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by Bamber Gascoigne

Torsti Lehtinen (1942-2023)


Finnish writer, translator of Søren Kierkegaard, and philosopher, whose work, dominated by a profoundly religious view of life, provided an intensively articulated but undogmatic critique of rationalism and the nihilism of postmodernism. There are only two alternatives, Torsti Lehtinen insisted, to live without God in anxiety, or to take the chance with the paradox of faith.

Materialism or idealism?
Chicken or egg?
Did Adam have a navel?
(from Hyppynaryn varjo, 1986)

Torsti Vihtori Lehtinen was born in Helsinki into a working class family. His father, an alcoholic, died of tuberculosis. Before becoming a full-time writer, Lehtinen rumbled through 40 odd jobs and changed the address nearly as many times during his wandering years. He was jailed three times in his youth for minor crimes. After military service, trained as Navy diver, Lehtinen entered Ressu Evening School and graduated with top grades. By that time, he had already developed an interest in reading to overcome his background. Lehtinen then studied in theoretical philosophy and theology at the University of Helsinki. The closest philosopher to his own way of thinking were S. Albert Kivinen and Oiva Ketonen. Until the age of 27, Lehtinen was an atheist. His spiritual home Lehtinen eventually found from the Orthodox Church.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lehtinen spent periods in Denmark, where Copenhagen's Christiania commune became his second home. In his quest for enlightenment, he experimented with LSD.Between 1980 and 1982 Lehtinen worked in Sweden at the Workers' Educational Association (ABF) in Huddinge.

A much sought after teacher of creative writing, Lehtinen later taught at Topelius Academy, Päätalo Institute, the University of Jyväskylä, Theatre Academy of Finland, and the University of Tampere. In addition, Lehtinen lectured on philosophy at the University of Turku (1993), Valamo Lay Academy (1996-), Nordic Art School (1996-2000), and Free Art School (2003). Lehtinen had seven children from different marriages.

In Lehtinen's early novels from the 1980s, Kun päättyy Pitkäsilta (1982), Kuin unta ja varjoa (1983), and Sokea taluttaja (1984), the protagonist is Toivo Laaksonen, Lehtinen's alter ego, who grows up in cramped tenements of the proletarian quarters of Kallio in Helsinki. Toivo learns that suffering is more real than happiness, what really drives him is his thirst for life. Eventually, after his pursuit of truth results in rejecting ideologies, he is confronted with the pivotal mystery to which he has to bow. To use Kierkegaard's concepts, Toivo makes the "leap of faith" into the unknown to enter the religious stage.

Lehtinen portrays the poor and down and outs with rough, unsentimental sympathy and solidarity. However, class-conscious social analysis is not Lehtinen's primarily agenda in this Bildungsroman, but Toivo's quest for salvation. After finishing the "Kallio trilogy"  Lehtinen moved with his family to  a small village in the Ruovesi countryside, where he lived a green life for over a year. The trilogy was republished in 1997 in a single volume under the title Jano. In the newspaper Keskisuomalainen it was greeted as a cornerstone of Finnish realistic prose, and Lehtinen's depiction of childhood was compared with that of Teuvo Pakkala.

After a hiatus of 19 years, Lehtinen published his fourth novel, Kutsumushuora (2003), returning to the Dostoevskian world of "insulted and injured," or in this case, criminals and prostitutes. The narrator is a professional whore, Trixie. In a way, she could be regarded as Toivo's anima, the feminine side. Tixie's lifestyle is a matter of choice rather than circumstance – for her, selling sex is an honest way to make a living. Through Trixie's character Lehtinen gives a revealing insight into the soul of a socially ostracized woman, who refuses to be victimized. Generally and wrongly labelled as a polemic social report, Kutsumushuora is actually an existential novel about the problem of choice and authenticity in our conduct. The bottom line is, Lehtinen seems to say, that our moral standards cannot be justified rationally. As part of the work, Lehtinen interviewed an inmate of the Hämeenlinna women's prison.

Many of the poems in Lehtinen's Hyppynarun varjo (1986) have the witty and timeless quality of an aphoristic thought: "Be wary / of not dying of hunger / while contemplating / the essence / of the bread." A down-to-earth attitude, fideistic skepticism, and the stand that works of art are confessions of faith, are also distinctive features in the following collections of aphorisms, Nuorallatanssija (1987), which included poems as well, Kuolemattomat sielut (1989), and Mahdolliset maailmat (2005), in which Lehtinen revised some of his older aphorisms. Mahdolliset maailmat "captures with words something that is beyond words to describe," Pekka Wahlsted summarized in his review in the literary magazine Parnasso. In Matissen kappeli (2020)  Lehtinen confronts the limits of human life with ironic resignation: "While killing time, the time kills us."

