Olga Tokarczuk

Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

I studied psychology in a big, gloomy Communist city. My department was located in a building that had been the headquarters of an S.S. unit during the war. That part of the city had been built up on the ruins of the ghetto, which you could tell if you took a good look—that whole neighborhood stood about three feet higher than the rest of the town. Three feet of rubble. I never felt comfortable there; between the new Communist buildings and the paltry squares there was always a wind, and the frosty air was particularly bitter, stinging you in the face. Ultimately it was a place that still, despite construction, belonged to the dead. I still have dreams about the building where my classes were—its broad hallways that looked like they’d been carved into stone, smoothed down by people’s feet, the worn edges of the stairs, the handrails polished by people’s hands, traces imprinted in space. Maybe that was why we were haunted by those ghosts.

When we’d put rats in a maze, there was always one whose behavior would contradict the theory and would refuse to care about our clever hypotheses. It would stand up on its little hind legs, absolutely indifferent to the reward at the end of our experimental route; disdaining the perks of Pavlovian conditioning, it would simply take one good look at us and then turn around, or turn its attention to the unhurried exploration of the maze. It would look for something in the lateral corridors, trying to attract attention. It would squeak, disoriented, and then the girls, despite the rules, would usually take it out and hold it in their hands.

The muscles of a dead, splayed frog would flex and straighten to the rhythm of electrical pulses, but in a way that had not yet been described in our textbooks—it would gesture to us, its limbs making clear signs of threats and taunts, thereby contradicting our hallowed faith in the mechanical innocence of physiological reflexes.

Here we were taught that the world could be described, and even explained, by means of simple answers to intelligent questions. That in its essence the world was inert and dead, governed by fairly simple laws that needed to be explained and made public—if possible with the aid of diagrams. We were required to do experiments. To formulate hypotheses. To verify. We were inducted into the mysteries of statistics, taught to believe that equipped with such a tool we would be able to perfectly describe all the workings of the world—that ninety percent is more significant than five.

But if there’s one thing I know now, it’s that anyone looking for order ought to steer clear of psychology altogether. Go for physiology or theology instead, where at least you’ll have solid backing—either in matter or in spirit—instead of psychology’s slippery terrain. The psyche is quite a tenuous object of study.

It turned out it was true what some people said about psychology being a major you choose not because of the job you want, or out of curiosity or a vocation to help others, but rather for another very simple reason. I think all of us had some sort of deeply hidden defect, although we no doubt all gave the impression of intelligent, healthy young people—the defect was masked, skillfully camouflaged at our entrance exams. A ball of tautly tangled emotions breaking down, like those strange tumors that turn up sometimes in the human body and that can be seen in any self-respecting museum of pathological anatomy. Although what if the people who administered our exams were the same sort of people, and in reality they knew exactly what they were doing? In that case, we would be their direct heirs. When, in our second year, we discussed the function of defense mechanisms and found that we were humbled by the power of that portion of our psyche, we began to understand that if it weren’t for rationalization, sublimation, denial—all the little tricks we let ourselves perform—if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts.

What we learned in college was that we are made up of defenses, of shields and armor, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds; bunker states.

Every test, questionnaire, and study we conducted on each other, as well, so that by the time we got through our third year I had a name for what was wrong with me; it was like discovering my own secret name, the name that summons one to an initiation.


I didn’t exercise the trade for which I’d trained for very long. During one of my expeditions, when I had gotten stuck in a big city with no money and was working as a maid, I started writing a book. It was a story for trips, meant to be read on the train—what I would write for myself to read. A bite-sized snack of a book that you could swallow whole.

I was able to concentrate, however, and I became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through one of the walls. But I never became a real writer. Life always managed to elude me. I only ever attained its tracks, the skin it sloughed off. By the time I had determined its location, it had already gone somewhere else. And all I’d find were signs that it had been there, like those scrawlings on the trunks of trees in parks that merely mark a person’s passing presence. In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross-sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passersby, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

I don’t regret developing a taste for this odd occupation: I would not have made a good psychologist. I never knew how to explain, how to call forth family photos from the depths of someone’s thoughts. And the confessions of others more often than not simply bored me, though it does pain me to admit it. But to be honest, it was often the case that I would have preferred to reverse the relationship and start talking to them about me. I had to watch myself to keep from suddenly grabbing the patient by her sleeve and interrupting her mid-sentence: “I can’t believe you! I have a completely different reaction! Well, you won’t believe the dream that I just had!” Or: “What do you know about insomnia, sir? And that’s what you call a panic attack? You’ve got to be kidding me. If you want a panic attack, the one I just had…”

I didn’t know how to listen. I didn’t observe boundaries; I’d slip into transference. I didn’t believe in statistics or verifying theories. The postulate of one personality to one person always struck me as overly minimalist. I had a tendency to blur what seemed clear and to question irrefutable arguments—it was a habit I had, a perverse mental yoga, the subtle pleasure of experiencing internal motion. I would examine with suspicion every judgment, turn each one over in my mouth, until finally I figured out what I’d expected: not a one of them was right, that they were all fakes, knock-offs. I didn’t want to have set opinions, which were just excess baggage. In debates, I’d be on one side one time and the other the next—and I know my interlocutors were never fond of me for that. I was witness to a strange phenomenon that occurred in my mind: the more I found arguments for something, the more arguments against it would occur to me, too, and the more I grew attached to those arguments in favor, the more alluring the opposition became.

