Pentti Linkola: A Finnish Scapegoat

This article is a sourced translation of this Finnish-language post on Pentti Linkola. I received two separate translations on it and merged the two together with my own attempt to explain and clarify Finnish references. Thank you to both Fatidicus Aeternus and Rand for their work in translating this, Alarik for his additional translation suggestions, and to the original author TIMO HÄNNIKÄINEN.

Nowadays in Finland, Pentti Linkola has become a national public property. He still raises conflicting reactions to be sure: for some he is a prophetic visionary or an incorruptible truth-teller, to others he is a nutcase or an attention seeking ecofascist. But everyone knows who he is and carry with them various anecdotes about his life. Interviews with Linkola are published on visible mediums yearly, despite him saying things which would get anyone else sued or socially ostracized.

People in the Cold War communist circles, a pro-Soviet quasi-tankie collection of people called Taistoists, attempted to have Linkola swept aside from the whole environmental movement and, later on, the awards he received for his essay collections Toisinajattelijan päiväkirjasta [From The Diary of a Dissident] (1979) and Johdatus 1990-luvun ajatteluun [An Introduction to the Thought of the 1990s] (1989) prompted magazine articles about “awarding a Nazi” and “a disturbing cultural regression”. Now the heirs of those Taistoists leave the old fisherman alone and Linkola hasn’t caused larger scandals in a long time, even though the tone of his writings and statements hasn’t softened. Perhaps the reason for this is a new kind of social media centered publicity culture or simply that no political movement materialized around Linkola and his thoughts. Still, Linkola is not a marginalized figure by any stretch of the imagination and the interest in his person and thoughts has remained steady.

One sign of Linkola’s official canonization is that the first comprehensive biography of him, penned by Suomen Kuvalehti (lit. “Finland’s picture magazine”, or “The Finnish picture magazine”) reporter Riitta Kylänpää, has recently been published: Pentti Linkola – Ihminen ja Legenda [Pentti Linkola: Man and Legend]. Previously, only shorter profiles of Linkola had been written, such as in Erno Paasilinna’s essay ”Syyskalassa Pentti Linkolan kanssa” [”Autumn Fishing With Pentti Linkola”] (1984), Matti Pulkkinen’s Ehdotus rakkausromaaniksi [Proposal for a Love Story] (1992) and Eero Alén’s narrative journalism Linkolan soutajan päiväkirja [Linkola’s Rower Diaries] (2008). Kylänpää’s biography walks through the entire 84-year life of the man including family relations, relationships, his work as a fisherman, nature adventures with literary and political turns. Alongside interviews, the writer made use of Linkola’s personal diaries and much of his extensive letter correspondences to pull material from.

Kylänpää introduces Linkola like this:

“He comes from a family of learning and his good upbringing shows in his behavior and demeanor, but at the same time he is an everyman, earning a living through fishing. His speech and writings are harsh and grim, but seldom do you get to read anything as tender and touching as what he has written. He is a romantic at heart, but his engine is hatred. His opinions are hard, but he doesn’t want to discuss them in person, choosing to write because he doesn’t want to hurt another. He likes people but has chosen solitude. He has a tough shell, but he cries easily. He doesn’t shy away from divulging his deepest feelings, his brokenness.”

Like so many radiant figures of any age, Linkola comes from an impoverished upper-class family. Kylänpää’s book confirmed my previous understanding that the key to Linkola’s character lies in his cultured and intellectual background. His upbringing and heritage gave rise to his aesthetic sense as well as his steep, dignified stubbornness. But the changes in his childhood surroundings laid the ground for his sense of loss which explains his later life and its shifts even better. Kaarlo Linkola, his father and the head of the University of Helsinki, died from the complications of a prostate surgery during the Continuation War in 1942, after which his mother Hilkka had to take her children and move out of their university residence in the main building of the garden of botanical sciences. As a single mother of three she was forced to find work and for an 11-year-old Pentti their new four-room apartment was “like a slum house” compared to his early childhood playground.

Another “expulsion from paradise” came right after the war, when his uncle Osmo Suolahti sold the family’s summer house in Kariniemi. Some years later the place ended up in the possession of the city of Valkeakoski, and the modern townhouse that replaced the old yard permanently ruined its idyllic nature. It was in Kariniemi where Linkola had found the forests and the berry fields and the beginning of what turned into his life’s work in birdwatching.

Young Linkola abandoned his family’s wishes for an academic career. Since he was a child, school had been a “torture facility” for him and the outdoorsman was terrified by the thought of a desk job. Linkola evolved into a biophile for whom experiences in nature were the highest form of life. He transitioned from watching birds to ringing them and systematically mapping the bird populations of the country. He earned his living from 1959 onwards as a fisherman. The frame of his life’s choices was his conservation ideology, which stemmed from his educated background, though the young man’s solutions were otherwise extremely nonconformist for his social class. In the 1920s Kaarlo Linkola had been a driving force for proposed laws to found nature reserves and national parks and served as the chairman of The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, an organization he had also founded, until his death. As with all early environmental efforts in Finland, a nationalism influenced by the Academic Karelia Society had spurred the foundation of the association, and Kaarlo Linkola saw fostering the cultural landscape, first and foremost, as a patriotic duty.

Pentti Linkola’s own nature conservationism has always had a sense of loss. The patriotic pride for a national landscape had morphed into a cry for help on behalf of an environment which no wealth or human culture could replace. Ever since the 1960s, Linkola has written about the will to live itself having disappeared alongside the natural scenery. He has called the frenzy of industrialization “a mass psychosis” and thinks the decrease in bodily stressors is solely tragic as it deprives man of one of the most genuine joys: “the one produced by hard work”. Later on, even the environmentalist movement would disappoint Linkola because its mainstream was, according to him, merely a technocratic adaptation to meet the demands of a society of consumption. For him, the losses nature has suffered haven’t been administrative problems to be solved or vague world-weariness, but matters of personal catastrophe. Linkola’s daughter Mirjami recounts in Kylänpää’s book how after hearing about how some particularly grand and handsome trees had been chopped down, her father “just sat in place, petrified, as tears ran down his face”.

