In 1655 a four-part illustrated compendium cataloguing in meticulous detail objects from a private natural history collection established in Copenhagen by the recently deceased scientist Ole Worm (Olaus Wormius) was published. The Museum Wormanium is an early textual representation of the wunderkammern (literally, Cabinets of Wonder) or the Cabinets of Curiosities that rose to prominence as sites of empirical knowledge in 15th and 16th century Europe. Thought of as premodern precursors to the museum, these collections encompassing a wide range of objects gathered from scientific expeditions, and imperial and mercantile travels: fossils, taxidermized animals, parts of rare or exotic fauna, ethnographic artefacts, minerals, regalia and precious metals, religious relics, herbaria, and human anatomical specimens, often diseased or anomalous body parts, including aborted embryos preserved in formaldehyde– embody the Enlightenment zeitgeist based in a particular conception of rational knowledge and epistemic praxis. The European wunderkammer bears witness to the philosophical and political underpinnings of the Enlightenment’s encyclopaedic pedagogical ambitions to both expropriate as well as parse the multiplicity of natural and cultural phenomena into stable, coherent, classified orders, an impulse that contained the seeds of such later day racist technologies of control as phrenology and freakery. However, as Steven Lubar has argued, the 17th-century wunderkammer was often assembled without strict adherence to any cogent organizational model, representing instead the personal idiosyncrasies and aesthetic sensibilities of the collector himself. In practice, most wunderkammern were eccentric and unpredictable collocations of oddments that subverted rather than affirmed the principles of formal taxonomy or the cosmic hierarchy implicit in the Renaissance chain of being.
The seeming randomness and heterogeneity of these collections in fact attested to an underlying order based on correspondence, analogy, and juxtaposition. It was the function of the viewer to unravel these connections between the disparate objects as he inhabited and interacted with the display. The cabinet of curiosities is a point of departure and an organizing trope for Olga Tokarczuk’s 2018 Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, Flights, originally published in Polish as Beiguni in 2007, and recently introduced to the English-speaking readership in Jennifer Croft’s elegant translation. The ontological status of Flights is deeply ambiguous. It is a conglomeration of various styles, narrative perspectives, and genres, from travel writing, memoir, and fiction to philosophical commentary, environmental literature, and historiography. The question of literary ontology is raised with urgency in Tokarczuk’s 2019 Nobel Lecture, in which she critiques attempts at fixing the identity of literary works within the narrow parameters of generic, national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries, as symptomatic of an attenuation of creative possibilities under the onslaught of rampant commercialization of literature, and its technologies of branding and marketing. The drive to compartmentalize literary works is part of a wider malaise of isolation and fragmentation that characterizes life under contemporary capitalism. Its effects are registered at the level of the reorganization of our sensory and cognitive landscapes, in the ways in which we are being continually stimulated, interpellated, repositioned by shifting, discordant, mutually contradictory channels of incessant information, as well as in the atrophying of the diversity of narrative modes into the first-person perspective. The recent resurgence of the auto-fictional form instead of being a subjective, relativistic troubling of a monolithic reality, represents for Tokarczuk, a shrinking of literary possibilities to the solipsistic self-referentiality of the individual point of view, and with that a loss of empathy and sociability as aspects of narrative. The proliferation of sources of information, instead of democratizing knowledge and fostering connections, has in fact paradoxically created a separatist world in which multiplicity and diversity are negatively harnessed by corporate systems to create a compartmentalized global order of division and specialization. As she eloquently states:
At some point in our lives we start to see the world in pieces, everything separately, in little bits that are galaxies apart from one another, and the reality in which we live keeps affirming it: doctors treat us by specialty, taxes have no connection with snow-plowing the road we drive to work along, our lunch has nothing to do with an enormous stock farm, or my new top with a shabby factory somewhere in Asia. Everything is separate from everything else, everything lives apart, without any connection.
