Ilona Pikkanen – ”Casting the Ideal Past: a Narratological Close Reading of Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä`s History of the Finnish Theatre Company 1906-1910” Lectio praecursoria 14.12.2012

FM Ilona Pikkasen väitöskirja ”Casting the Ideal Past: a Narratological Close Reading of Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä`s History of the Finnish Theatre Company 1906-1910” (Ihanteellista menneisyyttä luomassa: narratologinen lähiluku Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylän Suomalaisen teatterin historiasta I-IV 1906-1910) tarkastettiin 14.12.2012 Tampereen yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori Ann Rigney (Utrechtin yliopisto) ja kustoksena professori Irma Sulkunen. Väitöskirja on luettavissa sähköisenä osoitteessa: http://tampub.uta.fi/handle/10024/66963.

It was approximately two years ago, when I really started to understand what kind of analysis I was about to undertake of professor Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä´s massive The History of the Finnish Theatre Company (Suomalaisen teatterin historia), published in four parts between 1906 and 1910. The Theatre History was published after the General Strike, which spread from Russia to Finland and the parliamentary reform, in the middle of the politically and socially troubled period.

The almost 1600 pages of the Theatre History depict the prehistory of the Finnish National Theatre. In other words, they tell the story of the Finnish Theatre Company, established in 1872. The History covers a period of a little over 30 years, which means that the historian dedicates over 50 pages on average to each theatre season. Source quotations abound, sometimes covering tens of pages in a row. The tempo of the narrative proceeds in a merciless chronological pace, season and year after another. In other words, the Theatre History is a detailed representation of the daily life of the Finnish Theatre Company and its archival character makes it a convincing representation. No wonder it has been used as the main source for the theatre historical studies ever since its publication, although some scholars have also pointed out its biased nature: after all, professor Aspelin-Haapkylä belonged to the politically powerful Finnish-language nationalistic party, the so-called Old Finns.

Two years ago I had read, once again, a passage in the beginning of the second volume where the narrator depicts the recently established Finnish Theatre Company. The description starts with the sentence: ”Thus, the Finnish Theatre Company existed.” After this reference to the previous volume the narrator continues:

”In mid-June a group ready to work stood around Bergbom. And they set to work – that is, to rehearse – right away; no breaks were asked nor given. Thus, the Finnish Theatre Company existed.”

Although you may not find this very striking or artful, it is a pronouncedly narrativized sequence in the context of the extremely straightforward narrative. I realised that this beginning was so effective, powerful and persuasive not only because it repeats the punchline but because it is also a textual tableau vivant, a staged painting. It marks the entrance to the story-world of the Theatre History, whereby the reader sees the protagonist of the story, theatre director Kaarlo Bergbom standing like a statue, surrounded by his followers, and the motto, ”the Finnish Theatre Company existed”, inscribed around the scene. I realised that this was what I was looking for: the vividly and intensely described events, episodes and characters within the chronological event-based narration so typical for the Theatre History. They would be the keys to its interpretation. This would also mean analyzing the more general characteristics and typical features of the nationalistic discourse and nationalistic history-writing around the turn of the twentieth century in one of the ’late-coming’ nations in the North-Eastern Europe – an endeavour which might be of interest outside the national borders of Finland too.

So, I set out to examine narrative enactments of national pasts by taking one piece of history-writing as a case study. I asked how the Finnish nation was written in the beginning of the twentieth century by writing about the Finnish-language theatre in the nineteenth century. Or, to turn the question around, I took one ideology, namely the Finnish-language nationalism and its Old-Finnish variant, as my point of departure and asked what kind of literary and narrative forms it took.

This kind of textualist research position, sensitive of language, brings questions of the literary means of representing the past to the fore. It is interested in the role of narrating – an act consisting of imagination, inference, intuition and selection – in the formation of our knowledge about the past. In this approach our attempts to create plausible, persuasive representations about the past are not only understood as ways of transmitting information, but also as instruments of action and power. Historiography is seen as a ’storied’ form of knowledge and as an intertextual field of competing interpretations. And, consequently, the main research question is not what we say about the past but how we actually say it: how do we do history? And what does the narrative form contribute to our understanding of the past?

