Surpassing modernity

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Olga Tokarczuk after she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Literature Prize, in western Germany on October 10, 2019. Photo: SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP

Flights contests to be a good read to surpass the syndrome of modernity and its constant test of time.

There is something digressively constant in this dynamic world. They are the dynamic others. This dynamic other can blow you in the form of a breeze without any prescription in this viral world. It is in this blowing of the breeze that an existence of the “Other” starts getting ingrained in the self. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk is a book that is not gross in conveying humanity but has contents that are evidently gross. This evidently gross phenomenon perhaps is a reflection of the modernity syndrome. A transaction of forcing the “other” to come to terms with modernity to such an extent that the anatomy of the self gets contained into a museum piece of orchestrated bones scattered along with the scattered other. This is what makes the book one of the most humane texts for the centuries to come and, more importantly, the centuries past. That is, though the book speaks on the anatomy, history and a very divergent understanding of the self through the other, the point is the book in its entirety is a documentation of the past, present and future. A book, in other words, that has already withstood the test of time and space both in the physiological and in the economic sense much before it took the form of a book. This is the brilliance of the narrative imagination of Olga Tokarczuk. Something that drives readers into a space that is boundary-less, which is trying to lay foot somewhere but is immediately routed off to an “other somewhere”.

But today with the outbreak of COVID-19, the routing of the root has become a terrible problem. The “Other somewhere” has gone beyond the question of mobility. There is no longer a plurality in the mobility of the “self” or even for the “other”. Blowing of the breeze as mentioned before has lost its capacity to pluck one’s root because there is a virus that has started ruling over the breeze. Perhaps the breeze in itself is a virus that is calling for a moment of stationarity. With this very arrival, most of us have been driven towards something that is called a lockdown. Lockdown is a situation when people are instructed to stay within the walls of their house. In other words, it is an effective orchestration of limiting one’s “self” to a limited boundary in order to prevent and contain the virus from spreading to others.

However, there still exist a bunch of people who do not have the ability to lock themselves down. These are the people who do not have the privilege of a forced limited boundary, though the time commands them to be so. They are devoid of all the lockdown privileges, unlike others. They do not have a house to limit themselves to, they do not have the capital to stock commodities and they do not have the privileges to afford a lockdown. In other words, they are the people who have gone beyond an identification of a space and time. They are the ones who only have the sky above their heads and the earth below their feet. They are the “Others”. The others do not have their roots firm; nobody can master their moves; they do not have a limit in anything they experience; they do not believe in the panopticon; their bodies and minds keep moving.

This takes us to the ultimate realisation that the others are nothing but “Flights”.

The current state the world is in, as per the flow of changes that COVID-19 has brought about, calls for a stationary time and space. In the book the author writes: “Place as an aspect of space pauses time. It is the momentary detainment of our perception on a configuration of objects. It is in contradistinction to time, a static notion. Understood thus, human time is divided into stages as movement through space is broken up by place-pauses. Such pauses anchor us within the flow of time.” Perhaps now is the time for a pause. A pause to regain normalcy into a lot of things time has digressed from. This understanding of digressions through a narrative imagination of making one’s self understand the binary oppositions of life through the ‘other’ makes the book Flights a good read and all the more relevant in these times of a lockdown.

In 1994 when Pina Bausch (the famous dancer and choreographer) last visited India, she attended a conference conducted by Georg Lechner, the then head of Max Mueller Bhavan. Lechner tried very hard to make her admit that, at heart, she was a German artiste. Pina refused to respond to his questions, blowing rings of cigarette smoke instead. When he asked the same question a third time, she put her cigarette aside, looked him in the eyes and said, “Gorg, had I been a bird, would you have called me a German bird?"

It is in this historical background that Olga Tokarczuk also ends up in identifying the geographical root, as per genes, as not the right routing of the root, rather it is the breeze that takes one through his/her being and becoming that routes the right root. This being and becoming of a root is attained through a constant conflict that the self enters into after looking back into the chronicles of a travel experienced through the breeze. It is from these chronicles of a travel that the author roots the syndromes of the world and its spontaneous illogicity. Spontaneous illogicity reflects or is manifested in the form of macro events that are problematic socially but are reduced to a micro being personally. She identifies this as a syndrome which is small, portable and not weighed down by any theory but is episodic.

Let us look into the series of events that has happened within these few days after boundaries have been designated in the name of citizenship. These events are not small; in fact they are huge and large but are made small because of a bourgeois ailment at the end of the day. The bourgeois ailment starts when a comfortable “self” can maintain a social and emotional distancing with the “other”. This distancing can conveniently result in a situation when blood becomes just a matter of the colour red and not anything emotionally trivialising. In fact, blood here becomes a pilgrimage that is the prelude to another pilgrimage. That is, seeing blood in this context automatically becomes an activity of knowing citizenship and not knowing blood as a spurting out of a reaction carried out of an inhumane activity. Hence the way of seeing is altogether turned upside down wherein we all end up into a knowing of spontaneous illogicity, gang-marked by a systematic pedagogy through oppressing the “Other”. In her book Olga writes, “The showcase holds several dozen people with no relation to one another, separated from each other by space and time- now in such a beautiful resting place, spacious and dry, well-lit, and condemned to eternity in a museum. They must be the envy of those bones that got stuck in eternal wrestling matches with the earth.”