Lehtinen was widely considered the leading authority on the religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard in Finland. Noteworthy, at the age of thirty he was an atheist, whom his girl friend tried in vain to convert to Christianity. His home library, ïncluding his Kierkegaard collection of over 300 volumes, Lehtinen lost when toxic mold completely destroyed his house in Viiala. In addition to translating from Danish several essays and philosophical treatises, including the magnum opus, Päättävä epätieteellinen jälkikirjoitus (1993, Concluding unscientific postscript), Lehtinen published in 1990 a biography of Kierkegaard.

Lehtinen's other works include plays, books on philosophy and literature, and a guide to creative writing, Sanojen avaruus (2000). Lehtinen's Eksistentialismi – vapauden filosofia (2002) is the first overview of Existentialism in Finnish. For Totuus, kaipaus, kauneus (1993) Lehtinen collected essays and interviews from 22 outstanding personalities in Finnish cultural life, provoking them with his questions to aesthetic and religious reflection. Sofian sisaret. Filosofian historian vaikuttavat naiset (2020) featured short, biographical essays about the lives and thought of 13 women philosophers ("sisters of Sophia"): Aspasia of Miletus, Diotima of Mantinea, Hypathia, Hildegard of Bingen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Luce Irigaray, and Martha Nussbaum. 

From the mid-1980s, Lehtinen contributed essays, reviews, and columns to a number of newspapers and magazines, including Keskisuomalainen, Kotimaa, Aamulehti, Parnasso, Kirjailija, Ny Tid, Kirjo, Kauppalehti, Akadeemia (Estonia) and Café Existens (Sweden). A compelling speaker, Lehtinen also appeared in many TV and radio programmes (he was a recognizable radio voice) dealing with religion and philosophy.

Lehtinen once said that he received his education in philosophy from the University of Helsinki and from the school of the streets. An underlying theme in his essays is the tension between rational thought and spiritual truths. In 'Abrahamin anima.' one of his most stunning pieces in Inter Cityn Väinämäinen (1997), Lehtinen argues that art and religion are both brothers and deadly enemies to each other. But an artist, whose work totally lacks a religious dimension, can never become an immortal classic. "Art is the mother tongue of religion", Lehtinen concludes, as an answer to Tolstoy's question "What is art?" in the famous essay. In spite of the weighty topics, Lehtinen often wrote with humor and irony, his voice is unpretentious and appealing. An example of Lehtinen's less serious side is the title essay of Inter Cityn Väinämöinen, about graffiti scrawled on the walls of a train toilet. Numerokomero (2013), nursery rhymes about numbers, is Lehtinen's first children's book. The book is illustrated by the Belgian-born artist Chloé Mahy-Hulkko.

Lehtinen's many awards include Arvi A. Karisto Foundation reward (1982), the Culture award of the municipality of Viiala (1992), the WSOY Literature Foundation reward (1993), the Thursday Award of the Notte Publishing Company (1994), 1. prize in the "Finnish essay" contest (1995). Lehtinen served on the board of several literary and cultural organizations and jurys, such as The Union of Finnish Writers, The Finnish Reading Centre, Critical Academy, Kirjallisuuden edistämiskeskus, Helsingin Kirjailijat – Helsingfors Författare, Forum Arts, Kristillinen kulttuuriliitto, and Alfred Kordelin Foundation Literature Council. In 2007, Lehtinen was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine KirjaIN, published by Cube Libri Oy.  In his late 70s, he still studied Latin and Greek. Torsti Lehtinen died on September 16, 2023, in Helsinki. He left behind an unfinished philosophical work, entitled  Kuoleman evankeliumi (The Gospel of Death), which was due to appear in 2023. 

