Different routes: Northern nations calmly endure whatever life throws at them until they lose it – literary scholars delve into the myth of Arctic hysteria

A lot of people have heard about Arctic hysteria, but how many of them can actually explain what it is? It has been used in Finnish literature to justify violence and melancholy, but also carnivalistic madness. Riikka Rossi, Elise Nykänen and Antti Ahmala are part of a working group that studies strange northern emotions. Ahead of winter solstice, journalist Jantso Jokelin explores the topic in the article that is the second part in our series of long reads, Different Routes.
Kuva | Image: Joonas Rinta-Kanto

The darkest time of the year is upon us. Sleet is pouring horizontally from the sky. The coronavirus closed the world almost a year ago, and the darkening autumn has erased even the few remaining engagements from my calendar. As the winter grows darker, sports facilities, cultural events and even reading rooms in libraries and open areas in shopping centres have been closed.

With the restrictions on our movement and social lives, the polar night feels even more stifling than usual. The face mask makes me feel like I can’t breathe. I get more and more anxious, my muscles get weaker and life shrinks so much it only has room for the basics. When someone gets a little too close to me in the grocery store, I feel like I’m going to explode.

I fantasise about taking a bread bag and smashing it to pieces against the beanie-covered head of the old man puffing behind me. That’s what my best friend did to me once, after we had been drinking without a break or sleep for a week. After the bread bag beating, the atmosphere was pleasantly calm and harmonious. We lay on the ground surrounded by bread crumbs and talked about our deepest feelings.

Maybe that’s why it seems like a particularly good idea in the grocery store. I imagine the soft multi-grain bread rolls thumping against the face of the old man standing too close. The shock wave would throw his beanie off in an arc that would end behind the pickle barrels. The bag of bread rolls would explode, forming a high-fibre star in the middle of the aisle, and an incredulous look of horror would slowly transform other customers’ faces as if in a slow-motion film.

That wouldn’t be right. But that kind of thing does happen sometimes when instincts are provoked. Some people believe that we northerners are particularly vulnerable to strange outbursts of emotion. There is even a name for this phenomenon: Arctic hysteria. During its surprisingly long lifespan, the concept has lived through many different stages.

 

The shadow side of sisu

Arctic hysteria is a faintly familiar phrase to many Finns, but the essence of this phenomenon defies definitions. What is it really about? It’s probably not madness, if not quite healthy either. In some ways, it seems to be related to living in the dark and cold, to solemnity, alcohol and excessive surges of energy. The first images it evokes in me relate to strange art and crazy Finnish hobbies. At least, these have been the contexts applied to it over and over.

At the beginning of 2020, a group of literary researchers from the universities of Helsinki and Tampere started a three-year project to study Arctic hysteria and other northern emotions perceived to be difficult. The aim is to find out how the Finnish national character is described in literature and explore the recalcitrant emotions of northern peoples. What kind of emotions and images regarding the north does literature evoke?

“We are interested in the strange, negative and ambivalent emotions that northern literature has described and produced. One of our key goals is to find out what the myth of Arctic hysteria involves and what different versions of the myth have been produced through the ages,” says project leader Riikka Rossi during a phone interview.

Arctic hysteria seems to have been trampled under the concept of ‘sisu’, i.e. guts, which has been elevated to the position of national mentality. It is a trickier and more unheroic phenomenon than sisu and does not flatter our national pride in the same trouble-free way. Arctic hysteria could even be seen as a kind of shadow side of sisu; as the moment when perseverance ends, and the dark side of the self takes over.

“The concept has been known for a long time and has been discussed, for example, in literary research, but Arctic hysteria has never been assimilated into the canon of national narratives like sisu has. Much less has been written about it, although authors have described it extensively without directly naming it. The emotions represented by Arctic hysteria have been described ever since the melancholic songs of Kanteletar and the tragic stories of Kalevala were created,” Rossi says.

In the current research project, Arctic hysteria is seen as a broad collection of emotions and reactions. It is a concept that has been used not only to describe, but also to produce northern reality. In the spirit of political scientist Benedict Anderson, Finland is understood as an imagined community within the project. According to Anderson’s classic theory, nations are imagined communities whose members may feel an affinity with each other, even though they don’t directly know each other. A sense of solidarity is built by many means, including through cultural products and emotions.