As opposed to this paradigm, Tokarczuk offers an alternative narrative of the Columbian Exchange that unpacks the dense historical record of the exploration and colonization of the New World, to reveal the vital links between human activity and environmental effects, climatic shifts and the condition of commerce, loss of biodiversity and the state of international relations, politically motivated genocide in the colonies and the disintegration of the agrarian economy in Europe. Tokarczuk’s retelling of this history not as a set of isolated facts but as a narrative that uncovers a complex ecology of entanglements between seemingly disparate events, provides a blueprint for what she considers to be the role of literature in the future. If in the hypermediated universe of post-truth, fake news, and increasingly blurred boundaries between fiction and reality, the value of literature is beset by a crisis of faith, a revitalization of literature’s social relevance particularly in a planetary milieu fraught with the damages of advanced capitalism, has to come from the recognition of narrative’s hermeneutic function. If an ontological bar is to be set, Tokarczuk considers it to inhere in literature’s capacity to add interpretive texture, a “deep structure of significations,” to an event by harnessing the ambiguity and indeterminacy of experience. This is not recourse to literary subjectivism but an expansion of the ultra-rational vocabulary of facts, data, quantifiability, and utility with the aid of literature’s specific modes of meaning-making. Premodern narrative forms like the parable and myth not only provide new figurative forms with which to articulate and reframe experience; these also generate new ways of inhabiting the world, orientations of the self in relation to the material world, and styles of occupying space and time that are anterior to the anthropocentric norm. The parable for instance, not only represents archetypal structures of human experience; it also creates new paradigms with which to approach the construction of human subjectivity and agency, ones that demand the surrender of the discrete and monolithic individual ‘I’ to a new grammar of anonymous, shared personhood, an “Everywhere Everyman.”
Tokarczuk’s training in Jungian psychoanalysis is reflected in her championing of myth as a narrative mode that allows a literary culture to transition from the epistemic limits of an isolated first-person optic to the activation of the figurative resources of a shared collective unconscious. The revival of literary forms beyond the first-person realist novel, and their reconfiguration of ossified habits of language and thought, is one of the ways in which literary poetics can intervene in and address the desiccation of human expression under capitalism’s technocratic regime. In its capacity to accommodate the multiplicity and fluidity of experience, and embody marginal, nonanthropocentric, creaturely sites of creative activity and meaning formation, literature produces affective registers that capitalist societies try to destroy. In the lecture’s most crucial section, Tokarczuk describes empathy and the production of a tender narrator as ethically and ecologically conscious innovations that expand literature’s scope for resistance.
If the cosmos is made up of “systems of mutual connections and influences of which we are generally unaware, but which we discover by chance, as surprising coincidences or convergences of fate, all those bridges, nuts, bolts, welded joints and connectors,” literary narrative by venturing beyond the prison-house of the private self, encapsulates this ecology of connections, the “highly spectacular dependencies on a worldwide scale.” The purpose of literature in Tokarczuk’s scheme is to enact the creative, inventive, relational, heterogeneous multiplicities that constitute life, and to locate systems of signification beyond human language and meaning-making activities in the intricate iterative structures of homologies, oppositions, diffractions, and transformations that animate the force-field of nature, what she terms “this great, constellation form of the world…in which the laws of physics sculpt an infinite number of forms that are incessantly linked to one another.” This excursion through Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture provides vital clues for deciphering the ethical and political import of Flights’ peculiar narrative structure. For if literature is a cohabitant of an entangled cosmos of multiplicities, the novel has to be refashioned to reflect as well as participate in this networked ecology. In Flights Tokarczuk creates what she calls a “constellation novel,” a narrative hybrid that functions in many ways like a literary wunderkammer.
