Tuesday, 22 April 2014


Siin siis too Helsingis räägitud jutt. Meenutan tänuga samal konverentsil kaasa teinud prof . Peter McCormickit  Kanadast,  kes lahkesti redigeeris mu isehakanud ingliskeelt ja kellega vahetasime mõtteid ilmutusliku ja analüütilise mõistmisviisi üle.

Some Remarks on the Etymology of Understanding 

/Revised version of an invited paper presented at the Conference, "Arts and the Ethics of Understanding“at the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters in Helsinki, May 16th,  2008/

My ] presentation has three parts. First of all, I try to understand what the concept of “understanding”, as the central topic of this conference, actually means. After that, I’ll bother you with some examples of understanding or not-as-well-understanding  from my own experience as a poet. And then I’ll try to carry the matter to a victorious end by deliberating on who is ethically responsible for understanding pieces of art, and in which ways.

So, what is, or what actually is, understanding? What, as a matter of fact, are we saying if we say 'we understand' or 'we don’t understand' this or that?

Let’s seek help from etymology. Etymology is the genetics of a language.We don’t necessarily know which genes we are carrying in our bodies but, nevertheless, they play the decisive role in what we are. Similarly, words are carrying with them, and in them, their genetic, initial meanings through history and through casual changes. Sometimes those changes are deep and radical, comparable to genetic mutations through which initial features or initial meanings are almost annihilated. But in most cases those old meanings are carried on through time, sometimes more obviously, sometimes in more hidden way. Inquiring into them enables us to see more clearly and more-dimensionally patterns of our minds.

So, what do the words 'understanding' and its synonyms etymologically mean?

I’ve often wondered why in the word 'understand' there is this 'under-.' Of course , I more or less can catch why there is '-stand' there. It seems to be psychologically appropriate to say that when you have understood something then the very fact of this achievement strengthens your feeling of stability, of stableness, especially if one compares that feeling to the nervous and unclear feelings one has while seeking clarity. Here I stand, you know. I have understood how things are, I am calm and strong. I have no need to fuss around, I may stand here as a rock.
Well, but why to understand? Is it not dangerous to stand under something that may fall on your head? Isn’t it, after all, rather illogical to imagine that when something – a problem, a question, a riddle, a mystery – is hanging above you and you are standing under it, you may boast that you have solved it? Once again: why understand?

This matter seems to be just as enigmatic in German as it is in English. Perhaps I am wrong but the verb verstehen seems to mean, literally, to stand in front of something. As in front of a wall or of a closed door. Does it speak about solving a question, about understanding of reasons and structure of the situation? Doesn’t sound so. If there are some native speakers of German here, please explain to me afterwards what you mean when you say 'Ich verstehe.'  

In any case,  the concept of understanding is strongly related to the concept of standing (and, via this, probably to the concept of steadiness and stability) in more than one of the European languages. In ancient Greek, the concept sounds exceptionally strong and victorious: epistemai. While suggesting I know, I know how, it literally means I stand upon. No standing under something or in front of something like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx. Epistemai!  I stand upon! I am the winner! Being located upon[  a thing, having subjected, subordinated it, I have unlimited prospects to do with it whatsoever.  

But now, it’s time to apologize for my slandering the English language and to correct my mistakes. Consulting some etymological  vocabularies I learned that, in the good old times, 'under' did not mean 'under' at all.  What did it mean, then? 'Under' meant something like 'between,' 'among,' 'in the midst of.'  Or, in some other ] etymologies, 'close to.'

This seems much better. On these etymologies, to understand a thing or a process means to be connected to it closely, to be, in a way, inside of it, in the midst of what is or of what happens. It’s even better than the Greeks’ talk of standing higher, standing upon. It’s almost to be a part of the item in question.

Further, it’s something not only about comprehending some other thing, but, simultaneously, something about self-cognisance. Something about the fusion of the cognizing person and the item cognized. Understanding on this reading is not very far from the sense of St Paul’s “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part but then shall I know just as also I am known.”

Some remarks now on the referents of the word 'understanding' in my native language, Estonian, where the most usual words for this are aru saama and mõistma, both, it seems, of quite old origins.

