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by Bamber Gascoigne

Matti Kuusi (1914-1998)


Finnish folklorist, writer, professor at the University of Helsinki from 1959-77. Matti Kuusi was a pioneer in applying Roman Jakobson's and Claude Lévi-Strauss' structural analysis into Finnish folk poetry and dating poems. He participated actively in public debate and was unprejudiced about new ideas – Kuusi drew open-mindedly paralles between folk poetry and pop song lyrics. In his own lyrical works Kuusi appeared as an ironic observer.

'"Aika on rahaa" sananlasku pantiin muistiin ja lähetettiin Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran kokoelmiin ensi kerran vasta 1896 Liedosta Turun liepeiltä. Ajan mittaaminen minuutein ja markoin on yhä ilmeisen luonnonvastaista kehitys-Suomen vaareille ja muoreille, samoin kuin lapsille, perheenäideille, taiteilijoille, pultsareile jne. kotipaikkaan katsomatta. Paradoksaalia kyllä ajan puute on huutavin siellä missä elintaso on korkein ja aikaa säästäviä tavaroita (autoja, pesukoneita, kopiokoneita, pikaruokapakkauksia) eniten.' (from 'Kansanperinteestä populaarikulttuuriin', 1974)

Matti Kuusi was born in Helsinki into a intellectually prominent family, with strong literary and academic roots. His father was Aarne Kuusi, a director of an insurance company, and mother Alli (Zidbäck) Kuusi. They had met in Kuopio, where Aarne Kuusi worked as a mathematics teacher and Alli Zidbäck was his student. Aarne Kuusi's grandfather was the theologian and professor Axel Fredrik Granfelt (1815-92), an active and polemical writer, his his son Axel August Granfelt (1846-1919) was a well known advocate of public enlightenment, who used the pen name 'Kuusi'. The family represented the Fennomen branch of the family and took the surname in 1905. Väinö Linna's sister Olga worked for the Kuusis as a domestic servant in the 1930s, but was dismissed when Alli Kuusi started to suspect that she had an affair with a farmhad at their summer home in Mäntyharju.

The family lived in a large apartment building on the Laivurinkatu in the heart of Helsinki.  Kuusi's home was religious, his mother hated money, and his father did not smoke, drink coffee or liquor, and he did not like onions. The Fennomen promoted Finnish-language culture, and often made a distinction between the term kansa (the people, "common people") and the upper class with its Swedish speaking members. In his own writings and scientific work Kuusi built a bridge between popular culture and "high" culture, treating them with similar respect. Kuusi never adopted her mother's religious views, but was more of an atheist.

There was a history of mental illness in the family. From the late 1930s, Alli Kuusi was institutionalized several times. Her mother Anna Wegelius suffered from depression. Kuusi's sister Maija fell in love with her teacher Eino Kaila and her mental health broke down in the middle of her studies. 

His first and short poem Kuusi penned at the age of seven – on the toilet's door. His continued to write at school and got one of his early pieces published at the periodical Nuori Voima, established to help secondary school students to develop talents. Kuusi's first collection of poems, Runon ja raudan kirja, which was published by Otava, came out when he was 21. Some years earlier, he had assembled enough poems for a collection, but the publisher sent back the manuscript with a rejection slip. Kuusi's friend Aulis Ojajärvi, with whom he corresponded from 1935, published his first and only collection of poems, Partaan puu, next year. Kuusi was a great encouragement to Ojajärvi, who later made a career as a teacher and edited the widely used Maailankirjallisuuden mestarinovelleja (1961), a collection of world's best short stories.

Runon ja raudan kirja (Book of verse and iron) was a nationalistic answer to the exoticism of Tulenkantajat (The Flame Bearers) literary movement. With these aggressively patriotic poem and his second collection, Routa liikkuu (1947), an account of the war years, Kuusi has earned a passing reference or a paragraph in Finnish literature history, but his major contribution to Finnish culture lay in folkloristic publications. As as a popularizer of scientific ideas Kuusi was prolific, and continued this work right up until the end of his life. Matti Kuusi died on January 16, 1998, in Helsinki.