Flights retains the first-person perspective in parts but combines it with other stories and points of view, including those of historical figures like Chopin, Ataturk, Josephina Soliman, the daughter of the Viennese Freemason of North African descent, Angelo Soliman, and Philip Verheyen, the surgeon who discovered the Achilles tendon, of an abandoned house, and the almost mythic figure of “the shrouded runaway” (a reference to the Beiguni, a Slavic nomadic tribe who are enjoined by religious belief to shun settlement and live a life of itineracy). The first-person narrator is a traveller who confesses to feeling existentially uprooted and shares this sense of being permanently dislocated with various travelling, displaced, aborted, consecrated, fetishized, and disavowed objects– amputated body parts, old memorabilia, religious relics, scientific specimens, and artefacts in museums and collections. She has a passion for what is anomalous, erroneous, and defiant of classificatory rubrics, but above all several of her travels focus on the challenges posed to our habits of seeing and thinking by objects that have been taken out of their contexts of use, display, and value, re-emerging as an affective charge, a particular spatial arrangement, a set of relations between constituent parts, and a field of myriad individual forms and agencies. She describes herself as possessing a “gargantuan ear” that allows her to be sensitive to the minor forms and molecular subjectivities that exist below the threshold of the visible and the sayable. In a manner similar to Martin Heidegger’s revaluation of the thing as having the capacity to be both useful, a situation in which it disappears from attention assimilated seamlessly into its field of instrumentality and practice (ready-to-hand or zuhanden), as well as rebellious, as when the thing malfunctions or breaks, so that, having created a dissonance in the field of use, the thing now withdraws from, becomes inaccessible to modes of human apprehension (present-at-hand or vorhanden). As a visit to an anatomical museum where bodies are displayed as skinless cross-sections of nerves and organs early in the novel testifies, or as one of the novel’s characters’ fixation on the Glaserner Mensch, a transparent sculpture of the human body combining advances in mechanics with modern anatomical knowledge, exhibited in the German Hygiene Museum in 1930, shows, divorced from conditions of everyday appearance and perception, the object’s sensuous materiality resurfaces in new configurations acquiring alternative meanings and producing a range of emotional responses from fascination to obsession and erotic desire. In Flights, this process of resignification and re-enchantment of the ordinary through practices of dislocation from familiar contexts and their normative horizons, is seen as one of travel’s more important functions. In one of the stories, a Beiguni nomad raises a prophetic plea for mobility, both literal and metaphorical, as a weapon for overthrowing those institutional and political forces that control their subjects by fixing them in time and place:
This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences. What they want is to create a frozen order, to falsify time’s passage. They want for the days to repeat themselves, unchanging, they want to build a big machine where every creature will be forced to take its place and carry out false actions. Institutions and offices, stamps, newsletters, a hierarchy, and ranks, degrees, applications and rejections, passports, numbers, cards, election results, sales and amassing points, collecting, exchanging some things for others. What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry.
Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.
Olga Tokarczuk (Source: nobelprize.org)
Tokarczuk’s focus here is not merely on routine, socially sanctioned forms of travel, the “timid tourism” of her parents that the narrator disavows. Rather the flights of the novel’s title are indicative of broader, eccentric, unregulated gestures of movement, physical, imaginative, linguistic, away from the centres of modern capitalist surveillance and hegemony, that barcoded, biometrically delimited economy that Galina, the shrouded Beiguni rails against, towards a resuscitation of our primordial, sympathetic, symbiotic correspondences with other life-forms and modes of existence. In this Tokarczuk is close to Rosi Braidotti‘s understanding of nomadism, a radical, counter-establishment mode of thinking and being that privileges mobility, transformation, and fluidity as not merely acts of physical travel, but as a heuristic with which to reconceptualize dominant liberal humanist notions of the self as bounded and unified, and replace it with newer cartographies of identity in which the self is an indeterminate, relational, porous structure:
A sustainable ethics for a non-unitary subject proposes an enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others, including the non-human or ‘earth’ others, by removing the obstacle of self-centred individualism. Far from entailing the loss of values and a free fall into relativism, this rather implies a new way of combining self-interests with the well being of an enlarged sense of community, which includes one’s territorial or environmental inter-connections. It is a nomadic eco-philosophy of multiple belongings. (Braidotti, 2006: 35)
Travel in the novel serves as the ground from where to think about questions of mortality and preservation, ways of occupying and sharing spaces especially those interstitial spaces of modern urban itineracy: airports, hotel lobbies, railway compartments, and restaurants, the limits and possibilities of creating forms of solidarity and companionship with fellow travellers, and negotiating the doubleness of itineracy as pleasure, self-transcendence, and transformation on the one hand, and a geopolitically mediated condition of dispossession, persecution, homelessness, and social invisibility on the other. The novel is also a set of self-conscious juxtapositions between competing ideologies and philosophies of travel: the profit-driven tourism industry with its commodifying and market-oriented approach to place, environment, and human and nonhuman bodies, the revolutionary, subaltern peregrinations of nomads, and voluntary exiles from propertied and settled society, the aficionado’s quests in pursuit of particular passions, religious and secular pilgrimages, forced migrations, and risky, dehumanizing border crossings. As Croft, Tokarczuk’s translator describes in an interview for Scroll:
The original title of the novel is Bieguni, which comes from a Slavic root that means “to run”. But the word in Polish is a strange one – not a word people use, though they would recognize the root. The word “runners” in English is much more prosaic, much less evocative. I chose a word I thought would accurately reflect Olga’s tendency throughout her work to create networks of associations, a tactic that is especially important in a book like this one, where fragments may appear at first glance to be disconnected from one another, yet in reality they’re linked conceptually as well as though subterranean formal bonds, including the resurgence in different sections of related words. “Flights” suggests plane travel, imagination (“flights of fancy”), fleeing (which is closer to the original Polish title), etc.