The first expression, aru saama] , comes from aru , meaning roughly the intellect, reason, intelligence as a certain aspect or part of a human being’s complexity. In some verbal phrases, it also may implicitly refer to sageness, wisdom obtained through one’s life experience--an older person is supposed to be more arukas (more provided with aru) than a younger one. Besides, it’s of interest that the stem  is etymologically the same as arv which means number or figure as in mathematics. Arutama, arutlema – to reflect on something, to ponder – is more or less the same word as arvutama – to calculate, to reckon, as to add up, subtract, etc. All of them refer to functions of the intellect.

So, aru saama (saama meaning to get) may be explained  as to get something into your intellect or to make something to correspond to your intellect. Psychologically, it seems to be quite close to the Latin comprehendere (the same in Romance languages, but also in English to comprehend) or to the more vernacular expressions like to grasp, to catch etc. Similarly, the Russian ponimat’, ponyat’ has the same root as verbs which denote taking.

Perhaps then the Estonian aru saama refers to a longer and more analytical intellectual process, while comprehendere and grasp are more holistic, more intuitive, more subject to, say, revelation.But who knows? It’s possible that in the old times aru, reason, wasn’t as sharply separated from other aspects of human consciousness as it is considered to be in our days.

As for the other Estonian word, mõistma, it has some interesting connotations as well. Mainly, it’s also clearly connected to the intellect, to mõistus which is nearly synonymous to aru. But at the same time, there is no very sharp border between the word roots,  mõist- and muist-, the last referring to the memory as in the Finnish muistaa (to remember, to keep in memory).

In Estonian, the concepts of the very old, ancient or mythical, pre-historical times are described by words derived from this root. Thus, muiste is an adverb traditionally used in fairytales for timing as in the expressions, 'once upon a time' or 'in olden days,' and it can also be said ennemuiste (before the muiste) or enne-ennemuiste (i.e. even more early), and so back. There clearly seems exist a mental link between, or even image of identity of, the concept of capacity for intellectual grasping the essence of things, and the concept of human memory, and the concept of mythical times.

One more illustration. While at least mõistus, anyway, can in modern times be translated as “pure” reason or intellect, and mõistma, respectively, as to grasp by the intellect, an ancient, almost forgotten figure of speech, meelega mõistma, is also available. This figure of speech literally means to understand, to grasp not by the intellect but by the meel.

What is meel? I guess Finnish colleagues can provide a lot of intriguing examples of how this very old – and still alive – Finno-Ugrian figure of speech is used. It can be interpreted more or less as referring to the mind, i.e. to something rather inner and immaterial, and, simultaneously, as referring to a sense in the context of the five senses of seeing, hearing, etc, i.e. to something reflecting or perceiving the outer material world. Further, as hea meel, paha meel, kurb meel, rõõmus meel, meel can refer to mood, to the casual state of a person's spirits. It really seems that – as some anthropologists and philosophers have put it – the ways of structuring the world, including human consciousness and its interaction with the Dinge an sich, is quite different in Finno-Ugrian languages and its respective mental patterns from the ways Indo-European ones structure the world.

I think, then, we may, as a minimum, conclude that the concept of understanding in some languages is less about intellectually standing either under, or upon, or in front of, or even in the midst of the items to be understood. Rather, the concept of understanding in these languages is more about being with all of one’s mental capacities and senses integrated into the basic order of things and keeping this in one’s memory.

Interestingly enough, in spite of the close relatedness of Estonian and Finnish, their most usual words for understanding are different. The etymological dictionaries don’t say anything very definitive about this matter, but the relatedness of ymmärtää to ympäri (around) or ympäröida (to surround, to environ) is evident. If so, the vision of being inside of a thing or, vice versa, of a person's trying to enfold something all-inclusively constitutes the psychological core of the Finnish approach – quite in the same way as we saw earlier. As for the verb, käsittää, which is synonymous with ympäröida (to understand) , its descent from käsi (hand) and, therefore, its closeness to concepts of grasping and handling are obvious.

Now, let’s try to make a kind of generalization. Roughly, we have been following two parallel approaches to the concept of understanding. One is the notion of being located somewhere very close to an object, even inside of, or, at least, enfolded by it. The other suggests more practical, operational aspects of understanding, like grasping, taking, handling of the thing, be it just by intellect or in some more complex way.

