompanied by a catalogue of all the distinguishable sounds and individual graphs which would serve as a glossary of sorts. That would be a text which in fact might be of some interest to the trees themselves, should they have an ear for music and talent for mathematics, but it would yield no information of any human concern. Therefore an annotation of some kind is needed which would take it to human dimensions and give a proper evaluation of what this kind of tree-poetry has got to say to a human being.

An underrating text would be provided when one would just shoot five minutes of film about any tree rustling and call that poetic; or when one would just verbalise a more or less poetic nature scene on that, leaving it completely vague which kind of language is spoken in it at all (i.e. it would just be the ‘language of nature’s beauty’, the kind of anthropomorphic poetry where nature is isomorphic with ‘landscapes of the soul’.)

That ‘without over- or underrating’ in fact means ‘to the very end of the tether’; for beyond that it would stop working. That sine ira et studio means: without vested interests in the employment of that language, and that implies that the text does not have to be communicative as required by daily social exchange of information, nor does it have to be efficient as a weapon of literary politics, something ‘longer and harder’.

That sine ira et studio would at best mean literary philosophy by the means of literature itself, going through itself; not an observation carried through on some kind of meta-level over the pragmatic use of language, but the establishment of a new meta-level, folding the language back on itself from a new angle (making the body of language turn around in its grave). Yet it should not be forgotten in that non-pragmatic stance that language is still essentially a pragmatic phenomenon. The pragmatics of language is speech, the non-pragmatics of language is silence, and balancing the two is that sine ira et studio attitude.5

Stairs to the Middle

Indeed, Valdur Mikita is something of a maverick even in the Estonian Y-lit; in a certain sense, meta-Y. Mikita is not so much an explorer of unknown countries as a cartographer, presenting to us a catalogue of linguality. Consequently, there is no need for the question which constantly pesters Y: ‘Has this not been done before?’, for the purpose of such a catalogue is not to be a ‘never-before’ (this is the ‘political’ implication of ‘avant-garde’), but simply ‘all this is possible and therefore it exists’, where ‘has-been’ or ‘not-yet’ do not count at all. Linguality as such ‘has always been’. Mikita operates with scientist’s systematicity and therefore stands outside the discourse of ‘new literature’. The only thing which evokes links to ‘avant-garde’ and ‘innovation’ (which gives it a ‘political’ taste) is that he calls it all poetry and literature, even though those terms are largely just metaphorical synonyms for unbridled linguality.

In this respect, Mikita and Erkki Luuk can even be seen as opposites. While Luuk is searching for the ‘unknown’, over which language is fumbling (and over which language would need to be spread like a veil to make the outlines of the unknown appear), then language is recognisable everywhere for Mikita - every thing displays its linguality, and perhaps this is the only reason why we are able to perceive the world as something specific (language creates a common pattern between the ‘vacant’ ornaments of unconsciousness and the meaningful configurations of consciousness.

Then again, Luuk is mostly not extremely expansive in his activity but rather works as a lingual/cultural gene technologist who evokes marvellous language-creatures, nevertheless combining some already existent textual parameters. This is not unlike the interactive construction of a dragon which adorned a lecture on the zoological aspects of alchemy by a popular natural scientist, Aleksei Turovski. The same kind of textual cross-breeding is characteristic of 14NÜ (although embarking from slightly different cultural vantage points and with higher contrast) and of Kaspar (with greater extent of dandyish mannerism and yet with more integration). The most extreme in chasing the unknown with language is Kiwa - ‘The Way of the Robot is Displacement’ is not even just manifestative as his essays but displays a downright colonialist attitude to the subconscious! He does not deny it himself, either.
Kiwa also displays the most developed ‘political’ self-awareness of the ‘avant-garde’. When he writes about his texts which have been rejected by different magazines on the grounds of vagueness of genre of plain incomprehensibility, then for the canon it is probably a chronicle of defeats, for the ‘avant-garde’ it is the subversion of defeats into achievements (and for Y, probably just an assertion of its detachment).

With Luuk, it is more sophisticated. What about his speech manifesting an author-free aesthetic of literature, held after receiving the Betti Alver Newcomer Prize?6  Is the negation of author just what it is shown to be - an apology for the emancipation of text, of written language (essentially lingual in the main) - or does it also entail a certain inside-out establishment of an author figure, a ‘politics’-dominated entry into the Alver Prize discourse with an intent on transfiguring it? Or, in other words - does Luuk swallow the prizegivers’ taming hook along with his speech or does the speech indicate precisely abstinence from the hook? In the first case, it would be ‘avant-garde’; in the second, pure Y.

It is possible that Luuk has consciously attempted to progress in both directions at once and that attempt itself is progressive, although also ever more difficult. (It is early to say whether Luuk’s creativity is fed by the insurmountable contradiction of the directions or by managing to find some common ground anyhow.7) Luuk’s poetry is getting ever more ‘twisted’ - one can even complain that in places, the conceptual context of the poems cannot be read out if the text itself anymore, i.e. it is so solipsistic and esoteric that it will not even make a sound against the window pane, let alone smash it. Possible that this (in Luuk’s own terms) ‘antisocial’ poetry is indeed pure, ‘ontological’ Y, which does not flirt with the canon even from the corner of the eye; at the same time, by ruling out the pragmatic nature of language entirely, it trips over the edge of literature. As a critic and essayist, however, Luuk has become a staple in the mainstream literary media (especially on the literature pages of Postimees, which editor Rein Veidemann can certainly be dubbed a fervent conservative!) Luuk’s studies of Jaan Oks or Heiti Talvik are smart in spotting the authors’ idiosyncracies, yet this is precisely the way the authors are worked into the deeper canon with firm authority.