Kuusi attended Helsingin Suomalainen Normaalilyseo. Like many students at that time, he saw Germany as the leading country of Europe, but did not identify himself as a Nazi sympathizer. After finishing secondary school, he entered the University of Helsinki, graduating in 1939, on the eve of the Winter War. He studied literature under Viljo Tarkiainen, who was according to Kuusi "clear, hot-tempered, uncompromising" but had complete mastery of his field. Among his other teachers was the legenary teacher Eino Kaila, whose psychological study Persoonallisuus (Personality) Kuusi read a couple of times. Kaila influenced deeply Kuusi as a model of an academic teacher.

In the 1930s Kuusi participated in the activities of such right wing organisations as IKL, an ultra-right party, and AKS, the Academic Karelian Society. He also wrote poems for the AKS; they formed the nucleus of his first collection. It was said that he was the only intellectual of the AKS, where he was indispensable as a propagandist but too independent  to be given an important position of leadership. In 1936-37 Kuusi spent some time in Germany, mostly in Berlin and Heidelberg, with the help of Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation Scholarship. He attended Karl Jaspers' famous farewell-lecture; some of the students cried. A lecture on Einstein's theory of relativity ended with the 'Horst Wessel Song'. After returning to Finland, he wrote an essay, which dealt with propaganda and totalitarian war. Kuusi emphasized the importance of national unity over ideological prejudices against the old enemy: Russia.

During the Continuation War (1941-44) Kuusi served in the army as an enlightenment officer, among others in Karelia, where he edited a magazine, kept a war diary, and reported on the current mood of the troops. Outwardly he appeared very energetic, but inwardly, he was frustrated at the trench warfare. In 1944 he married the agronomist Kaarina Lumiala. The young couple moved for two years to Varkaus, where Kaarina's parents, Eino Antero and Tyyne Johanna Lumiala, had a farm. Kuusi's doctoral thesis, Sampo-eepos: typologinen analyysi (1949), dealt with Sampo poems, the magic device that ensures its possessor everlasting wealth.

After the war in March 1945 Kuusi published a widely discussed column in the magazine Kansan Kuvalehti under the title 'Tämän hetken tunnus' (The sign of this time). Kuusi argued that there is no return to times gone by. The war, which had brough him in close contact with ordinary people, prompted him to reevaluate his view of the world. In the elections, he voted a social democratic candidate. At the same time, he kept in contact with anti-Communist circles. Pacifism had no place in political philosophy, which could be described as "pessimistic realism".

While recovering from tuberculosis, Kuusi wrote his second and last collection of poems, Routa liikkuu. After his Sampo study, Kuusi examined widely Finnish proverbs, and saw that they reflected the changes in the ways of thinking. He noted that for example the saying 'Time is money' was familiar in other countries several hundred years ago but in Finland it did not appear until in the beginning of the 20th century. Kuusi did not confine to studying Finnish folklore but also published works on Southwest African Riddle-Proverbs (1969), Ovambo Proverbs (1970), and Ovambo Riddles (1974). In the 1960s Kuusi launched an interdisciplinary project in Finland under the title "popular songs are contemporary folk songs". Mind and Form in Folklore: Selected Articles (1994), published by The Finnish Literature Society, collected Kuusi's articles from over 30 years of writing.

Among Kuusi's best known histories of literature is his study of ancient Finnish poetry, Suomen kirjallisuus I (1963), which has been translated into Swedish (Sejd och Saga). He divided the epic poetry recorded by Lönnrot and his successors into five main types: myth, shaman, adventure, church, and historical. Considering the national importance and prestige of Kalevala, Kuusi defended the radical view that the epic was outdated as a work of art, and folk poetry should be presented to public in its original form. Kuusi's last large work in folk poetry was the volume 34 of Suomen kansan vanhat runot (with Senni Timonen).