The project examines the imagined community as a community of emotions, which may be glued together also by special shared feelings. The project charts descriptions of the north and the Finnish national self-image in Finnish literature and explores the methods used to appeal to Finns and the ways the national community of emotions has been built.

“What narrative and rhetorical means are used to successfully persuade readers to join even a morally questionable world? What methods are used to make readers believe in the world views and ideologies presented in the works? How do emotions work as a means of influencing and convincing people?” Rossi asks, listing questions relevant to the research.

National characteristics are not truths set in stone, but self-perpetuating and self-strengthening epithets. Literature has built an image of Finns as a quiet and melancholy-prone people whose reticent, semi-lethargic gawking hides the constant possibility of an uncontrollable fit of rage.

It has created the idea of a land of melancholic songs, as well as a host of other myths and symbols that suggest that people living here in the middle of nowhere have to either try and keep going no matter what or die from a failing heart or mind. The culture is haunted by the demands of realism and lack of humour, the fear of everything satirical and symbolic. Darkness is seen not so much as an intriguing space, but as a dead end, the bottom of a sack; a black wall with the stench of rye that starts at your doorstep and shuts you indoors.

The idea that the darkness, cold and isolation have a fundamental impact on the Finnish national character has also been repeated doggedly. These ideas reinforce a steady solemnity, but also generate a strange pressure inside.

“Already in the book Maamme kirja (The Book of Our Country, 1875), the author Zachris Topelius describes Matti the Finn as a taciturn, serious and quiet man. He loves his home and is an honest and hard worker, but once he loses his temper, he goes into a wild rage. In a way, Topelius formulated a kind of national type of Arctic hysteria,” Rossi says.

Is this the mythology we really wanted to build? Who created it – and how?

 

Explorers were fascinated by primitive emotions

The idea of northern madness dates back a long time and has been repeated in the descriptions of numerous Arctic nations since the reports written by early explorers. As far as we know, Arctic hysteria is first mentioned in the anthropological writings of the 19th century. Researchers of Siberian shamanism, the Inuits and the Sami have described this phenomenon in various ways.

“Northern regions and people have always been a source of fascination for people living elsewhere. A journey to the edge of the world and to the north has often been described as a journey beyond the reason and order of an assumed civilisation; to a world influenced by various primitive passions. The north has also been used to arouse fear culturally,” Rossi explains.

In primitive art, people with a simple, natural lifestyle are often presented as primitive even in their emotional reactions. As such, they are considered to reveal some kind of ultimate truth about humans. Emotions are seen as an expression of a person’s humanity and authenticity, while the unrestrained expression of emotions has been seen to indicate a lack of refinement.

“Emotions – especially fear or aggression – have been seen as a remnant from a more primitive time. Civilisation is understood as a state in which feelings are regulated. A civilised person is able to restrain themselves, hide their feelings when needed and even pretend. Primitive sentimentality has been seen as indicative of some kind of backwardness,” Rossi says.

During the reign of Freudian psychoanalysis, hysteria became a fashionable diagnosis, particularly in connection to women. In the Arctic environment, hysteria was seen to take on unique forms. Explorers described sudden states of rage, violence and epileptic unconsciousness among Skolt Sami women. At the end of the 19th century, explorers who had spent time with the Inuit peoples of Greenland described a similar condition called piblokto, which involved erratic and self-destructive reactions.

These seizures have been put down to lack of light and isolation, as well as hypervitaminosis A, which is caused by a diet rich in the internal organs of animals. On the other hand, the phenomenon described by the explorers has also been criticised: the word piblokto is not known in the local languages, and the descriptions in general show a strong outsider’s gaze. The hysterical states of indigenous peoples have even been seen as a reaction to the intrusive behaviour of strangers. At worst, this has meant violence and rape against the indigenous populations by the ‘master race’.

“In colonialist folk science, the assumption arose that the peoples of the north are particularly inclined to melancholy and hysterical outbursts, manic-depression and extreme emotions arising in extreme conditions. However, this was a myth produced by cultural discourse,” Rossi explains.

“Outbursts leading to radical extremes”

In Finland, Arctic hysteria became a broader topic of discussion in the decades following the Winter and Continuation Wars. Marko Tapio’s series of novels, Arktinen hysteria (Arctic Hysteria, 1967–1968), was influential in defining the concept. The series discussed the mental darkness of the nation with extraordinary ruthlessness.

