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Rein Undusk (Under and Tuglas Literature Centre): The Invention of Estonia: Lennart Meri’s Silverwhite

I would like to hazard a guess that the word “entangled”, which has been accorded a special accent in the title of the present conference, is purported to convey two sorts of message. First, it is envisaged as a kind of counter argument to nation-based literary and cultural investigation, and “entangled” is possibly set to contest a strictly national perspective of research, considering it far too limited and insufficient for grasping the temporal processes in culture at large. Second, I believe that “entangled” is intended to take a stake in literature as a synchronically intermingled element of culture, that is, “entangled” solicits us to read literature in its relationship to the entire discursive reality of a given cultural period.

French culture, which was one of the first to bring its national literature into full blossom in the modern age, underwent a typically modern experience in the 17th century in the course of the querelle des anciens et des modernes, when it became clear for the writer of the French classical period that poetry and knowledge belong, in the modern partition of cognition, in fundamentally different compartments, even if their aims are not entirely antagonistic. However, this evolving dissension in modernity between literature in the form of belles-lettres and the scientific domain should not conceal the entanglement of the two at a deeper structural level of culture. Even if the aesthetic realm is prima facie operating according to its own specific rules, the integrity of the entire social discourse could always be attested to from a certain properly constructed viewpoint.

Lennart Meri’s Silverwhite (1976), which has been called a travelogue cum history book, on the surface offers itself as a scientific essay on the remotest past of Estonia, from the arrival of Baltic Finns from Siberia on the shores of the Baltic Sea in around 1000 BCE. The author’s argumentation prevails on a spectacularly rational basis and makes use of numerous references to historical and scientific texts, filling a list of ten pages at the end of the book. Naturally, the publication of the book was followed by loud repercussions from historians and ethnographers, some of whom were rather disapproving of it. However, on closer inspection, Meri’s text reveals its poetical substratum not only in that the text has successfully survived its criticism, but primarily because the whole brilliantly rational argumentation is underpinned from the start of the book by Meri’s personal signature. Meri (‘sea’), one of the oldest words of the Estonian language, as the author remarks on page four, is assigned a principal part in Meri’s story of Estonia. It is the dynamic centre and the communicative principle of the plot. At the same time, Meri’s text poses a real difficulty for literary critics because it lacks any stamps of fictionality, the fundamental characteristic of modern belles-lettres. On the contrary, the supposed poetry of the text is exclusively contained in the bold linkage of diverse historical, ethnographic, etymological and similar material, forming at times real cascades but being presented so convincingly that no reader who is not a specialist in the field can doubt the truthfulness of Meri’s “poetry” about Estonia. In introducing one of his most striking claims, the idea that the ultima Thule mentioned by Pytheas of Massalia in his On the Ocean in the 4th century BCE should be located on the Estonian island Saaremaa, Meri states that previous geographers had been unable to identify the place precisely because they had so little grasp of the role of poetry in the course of history. This is not an arrogant overturning of values by the author, but rather it points to the collocation of different argumentative patterns in the text called history. In my concept, Lennart Meri’s book bears splendid witness to how different types of text, linked to and usually read according to their generic rules, become entangled in culture and the human mind. In addition, Meri proves well that the concept of the nation, although narrow from a certain vantage point, can, if positioned rightly, be spacious enough to hold a universe.

Under and Tuglas Literature Centre

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