The Howling Miller’s Vegetable Patch: Organic Metaphors and Mental Illness

R de Matas's picture

Dr. Avril Tynan

Keywords: Uprootedness; Medical humanities; Madness; Social belonging; Finnish literature

‘To be rooted’, wrote French philosopher Simone Weil in The Need for Roots, ‘is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’ (2002, 40). These roots are to be found in the life of a community, and active participation in such a community – be it national, biological, or any other – ensures an individual’s continuity both with the past and the future (Weil 2002, 7). Writing at the height of the Second World War and shortly before her death, Weil recognized the rootedness of community as both stable and dynamic, diagnosing uprootedness as a social affliction brought on by the violences of war and colonialism, but also more subversively in modern capitalism and the dogmatic pursuit of economic gain (2002, 41). 

Although unlikely bedfellows, Weil’s discussion of uprootedness and social malaise touches on the notions of social psychiatry outlined by German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin in 1921.1 In “On Uprootedness”, Kraepelin suggests that ‘humans are animals of the herd’ (Engstrom and Weber 2010, 346), or, in other words, that an individual’s psychosocial development depends upon ‘the relationships to their human surroundings’ (Engstrom and Weber 2010, 346). Alluding to the nature-nurture debate, Kraepelin suggests that while biological inheritance provides certain predispositions in the development of personality, the social environment of the developing individual may influence their mental health both positively and negatively. The most destructive influence – uprootedness – was ‘brought on by the dissolution of family ties’ (Engstrom and Weber 2010, 346), although it may also arise from the disruption of community more generally – marital, national, linguistic, or religious (Engstrom and Weber 2010, 348–50). Mental illness, in other words, has both somatic and social roots. 

In Arto Paasilinna’s The Howling Miller (2018; Ulvova mylläri 1981), the organic metaphor of uprootedness intimates the protagonist’s madness and social marginalization. Physically and psychologically excluded from the community, Gunnar Huttunen’s uprootedness both precedes and follows allegations of madness and badness. Rootedness, on the other hand, is to be found in the ecological and social sustainability of a vegetable patch, where root vegetables provide connections (back) to the community and to psychological wellbeing. 

Paasilinna’s protagonist, Gunnar Huttunen, is uprooted. Although generally believed to have come to Lapland from south-west Finland, ‘no one was ever too sure exactly where he was from’ (Paasilinna 2018, 5), and Huttunen’s mysterious personal history – including the dissolution of his marriage, or, perhaps more literally, the dissolution of his wife – deprives him of the social roots that would ensure his individual continuity with others.2 Huttunen’s participation in both Finnish wars of the twentieth century – the Winter War (1939–40) and the War of Continuation (1941–44) – is a further source of his sociocultural uprootedness, leading to a diagnosis of war neurosis while he is incarcerated in Oulu mental hospital (Paasilinna 2018, 89; 98–104). This uprootedness manifests itself in Huttunen’s erratic behaviour, at times suffering long periods of depression, at others delivering euphoric performances of storytelling or animal impressions. 

Huttunen’s intrinsic uprootedness upon arrival in the village predisposes him to the suspicions of others. His unpredictable behaviour and tendency to howl ‘like a wild animal’ at night (Paasilinna 2018, 9) are perceived as symptoms of his uprootedness that serve to further dislocate him from the community who consider him dangerous and unreasonable, ‘afflicted by an incurable mental illness’ (276). Root vegetables, however, provide a means of (re)integration back into the local community as an economically and socially beneficial enterprise in the post-war countryside. On the advice of the local horticulture adviser, Sanelma Käyrämö, Huttunen converts some of the land surrounding his mill into a vegetable patch, where he plants beetroot, carrots, turnips, peas, onions, and herbs. As Huttunen is increasingly isolated from the rest of the village, he is banished to the surrounding forest where the vegetables from his own patch provide a source of nutrition and, perhaps most crucially, a connection to the human world. 

In The Howling Miller, root vegetables afford a curative connection to others, to reason, and to civilization that would reroute – or, rather, reroot – Huttunen (back) into the community. A symbol both of the communal roots shared by others from which Huttunen finds himself physically and psychologically excluded, and of the desires to reintegrate the community, root vegetables signify the stability and active continuity so crucial to Weil’s concept of rootedness, and the self-emboldening ‘inner colonization’ that would, in Kraepelin’s view, overcome the dissolution of community and promote emotional and mental wellbeing. In Huttunen’s own words: ‘Thank God for vegetables’ (Paasilinna 2018, 118).

[1] Kraepelin, although dying in 1926 before the rise of National Socialism, trained a number of psychiatrists who would go on to be instrumental in the idealization and implementation of the Volksgemeinschaft and racial eugenics of the Nazis. Weil was Jewish and working for the French Resistance in England at the time of her death, caused primarily by a refusal to eat. Both Weil and Kraepelin, however, have been accused of anti-Semitism; Weil because she converted to Christianity, and Kraepelin because his theories of degeneration are often plotted along an ideological trajectory leading directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

[2] Huttunen claims that he lost his previous mill and wife in a fire; local records show him to be a batchelor (Paasilinna 2018, 5).

References

Engstrom, Eric J., and Weber, Matthias M. 2010. “Classic Text No. 83: ‘On Uprootedness’ by Emil Kraepelin (1921).” History of Psychiatry 21 (3): 340–50. 

Paasilinna, Arto. 2018. The Howling Miller [1981]. Translated by Anne Colin du Terrail and Will Hobson. Edinburgh: Canongate. 

Weil, Simone. 2002. The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind [1949]. Translated by Arthur Willis. London and New York: Routledge.