"Muinaisrunoutemme oli suuren yleisön runoutta. Suuri yleisö on aina vanhoillisempaa kuin pieni valioylisö. Runon vanhuus ei entisaikana ollut kielteinen attribuutti; muutoin olisi selittämätöntä, että jopa pakanuuden aikaisia runoja on säilynyt läpi keskiajan 20. vuosisadalle saakka." (from 'Lintuelegikko', 1961)

Kuusi´s other works include memoirs, studies of Kalevala, African popular tradition and other folk poetry. In the late 1940s, he wrote a satirical novel, in which the narrator is a Valpo's (state police) detective. The manuscript came back with polite rejection letter from both the publishing house WSOY and Gummerus. Kuusi also contributed to Kansan Kuvalehti under the pseudonym 'Savinyrkki'. His essays and columns dealt with a variety of subjects – among others Otto Manninen's poetry, Hella Wuolijoki's studies about Estonian folk poetry, and the work of the political cartoonist Kari Suomalainen. In the yearbook Kirjokannesta kipinä (1986), published by the Kalevala Society, he praised the pioneering Finnish occultist and Rosicrucian Pekka Ervast (1875-1934) for his visions of Kalevala. Ervast interpreted the Kalevala folklore from the occultist perspective. The poems explored the secret history humankind. The Kalevala heroes were archetypes of ancient gods.

As an essayist Kuusi combined the attitudes of scholar and dissident. Often he tried to find a pattern or an order in the chaotic world of changes, or provocatively questioned many prevailing assumptions. He suggested in 'Operaatio 10 000 kirjailijaa' that to reduce unemployment, munincipalities should be obliged to hire munincipal writers, one writer per 500 inhabitants. In 1986 he aroused controversy by stating in an interview, that the best way to help Africa is to leave it alone. At home Kuusi hid himself in his study, and  focused on his work. To his children he remained a distant figure, despite his kindness to them. 

For further reading: Sampo ei sanoja puutu: Matti Kuusen juhlakirja, ed. by Pertti Virtaranta et al. (1974); Matti Kuusi: Kansakunnan unilukkari by Kirsti Manninen (1984); 'Lukijalle' by Leea Virtanen and Senni Timonen in Perisuomalaista ja kansainvälistä by Matti Kuusi (1985); Miten minut on kasvatettu, ed. by Ritva Haavikko (1986); Ohituksia by Matti Kuusi (1985); Suomalainen tiedeakatemia. Vuosikirja, ed. by Pentti Kauranen (1998); 'Matti Kuusi (1914 –1998): In Memory of the Last Giant of International Paremiology' by Wolfgang Mieder, in Proverbium 15 (1998); Suomen tieteen historia 2, ed. by Päiviö Tommila (2000); The Matti Kuusi International Type System of Proverbs by Outi Lauhakangas (2001);  Sanottu. Tehty: Matti Kuusen elämä 1914-1998 by Tellervo Krogerus (2014); Sotapropagandan valiojoukko 1941-1944 by Keijo K. Kulha (2021) 

Selected works:

