- Unforced Flourishing: Understanding Jaan Kaplinski by Thomas Salumets
Arvo Part and Skype are names that are likely to cross one’s mind first when it comes to contemporary Estonia. To be sure, the serenity of Part’s music resonates well with the works of Jaan Kaplinski—Estonia’s widely known premier poet, essayist, and left-leaning intellectual. All the more astonishing is the fact that in his homeland a biography has yet to be written about his life and work. Indeed, it took a literary scholar in faraway Vancouver to fill this gap.
One can only imagine the practical challenges this project entailed. Thomas Salumets’s monograph does not constitute a run-of-the-mill account. Rather, it represents the daunting quest of a researcher who seeks to illuminate the deeper architecture of one of eastern Europe’s most significant authors and to elucidate the complex culture into which he was born. Who is Kaplinski? How should we understand his contrarian views? What are the multi-faceted contours of the context that shaped him? What really happened in repressed Soviet Estonia? What is the meaning of nature, and how does it align with his sense of unrestricted creativity? What informs the appeal of his poetry? We learn that Kaplinski, who has been influenced by Buddhism and Taoism, is a profound ecological thinker who is convinced that we are our own worst enemies.
And yet, according to Salumets, at the core of Kaplinski’s subjectivity lies the hopeful conviction that “we are born altruists at home in a self-organizing world.” Empathy, not anthropocentrism, is in our genes. This means we do not need to reinvent ourselves and redesign the world we inhabit. Instead, we are called on to focus our imagination on reducing our involvement, to simplify, to turn our attention to the richness of the given, and to more confidently practise “smart poverty.” Salumets enjoys [End Page 498] Kaplinski’s trust to an extent that he was permitted to quote from intimate diaries and correspondence. Needless to say, the apparent empathy of the researcher does not mean uncritical acceptance. Rather, he brings concerns to the fore where inner childhood conflicts or social traumas may have interfered with Kaplinski’s growing self-awareness. This may apply to his sexuality (in the chapters “Body Signals” and “Desire for Dependence,” with the sections “Love Sick” and “Sexual Trauma—Losing Control”) and a sense of having to adopt a contrarian position (in the chapter “Beyond Dissidence,” sections “Russification—a ‘Slow Suicide’” and “The Letter of 40—the Czar’s Madmen”).
For Salumets, the “art of unforced flourishing” lies at the heart of Kaplinski’s subjectivity: the mantra of this metaphor is the thread that runs through every page of this monograph. In addition to rehearsing core concerns (the importance of influential voices for the young man, his francophone affiliations, his fascination with Asian modes of thought, his social and ecological criticism, his concerns for small cultures coupled with cosmopolitanism, the associative free verse in his poetry, and his seemingly aloof preference for solitude), the Kaplinski evoked rests above all on the poet’s lasting identification with the language and the spirit of the ancient runic songs of his homeland.
Clearly, Salumets is not concerned with a chronological account or a detailed description of poetics: the scholarly interest lies in origins, motives, and a desire to understand in general. First of all, he aims to capture the evolving subjectivity of a writer who refuses to be pigeonholed, become his own epigone, and lose the connection with the wonder of life. It is fair to say that, next to Kaplinski’s family Salumets knows him better than anyone else. Although much has clearly remained unsaid, in deference to the freedom of the reader, the gaps are filled as if on their own. Phenomenologically inclined, Salumets does not speak for his object but, instead, seeks to grant access to it. Still, Salumets’s self-effacement does not diminish the appeal of his own voice as a writer; on the contrary, his expression is elegant and academically...