For further reading: 30 Fates of Finland: One Life, Thousand Roads, Make Your Own by Rikhard Larvanto (2016); 'Lupaava nuorisorikollinen' by Aki Petteri Lehtinen, in Parnasso 2015: 2; 'Ihminen, kaatopaikalta löytynyt ikoni', by Jani Saxell, in Parnasso 2012: 6-7; 'Kaunistelematon kristitty', by Hellevi Matihalti, in Aamun koitto, 2006: 8; 'Luulevat, että kirjat ilmestyvät', by Hannu Niklander, in Taite, 2006: 1; 'Halkeamia kielen muurissa', by Pekka Wahlstedt, in Parnasso, 2005: 6; 'Pyhä ja paha kirjallisuudessa', by Seppo Järvinen, in Aamun koitto, 2005: 18; 'Totuus joka ei ole totuus', by Reijo Liimatainen, in Vartija, 2004: 5/6; 'För den skamlöse finns bara lite hopp', by Sofia Torvalds, in Kyrkpressen, 2004: 6; 'Piinapenkissä Torsti Lehtinen', in Kirjailija, 2004: 4; 'Elämme turvallisuusharhassa', by Pekka Wahlstedt, in Suomen luonto, 2004: 4; 'Koko eksistentialismin värikäs kirjoihin vienti' by Matti Luoma, in Kirjo, 2002: 4; 'Vapauden puolustus', by Hannu Niklander in Kaltio, 2002: 5; 'Helppo tie eksistentialismiin', by Leif Sundström, in Niin & näin, 2002: 4; 'Kirjoituksia hyödyttömistä asioista' by Erkki Kiviniemi, in Kirjo, 2002: 2; 'Hyvin ajateltu on hyvin sanottu', by Otto Lappalainen, in Kritiikin uutiset, 2002: 2; 'Hedelmällistä pohdiskelua' by Lea Rissanen, in Ortodoksiviesti, 2000: 8; 'Jano Telakoituu Tampereelle', by Kai Kyösti Kaukovalta, in Kirjo, 2000: 1; 'Sekahommia elämän yliopistossa', by Seppo Järvinen, in Keskisuomalainen, 14.9.1997; 'Tien kulkijana Torsti Lehtinen', by Katja Peiponen, in Aamun koitto, 1997: 22; 'Torsti Lehtinen: kirjailija ja filosofi', by Heikki Partala, in Tammerkoski, 1997: 1; "Traditio on kallio, jolta tehdään elämän villit ja vapaat piruetit", in Ortodoksiviesti, 1996: 1; 'Taiteilija ja taiteilijan tehtävä', by Mikko Järvinen, in Parnasso, 1994: 1; 'Tie, totuus ja elämä', by Kyösti Rantasalo,  in Parnasso, 1991: IV

Novels, collections of poetry and essays, and other works:

  • Kun päättyy Pitkäsilta, 1982 (novel)
  • Kuin unta ja varjoa, 1983 (novel)
  • Sokea taluttaja, 1984 (novel)
  • Hyppynarun varjo, 1986 (poems)
  • Nuorallatanssija, 1987 (aphorisms and poems)
  • Kuolemattomat sielut, 1989 (aphorisms)
  • Søren Kierkegaard, intohimon, ahdistuksen ja huumorin filosofi, 1990 (biography; revised edition 2000)
  • Hyvän ja pahan tällä puolen, 1991 (essays)
  • Totuus, kaipaus, kauneus, 1993 (ed., aesthetics and art)
  • Jano. Romaanitrilogia: Kun päättyy Pitkäsilta; Kuin unta ja varjoa; Sokea taluttaja, 1997 (novel)
  • Inter Cityn Väinämöinen, 1997 (essays)
  • Ilmestyskirja, 1999 (essays, with Lennart Koskinen, Wille Riekkinen)
  • Sanojen avaruus, 2000 (creative writing guide; revised edition 2002)
  • Elämän hinta, 2002 (essays)
  • Eksistentialismi – vapauden filosofia, 2002 (history of philosophy)
  • Kutsumushuora, 2003 (novel)
  • Runoilijan Jumala, 2003 (literary research)
  • Saatana, 2004 (essay)
  • Mahdolliset maailmat, 2005 (aphorisms)
  • Elämä kuin runo - yhtä tosi, 2007 (ed., with Päivi Liedes)
  • Kirjailijan Raamattu, 2009 (ed.)
  • Sika vai Sokrates. Kirjoituksia kaipauksesta, kirkosta ja karaokesta, 2009 (essays)
  • Näin päättyy Pitkäsilta, 2011
  • Sallimuksia: käsikirja kuolevaisille, 2011 (ed., selected from the works of Hilkka Olkinuora)
  •  Eräänlainen kiusaus - Søren Kierkegaardin ajatuksia luovuudesta (edited by Torsti Lehtinen and Olli Hyvärinen)
  • Runoja / Pol Cousin, 2012 (ed., with Pira Cousin)
  • Tunnustuksia / Leo Tolstoi, 2012 (foreword)
  • Numerokomero, 2013 (illustrated by Chloé Mahy-Hulkko)
  • Kova ja kaunis todellisuus: Juhani Rekolan teologia, 2013
  • Kainin merkki, 2013
  • Syntiset saarnat: kirjoituksia taivaan ja maan väliltä, 2014
  • Multaisen iän kerho, 2015
  • Matissen kappeli: Runollisia ja epärunollisia mietteitä, 2020
  • Sofian sisaret. Filosofian historian vaikuttavat naiset, 2020