An analogy running almost like an internal conceit throughout the novel is one between the human body and geographical space. Tokarczuk’s narrator describes the body in terms of well-packed luggage that the individual then carries on life’s metaphysical journey. One of the novel’s central concerns thus emerges as the phenomenology of embodied existence and the links between corporeal inhabitation of physical space and time, the production of subjectivity and consciousness in relation to the ways in which we are positioned, constrained, or enabled by the material environments we occupy as bodily subjects, and travel’s capacity to intervene in this relationship. Similarly, the status of the human body as a stable marker of identity is destabilized in the narrative’s focus on the mutability and perishability of the body on the one hand, and the various ways in which bodily integrity can be breached, fragmented, and dissipated. Whether it is Philip Verheyen who dissects and studies his own amputated leg while experiencing the pangs of phantom limb syndrome, the fictional plastinator Dr. Blau who sees the body less as an integrated whole and more as a collocation of individual parts, the amateur teratologist who is fascinated by diseased, tumescent, disfigured, and anomalous anatomical specimens to the point of building a collection out of preserved body parts, or the Buddhist saints whose enlightened souls can be traced to the material remnants of their mortal bodies transformed into crystalline forms, the notion of bodily coherence is shown to be a myth dismantled by the body’s persistence in states of absence, dismemberment, and mutation. Observe the wonderful case of Frederic Chopin’s heart that according to his final wishes is separated from his body after his death and clandestinely transported for burial to his native Poland by his sister Ludwika under her skirt. Or the iconography of the flaming heart, which to the narrator, makes Jesus the original plastinator. Or the body of Angelo Soliman which is divested of its previous identity as a member of the Viennese nobility, and transformed into a racially overdetermined object of display and consumption, subject to taxidermic abuse and exhibited as an exotic specimen. These flights from bodily coherence become modes of testing the limits of the human, while exposing and questioning the arbitrariness of the contours that demarcate humanity as an exclusionary category. If the body ends at the skin, and the skin as Mary Douglas has shown, serves as a tightly policed boundary that isolates and individuates particular selves, both the bounded human body and the unified body politic are cultural constructs produced and maintained at the cost of repressing or marginalizing heterogeneities, internal networks, and individuations that constitute the vibrant, dialogic life of matter, and are thus susceptible to dismantling of various kinds– the anatomy museum and the geographical map provide cartographies that allow us to move beyond the hegemony of uniform spaces and monolithic personhood. Cadavers don’t indicate the termination of journeys, instead, they initiate fresh excurses into unearthing the texture of connections constituting the process of being in the world.
In Flights Tokarczuk has built a remarkable structure woven with resonances and continuities: the mysterious beaching of whales that seem willed and the ethical questions this phenomenon raises about our attitudes to nonhuman intelligence and sentience, are paralleled by the journey of a woman across continents to help an old, terminally ill friend with assisted suicide; the proliferation of amputated body parts and disarticulated organs is equalled by the omnipresence of decontextualized, disowned, and circulating objects; the heady traffic of travellers traversing the narrative mirrored by the rich exchange and flow of ideas, texts, images, and references. The building and disclosure of a deep structure of connections informing the text is not a mere literary device; it is intended as an antidote to contemporary capitalist media’s attempts at presenting a fractured, partial, disconnected reality, in which the value of the fragment is no longer assessed in its relation to a whole but comes to inhere in its status as a commodity. Tokarczuk’s aim in Flights can be best understood by recalling her emphasis on the importance of a “tender” vision for human existence and expression that is attuned to humanity’s position within an ecology of interactions. An art that seeks to engage this interconnected reality needs to develop tenderness as a form of “miraculous” empathy engendered by the labour of “personalizing” in the process of housing in our narratives, those modes of existence that are anterior to, yet closely entwined with, the self.
Braidotti, Rosi. Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. London: Polity Press, 2006
Paromita Patranobish is a writer and academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist Literature, and her writing has been published in Scroll, Firstpost, Bengaluru Review, Cafe Dissensus, The Assam Tribune, and Feminism in India.