Eternal wrestling matches with the earth are probably played by the environment on the environment against the environment is the underpinning feeling that is well abetted and effectively manufactured by humans. This is the terrible germination of a despotic conscience wherein the exceptionality of the other is effectively misutilised (here the other being the earth). Hence in actuality, the eternal wrestling matches are played by humans on humans against humans and this has happened from time immemorial. It is also evident because human beings have become a larger fraction of the whole. However, once the larger fraction of the whole realise that all that we are reduced to is ashes that remain in the grave at the end of the day, it is probably in that point of a realisation that the seeds for a new world of and for the other germinates. Episodes of despotic events shall also cease to exist then. Sadly, the whole is greater than the part is what we all are taught, but it must be realised by now that it need not necessarily remain the same as always. This is because when we look into the fractions of the whole it is the humans. Humans govern the earth. In other words, humans govern the whole.

This also in a way proves that the whole is no longer greater than its part. It is at this point another question arises, “who is the earth?” And there the earth ceases to be earth and is forced to become the “other” thereby worming in humans as the dominant bearers of the earth. This results in the earth in itself becoming a space only for the humans. This kind of a perfective domination over the “other” mastered through human anatomical functionalities and conflicts is what is brilliantly mind-bombed through the book Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. The author perfectly orchestrates the functioning of the self by proving the point that for the self the self always seems real and the other is nothing but a vague spectre, a Flying Dutchman just darting over a distant horizon. Sadly, the distant truth is that the “real” is the “‘vague spectre of the Flying Dutchman” and the “‘unreal” is the “‘real” which is the “self”. An absolutely orchestrated earlier said “‘spontaneous illogicity” that again is an after-product of a bourgeois ailment. This illogicity arrives in a confirmation that human beings become the “Heart of an economy” that pumps capital for development. However it is interesting to look into the perception of Heart through the author’s lens:

“The heart. All its mystery has been conclusively revealed — for it’s that unshapely lump the size of a fist, its colour a dirty light brown. Please note that that is, in fact, the colour of our bodies: greyish brown, ugly. We would not want to have walls in our houses or a car that colour. It’s the colour of insides, of darkness, of places light can’t reach, where matter hides in moisture from others gazes, and there isn’t any point in it showing off. The only extravagance able to be afforded went to blood: blood is a warning, its redness an alarm that the casing of the body has been breached. That the continuity of the tissue has been broken.

“In reality, on the inside we have no colour. When the heart pumps out blood as it’s supposed to, blood looks just like snot.”

The in-between of one’s life is brilliantly portrayed here with a stunning inference that blood is something that can be afforded. A good that has a monetary value assigned to it so much so that it achieves a state that can make the commodity alarmingly colourful from the outside but physiologically colourless from the inside.

This in a way also is a symbolic reinterpretation of the fetishised interests of the mind constantly in play over the body in acquiring commodities of varied interests. This fetish inside out behaviour is deconstructed with utmost reason by confirming that the colour of inside is ugly, dark, and that showing it off is pointless. Perhaps it is at this juncture that the beginning to the end of the body-mind relationship of the self for the others ends up in becoming “snot”. Snot because it is a transactional movement that begins with the “self” and ends with the “self”. In this transaction, conscience has always been bereft of the concern for the other and hence ultimately ends up in a state of being forced to be crippled. Today we are forced to be crippled and it is in this state the book tries to explain the episodes of various events.

In the book Tokarczuk presents an eminent professor of Greek history who suffers a stroke. Once he is affected by the stroke, he is taken into the extraordinary image of all the places he spent his life steadily drowning in a never-ending flood of red fluid, linking the blood filling his brain with Homer’s famous “wine-dark sea”. This is a scene used by the author to recapture the spaces that the professor has seen through his lens. However, to arrive at a stage of this level one has to get affected with a stroke, and this is the larger backdrop of the story. Each stroke is a moment in the documentation of a history and each history is a memory to be grasped hold of in the moment of a danger.

Flights, for that matter, continue to document history ceaselessly forever, because the writer and the book have identified the self through the thoughts that are documented in terms with the other. And it is in this backdrop, memory as a conflicting arena moulded out of fetish binaries becomes all the more important. Travelling of the mind along with the body and travelling of the body always with the mind henceforth has to continue, and that is how memories are created and memories continue to be created. “Your head in the Other world and the Other head in your world” perhaps matters the most in these testing times of COVID-19 which we all are living through. An approach of come what may is inherent in human beings and with this firm belief we strive forward, thinking “this too shall pass”. This in its absolute actuality seems to be the ultimate realisation the book Flights tries to embark upon the reader.

A fitting craft of the book can be seen through an overt influence of the author in the poet William Blake. An encompassing factor of the book also rests its subject in a poem of Blake The Fly.

“If thought is life

And strength and breath,

And the want

Of thought is death,

Then am I

A happy fly,

If I live,

Or if I die.”

This stanza is probably the beginning and it never ceases to end because the duty of one is to keep on flying. Today while most of us are home-quarantined or socially and physically distanced because of a virus that is flying, let us also not forget to fly around. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk contests to be a good read to surpass the syndrome of modernity and its constant test of time.

Sankar Varma K.C, is a Research Fellow (Christ Deemed to be University)


Thesis on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin

“The Fly” by William Blake

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