These two approaches are rather complementary than contradictory. One stresses more the condition of having understood something, the other stresses more a person’s activity in the process leading to understanding and, after that, using the results of this process. One is, perhaps, more passive in the Western, Faustian terms, the other more active and pragmatic. And, in the backgrounds of both, the Finno-Ugrian link between understanding and memory seems to be unique and to add a sort of deepness and continuity to the whole complex. 

To finish this excursus into some landscapes of etymology, let me say that the most attractive and intriguing synonym for understanding, for me, is an English one, and this is to realize (first recorded in this meaning not very long ago, in 1775). The expression, "to realize," seems to suggest that a thing, e.g. the world, is to be created through or by my understanding. Before I grasp this thing it is, at best, a possibility, but when I grasp it, this thing becomes reality. While saying "Suddenly I realized this or that " we actually say "Suddenly I made this or that become real." While saying   “Actually things are so and so” I actually say that it was me who, by saying so, actualized their being so and so.

In any case, a component of activity, of a creative activity, has an important role in the concept and process of understanding, at least in modern times. I’ll return to this point later when I take up the ethical aspects of our theme.


Now, some examples of understanding or misunderstanding from my own experiences with poetry. I’ll comment on them ad hoc, but I don’t believe that there were big chances to make any broad generalisations.

One of my very early poems, used as a kind of prologue in my first small book published when I was twenty, is entitled “Esimene vasikas”, “The First Calf”. It describes, in the first person, a calf with big curious eyes, with a funny tail, who stands straddling and declares himself not wanting to be sent beyond the fence. Clear enough, isn’t it?

The reception, in general, was that the poem was a political allegory protesting, smoothly but nonetheless, against being levelled, being made to conform, or, more directly, being relocated to a prison camp – hence, beyond barbed wire. Please have in mind that I published this poem in the depths of the Soviet period.

Well, why not? Such an interpretation is surely conceivable, though I’m not sure whether I was aware of such an interpretation when writing the poem.  My intention was not at all so ambitious. I just played with an idiomatic expression, “aria taha minema”, "to go beyond the fence", which means “to be unsuccessful”, “to fail”. It’s derived from a proverb which says that the first calf of any brood generally tends to “go beyond the fence”, not in the sense of being imprisoned but in the sense of being too weak, too feeble, so that it shortly dies and the cadaver is thrown over the fence and out of the stockyard. On this account, the simple synopsis of the poem, as the author imagined it, is: I don’t wish that either my first little book or myself as an aspiring poet to be a failure. Nothing too political, sorry.

Owing to its idiomatic cornerstone, there often have been problems with translating this poem into other languages. Together with a Russian poet I once tried to make a translation or a Nachdichtung of this poem on the model of a Russian proverb, "pervyj blin komom“, which has approximately the same content as the idiom about the calf. Literally, the Russian proverb says that every first pancake comes out as a lump--or something like that. So, the poem in Russian might be the monologue of a pancake declaring its unwillingness to come out as an ugly lump. But it was just too difficult to attribute to a pancake any such positive features as youthfulness, joyful curiosity, etc, so we gave up.

Another example where difficulties of understanding and translation arise when the idiomatic structure of a poem is built on a pun.  The melancholic or maybe stoical poem, called "Situation," or "State of Things," in Estonian goes: “kes nüüd on peal see jääb peale / kes nüüd on all see jääb alla / mina jään vahele”. Literally in English, the poem comes out roughly as: "he (or she) who now is upon, or above, remains there / he (or she) who now is beneath (or below) remains there / as for me, I remain (somewhere) between them." Alright, clear enough. Even too flat, I’d say. Even if somebody recalls the image of someone's being between a hammer and an anvil.

Still, some jokes are partly hidden in this small text making it hopefully a little more multilayered or "sophisticated" in the best meaning of the word. The jokes appear here and there in the different meanings of the phrase "vahele jääma," a first approximation of which means "to stay or to remain between."  Idiomatically, the same phrase is used when, for instance, a reader intentionally or accidentally skips a page or more. In such a case, those omitted or left-out pages are called in Estonian, "vahelejäänud."  Here, this expression refers to something about remaining unnoticed, overlooked.

