Reality Gone Senile – Chapters 3 and 4 of “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”

When we look upon the world, we do not see truth. Truth in the sense that light is made up of waves (or particles) and that color is an interpretive mode devised by our consciousness. Indeed, the world may be gray, a colorless sphere in a colorless expansive universe. Our taste for color is based on survival, on fitness. Which means that we need tools to see the world as rightly as we can. Whether it be telescopes or microscopes, we can use these to get a closer look. What is great about cultural evolution is that these tools do not even necessarily have to take place in physical space. We can experiment with ideas, with new concepts and perspectives as tools too. And Janina seems to be ahead of the curve.

What makes Janina so charismatic and magnetizing a narrator is in how aberrant her mode of thinking is to what is accepted as established norms. She debates intelligent design as a “massive machine” for only it would be capable of receiving the constant suffering of living things. She keeps one channel from the television at all times. It happens to be the weather channel. She believes more in the omens of celestial bodies than even her own actions, where she admits that her own ward over the cottages in winter is an infinitesimal speck in the context of the millions of years it takes for planets to form and stars to explode. She is unwilling to stray from her own bottom line, which happens to be Sorrow. It is an “eternal gloom” she calls the default state of existence.

In chapters three and four, while we have not yet gotten a glimpse of “how” she has come to feel this way, we are privy perhaps to a “why.”

Mourners of Bigfoot arrive at her house, asking her to perform some kind of ceremony before the priest arrives. Everyone is delayed by the snowfall, and as the priest is carried by tractor, Janina is forced to preside over a funeral by lighting candles and singing. Why her? “Because,” the lumberjacks say, “You are a woman.”

The police arrive, and it turns out Oddball, Janina’s neighbor, has a son. The son penalizes his father for tampering with the body. Oddball, clean and neat, cannot help but try to convince his son of the “messy” state of the body. Janina, embarrassed to see Oddball lambasted in this way, comes to her aid. “Bigfoot choked on a bone,” she explains. “It was nature’s vengeance.”

All is not clear on the Polish plateau. If it was murder, neither Oddball nor Janina are in good standing. What I may have failed to mention at this point is that Janina had seen a photograph in Bigfoot’s drawer when she visited the cabin with Oddball the previous night. She had grown suddenly angry and taken the photograph. Her animosity to Bigfoot is without question to the reader. As she goes home and looks up the astrological signs to see if Bigfoot died at “the right time,” she reads that choking and hanging are prevalent in Saturn’s current position. Is this accident? Or is this Janina’s home grown plan to rid the place of a cruel hunter? Combined with Oddball’s tampering of the body, which feels a minor slip to his usual and methodical behavior, and we have a real mystery on our hands.

Janina gives us a tour of the cottages she presides over in winter. We have the professor’s house, her favorite, but one that is ruined by vacations from the owner’s children who play loud music and ruin the atmosphere. Another house is The Writer’s house, where Janina distrusts the woman’s ability to turn the experience of life into sentences. To Janina, this is troublesome, as the fundamental aspect of existence is in its inexpressive stare. There’s a rental house and another, smaller house, to which Janina gives the owners their official surnames, because she believes their characters to fit perfectly. Weller and Innerd.

In this small world, Janina is able to present her thesis for her behavior. Everything is connected. “That’s how it works,” she tells us. “Like a Japanese car.” Her obsession with astrology is based on this interconnectivity, and like much of European literature, creating a closed space of few characters gives Janina her laboratory, the kind many fiction writers need. In a world of plenty, Janina has few friends. She cares and buries animals from the forest nearby, and her house on a plateau allows her to observe much of the Polish countryside, but her “Ailments” keep her from drifting too far. Her limbs go numb, and her eyes leak. Her television plays one channel, and her duty over winter makes it too cold to do anything but sit patiently and observe.

And what does she see?

I grew up in a beautiful era, now sadly in the past. In it there was great readiness for change, and a talent for creating revolutionary visions. Nowadays no one still has the courage to think up anything new. All they ever talk about, round the clock, is how things already are, they just keep rolling out the same old ideas. Reality has grown old and gone senile; after all, it is definitely subject to the same laws as every living organism – it ages. Just like the cells of the body, its tiniest components, the senses, succumb to apoptosis. Apoptosis is natural death, brought about by the tiredness and exhaustion of matter. In Greek this word means ‘the dropping of petals.’ The world has dropped its petals.

In Europe, there seems to be a general apathy to the ideas that gave the continent its grandeur. Catalogued by Douglas Murray in his book The Strange Death of Europe, I hope to eventually read the book to shed light on this cultural death. Reality going senile feels like when institutions calcify. It is easy to see in our public schooling here in the states, where every school claims to desire innovative teachers, but only to innovate on their terms. This is a paradox. How can one see what has never been done before, if one also happens to desire what they think they know to be true?

Janina feels Sorrow because human beings have become inevitably dull, smoothed out versions of themselves. An inability to be open-minded means that many actions seem to predicate themselves, rather than be left open to exciting possibilities.

Surely this is not so surprising. In the United States, schools were expected to “return to normal” without once asking the question of whether that normal was acceptable or even desirable. Only in Op-Eds by public intellectuals were we given the chance to imagine a possible future for our children. Because schools relied on attendance for funding, and because students could not or would not go to school because of the obvious public health crisis, state school administrations would rather have students stay in front of computers for four hours a day in order to earn their money, than ask themselves how unhealthy this could be for a child’s development.

If “education” requires this much coercion for it to work, we should be asking ourselves why we do it at all?

“Reality has grown old and gone senile” is a perfect metaphor for every line of work. Do it like this, not that, because we have always done it like that. After decades of new technologies, we cannot bring ourselves out of lazy, repetitious thinking. To the frustration of employees everywhere, they must continue to labor under senile minds without once being given the chance for rebuttal or appeal.

Janina must offer a ceremony because she is a woman. People rely on old fashions for stability during a crisis I suppose.

Part of the purpose of Tokarczuk’s title, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, must be a rejection to this inertia. There is a constant application of blueprints we never devised. The bones of the dead are the very canvas we paint over. Tokarczuk’s character Janina says, “enough of that.” It’s time to dig it up, loosen the dirt, and grow something new.

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