Tapio had probably studied old ethnographic writings and picked up the concept of Arctic hysteria there. Already in his notes from the late 1950s he pondered this Finnish peculiarity extensively:

“This is the reaction of an abysmally melancholic, doomed, passive people. Every now and then, it reveals some extreme phenomenon: this is Arctic hysteria. At those times, the related outbursts that lead to radical extremes cannot be constrained by any amount of self-control. Contrary to the enthusiasm and ecstasy characteristic of people from tropical regions, this is anything but the elation of life. Even at its most boisterous, it is deadly serious. We do not know exactly what it is.”

Under Tapio’s treatment, Arctic hysteria spread from academic descriptions of indigenous peoples to becoming the psychological attribute of an entire nation. Men were considered particularly prone to suffer from extreme outbursts. Even in the first book of the novel series, people are constantly drinking and fighting in a very masculine atmosphere. At social events organised in workers’ halls, men stab each other in the face so quietly and with such a practised hand that the music and dancing are not disrupted at all. The more the folk musicians drink, the better they play and are at their best when they can no longer stand.

Men tie dynamite to cats and birds and watch a flying crow explode in the hazy sky and turn into a cloud of feathers. Elsewhere a young man asks his friend to crush his leg until it breaks to prevent having to join the army. Later, the pus-laden infected leg is squeezed with pliers and a mixture of pork and flour is put on it to make the leg look as bad as possible.

The atmosphere is completely dark and hysterical, unique in Finnish literature. Although the progression of the stories is sometimes absurd, there is something frighteningly recognisable about the atmosphere of the work.

Modernists from the 1950s and 60s were interested in a new kind of national self-definition and, at the same time, in difficult emotions and unreliable narrators who alienate readers or sweep them along into their morally questionable world,” says Elise Nykänen, who is studying Marko Tapio and the bystanders in literature.

“Looking at your own people from a Central European perspective emerged more strongly. Modernists were also interested in abnormal minds and gloomily carnivalistic outcast narrators, which includes Harri Björkharry, the central character in Tapio’s series of novels.”

Björkharry’s worldview has often been described as nihilistic. To him, Arctic hysteria is the behaviour of ‘a people with a long attention span who are focused on something’ when that behaviour ‘grows until it reaches the dimensions of a melodrama.’ Quiet sulkiness, seriousness and melancholy are mixed with Slavic exaggeration, delirium tremens and violent surges of energy. However, the prevailing mood is mute anxiety, a form of violence that never finds release.

“Tapio describes how the worst part is actually the frustrated, repressed aggression that cannot find a way out. Working-class women, especially, can do nothing but suffer quietly and pass on their fears to future generations. Presented by a morally questionable narrator, such an order is described as the natural, inevitable state of affairs, as is violence that escalates into war,” Nykänen says.

Marko Tapio’s texts convey the idea of a cleansing war. Violence is presented as the necessary consequence of social conditions that can be an exciting and regenerative event for the nation. For these reasons, Tapio is often considered a politically conservative or right-wing writer. One person to have recently become interested in Tapio’s life work is writer Timo Hännikäinen, who has spoken at nationalist and extreme right-wing events, causing media controversy. His book on Tapio called Hysterian maa (Land of Hysteria, 2013) is also being studied within the Arctic hysteria project.

“Turning a national story about a hero inside out can also indicate defiance, lack of options, nihilism, even the admiration of violence and misogyny. One of our aims is to find out how and why Arctic hysteria and other images seen as particularly northern have been of interest to politically conservative and even extreme right-wing thinking, which emphasises exclusionary nationalism,” says Riikka Rossi.

Marko Tapio wrote two parts of his series of novels, which he had planned as a four-part work, before collapsing under the huge workload, alcoholism and his abuse of sleeping pills in 1973. In his book Hysterian maa, Hännikäinen explains that a sealed archive file was found in the author’s estate after his death. The text on the cover indicated that the file contained the fourth part of the series of novels. When the file was opened at the inventory of the estate, it contained a stack of pure white paper.

 

Frenzy, resistance and nostalgic grief

In addition to the topic, Arctic hysteria can also be reflected in the literary style. Especially since the 1980s, a certain kind of masculine anger, frenzy and conservative nuances have been evident in Finnish essayistic literature. Personal voice, provocation and northern identity have been strongly highlighted in the texts. The pioneers of this genre include writers such as Pentti Linkola, Erno Paasilinna and Jouko Turkka.

