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Examining the Unconscious in Olga Tokarczuk’s Novel: Flights/Bieguni


I found myself flying from NY to London reading Flights, when I came to the realisation that it’s a book about travellers. I usually can’t be at ease while flying, but this time the experience was dissimilar. My journey suddenly became a part of everyone’s journey. I was a spectator, contemplating stories unfolding one after the other in front of my eyes, like a lifelong travelling journal.

The journal begins with the narrative wishing to work on a boat when she grows up, or even better to become one of those boats herself. ‘A thing in motion’ she claims, ‘will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity’. As we continue reading, we become aware that she grew up at a place that never made her feel like home [...] a place that besides reconstruction, still belonged to the dead. She speaks about the defects of the psyche in a similar way that Jung speaks about neurosis. Jung also argues about the Psyche that is existent, it is even existence itself. Her own ‘syndrome’ she continues, makes her consciousness return to certain images, or even the compulsive search of them; mistakes, dead ends, anything that deviates from the norm, monstrous and disgusting. She has a weakness in teratology and freaks.

The book is emotionless. It is evolving around the thoughts of the narrative. And the reader becomes The narrative himself; the stalker. Diverse stories follow one another with no connection, like when one travels. The fact that there is no resolution to the stories is not important. You are at a museum of modern art, coming across art pieces you can’t understand or don’t even want to be bothered assimilating. Until you suddenly fall onto ‘The Persistence of Memory’ of Salvador Dali; the authentic one -or any ‘Salvador Dali’ that interests you, the subject. You are suddenly wowed!

It’s as if the curious author is sitting at a random gate of an airport, watching people passing by and trying to guess their stories. Or as if I come back home after a very long day and I turn on the TV. I dive in my sofa half asleep, the TV is on playing through the night. Every now and then, I open my eyes regaining consciousness, and every time a different story plays on; all sort of news, another story, a part of a movie. It’s a dream-like evolving story. Each chapter is not related with the previous one, a labyrinth like plot. Even though the facts are so realistic that sometimes it’s shocking, the way the book is written is almost surreal, like in a dream. It hits both the conscious and the unconscious parts of your mind!

The book is unlocking a different living dimension towards the observer; the one of travelling. It exhibits the psychology of travelling as an entirely new and distinct world. One that is lived and experienced in a unique way. While in transition, you experience things in a different manner. You see things and assimilate them with a new eye. Your emotions are unlike before. The same applies for your sense of time and place. Much like the structure of the book -long/short stories intersection- each and every thing you experience while travelling makes a bigger or a smaller impression to you. An assembly of memories and moments. Time pauses, your routine stops; and you transit. You experience time and space in a manner that is primarily unconscious.

At first glance, the book conveys the impression that it is trying to manifest a respective lifestyle and encourage a new way of living. In a world of media obsession where connectivity between continents and places is easily achievable, what is it that we call our home? Olga begins her stories by saying ‘each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim’ and continues ‘in this case, the pilgrim is in pieces, broken down’. Her stories evolve from first person to third person. Some begin and end too quickly, in a couple of words or sentences. And the protagonists never reappear in the story. Same applies in real life. You daily come across strangers, you interact with them at once, you never see them again. Or you might do; at that exact same seat, in the same train carriage [ ] and then the train gets overcrowded once more and you have already lost them. Like Annoushka in one of the stories.

Immortality and the Fear of Dead

Talking about this new model of travel psychology, this constant movement and phasic lifestyle, the temporarily of this transition space; yet, at the same time touching notions like these of immortality, the fear of death and amputation, taxidermy and mummification as methods of preserving bodies and parts in eternity. Religion, burial, ethics and morals. Notions completely opposed to the idea of ephemeral, of transient and the momentary character or commuting. Still, there is a moment in the book where these two meets. The moment where Fillip dies, and the doctors come across his long ago amputated and well-preserved leg and his freshly dead body. It is a journey from beginning to end of the doctor’s life in one instant, where you experience both his already dead parts from the past and his recently deceased body at present. It is extremely uncanny. The fact also, that he kept his leg for so many decades ‘alive’ wishing to end up being buried together only to wind up being buried half. He spent most of his life feeling incomplete, in the hope of feeling complete post his death, but never succeeded.

In this case, taxidermy could also serve as a metaphor for our narrative in the sense that she would like to do the same to each memory, each trip, each person met, each word exchanged, so they can be immortalised in her memory for ever. Very early at the beginning of the book the author says that every moment is unique; no moment can ever be repeated. This idea favours risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. She speaks about overnight trains where the essence lies in taking it slow, enjoying the ride, exchange a few conversations and interact with other travellers.