These research questions have their roots in the so-called linguistic and narrativist turns in the humanities, which occurred from the 1960´s onwards. In the course of the following decades, the ’narrative’ was conceived as the basic mode of organizing and constructing reality. Since then, most historians have come to accept the view that history-writings are not only documentary sources of information but also verbal artifacts and may be legitimately studied as such. However, most historians are also generally disinterested in the narrativizing nature of their business. They assume the homogeneity of all history-writing and dislike concepts like story or plot – especially when it comes to their own texts. Consequently, no real agreement has been reached so far about the nature of the historical scholarship and it seems to me that the theoretical discussions about the narrativity of history-writing conducted on the pages of historical journals mostly demonstrate the amazing ability of the historical community to repeat the same arguments decade after decade. Just to take one example: in 2002 professor Mary Fulbrook (Historical Theory, London: Routledge, p. 188) was still arguing against Hayden White´s paradigmatic Metahistory from 1973, and especially against White´s claim that historical scholarship is first and foremost a literary endeavour. I quote Fulbrook in her defence of history: ”Historical writing — is about real issues and real questions” (my italics). As if Hayden White’s insistence on emplotment and narrative implied any denial of past reality.

As my guideline I have followed some few historiographical narratologist who have actually analyzed history-writing as literature, and consequently I propose that we first undertake concrete textualist research and then see if we gain any new understanding on the mechanisms of history-writing by analysing it as a narrative with its own rules of reference and its expressional limitations. But what does this concrete textualist research mean methodologically?

There are several ways of conducting history of history-writing. Scholars are mostly interested in the content of the works they are studying, in their intellectual history or, in a biographical approach, the personalities behind the interpretations. In contrast to these more traditional ways, a narrativist approach focuses on the different forms and narrative means of history-writing, and asks, what the form – the ways of saying – can tell us about the culture within which the representation was produced, and how that form supports, or in some cases, contests the political, social and cultural structures within which it was produced.

This kind of narrativist close reading is often carried out by comparing different representations of the same phenomenon, like histories of the French Revolution. However, this was not possible in the case of Aspelin-Haapkylä´s Theatre History, as it has been the interpretation of the Finnish-language stage in the nineteenth century. My attempt to bring this intertextual level to the study was, instead, to discuss the shared interests and collaboration of fictive and non-fictive historical writing in the Grand Duchy of Finland in the long nineteenth century, and hence to discuss the so-called system of relevance of historical writing with some examples. Studying the culture of historical writing accordingly is an intriguing, interdisciplinary task and much more should be undertaken there.

Let me just return, for a moment, to the methodological challenges of studying the forms of history-writing. The German historian Jan Eckel has pointed out that:

”in view of the highly differentiated analyses of literature, a systematic exploration of how categories of literary narratology can be transferred to historiography would immensely refine the study of historical writing.”

To comply with Eckel´s plea, the aim of the present study is to offer a systematic analysis of a piece of history-writing by exploring and testing a set of concepts developed for understanding textual structures in fictional works. After all, a historian, as any author, creates stories which have temporal dimensions and emplotments, stories which are completed, orchestrated wholes, often characterized by the structure of beginning – middle – ending and entail representations of human experience. She or he decides whether we talk about a ’revolt’ or ’war’ and either minimizes or emphasises certain events by different literary means. Surely we all agree that a ’good’ piece of historical scholarship not only has the source references in their proper places but is also a well-told story and a coherent narrative.

