The Moomins teach us humanity

What does the world of the Moomins look like to a philosopher, and how can that world help us understand and resolve conflicts in our own? These are some of the questions asked in the theme issue of SATS, Nordic Journal of Philosophy published at the beginning of July. The issue, edited by Professor Sara Heinämaa and Senior Lecturer Joona Taipale from the University of Jyväskylä, examines the Moomin books from a phenomenological perspective.

Tove Jansson’s literary works insightfully depict the sometimes obscure motives of human activity. With the right approach, the Moomins may help us understand various conflicts. Such help is especially crucial today, as society is polarised in many ways.

Phenomenology is an approach to experiential philosophy that investigates different forms and conditions of human experience. This approach ranges from academic knowledge to the most concrete everyday experiences and feelings.

“In recent years,” Heinämaa says, “phenomenology has yielded a wealth of new findings that help us understand the preconditions of communality. Light has also been shed on many emotions and feelings – particularly so-called social ones such as shame, guilt and pride, but also more political ones such as hatred, disgust and contempt. To counterbalance these negative feelings, people have gained strength from the emotions and feelings of love, generosity, tolerance and, above all, curiosity.”

The Groke reminds us about others

The idea of making a theme number around the Moomins arose from Nordic research cooperation, when three colleagues – Sara Heinämaa, Dan Zahavi and Hans Ruin – were discussing the role of imagination and literature in philosophy. These three researchers organise an annual symposium, and the theme they picked for 2017 event was Tove Jansson’s philosophy.

“A further incentive came from Joona Taipale’s article published in the previous year, which identified some important experiential philosophy dimensions of the Moomin books,” Heinämaa adds.

Sara Heinämaa.jpg

The Moomin books offer models through which one can analyse communality and shared identities. For example, the Groke, who freezes everything she comes across, can be experienced as an extremely frightening character. From the phenomenological point of view, however, the Groke can be seen to represent something much deeper.

“In the world of the Moomins the Groke is left outside different communities. Yet she keeps returning to their outskirts to remind the members of the community that life is more diverse than one’s familiar surroundings. At the same time this reminds us about the fact that communities are inherently tragic as well; they always leave somebody outside, Heinämaa describes.

Several Moomin books, including Tales from Moominvalley and Finn Family Moomintroll, also deal with the problem of transformation.

“Jansson’s stories emphasise that no one can remain the same forever. Despite even harsh changes, friendship, confidence and curiosity help people build relationships on new bases,” Heinämaa says.

The Moomin universe is not separate from the real world

What is life like in the Moominvalley, then? We may perhaps see the Moomins themselves as emblems of calmness, kindness and joy. However, their world is often coloured by opposing elements.

The Moomin universe belongs to the swirl of great – global and even cosmic – upheavals. The Moomins have to flee storms, floods, volcanic eruptions and a comet. They drift apart from each other, but cope by using their wits and meeting new friends. Owing to their persistence and courage the Moomins eventually find each other as well. At the same time they always learn something new and unexpected about themselves.

“Jansson’s childhood experiences of the horrors of the Second World War are clearly reflected in the tones and plots of her Moomin books,” Heinämaa points out. “Recurring themes include the destruction of one’s home, orphanhood, homelessness and migration. All these things are part of Finnish history of past decades, but for many they still belong to the present.”

In this respect Jansson’s main message is similar to that of Astrid Lindgren, another great Nordic author of children’s books: children are not made of sugar; they are resilient. While capable of coping with demanding conditions, they need not only material aid but also friendship, hope and something to nourish their imagination.

“Fortunately, a number of Finnish companies have realised the power of the Moomin stories and are contributing to children’s aid in crisis areas by donating Arabic translations of the Moomin books,” Heinämaa says. 

In a world full of conflicts and upheavals, the Moomins can provide us with hope and a new outlook. Taking a philosophical approach in examining Tove Jansson’s characters helps us outline the universal dimensions of human experience. This gives us a better understanding of affective foundations, for instance, but also of the premises for academic knowledge and technology.

“Today this is necessary to develop mutual understanding, interaction and cooperation between different groups of people,” Heinämaa points out.

Text: Sari Laapotti
Photos: Sari Laapotti and Petteri Kivimäki