  • Runon ja raudan kirja, 1935
  • Taistelu Mäntyharjusta v. 1918: kertomuksia vaarallisista retkistä ja rohkeista miehistä, 1938 (editor)
  • Kansa kalliolla: maanpuolustusväen kultainen kirja, 1939 (ed., with Aale Tynni)
  • Routa liikkuu: runoja, 1947
  • Sampo-eepos: typologinen analyysi , 1949 (dissertation)
  • Suomen Tasavallan presidentit, 1950 (ed.)
  • Sananlaskut ja puheenparret, 1953
  • Vanhan kansan sananlaskuviisaus: suomalaisia elämänohjeita, kansanaforismeja, lentäviä lauseita ja kokkapuheita vuosilta 1544-1826, 1953 (editor) [The Wisdom of the Old Folk in Proverbs]
  • Ladun hiihdin: kuvakertomus Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seuran 125-vuotistaipaleelta, 1956 (editor)
  • Parömiologische Betrachtungen, 1957 (Deutsche Übersetzung von Bernd Assmuth)
  • Regen bei Sonnenschein: zur Weltgeschichte einer Redensart, 1957 (Deutsche Übersetzung von Bernd Assmuth)
  • Tutkijain perintö: suomalaista kansanrunoustiedettä viideltä vuosisadalta, 1958 (ed., with Jouko Hautala)
  • Miten opin kirjoittamaan paremmin: ohjeita ja tehtäviä kirjallisen ilmaisutaidon opiskelijoille, 1958
  • Viisausden sanakirja: 1001 nasevaa suomalaista sananlaskua, 1959 (editor)
  • Suomen kansan vertauksia, 1960 (editor)
  • Suomen kirjallisuus I. Kirjoittamaton  kirjallisuus, 1963 (ed. with Jouko Hautala)
  • Kaarle Krohn als Universitätslehrer, 1964
  • Pohjoiset reservit: epätieteellisiä puheenvuoroja, 1965
  • Fatalistic Traits in Finnish Proverbs, 1967 (in Fatalistic Beliefs in Religion, Folklore and Literature, ed. by Helmer Ringgren)
  • Southwest African Riddle-Proverbs, 1969 (in Proverbium 12)
  • Ovambo Proverbs with African Paralles, 1970 (translated by Anja Miller, Matt T. Salo and Eugen Holman)
  • Towards an International Type-System of Proverbs, 1972 (translated by Robert Goebel)
  • Ovambo Riddles: With Comments and Vocabularies, 1974 (translated by Eugen Holman)
  • Kansanruno-Kalevala, 1976 (ed., additional guide for teachers by Raimo Wallin, Terttu Wallin and Merja Totro)
  • Veistän pilkat pitkin puita: Kansanruno-Kalevalan opetusopas, 1976
  • Maailmankuvan muutos tutkimuskohteena: näkökulmia teollistumisajan Suomeen, 1977 (ed., with Risto Alapuro & Matti Klinge)
  • Finnish Folk Poetry. Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English, 1977 (ed. and translated by Matti Kuusi, Keith Bosley and Michael Branch)
  • Suomalaista, karjalaista vai savokarjalaista? Vienan ja Pohjois-Aunuksen sananlaskut ja Kalevalan runojen alkuperäkiista, 1978
  • Kansanhuumorin kuka kukin on: 1001 kaskua, 1979 (editor)
  • Mustan Afrikan viisautta, 1979 (ed., illustrated by John Muafangejo)
  • Maria Luukan laulut ja loitsut: tutkimus läntisimmän Inkerin suomalaisperinteestä, 1983
  • Ohituksia, 1985
  • Kalevalalipas, 1985 (with Pertti Anttonen)
  • Proverbia Septentrionalia: 900 Balto-Finnic Proverb Types with Russian, Baltic, German and Scandinavian Parallels, 1985 (in cooperation withu Marje Joalaid, et al.; translated by Nigel Brigden)
  • Perisuomalaista ja kansainvälistä, 1985
  • Roolit ja särmät: dokumentteja seitsemältä vuosikymmeneltä, 1986
  • Rapatessa roiskuu: nykysuomen sananparsikirja, 1988 (editor)
  • Kirjokannesta kipinä – Kalevalan juhlavuoden satoa, 1986 (edited by Matti Kuusi, Pekka Laaksonen and Hannes Sihvo)
  • D. E. D. Europaeus: suurmies vai kummajainen, 1988 (ed., with Pekka Laaksonren & Senni Timonen)
  • Möykkyjä ja neulasia, 1989
  • Vanhan kansan sananlaskuviisaus: suomalaisia elämänohjeita, kansanaforismeja, lentäviä lauseita ja kokkapuheita vuosilta 1544-1926, 1990 (illustrated by Helga Sjöstedt)
  • Tyrjän rykmentin rintamalehden asia- ja henkilöhakemisto (1941-1945), 1993
  • Maailman sananlaskuviisaus, 1993  (ed., with Outi Lauhakangas)
  • Kansanhuumorin parhaat, 1993 (illustrated by Keijo Ilmanen)
  • Mind and Form in Folklore: Selected Articles, 1994 (edited by Henni Ilomäki; writings published on the occassion of the 80th birthday of Matti Kuusi, 25 March 1994)
  • A Trail for Singers: Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic, 1995 (ed., translated by Keith Bosley)
  • Runoja Henrik Florinuksen, Kristfrid Gananderin, Elias Lönnrotin ja Volmari Porkan kokoelmista, 1997 (ed., with Senni Timonen)

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