But in the poem there is a third meaning of the phrase involved as well, and this is "to be caught, to be nabbed, to get into trouble." If, for example, I intend to steal something or to cheat somebody but, unfortunately, the police prevent me from doing so, then all I'm left to do is sigh, "vahele jäin"-- which means here "bad enough to be caught, but I was nabbed."

When taken this way, the point of the poem is not, as it may at first seem, that somebody is located somewhere between, say, winners and losers, or between higher and lower classes. Rather, there is also the suggestion that such a situation carries along with it a neglected, overlooked, forgotten perspective. For the person involved or other persons may feel that this perspective of being located somewhere between clear black-and-white positions is a fault and hence may feel guilty.

We may ask now whether a reader who has understood the first and the most obvious meaning of the words but overlooked the other ones has understood the poem or not? My answer is: "not completely" (if there exists such a thing as complete understanding at all).

 Now, let’s go on and ask, in accordance with the theme of our conference, who is ethically responsible for such sad facts as someone's not-completely-understanding? Who is to be blamed? Well, if nobody wants to take responsibility, then as the author I take the responsibility. Nobody forces me to write such not-completely-understandable texts. But that’s where I stand.

Now , a couple of words about some specific features of understanding an artistic text in the environment of a totalitarian regime. Because when compared with the environment of the free world, specific features of a totalitarian environment stand out.

To be absolutely honest, I’d rather like to forget about that long experience of living under such a regime, even at the cost of forgetting two thirds of my life up till now. It was something deeply unacceptable for a normal mind. But perhaps those people are right who say that it would be a dangerous mistake not to share and not to explain one’s bad memories with people who drew a better lot because such enormities  may  spring up again. We have to try to describe and to analyze what really happened to humanity in the XX century, and why.

It must be stressed again and again that one of the biggest crimes of the Soviet regime, in addition to physical exterminating millions of human beings, destroying the economy and wasting the natural resources, was a total and intentional blurring of moral values and semantic concepts . When concepts like truth and falsity, good and evil, fidelity and treachery, peace and war, etc. are being turned totally upside-down, the demand that an artistic or a philosophical text be unambiguous – quite an absurd demand in itself – becomes doubly absurd. Even if some servile fool would want to fulfil it, such a demand is absolutely non-fulfilable.

In Estonia we had a sardonic definition of so-called socialist realism as the praising of the Communist leadership in an artistic form they could understand. The definition certainly hinted at the stupidity and ignorance of Communist leaders, but the essence of the problem lies deeper. For there also could be quite wise and well-educated leaders or grey cardinals in some periods of the empire's history, and such cases were even worse. To say nothing about the methods of such out and out terror as total censorship combined with the intensive tracking-down of those spreading uncensored texts, the very core of the ] trick was the systematic blurring of meanings.

When looked at from the viewpoint of the creation of artistic texts and their communication to readers and audiences, the result was that any possibility of an authentic reception was thoroughly compromised or, in fact, annihilated. Where all human relations are overpoliticized and every text is suspected to be hiddenly hostile we find that audiences' expectations to find everywhere encoded messages are incredibly high. As an illustration recall the case of the calf I mentioned above. The paranoia of the authorities infects the whole community.

So the spontaneous liberty and trustfulness that are essential features of both the artistic creativity of an artist and of his or her communication with an audience, as well as any normal social communication at all, became radically contorted and replaced by their fake copies.  

Sometimes it happened to be incredibly funny. But essentially it  has to be considered a part of a general distortion of normal human communication in a civil society and, as such, quite different from some innocent joke. The same goes for the understanding of the essence and social role of the arts. If, from one side, totalitarian regimes tend to demand the political engagement of artists, from the other, no real discussion of political ideas is acceptable. And from still a third side, any text is interpreted as political allegory or as a system of heretical messages. No normal art and no normal reception of art are at all possible.


So, it seems that we have unnoticeably come to the matter of ethics. Let’s really forget about totalitarianisms for now. Nonetheless, let us keep these totalitarianisms somewhere in our memory in order to be sufficiently alert to avoid their regeneration. If they return, then we have to overthrow them before we can talk about any other issue.

But now, what about the understanding of artworks in normal circumstances? Granted that there is such a thing as a proper understanding of the meaning of a piece of art, then who is responsible if somebody – or, theoretically, nobody – fails to grasp that meaning?