Adopting historiographical narratology as the main theoretical and methodological framework meant that I was venturing into a new disciplinary field. Hence, the first concern was to find the definition for the rather ambiguous term narrative, which is the root concept for all the narrativist questions. Recent approaches to narrative in literary theory were inspiring, since they do not argue about different textual genres and their statuses as ’narratives’ but rather emphasise the gliding scale of narrativity of different texts and text groups. Consequently, in my close reading of the Theatre History the ’narrative’ as the research object is defined as a feature that all texts possess to some degree, and as the totality of the varying discursive means the narrator uses to convince the reader of the plausibility of his story-line and his general, politically, culturally and socially informed representation of a given phenomenon.

Besides these, there are other central concepts adopted from literary studies and adapted to analyse scholarly history-writing in the study discussed today. The person behind the narrative is referred to as the author-historian who authors the past into a ’storied’ form of knowledge. However, as I said, I was not conducting biographical research and wanted to keep the analysis mostly on the textual level. Thus, it is not the author-historian but the narrator who is the organizing principle or agent on the intratextual level. His voice takes the story forward. The term narrator turned out to be useful also in discussing different levels of audibility, that is the overtness or covertness of the narrating voice, and hence the question whether the national history-writing is a genre of tightly authored narratives or a representation open to negotiations.

These are some of the key concepts repeated all through the study discussed today. But the main method should still be elucidated before the main results are summarized. As mentioned earlier, I wanted to find the most vividly and intensely described episodes of Aspelin-Haapkylä´s narrative. These key episodes were found by analyzing the tempo of the narrative, by finding the slow moments in it, the summaries, scenes, stretches and pauses. They were then close read even more carefully than the rest of the story.

And now, let me exemplify the kind of results we can get by a narrativist close reading. In the epilogue Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä refers to his aim to tell the story of the Finnish-language stage, I quote, ”correctly, simply and according to the events themselves.” What does this statement mean in regard to the narrative means and literary devices of The History of the Finnish Theatre Company?

The goals Aspelin-Haapkylä took on meant that the representation is extremely detailed, which explicates the narrator´s mastery of the subject-matter, and aims at convincing the reader of the accuracy of the representation. It also means that the narrative is saturated with source quotations, most of which are seemingly verbatim. The narrator seems to be covert, invisible and inaudible, merely a scribe who lets the text tell us the simple, uncorrupted story of the past.

However, the narratological close reading shows us a different kind of Theatre History. One with a carefully, tightly woven story-line. One where certain episodes and characters rise above others due to the variety of the narrative means with which they are depicted: we find religious rhetoric, changes in verb tenses, fictive dialogues, depictions of mental processes, emotives, literary clichés, tropes like irony et cetera. It is a narrative that is seemingly polyphonic but in reality only allows a very narrow selection of voices on its pages. The narrative is indeed saturated with source references, but many of the quotations are modified adaptations, or they are provided with introductory sentences or tags that guide the readers’ interpretations. The covert narrator turns out to be a visible, audible one, holding the narrative tightly in his authoritative grip, trying to tackle the resistance the past offered for his story-line.

One of my more general interests was the possibility of finding generic features of the Old-Finnish nationalistic history-writing – that is, studying the ’poetics of nationalism’. And it seems that it is possible to understand the narrative features of Aspelin-Haapkylä´s Theatre History as outcomes of the ’idealistic aesthetics’, and claim that this might be the generic narrative quality connected to the Old-Finnish Christian idealistic nationalism, as an intellectual form supporting the established political and social structure. Consequently, one can claim that as a theoretical foundation of history-writing, the idealistic aesthetics strived to support and restore the traditional social order. In that task it used patronizing, authoritative, didactic modes of speech, created normative representations of the ideal social relations in the face of the complex, unpredictable reality, and constructed a story-line around heroic upper class characters with their lower class opposites.

However, in spite of its authoritarian tone, this kind of narrative is also fragile since there are no places for hesitations or doubts. And indeed, perhaps it was exactly the ambiguous combination of dominance and insecurity that brought about The History of the Finnish Theatre Company as we can read it: the content and the form of it show us a dominant group appropriating and monumentalizing a certain past in order to resist the threatening political, cultural and social crisis and to control the chaotic present.

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