It would be easy to psychologize Linkola’s thinking by stating that he has let himself be bogged down by his losses. However, the matter could just as easily be perceived otherwise: he has retained his loyalty, refusing to abandon the sources of his most authentic joys. Where Jouko Turkka has in his theatric art systematically resisted the heat death of emotions in the modern world, Linkola’s lifestyle and writings have systematically resisted man’s alienation from the fundamentals of his existence. This has turned his life into a demonstration and permanently driven him forever into harsh circumstances at the edge of organized society, but Linkola has certainly been aware of all consequences.

The most primitive criticism of Linkola is that he is stuck in his old ways and doesn’t care that the world has changed. The same has been said about him since the 60s, without understanding that it is precisely due to the winds of change of that era, that have remained essentially the same ever since, that he has so radically called it quits. It would be equally intelligent to wonder why the monk lives in celibacy even though sexual relations are easier than ever, or why a bodybuilder trains even if he could live a long life without ever lifting anything heavier than a laptop.

Linkola’s drafts of a new ecological order could only be fulfilled through a complete social collapse, but this is not sufficient proof of their uselessness. Even if Linkola’s views are stuck in their ways, his proposed actions fascistic, his modeled solutions unrealistic or his future vision hopeless, he might not be wrong. The latest person to criticize him for hopelessness is the philosopher Ville Lähde, who claims it’s easy to support Linkola’s “prophecy of complete destruction”, because “it leaves no room for action”. This certainly doesn’t apply to Linkola’s own life as his resume in conservation work is impressive: mapping the bird populations of Finland for decades, pioneering work in protecting the western osprey, diverse participation in organizational action, founding the Finnish Nature Heritage Foundation, activism in the Kessi forest dispute in the Vätsäri Wilderness Area

Mainstream thinking rarely acknowledges that being aware of small or non-existent chances of success doesn’t automatically prevent a person from acting. Linkola’s life and thinking aren’t so much emblematic of hopelessness but of tragic optimism. He considers a sufficient change of direction extremely unlikely and his own ability to effect change small but fights for a cause he deems righteous, because the effort, even in vain, is a source of dignity and meaning. Hanging up the gloves would be the act of an inglorious person. Even this kind of attitude can be criticized, for sure, but one can at least not make an accusation of escapism.

As Kylänpää emphasizes, there is a conflict at the core of Linkola’s person and school of thought. This is the reason why academic analyses about him are mainly boring or amusing. In his books, which are lesser known to most than soundbites from his interviews, Linkola is not at all as “extreme” or “consistent” a thinker as he is conceived as, and perhaps he thinks he is himself. One of his greatest qualities is his ability to anger all opinionated constituencies separately or even all at once. He has described the red rebellion of 1918’s Finnish Civil War as a rabid ressentiment–a ferocious grudge–and an envy towards those spiritually superior but has also shown an understanding towards the Soviet Union’s endeavors leading up to and during the Winter War. In the pacifist writings of his youth he rebelled against the militaristic patriotism of the previous generation and spoke of “the whole of mankind” as a fatherland, but in an essay about “the brotherhood of man” during the same period he expressed quite a nationalistic attitude:

“True brotherhood among humanity I think requires both a similar environment and circumstances, as well as a consensus of worldview. Swedish and Russian admirers of nature are surely closer to me than Finnish engineers or economists but a Brazilian naturalist probably doesn’t quite make it. I doubt a person who has never fought against snow and cold could ever really become close to me.”

This usually doesn’t have to be said directly, rather, this view becomes clear when you read between the lines, but I want to specifically underline it here: Kylänpää’s written biography is an excellent piece of work. It honors but doesn’t sugarcoat its object of attention and conjures forth Linkola in the manner in which he is most interesting and the least possible to accept: whole. Besides being the biography of one man, the book is a valuable piece of Finnish culture history from the 1930s to the present, and I can’t come up with a complaint other than that it’s missing an index of the people mentioned. Linkola has many friends and acquaintances, among them countless notable people in politics and culture, and finding the paragraphs mentioning them would be easier with an index.

In any case, perhaps the most remarkable part is that Kylänpää offers the keys to solving the true mystery of Linkola; namely: what it is in Linkola that appeals to Finns and has brought him the status of a good man despite all of his incorrectness? The reason often proposed is his lack of double standards, “Linkola lives as he teaches”. According to Eero Paloheimo, who is cited in the book, this explanation is surface-level: Linkola isn’t really admired for his consistency, but because he suffers. Linkola has not only sacrificed all the comforts that modern Finns consider life’s necessities, but he has also subjected himself to indescribable hardships. When you take into account his difficult depressive periods with suicidal ideation, the countless perils on fishing and birdwatching trips, the accidents and the diabetes diagnosed at 63, it’s a miracle he is still alive.

A Finn usually finds even pointless suffering admirable, but Linkola’s halo is made brighter by the fact that he suffers on behalf of nature. Within their being, even the most hardened citizen of welfare-Finland carries an encapsulated sorrow for the childhood landscapes lost to give way for lumber industry, highways and junkpiles, and Linkola carries that sorrow for them with interest. They forget and adapt, but the surrogate sufferer Linkola doesn’t. As an artist of buried grief and rage, Pentti Linkola has become part of our national mental hygiene.

If you are interested in any other work I have helped contribute in translating works about Pentti Linkola, please check out this YouTube channel. More videos are pending to be uploaded.

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