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The Paradoxes of Desire

Written by: Ebba Witt-Brattström |

L. Onerva (1882-1972), the pseudonym of Hilja Onerva Lehtinen, played the role of inspirer and muse to fellow Finnish author Eino Leino, whose biography she wrote. But the “devoted priestess of beauty and humanity” was more than that. She belonged to the new generation of academically trained women, and penned more than thirty works. Her first book, Sekasointuja (1904; Jangled Harmonies), was a poetry collection, and she is most remembered for a poem that “associates joie de vivre with suffering”. As a prosaist, however, she has been called “too intelligent, too analytical” (I. Havu: Finlands litteratur 1900-1950 [1958; Finland’s Literature 1900-1950]).

Onerva was academically trained and married to a composer. She had studied both medicine and aesthetics. Her thirty works consisted primarily of poetry, along with novels, short stories, one play, and a major two-volume biography of Eino Leino. In addition, she translated French literature into Finnish.

Contemporary discussions of women’s alleged inferiority when it came to both intelligence and psychological make-up (primarily by Weininger and Lombroso) were woven into her dialogue, where women had the chance to rebut men’s assertions.

Kallas’s ironic short story Nainen, jolla oli aivot (1912; The Woman Who Had a Brain) also took on Weininger and the “philosophical epidemic” that his book Geschlecht und Charakter had unleashed at Finnish universities.

Nevertheless, she wrote the first modern Finnish novel, Mirdja (1908), whose fragmented style depicts a psyche and its search for self-knowledge through the prism of sexuality. The female protagonists in Onerva’s fiction uncompromisingly explore the outer limits of desire. Male critics have been less than enthralled by the pessimistic analysis of heterosexual relationships and their rigid roles that emerges from her novels and short stories. The argus-eyed woman looks at men and spurns them as insubstantial. The only pleasure in Onerva’s tales of suffering comes from the insight that idealisation is a thing of the past and that men are no longer capable of inspiring love.

Mirdja Ast, who has the soul of an artist, was raised by her uncle to be an emancipated woman, but never manages to manifest her creativity – a failure that the novel symbolically associates with her childlessness. She acts the part of a female Don Juan instead. The path to awareness of one’s inner nature goes through sexual relationships: “Come to me, all treasure hunters. I beckon, charm, and entice you, for life becomes mine through you, and I seek knowledge of life and myself.”

Onerva’s refined stylistic devices – paradox, free association, internal monologue, and dialogue in realistically Spartan settings – provide maximum latitude for Mirdja’s passions. An erratic, desperate seeker takes shape, oscillating between the extremes of melancholy and megalomania, masochism and sadism, idealisation and contempt of men, and ultimately paying for it with her sanity.

Onerva, L.: Medusahoved. Year unknown. Drawing. Det Finske Litteraturselskabs Arkiv, Helsinki

Onerva honed in on the destructive phases of relationships between women and men. Everything can turn on a dime. It starts with passion’s first, idealising phase, which demands the woman’s subservience: “Torture me, kick me, eat me alive. Devour me piece by piece. Be as the desecrator of a temple, profane and plunder. Be cruel and strong, seek your own pleasure, and deprive me of everything until it feels as though a powerful storm has had its way with me.” And it ends with the phase in which the man falls hopelessly short of the Nietzschean ideal: “She glanced over at Runar … Nothing had happened in his corner. It was the same as always. Assailed by uncontrollable rage, Mirdja flung herself at Runar and pounded him furiously with her fists.”

Idealisation endures only in the graveyard. Once Mirdja’s mental illness has fully manifested itself, she visits her husband’s tomb every night for a clandestine rendezvous. “How magnificent you were after your death, Runar, beautiful and white like marble. You were so exalted and inaccessible in the majesty of the grave.”

The paradox of desire in Onerva’s writing is that the object of passion must be unattainable. The short story “The Poet and the Courtesan”, from the collection Jerusalemin suutari ynnä muita tarukuvia (1921; The Shoemaker from Jerusalem), uses a fable to drive the point home. A greedy Pharaoh forces his seven daughters to work as courtesans. The youngest daughter, Arkhidike, a singer and dancer, comes to be widely acclaimed in Cyprus. She snaps out of her depression when she meets Myrtaios, but he rejects her for a simple flautist whose aloofness allows him to maintain his inner equilibrium. After Arkhidike follows the oracle’s advice to feign indifference to Myrtaios and act as if she is interested in the elegant Alyattes, he finally falls in love with her. After three months of bliss, Arkhidike sacrifices her life to stake a permanent claim on Myrtaios’s affections. When she plunges from the top of a cliff into the sea, he becomes the eternal prisoner of love. “If you had tried to make me stay, I would have been free. But you gave me my freedom, and now I am your slave forever. And you knew that all along, you beautiful witch.”

The short story “Voices” in Murtoviivoja (1909; Broken Lines) gives vent to female bitterness towards a man who sought a “union of bodies” only, not of souls. The encounter with the man “killed” the woman and “deprived her of her soul”, destroying her ability to experience love.

The only possible kind of love affair for Onerva’s female protagonists is an idealised experience that harks back to the chivalry of the troubadour’s poetry and the titillating unattainability of the object of his passion. Psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan might call it symbiosis within a narcissistic paradigm. Onerva’s protagonists seek to identify not with another subject, but with a projection of their own imagination, a narcissistic metamorphosis. There is no room for the longings of the other. The ultimate object of desire is death, the absolute.

The trademark style of Onerva’s short stories streamlines existence and zeroes in on the psychic complexes of meaning. “Viha” (Hatred), another story in Murtoviivoja, describes a marriage that has shrivelled to a wordless, frigid pact. The wife, in her subservience, can call on only one emotion to rescue her: “She made hatred a point of honour and her only source of happiness. Hatred became her better self, the last weapon of her ravaged dignity.” The female protagonist in “Autius” (Desolation), a short play from a collection entitled Mies ja nainen (1912; Man and Woman), declares: “There is no such thing as love. Only its phantom exists.” And the title character of the novel Inari (1913; Inari) turns into a similar spectre of love. She is a scholar who has an open relationship with Porkka, a polygamous artist. She tries to be the perfect woman he demands, but soon learns that she has to forgo her own desires. Oblivious to what she is experiencing, he complacently upbraids her: “You are no sanctuary. You are too wise; you are always thinking and forcing others to think as well. You perceive my weariness and that multiplies my anguish. My soul finds no refreshment there. When I am tired, I need a woman who is good, dumb, and devoted, who sees me as strong and godlike, and who serves me accordingly.” Whether Inari’s self-abnegation is designed to perpetuate the game of mirrors between the sexes or is a true expression of a love that accepts the other as he actually is remains unclear. In the final scene, she lies in the lush grass and thinks that she could just as easily be six feet under. Onerva uses Inari to survey the traditional, asymmetric landscape of desire between the sexes, which so often leads to polygamy on one side and monogamy on the other.

Onerva’s contribution to contemporary sensibility was her emphasis not on women’s longing for emancipation and truth, but on the real project of modernity when it comes to female dignity – creating latitude for the kind of self-esteem that is denied by both the gender dualism of Romanticism and the sexualisation of male-female relationships in modern society.

Translated by Ken Schubert