Plays and scripts:

  • Oscar Wilde: Dorian Grayn muotokuva, 1989 (play)
  • Kivisen kirkon jumala. Historiallis-symbolinen näytelmä, 1997 ja 1999 (play)
  • Kirjailijakuvia: Jaakko Syrjä, 2000 (video script)
  • Jano. Filosofinen näytelmä, 2000 (play)
  • Humoristin hyppy, osa 1: Vedenalaiset syvyydet, 2001 (TV program, scenario and realization)
  • Humoristin hyppy, osa 2: Kaikkivaltias kaipuu, 2001 (TV program, scenario and realization)
  • Poika, 2003 (play)

Essays, poems, aphorisms, and other writings in anthologies etc:

  • 'Suudelmia Kierkegaardille', in Kaksinkävelyjä, 1992
  • Sinfonia elämästä', video, 1992
  • 'Rysk vodka och is från Skandinavien', in Narrskeppet (tr. Fredrik Lång) , 1992
  • Aphorisms, in Das Grosse Handbuch der Zitate von A — Z (translated by Angela Plöger), 1993
  • Aphorisms and translations of Kierkegaard's thoughts, in Elämäsi matkalle (ed. Kaija Valkonen) , 1993
  • 'Kuin kunnon ihmiset'; '40 ikävän vuotta', in Ikävä, 1994
  • Four essays, in Iso kirja elämästä, 1994
  • Two essays, in S vetki sryvajetsija zvuk (translated by Tatjana Tihmeneva), 1994
  • 'Perkele – yksi Jumalan nimistä?', in Turun arkkihiippakunnan 45. vuosikirja, 1995
  • 'Hyvä Suomi?' in Usko tulevaisuuteen by Lennart Koskinen, 1996
  • 'Puut kaatuvat puolestamme', Metsän mahti (edited by Juha Maasola), 1996
  • Aphorisms, in Elämänuskon kirja (edited by Sanna Jaatinen), 1997
  • 'Paradoksi Søren Kierkegaardin ajattelussa', in Teologinen aikakauskirja 1/1997 (separate edition)
  • Aphorisms, in Aforismin vuosisata (edited by Markku Envall), 1997
  • Aphorisms, in Kirja Ylioppilaalle (edited by Marja Leena Laaksonen and Soile Tapola), 1997
  • Poems, in Kirja Nuorelleparille (edited by Marja Leena Laaksonen and Soile Tapola), 1997
  • Aphorism, in Kirja Nuorelle (edited by Marja Leena Laaksonen and Soile Tapola), 1997
  • 'Punamustat silmälasit', in Tampereen hiippakunnan 49. vuosikirja, edited by Torsti Lehtinen et al., 1997
  • 'Filosofi: lammas paimenen vaatteissa', in Polkuja filosofiaan, 1998 (Internet-essay)
  • Poems, in Kirja miehelle, 1998
  • Poem, in Kirja naiselle, 1998
  • 'Äänekkäitä ihmisen ajatukset', in Hiljaisuuden etsijöitä (edited byTertti Lappalainen), 1998
  • 'Kidutetun hevosen katse', in Elävien runoilijoiden vuosikirja Mot Mot 1998, 1999
  • Nine essays from Ilmestyskirja, in Uppenbarelseboken (translated by Lennart Koskinen), 1999
  • Aphorisms, in Positiivisten ajatusten kirja (edited by Arto Manninen), 1999
  • 'Toisen vuosituhannen perintö', in Tampereen hiippakunnan 51. vuosikirja, 1999
  • 'Matka', in Temppelin vuosisata (edited by Juha-Matti Martikainen), 1999
  • 'Intohimon viisaus', in Viisauden sanat ovat tiedon mauste (edited by Harri Raitis), 2000
  • 'Adamin epätoivo ja tiedon puu', in Usko ja luottamus epävarmuuksien maailmassa (edited by Jussi Kotkavirta and Arvi Tuomi), 2000
  • Aphorisms, in Maailman kauneimmat ajatukset (ed. Arto Manninen), 2000
  • 'Nauraen hyppii tyttönen', poem in Tämän runon haluaisin kuulla III (edited by Juha Virkkunen and Satu Koskimies), 2000
  • 'Elämän hinta', in Elämän ja kuoleman salaisuus (edited by Tertti Lappalainen), 2000
  • 'Kuoleman ilo'; 'Intohimon ilo'; 'Tietämättömyyden ilo', in Elämän iloa (edited by Tarja Pulli), 2001
  • 'Ortodoksinen kirkko ja filosofia', in Lahden ortodoksisen seurakunnan juhlajulkaisu, 2001
  • 'Vihreän sauvan salaisuus – Leo Tolstoin käsitys kuolemasta', in Ivan Iljitšin kuolema by Leo Tolstoi, 2001
  • Aphorisms, in Kyynikon kultainen kirja (edited by Juha Lindqvist), 2001
  • 'Tietämättömyyden ylistys', in Uskon - epäilen (edited by Tertti Lappalainen), 2002
  • Aphorisms, in Ydinsanoja (edited by Maunu Sinnemäki), 2002
  • Aphorisms and translations of Kierkegaard's thoughts, in Ajatuksia elämästä (edited by Arto Manninen), 2003
  • 'Jokainen jumalansa kuva', in Suomalaisen Jumala tänään (edited by Jouko Lankinen), 2003
  • 'Juutalaisen teatterin synty', in program on George Tabor's play Coldberg-variations, 2004
  • 'Kuolema on elämän suola', in Sinä kuolet (edited by Ari Liimatainen), 2005
  • 'Taide pesee kätensä', essay in exhibition catalogue on Martti Aiha's art, 2005
  • 'Porilaisten marssia Tenkassa', in Yhdet vielä (edited by Arno Kotro et al.), 2005
  • 'Rajan takana, lähellä', essay in exhibition catalogue on Kaarina Kaikkonen's art, 2005
  • 'Oluella helvetissä', in Praha – Kirjailijan kaupunki (edited by Jussi-Pekka Hakkarainen), 2005
  • Interpretation on Magnus Enckell's painting Karkotus paratiisista, in Moniääninen Ateneum, 2005
  • 'Rajat liukenevat', essay in exhibition catalogue on Reijo Viljanen's art; also translated into Swedish with Philip von Knorring, 2006
  • 'Till the day I die' (Kuolema on elämän suola, translated by Owen Witesman), in Books from Finland 1/2006
  • 'Kirottu ja siunattu Dostojevski', in Dostojevski: kiistaton ja kiistelty (edited by Martti Anhava), 2017


