Panem et Circenses.
Let me toast to your freedom
your eight-hour workday,
your cultivated soul,
and your other excuses!
When all the chatter
when your thick books are written,
your election is over
and man’s sacred rights
have met your deep bow,
let us meet as brothers
and without a grudge
the doors of simple truth:
the true freedom,
and Caesar’s new Circus.
It can seem almost predestined that one would become a writer with fascist and Nazi sympathies if a whole flock of predators showed up in your name: eagle (örn), wolf (ulf), and tiger. Today, Örnulf Tigerstedt is as good as forgotten, but in the 1930s he was a respected author in both Finland and Sweden. Some even regarded him as a distinguished modernist. In the late 1930s, Tigerstedt also become something of leading idealogue for a group of young radical right-wing Finland-Swedish writers who called themselves “The Black Guard,” and during the war he was part of Goebbel’s European Writers Union. All of this came to an end in 1944 when he fled to Sweden, where he was granted political asylum and where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Interestingly enough, Tigerstedt was the president of the Finnish PEN center during 1933-34.
The poem Panem et Circenses is included in his 1931 collection Block och öde. It is characteristically fascistoid for the period in its contempt for the labor movement and middle class liberalism. Human rights, labor rights, democracy and frailty are entirely dismissed by superciliously ironically clenched teeth. All of this stands in contrast to the “simple truth” which predictably enough is a spectacle of violence enacted in the new Rome in a new Colosseum, that is: in Mussolini’s Italy.
In this situation, the typical dichotomy talk versus action is also in the poem: contempt for “all the chatter.” It is on this topic that I will stop and dig a little deeper. It is evident that for Tigerstedt “all the chatter” in “thick books” cannot lead to ideal simple truths, truths that result in the end of petty political oppositions and to everyone becoming brothers. Simple truths let themselves be expressed solely in a particular and restrained language: simple truths require a simple language. This is also reflected in the poem’s style and diction: there is not a single linguistic complication in Panem et Circenses. Starting with the title of the poem—which is unmistakably secured by ending with a firm, full stop—the poem is a march of words where precisely what (according to the author) ought to be said is said: nothing is unnecessary and nothing in the message is disturbed by meanings that might otherwise give the reader pause.
According to this sort of poetics, an intricate and ambiguous, perhaps ornate, language is something that diverts from all that truth (reality) is. This is a view of language that recurs in many different situations, even in non-radical right-wing ones. But in all these situations, the point of departure is that language is a tool that can be used to describe and communicate a reality that is essentially simple and intelligible. It is in this respect that a certain kind of labor movement can sometimes meet a far-right poetics.
In our age there are many who (without considerable knowledge of the history of ideas, it seems) speak condescendingly of “postmodern” art and literature—perhaps in opposition to unambiguous and straightforward literature and art. If we were to add to this that literature ought to have a national aim, we will find ourselves already well within the cultural political platform of the right-wing populist Finns Party. For those of us who seek to problematize the relationship between language and reality, the idea of language that such a platform propagates is too banal and mendacious, but above all, it is one that is dangerous. Language as a straightforward—provided one only uses proper language—means of communication is a deceptively attractive dream that many authors have gotten lost in. There are minimalists who give utterly unrealistic credit to the power and weight of the individual word, and there are well-meaning philosophers of language and poets who believe it is possible to find a language—be it a different language—that can place things (and the world, and us) in their true light. Among the latter authors, we find again plenty of modernists who, despite the radicalism of their poetry, have wanted to find the right language: real reality.
And then there is the other kind of poets—to which I’d like to think I belong to. For these poets, language is always imperfect, always marked by lack and overflowing with unnecessities. These are the authors who problematize syntax, morphology, and lexicon, etc. For them, grammar is not a fixed system but at most merely an accidental description of language. These are the writers who seek new poetic methods to approach the world in the only way they believe the world (for us) essentially lets itself be approached: through language. But they never believe that the language they use or discover is final or true. They understand namely that poetry in addition to language is also time: change, all the time and in every moment. This results in—in the best cases, perhaps—these writers trying to reach an ethical approach to language, and thereby to the world and people; they probably think: “We are living in inescapable uncertainty, and this uncertainty operates in language—this is the fundamental premise of our existence and our existing together.” They believe that any approach to language that claims there is certainty and security to be found in language will always carry with it the virus of Fascism—however well-meaning other intentions may be in the rest of such a poetics.
Yes, it is we who pen incomprehensible poetry, strange short prose or crazy essays—not on sociological or literary grounds, but rather so that our poetics cannot be separated from ethics, from what is precarious contact with the world and humans through language. We believe that we (all) have to be cautious, living in uncertainty: that not knowing is what matters—because no book in the world written in any language in the world can accommodate truth, in whole or in part. And that is precisely why we want to do it: to talk too much, write excessively comprehensive (not just in the physical sense) books, books where chatter makes impossible the silence that saturates simple truths. We choose to seek protection for each other and our communities from supposed truths: showing quite concretely that they are the very lies we can’t afford to live with if we want the best for our children.
There is another aspect to “all the chatter” that I can only touch upon here: in a working democracy, it is said—it is talked about and talked about—for anyone who desires straightforward clarity, democracy too often means an abundance of talk. Democracy is chatter at the expense of action. Democracy is a slew of unreliable and more often than not baffling words and expositions that often lead to unsatisfactory compromises. But it’s precisely this dissatisfaction—which isn’t simple but difficult—that is important: democracy is never straightforward or an utter truth and no one can ever feel entirely politically content in a democratic society; at the core of our working democracy is discontent. There is no clear and true language that would bring us to Utopia if only we discovered it, and there is no minimalist language that would solve all our problems if we only got all chatter to start speaking minimalism, speaking less and more precisely.
What makes democracy a democracy is the number of voices: that there are many and that they conflict. In a democracy, the number of different voices is the same number of its citizens, and it is of these voices that choices are made. In a society with only one voice, which speaks only one language—the true one—no elections are needed: for in this society, we would all cast the same vote.
Translation: Benjamin Mier-Cruz
Peter Mickwitz is a poet, essayist and the President of Finnish PEN.