The End of “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”

This post contains spoilers for the novel.

There is a line from my favorite short story by John Updike, titled “Gesturing”, where the protagonist has separated from his wife. Moving to an apartment featuring tiled floors, he sets out to explore greater Boston. He falls in love with a blue skyscraper in disrepair, its majesty worn out and “gone glassy”. Comparing his wife and mistress in their cigarette use, he suddenly laments in his aging senility, “All waste pained him”.


It is a line I think of often, and it is one that I imagine Dizzy feels when confronting Janina. By now, the truth of Janina’s murders has become obvious. It turns out that the photograph from the first chapter held in its corner the faintest hint of her “daughter’s” corpses, those of Janina’s two dogs. It was strange, all that clanging in her car from tools recently used. Her main tool, however, ingeniously involves ice in bags, a murder weapon easily disposed of. But her continued intrusion into the case, as well as the use of highly idiosyncratic details, meant that they would not be ignorant for long.

Responses to Janina’s serial murder spree are mixed. Dizzy shakes her by the shoulders: “You’ve murdered people, don’t you see that?” Oddball, after helping his policeman son investigate her house, decrees “I’ll marry her when she is released from prison,” to the shock of all those around him, even Janina hiding in the mop crevice. Boros takes her in after she makes it across in the Czech Republic, but not before Dizzy leaves her a collection of Blake’s poetry. In it, he explains his anger. Like other forms of knowledge, astrology can take over faculties of the human. Janina, so entranced by her anthropocentric view of the cosmos, cannot agree. But we all hopefully know by now the fateful idea that even Earth’s North star, our central guiding post, has not been the same in our own history. Not to mention that, although the stars and planets appear as a two-dimensional map to us – one that allowed easier navigation by sailing vessels at night – the trajectory of Venus has no relation in its three-dimensional reality to the stars it passes, as the true distance between one and the other is so vast as to question everything, from consciousness to God.

The ending to the novel, thus, is not so clean as Janina would like us to believe. Bigfoot, The Commandant, Innerd, the President, and the Priest have all died at her hand. There is a lot for us to parse out in Janina’s revenge plot, and as the chapel burns and she hides and runs from the authorities, eventually to take refuge with Boros, we question her judgment. Janina went to the Priest to ask what she should do on behalf of her likely dead dogs, the Priest was not forthcoming on what he knew, which was that their hunting society shot them, as they shot everything. We feel that anger with her. Janina cannot even exact justice on the men; as we have seen, the police are hunters too. They do not even consider the act of killing animals to be a crime, or even a hindrance, to society at large. Innerd’s illegal brothel is only incidental, as is The Commandant’s corrupt acquiescence to it. No, it is all in that photograph to explain Janina’s behavior. Explanation, however, is no substitute for condoning. Strange that I seem to agree with Janina’s Theories she makes on knowledge, on the anthropocentrism of our societies, our dereliction of duty when it comes to our response to the natural world, yet I cannot bring myself to applaud Janina for what she does. Despite my anger.

Must we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Many in the town, although not agreeing with Janina’s manipulation of the murder scenes with deer hooves, likely still would have seen some element of truth to the idea of the batty old woman made ambassador and executor of justice for the animals who do no harm to those who cull their populations. Call me crazy. I do not find murder compelling: my Quaker heritage cannot understand it. But at what point do we finally call out Exxon Mobile for its externalities laid upon mankind? Especially considering that, for the longest time, we did not know what we were doing to the air, and far worse, once we knew, many tried to cover it up. We turned some cities into the inside of a cigarette, the fumes congesting our working class and giving them cancers. These are not even the animals that Janina worries over. We have drifted metonymically into the species of Man. Yet we have little stomach for a carbon tax.

Science and technology may rise to the savior of all. Lab grown meat may make our reliance on food tethered to animals a thing of the past. Like gas vehicles, it may be seen as a vintage throwback for the aristocratic. “Lab grown meat is missing something,” they’ll say. “It’s got a gamey-ness to it.” I can see it already. Riding horses, listening to records. No matter how advanced, our aging populations will have a nostalgia for the past, even eating animal products that come specifically from animals.