Before trying to answer, by way of background I would like to recall a radical view on the ethics of literature as such.

“It seems that the very essence  of literature is wrong: this is not to say that ‘nowadays’ or ‘those certain men of letters’ are bad, but the field of literature as such, in its very core and in the seed it has grown from, is entirely based on evil. Just let me write, and everybody has to read!?...  Why ‘me’ and why should ‘they’ read? The implication is: ‘I am wiser than others’, “others are less than me’ – and merely this is a sin.”

This citation is from the diary of Vassili Rozanov, a – so it seems – quite forgotten Russian author of the beginning of last century. Bitter, solitary, sceptical and, while proceeding from very high standards, not far from total nihilism.

Rozanov may sound too radical. But there are smoother examples of the same turn of mind. For instance, Paavo Haavikko in his young years, wrote: “If even success makes us dumb so what about if it appears that poetry doesn’t matter?”

Note that not only poetry may appear not to matter, but that even when it obviously does – when the poetry is successful (something that intrinsically includes the idea of its having its having a good reception) – such successful poetry is nonetheless subject to hesitation, to doubt.

Or let’s recall those death certificates for literature which are issued every now and then. Do men of letters, logically, have any right to hope for an ardent interest and proper understanding from others while being doubtful, themselves about the moral value or even vitality of their own literary business?

My view is that, despite hesitations and self-accusations, literature is entitled to feel itself a normal part of civilisation. In one technical form or another, literature has always existed.  And I cannot imagine either why literature has to perish before the end of human civilisation as a whole or why literature should feel morally inferior to any other manifestation of civilisation.

I cannot help being impressed by a certain Rozanov-like moral radicalism. But to my mind, such a moral radicalism should be used as a means for avoiding hubris, a tool for self-purification in order not to take one’s position too arrogantly.

Writing and reading are two phases of the permanent process of mental metabolism in a society. The writer’s contribution to this mental metabolism is his or her texts; the reader’s is his or her interest and striving to understand.

The writer’s ethics lies in doing his or her best to write the best text possible. I don’t believe that, while composing a text an author should think about a certain addressee, about a certain target group of potential readers trying to make the text more edible  for them. In my opinion, doing so seems rather to be making an ethical misstep, to be doing something unfair regarding both the text and its readers.

The reader's ethics, in his or her turn, lies in a doing his or her best to accept the text as it is and to draw from this as much as possible. As a matter of fact, a book is a piece of reality, like, say, a bird or a tree. When, actually, is there the moment that I can say: "Oh, now I wholly understand this wagtail or this pine?" If, in any case, in spite of all my good will a text doesn’t open up for me as a reader, so what? Nothing apocalyptic, neither for the reader nor for the author. Recalling the etymology of "realizing": anything I don’t understand just isn’t real for me. It doesn’t exist in my world, and let it be. There are a lot of other books and other readers. And, after all, there is always a possibility that the revelation will take place some other time.

So, I guess we may be quite calm about the process of understanding and, particularly, about the ethical aspects of it, if both sides' motivation and self-determination is ethical. If not, if there is, say, too much authorial calculation of being well sold or famous, or too many readerly ambitions to be fed with something easy to digest, then there is no reason to repent of the process or of their interaction failing. That’s it. Their stakes were not fair.

Certainly it is better if there is a favourable environment, a favourable atmosphere for understanding. First of all, I am convinced that readiness to be open to understand different things and to have some technical means for achieving this understanding is learnable and trainable. It’s something about schools, about curriculum, about the attitude of teachers. Less swotting and more creativity are good not only for communicating with the arts but for everything in  life.

Coming back to the beginning, to the etymologies of understanding, and to conclude : it’s very desirable that a person has the wish and the capability to go inside of and to feel embowered , to feel surrounded by everything given. Understanding, however, does not necessarily have to be an act or feeling of conquering or subjecting something. Certainly, the last is important psychologically as a sign of having succeeded. But the feeling that something is inside my mind and, simultaneously, I with my mind am inside of this something, is more profound and more comprehensive.

] Each act of such an understanding is a step towards the recognition of the  universal unity and towards being consciously involved in this unity. It’s not only a matter of ethics. It’s rather an existential or ontological matter. To be – at least to be a human being – means to understand and to be understood. Perhaps.

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