The Mandate of Y

The question of Y’s translatability is also a controversial one, as is the concomitant representative role of Estonian literature in another culture. At least in part, these texts might use one language out of many possibilities, the Estonian language as a representative of language as such, pars pro toto, without striving to be subordinated to assumptions and requirements assigned to Estonian literature. In this case it would be inappropriate to treat the texts particularly as the ‘avant-garde’ of Estonian literature or even the potential ‘avant-garde’ of it.

But what are they then? Every other national literature, too, has its thresholds, the crossing of which constitutes a crucial step ahead in the development of the particular literature. Those thresholds are frequently (always? inevitably?) in our mind elsewhere than for the cultures themselves, or more precisely - we understand crossing them differently from the other cultures. What might actually cross the threshold for other cultures, might not even be recognised as such in this part of the world. Likewise - we consider something as crossing the threshold but in the end it will not do it (to that extent). (Did Emil Tode’s ‘Border State’ really cross the border between East and West of Europe?)

And nevertheless, Y translated from Estonian might come as something of a revelation to an overseas reader - for that paradoxical reason (eventually germane to all literature of interest) that in all its idiosyncracy, Y operates on the recognisable fields of reference in the world literature. Luuk, Kaspar, Kiwa and 14NÜ are all deeply aware of the margins of the canon of world literature, of the romantic/modernist/decadent ‘interzone’ and can locate conveniently on the imaginary extensions beyond the margins of the canon (that is, they would be converted fron Estonian Y to the avant-garde of the world literature, they can be employed by different cultures as virtual mercenaries, without being vulnerable in any sensible way). More important: they might become catalysts in evoking Y in other cultures.

Mikita, as already indicated, is more likely to get a place in the headquarters, not on the frontier. (Indeed, a brief introduction of Mikita along with his ‘A destructive page’ is to be found in the latest volume of Estonia magazine, edited by Cornelius Hasselblatt.) At any rate, Y can be culturally more translatable and interesting than the more obviously traditional literature designed to look ‘Euro-friendly’.  



[1] The list is neither rigid nor finite but we believe that it comprises the most significant as well as the most characteristic representatives.

[2] In some cases, the Estonian representatives of this kind of literature have been labelled as ‘micro-lit’, with emphasis on depiction of idiosyncratic inner worlds; this criterion, however, makes it possible to count in the likes of Mehis Heinsaar who already can well be considered a part of the Estonian literary canon. In other words: Y-lit can overlap with micro-lit to great extent but is technologically likely to be consigned to the twilight zone of literature, which is not necessarily the case with micro-lit. Indeed, Y itself is probably an ad hoc phenomenon by nature: when we read Alliksaar or Laaban (but also Krull or Kivisildnik), then they have accumulated around them a degree of receptive context which complicates the outright connection to Y. Thus, mere textual characteristics prove insufficient for defining Y; it is precisely a certain kind of receptive ground into which the texts fall and from which they will sprout in such a manner as to be perceived as Y. The congenial (not inevitably admiring!) reception of those texts also feels the necessity for employing a meta-language which radically differs from the previous literary criticism - we mean reviewers such as Jaak Tomberg, Neeme Lopp, Alvar Loog, essayists such as andreas w (for whom the change in meta-language is a veritable guerrilla crusade, while Lopp and Loog do not spurn the canon in principle but just find it intellectually more interesting to write of more marginal phenomena.)

[3] Erkki Luuk’s ‘0rnitologist’s Commencement’ winning the Betti Alver Newcomer Prize surely amounts to a refreshing fluke due to the particular jury, rather than the breakthrough of this kind of literature into the mainstream.

[4] An analogy: Lacan shows how people really operate psychically, but the people believe themselves to operate in accordance with, e.g., Carnegie’s theory.

[5] By the way, it reminded me of a digressive occasion when my mind in fact extended the tree text by Mikita. I was in Puurmani, walking barefoot on well-trimmed grass already a bit cool with the evening air, I felt pleasure from that feeling by my soles and I thought: what a curious feeling, at once somehow exhaustive, ‘eloquent’ in a way, and yet completely devoid of meaning; at once dumb to a thinking creature such as me and yet possible only to me as a creature feeling it and capable of abstraction; at the same time, an aspen was trembling across the road, the leaves were making that aspen sound while touching each other, and I got lost in thought (‘thought’ is a wrong word, it was rather ‘poetry’ in the Mikita’s tree poetry sense) about being in the place of an aspen leaf, or rather, if the aspen leaf sensed its rustling sweep against another, would it feel something akin to me with my sole against the grass, would it feel the same featherlight moist and coolness and natural softness and sweeping touch of a green leaf-matter; and on top of that, the only thing enabling me to draw this comparison was the sound of leaves touching each other, the sound seemed to contain some kind of information about the touch itself, which enabled me to compare the touch of leaves with the one between my sole and the grass. Immaculate synesthesia, and it cannot be said that it was not some kind of exercise in lingual capacity, for it was an exercise in translation. (AP)

[6] ‘Death of the Author, etc.’, Vikerkaar 3/2004, lk 84-86.

[7] A real-life anecdote: we were sitting with an arty bunch in the Rasputin pub at a nightfall, Luuk was also there and observed: ‘Here’s a staircase going up and a staircase going down. But where is the staircase going to the middle?’ Ever since, Priit Kruus (the new editor of the Vihik magazine) labels the kind of literature discussed here as ‘stairs to the middle’. (BV)