For now, Janina’s terror rings true. Just why exactly is suffering the default process for our food web on Earth? Why is it that, as we age and pain becomes more of a main character of our lives, it seems necessary for the prolongation of our species? Female bodies take no qualms in the pains of childbirth, where the large head must come out of a small cervix. Evolution has little interest in suffering and pain, yet we must. Our species is keenly interested in it, whether morbidly boiling people alive in the middle ages, or in telling those in dire poverty to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Janina believes from this perspective that “the world was made evil” and we must therefore “make it good.” This is Janina’s answer to that: to destroy those who kill wantonly.

But what about the animals? At several points in the novel, other characters contradict Janina by mentioning that sometimes animals overpopulate a region and risk running other species extinct. Sometimes we have no awareness of killing Cucujus beetles as we deforest. It is not as if the natural world lends itself over for explication. It is not as if the natural world makes lucid cases to keep itself alive beyond the glacial pace of evolution and natural selection. In fact, humanity’s problem seems to stem from this indifference. The Earth would not care if “life” consisted of nothing more than irradiated cockroaches after a nuclear winter. The Earth may favor, after millions of years without humanity, the large predators once again. Mammoths and sabertooths. Reptilian dinosaurs like the tyrannosaurus rex traveling at 45 miles per hour. We followed the Book of Genesis. We were told to subdue the Earth. The reality of it all is that the Earth does not respect words like “subduing” or “balance” or even “natural”. We must accept then that Janina’s perspective is not so self-explanatory.

We must turn then to Blake’s poem that gives the title to Tokarczuk’s novel. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” asks us to concede that all knowledge is not created equal, and thus it establishes itself in us in different ways.

The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey. The thankful reciever bears a plentiful harvest. If others had not been foolish, we should be so. The soul of sweet delight, can never be defil’d. When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius, lift up thy head! As the catterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

William Blake

For those who have seen Disney and Pixar’s Soul, it is the same predicament. In the film, human beings are given personalities, but they are also given sparks, what is taken to be a passion, a purpose for existing, before they are sent to Earth. Reasons for living drift in and out of our psyches, and we can hardly be turned as passionately by jazz music as the next man. But desire, in and of itself, is a cause for existence. Does this mean that, according to Blake, the hunters and Janina are on equal footing? Where can a hierarchy of meaning exist in such hedonism? “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle,” Blake goes on, “than nurse unacted desires.” It is a difficult pill to swallow. “Where man is not nature is barren. Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d. Enough! or Too much!”

The answer for Blake is bleak. And he seems to be in contrast to his contemporaries. Thomas Paine, writing in the same time period, had much to say on the sanctity of reason against the tyranny of old kings and old ways. “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark,” he wrote. This implies some point of authenticity, a level of objectivity where we are able to cast aside dogmatism and ideology. Blake is not so certain.

Janina seems incapable of seeing how her reliance on astrology to exact personal justice is just this mixing. To her, the cosmos might as well be Paine’s Common Sense, and what we persist in on Earth is something far worse. Is she a prude in Blake’s eyes, convicting every hunter she deems to be her sinner? She condemns the priest as being a representative of sin. Judge, jury, and executioner. Or is she exacting Blake’s charge to act on her desires? She herself relished in her own anger, delicious as it was to give herself over to explosive rants in a police station, or in striking officers in the woods as they hunted. In murdering these men, she felt neither grief nor pain, but “great relief.”

This is literature. Ambiguities and complications of the human psyche, producing one character’s sense of justice through horrible means, professing ideas we can all agree with on some level, but deriding them in their realization, is sort of what literature is all about. Each time I feel as though I have the novel figured out, it slips out of my grasp, demanding another reading, begging me not to step too deeply in the black pool of William Blake’s energetic folly. Nor do I feel as though our mechanical rationality has produced anything but mechanized suffering for our domesticated animals and polluted working class. Olga Tokarczuk’s novel is, beyond Janina’s story, a quest to remind us of the power of fiction a priori. When we drive our plow, it is our mind’s attempt at assuaging the death we rationalize on a daily basis. We have to. We have to see the stick bent underneath the pool, as Aristotle wrote so long ago. To see refracted is to be human. To see rightly is madness.

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