Matti Kuusi 1914-1998

The grand old man of Finnish folkloristics, academician Matti Kuusi, professor emeritus of Finnish and comparative folklore research at Helsinki University, passed away on 16 January 1998 at the age of 83.

Despite his age, the word “old” feels slightly odd because in his view of life Matti Kuusi was to the very end a youthful patriot and a determined combatant for individual talent and against stereotype mediocrity. As a speaker, poet, critic, columnist, essayist, cultural politician and university teacher he clearly exceeded what was normally expected of a professor of folklore. Nulla die sine linea was his guideline, which produced a wide spectrum of ideas offered to a broad readership of colleagues and friends who found them occasionally wild or unrealisable but many times just excellent. This daily productivity and milling of new ideas found a counterpoint in his ability to engage himself and others in long-term projects based on unusually broad archive materials. The projects often lasted years, even decades but were always completed with lasting results, i.e. they dug deep in the research material and added something substantial to our knowledge. His books were rich in the sense that they contained not only learned conjectures but a wealth of oral tradition itself, just as if he revelled in disclosing folk style and texture in its original rustic beauty and uninhibited pertinence.

Matti Kuusi was a strict empirist without being a fieldworker. Despite his volatile intellect he was not prone to take any impressionist liberties in his scholarly work but always sought a solid quantifiable backing to his argument. Odd as it may sound, the superb master of style loved tables, statistics and percentages in a way which occasionally threatened the easy readability of his texts. In his larger works he was a thinker strictly within the confines of science. In his ego there was room both for the sparkling essayist and the disciplined analyst which he kept apart much better than most younger colleagues, and he pursued his line despite changes in the scholarly climate.

The chair in folkloristics which Matti Kuusi occupied during 1959-1977 possessed a proud lineage of men like Kaarle Krohn, the founder of the historic-geographic method, Väinö Salminen, a fieldworker and historian of folk poetry, and Martti Haavio, the brilliant master of motif history. In his early methodological development Kuusi adhered to the typological ideas of E. N. Setälä, the leading linguist and opponent of Krohn. Simultaneously, the systematisation of the “Finnish method” by the Estonian top folklorist Walter Anderson showed the way, and Kuusi became the last full-scale renovator of the historic-geographic method. He did two things: he expressed the principles of assessing the priority of one feature over the other in the pool of variants with the utmost clarity and he planted totally new aspects in the methodological framework. Yet he remained a believer in the text-critical paradigm as the foundation for dealing with variation in folklore, a standpoint first expressed by H. G. Porthan in Turku in the late 18th century. This stand may be questioned in the view of modern research, but the innovations which Kuusi introduced are not endangered by that.

Matti Kuusi was the forerunner of what may be called “historical ethnopoetics”. He was involved much more firmly than his predecessors in the analysis of the texture of oral poetry from long epic poems to concise proverbs. He developed a fine sense for the historical strata of poetic expression and applied both historical linguistics and literary analysis. His main goal was to create taxonomies of expression and profiles of development in the poetic language. On the basis of meticulous groundwork started in his dissertation on the Sampo epic (1949) Matti Kuusi delineated in 1957 a periodisation of the ancient tetrametric epic poetry in which he grouped the poems into five consecutive periods, four of them pre-Christian, on the basis of stylistic and content criteria. This vision became the foundation of his historical synthesis of the Finnish-Karelian “unwritten literature” in the first volume of Suomen kirjallisuus [Finnish literature, 1963], a synthesis largely unchallenged even today. The volume was translated into Swedish in 1983 and the basic facts have been available in English since 1977 in the anthology Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic (with Michael Branch and Keith Bosley). As an epic scholar Matti Kuusi studied the oral possibility of a longer format than was available in the collected epic poems and analysed tendencies toward cyclisation, the phenomenon which Elias Lönnrot had confronted in his quest for a long epic. In his analyses of individual, familial and regional repertoires Kuusi came close to the study of live poetic systems manifest in the repertoires of such well-documented singers as Anni Lehtonen in northern Russian Karelia and Maria Luukka in Ingria. This systemic ethnopoetic approach is an important extension of his research.

At one point Matti Kuusi was interested in the Parry-Lordian theories on oral formulae despite their conflict with the text-critical paradigm which he continued to endorse. That he did not become a follower was due less to that partly latent conflict than to the fact that he had himself already extensively applied the concept of formula to proverbs, the second central genre in his production. In this field his grand master was Archer Taylor, who gave him the idea of founding an international paremiological journal Proverbium, which Kuusi created and edited during 1965-1974. That decade was probably the most international in Kuusi’s life: his own research extended to Africa (Ovambo Proverbs, FFC 208, 1970, and Ovambo Riddles, FFC 215, 1974) and he led a modern network of active scholars from dozens of countries and different research traditions who were united in a fruitful cooperation which manifested itself not only in the journal but also in the paremiological symposia regularly arranged at the world-wide and certain regional folkloristic congresses. It was, and partly still is, a forerunner of the present-day FF scholarly networks. An important practical result for Kuusi was his delineation of an international type-indexing system of proverbs (FFC 211, 1972). Another towering achievement in the field of international research collaboration was Proverbia septentrionalia (FFC 236, 1985), a comparative survey of 900 Balto-Finnic proverb types with Russian, Baltic, German and Scandinavian parallels.

There is no doubt that Kuusi’s contribution to paremiology is of global importance. Less known is his interest in popular lore, although it has dominated his image on the national scene. His inaugural lecture in 1959 dealt with “the metamorphosis of folk tradition”, suggesting that popular songs can be juxtaposed with oral folk songs, advertising slogans with proverbs and short stories with folk tales. In his analyses of popular figures, the “idols” of contemporary culture Matti Kuusi was probably ahead of his time in the field of poplore studies. Much of the discussion took place, however, only in Finnish. A recent selection of Kuusi’s articles in English translation, Mind and Form in Folklore (Studia Fennica Folkloristica 3, 1994), makes available, among 18 other essays, his introduction to “idol analysis” of 1973.

In his later years, Matti Kuusi received both national and international recognition. In 1979 he became doctor h.c. of Joensuu University, in 1985 he was nominated academician of the Academy of Finland, and in 1991 the Estonian Academy of Science bestowed on him the title academician. It may not be too presumptuous to characterise the latter half of the 20th century as a period of strengthening in Finnish folkloristics. If that is true, much of the credit must go to Matti Kuusi.

Lauri Honko

(FFN 15, April 1998: 8-9)