In the Arctic hysteria project, Antti Ahmala examines the recalcitrant emotions and stylistic devices used in Finnish essayistic literature. The preliminary material includes the works of Linkola, Paasilinna and Timo Hännikäinen. In his post-doctoral project, Ahmala has also studied the essayistic literature of Antti Nylén and Tommi Melender. The intellectual heirs of the dissident essayists of the late 20th century seem to find more and more cause for negative torrents of criticism in the empty promises of modern culture.

“Pentti Linkola discussed the negative impacts of modernisation on the Finnish psyche at length. He felt a certain hatred and nostalgic sorrow not only for the destruction of the environment, but also for the disappearance of the traditional agrarian lifestyle. He was quite an important influence on the anti-modernism and angry style of contemporary essayists such as Nylén and Hännikäinen. Melender’s anger seems to have subsided a little, but his work has also involved his own kind of anti-modern themes,” Ahmala says.

“From these perspectives, progressive thinking appears to be a myth and humanistic hubris or, in the light of an environmental issue, a kind of unfounded confidence in our ability to solve ecological problems. These viewpoints are accompanied by a strong experience of the banality of modern life.”

Today’s essayists have more foreign influences mixed in with their negative northern emotions. They have sought inspiration for their style, for example, from French 19th-century anti-modernists such as Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Gustave Flaubert, who challenged ideas considered progressive in their day, and, for example, Michel Houellebecq, a key successor to the French anti-modern tradition.

Dark northern carnival

Even if Arctic hysteria is largely a cultural structure, it does not make it non-existent. There must be something that will explain the largest relative number of extreme metal bands in the world, their fascination with making an infernal racket, rampaging in the woods at night and making a mess with pig’s blood. There is something utterly real in the desire to whip yourself with birch switches in a 100-degree sauna. And what should one think of the ‘drunken rage gene’ discovered in many Finns’ genome which predisposes them to aggressive behaviour while drunk?

The real effects of darkness are also known in psychiatry, and seasonal affective disorder, for example, cannot be shrugged off as mere fantasy. Its various manifestations simply depend on the individual, time and culture. They are not always negative.

Unlike sisu, Arctic hysteria has not become a flagship mentality for the Finnish identity, but it has frequently appeared in cultural discourse. Its name has been used to spread the image of Finland, for example, in the form of a classical wind quintet and an international exhibition of contemporary art. The title has also been used in the release of a compilation album by the pioneers of Finnish avant garde music, including songs such as Eleitä kolmelle röyhtäilijälle (Gestures to Three Burpers), Kuoleman puutarha (The Garden of Death) and Hysteriablues (Hysteria Blues).

“The concept is real and exists… Arctic hysteria is manic-depression and the act of going overboard,” Rosa Liksom says in Miki Liukkonen’s radio programme on Yle. Writers talk about their northern background with pride. Arctic hysteria is a recognisable phenomenon for writers and even a source of inspiration.

Negative definitions can also be turned into positive ones. The words ‘impressionist’ and ‘beatnik’ were originally terms of abuse, as were ‘queer’ and ‘pagan’. All of them have since become epithets proudly used by the members of the groups in question. Instead of cultural appropriation, the word used is reappropriation, i.e. cultural redefinition. Riikka Rossi talks about emancipatory or empowering Arctic hysteria. Melancholy, primitiveness and various emotional outbursts are accepted as positive features that contribute to the building of a group’s identity.

“Arctic hysteria can also be understood as a carnival and a creative positive madness. Voices that make a parody and irony of the issue take emancipatory possession of uncomfortable emotions. This creates a liberating power that can reduce self-defeating emotional patterns and create something new,” Rossi says.

Perhaps that is why, when I think about Arctic hysteria, I think about Rosa Liksom and dancer Reijo Kela, the accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, artist Reidar Särestöniemi and the male choir Huutajat. I also think about the theatre actress, director and playwright Leea Klemola, who has examined Arctic identity, northern emotions and various borderline experiences in her hysterical plays called the Kokkola trilogy. They involve helping a naked friend get up in deep snow, getting undressed in sub-zero temperatures and wrapping oneself in quilted winter clothes indoors. Marja-Terttu, played by Heikki Kinnunen, decides to move to Greenland when it no longer gets cold enough in the smalltown of Kokkola. Life looks both crazy and deeply relatable at the same time. Arctic hysteria involves warmth, stubbornness and uniqueness.