All this, in conjunction with the prominent fear of dead. The author refers to monstrous mutation, twins conjoined, additional senses, wax figures, amputated parts that seem anime, all of which might elicit according to Freud, an innate fear of death and play on subconscious fears of reduction, replacement, and annihilation, or remind us of our mortality. At the same time there is also the fear that is prompted by the doubt about whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate -and particularly, when this doubt only appears obscurely in one’s consciousness i.e. Fillip’s amputated leg. This feeling lasts until these doubts are resolved and then usually is being replaced by another kind of feeling. For as long as these doubts and the obscurity of their cause last, the person persists under a feeling of terror. For Jentsch the fear of amputation was immense.

The notion of religion in Flights

Religion appears in different parts of the book which makes us wonder whether the author is trying to reinforce an incisive sarcasm around this notion of religion or not. In desperate times, travellers seem to turn to Him, the God for relieve or help, or just with the hope of setting them free. There is also the appearance of darkness, as hell. When Annoushka, desperate from how her life’s been, takes a turn and instead of going back home, takes the underground, otherwise the path to darkness and hell, in a hope to change her life: “The Last Judgement takes place here, in the depths of the metro [...] the judges are nowhere to be seen, it’s true, but everywhere you feel their presence [...] the mouths of the underground trains will open before her with a hiss and suck her into their gloomy tunnels [...] there is no escape from it”. For a moment she thought she found peace and freedom, but eventually she winds up going back home. In addition, it works as a reminder that the freedom that comes with traveling lasts only temporarily.

According to Jung studies in psychology and religion, the author illustrates a degenerate religion, corrupted by worldliness and mob instincts. There is religious sentimentality instead of the numinous of divine experience. This is the well-known characteristic of a religion that has lost the living mystery. It is easily understandable that such a religion is incapable of giving help or of having any other moral effect. The visit Annoushka pays at the church represents an attempt to seek refuge from this fear in the shelter of a church religion unconsciously. You try religion in order to escape from your unconscious. You use it as a substitute for a part of your soul’s life. But religion is the fruit and the culmination of the completeness of life. People tend to avoid their emotional needs and religion can become a substitute for certain awkward emotional demands which one might circumvent by going to church.

There is also a misapprehension between religion and taxidermy. The fear of hell and God, in contrast with the wish for immortality. Josefine Soliman persistently writes to His majesty for freeing her father’s body that has been kept as an exhibit in his court; in his Cabinet of Natural Curiosities -the book indeed seems like one of those, a random selection of things, stories, all put together in a book of curiosities. Jung believes that in most people there is a sort of primitive pre justice concerning the possible contents of the unconscious. Beyond all-natural shyness, shame and tact, there is a secret fear of the unknown ‘perils of the soul’ that is only too well founded. There is indeed reason enough why man should be afraid of those non personal forces dwelling in the unconscious mind.

From the beginning of the book the author refers to the unconscious and the interest that the narrative has on all things incomplete. She states: “The things that exists in the shadows of consciousness, and that, when you do take a look, dart out of your field of vision. Yes, I definitely have this unfortunate syndrome”. This reminds us of what Jung alleged: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it, but if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. [ ] If it comes to a neurosis we have invariably to deal with a considerably intensified shadow. And if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together”. In this case, our narrative chooses to be mobile.

On “Letters to the amputated leg”, Fillip writes that the body is something ‘absolutely mysterious’. It was given to us by God, and there is no logical explanation about what is happening to it and why. Only in intuition we can find reasoning and we can then be free of despair and anxiety. His leg was as though it gained some sort of autonomy itself after it was amputated off him. In an invisible way they were still connected as an entity. However, Fillip still couldn’t explain the pain he was experiencing by the lack of it. He was wondering if his pain was God.

All in all, Olga explains towards the end of the journal that all death is part of life, and in some sense, there is no life. With the story about the biologist she uses memory as another mean of transport this time, the one that helps you time-travel to the past. Memory, like a time machine, has this kind of power. A single moment, one email is enough to trigger a memory and help you travel all the way back; some decades ago, your first fling and so forth. All in concluding to the stroke of the Greek professor, slowly described as while the blood was filling his brain cells; gradually deleting one by one all his memories, all his journeys. All his life images, one by one; gone! This end was expected. It was not predicted, but while reading the book you constantly get the feeling that travelling is not merely ecstatic, gaining moments and wisdom. In travel also lies danger; in travel also lies death. ‘The sea level was rising relentlessly, the waters swept up words, ideas and memories.

There is a tension between ephemerality and permanence. Each of the narrator’s travels, is short- lived and soon forgotten. But all along the way, people desperately try to find a way to preserve what they’ve seen. Photographs, journals, taxidermy and jars full of brandy and lost limbs. They’re all in pursuit of beating the ephemeral. As Jung would argue about religion and its legitimate value: “Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the ones that helps you to live?” In this case, for our narrative, mobility becomes religion. As the novel manifests:

“Mobility, is reality.”

References:

Carl G. Jung, Psychology & Religion, 1938

Ernst Jentsch, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906

Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimliche, 1919

Sigmund Freud, The Unconscious, 1915

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, 2007

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