  • Søren Kierkegaard: Välisoittoja, 1988
  • Søren Kierkegaard: Päättävä epätieteellinen jälkikirjoitus, 1993 (original title: Afsluttende uvidenskabelig efterskrift til de philosophiske smuler)
  • Lennart Koskinen: Mikä on oikein?, 1995 (original title: Vad är rätt?)
  • Søren Kierkegaard: In vino veritas, 1996 (original title: In vino veritas) 
  • tranlations of Søren Kierkegaard, in the radio drama Paha hämärä by Markku Into, 22.1.1998
  • Ben Alex: Søren Kierkegaard: ajattelijan elämä. 2., 1998 (tr. with Tytti Träff; original title: Søren Kierkegaard : an authentic life)
  • Lennart Koskinen: Jumala, 1998 (original title: Gud 2000)
  • 'Ilmestyskirja tänään', by Lennart Koskinen, in Ilmestyskirja by Lennart Koskinen, Torsti Lehtinen, Wille Riekkinen, 1999
  • Peter Thielst: Elämä ymmärretään taaksepäin mutta se täytyy elää eteenpäin, 1999 (original title: Livet forstås baglæns, men må leves forlæns)
  • Henrik Jansson: Hyvää yötä, kolmosen raitiovaunu, 2001 (original title: Godnatt treans spårvagn)
  • Søren Kierkegaard: Pelko ja vavistus, 2001 (original title:Frygt og bæven)
  • 'Tulva'; 'Näkymätön puutarhuri'; 'Naurava Jumala', in Kerron sinulle tarinan (ed. by Heli Pruuki), 2002
  • tranlations of Søren Kierkegaard, in the play Kuolinkumppanit, 2003
  • Helen Exley (ed.): Runoantologia Morsiamelle, 2003
  • Paul von Martens: Nemesis eli verta verrasta, 2005 (original title: Nemesis, eller, Lika för lika)
  • Jonas Gardell: Jeesuksesta, 2010 (original title: Om Jesus)
  • Yann Martel: Beatrice ja Vergilius, 2014 (original title: Beatrice and Virgil)
  • Thomas Erikson: Pelonkylväjät, 2015 (original title: Bländverk)

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