The mentality of hysteria has also been turned into a dark comedy in many Finns’ favourite sketches, such as Roudasta rospuuttoon (From Frost to Frost Damage, Studio Julmahuvi) and Kyläkäräjät (Village Court, Tabu). They turn national self-flagellation, foolish drunken acts, paranoia and the xenophobia of a small community into something to laugh about together.

The song Pohjolan Pidot (Northern Feast), written by Juha “Watt” Vainio, might be considered a parade example of hysteria humour. It describes people drinking and copulating through the dark winter until their genitals are red and raw and the only candle in the house has been pushed up someone’s anus.

 

The most hysterical – and the happiest people in the world?

What role does Arctic hysteria play in modern-day Finland, a country at the top of world happiness reports, where more people are exercising than boozing, and where relief from anxiety is more often sought in therapy than in knife fights? People take holidays in the south and use bright light lamps to avoid winters that get milder and milder every year, and instead of primitive emotions, more and more bourgeois emotions take the stage: the manic pursuit of happiness, good vibes and interior design prints. They set up ethical institutions and collectively wag their finger at a pop star who swears in front of children. Writers too make jokes on television in comfortable entertainment programmes.

Perhaps Arctic hysteria could be sought in the hate speech prevalent on the Internet, paranoid conspiracy theories, shelters for substance abusers, queues for shops’ discount-rate buckets or Black Friday. But how Arctic would the phenomenon be anymore? The same phenomena are known all over the world (perhaps with the exception of the considerable nationwide popularity of queues for buckets).

We may have to accept the fact that Arctic hysteria exists partly out of reach, deep in the innermost recesses of the human mind. We do not know exactly what it is, Marko Tapio said and started writing his series of novels.

Whatever it is, we have felt the need for the concept of Arctic hysteria for one purpose or another. At least it has spawned literature that has helped its authors and readers to cope in the midst of darkness. And even if it turns out to be fiction, at least it’s our fiction. Even as a figment of someone’s imagination, it has an impact; for example, in Marko Tapio’s words:

“It is a phenomenon in our lives, lived in the midst of a harsh climate and ruthless conditions. It’s a depression that knows no bounds when it gets going. A taciturn man will endure everything life throws at him for months, sometimes years, sometimes decades, in a satisfied and calm manner, until he hits the bottle and drinks continually for as long as he can, starting quickly, wandering wildly and restlessly in his immediate surroundings, screaming, ranting and raving, talking a lot, explaining the whole sad picture book of his life; in a word, burning. And always burning out.”

 

Text: Jantso Jokelin
Illustrations: Joonas Rinta-Kanto
Translation: Taina Pemberton

The Finnish quotations of Marko Tapio translated here into English are taken from Matti Palm’s article “Kohti isoa romaania. Arktisen hysterian esiymmärtäminen” (Towards the Great Novel. Pre-understanding Arctic Hysteria.) In the work by Miisa Jääskeläinen (ed.), Loogillista ihmettelyä. Kirjoituksia Marko Tapiosta. Saarijärvi: Tapperien Taideseura (Tapperien Art Society), 107–128.

The members of the three-year project, Arctic hysteria – strange Northern emotions are literary researchers from the Universities of Helsinki and Tampere. The project operates at the Tampere University’s Narrare Centre for Interdisciplinary Narrative Studies. Within the project, University Lecturer, Docent Riikka Rossi (Tampere University) studies Northern primitivism and emotions, Elise Nykänen, PhD (University of Helsinki), focuses particularly on the literature of Marko Tapio and other late modernists, and Antti Ahmala, PhD (University of Helsinki), takes on a viewpoint that highlights Finnish essayists, masculinity and anti-modern emotions. Doctoral researcher Sarianna Kankkunen (University of Helsinki) examines the connection between the wilderness, peripheries and extreme conditions to the presentation of Arctic hysteria in modern literature. Doctoral researcher Charlotte Coutu (Tampere University) studies Rosa Liksom’s literature and the visual art of Greenland-based Pia Arke, while University Lecturer, Docent Saija Isomaa (Tampere University) examines new forms of Arctic hysteria in particular in dystopian fiction.

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