How was I supposed to analyze others when it was hard enough for me to get through all those tests? Personality diagnostics, surveys, multiple columns of multiple-choice questions all struck me as too hard. I noticed this handicap of mine right away, which is why in college, whenever we were analyzing each other for practice, I would give all of my answers at random, whatever happened to occur to me. I’d wind up with the strangest personality profiles—curves on a coordinate axis. “Do you believe that the best decision is also the decision that is easiest to change?” Do I believe? What kind of decision? Change? When? Easiest how? “When you walk into a room, do you tend to head for the middle or the edges?” What room? And when? Is the room empty, or are there plush red couches in it? What about the windows? What kind of view do they have? The book question: would I rather read one than go to a party, or does it also depend on what kind of book it is and what kind of party?

What a methodology! It is tacitly assumed that people don’t know themselves, but that if you furnish them with questions that are bright enough, they’ll be able to figure themselves all out. They pose themselves a question, and they give themselves an answer. And they’ll inadvertently reveal to themselves that secret they know nothing of.

And that other assumption, which is terribly dangerous—that we are constant, and that our reactions can be predicted.



The chronicles of my travels would in fact be chronicles of an ailment. I suffer from a syndrome that can easily be found in any atlas of clinical syndromes and that—at least according to the literature—occurs with greater and greater frequency. We had better take a peek at this old edition (published in the seventies) of The Clinical Syndromes, which is an encyclopedia of syndromes of sorts. For me, it is also an endless source of inspiration. Is there anyone else who would dare to describe people as totalities, both objectively and generally? Who would employ with such conviction the notion of personality? Who would build up to a convincing typology? I don’t think so. The idea of the syndrome fits travel psychology like a glove. A syndrome is small, portable, not weighed down by theory, episodic. You can explain something with it and then discard it. A disposable instrument of cognition.

Mine is called Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome. Without the bells and whistles, its description boils down to the insistence of one’s consciousness on returning to certain images, or even the compulsive search for them. It is a variant of the Mean World Syndrome, which has been described fairly exhaustively in neuropsychological studies as a particular type of infection caused by the media. In the end it is a very bourgeois ailment. Patients spend long hours in front of the TV, thumbing at their remote controls through all the channels till they find the ones with the most horrendous news: wars, epidemics and disasters. Then, fascinated by what they’re seeing, they can’t tear themselves away.

The symptoms themselves are not dangerous, allowing one to lead a normal life as long as one is able to maintain some emotional distance. This unfortunate syndrome cannot be cured; science is reduced in its case to the regretful constatation of its existence. When, alarmed by themselves, patients end up in the offices of psychiatrists, these latter suggest healthier living in general—giving up coffee and alcohol, sleeping in a well-ventilated room, working on the yard, weaving or knitting.

My set of symptoms revolves around my being drawn to all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken. I’m interested in whatever shape this may take, mistakes in the making of the thing, dead ends. What was supposed to develop but for some reason didn’t; or vice versa, what outstretched the design. Anything that deviates from the norm, that is too small or too big, overgrown or incomplete, monstrous and disgusting. Shapes that don’t heed symmetry, that grow exponentially, brim over, bud, or on the contrary, that scale back to the single unit. I’m not interested in the patterns so scrutinized by statistics that everyone celebrates with a familiar, satisfied smile on their faces. My weakness is for teratology and for freaks. I believe, unswervingly, agonizingly, that it is in fact in this that Being breaks through to the surface and reveals its true nature. A sudden fluke disclosure. An embarrassing oops, the hem of one’s underwear from beneath a perfectly pleated skirt. The hideous metal skeleton pops out suddenly from under velvet upholstery; the eruption of a spring from within a cushioned armchair that shamelessly debunks any illusion of softness.


Cabinet of Curiosities

I’ve never been a big fan of art museums, which I would happily exchange for cabinets of curiosities, where collections are comprised of the rare, the unique, the bizarre, the freakish. The things that exist in the shadows of consciousness, and when you do take a look, they dart out of your field of vision. Yes, I definitely have this unfortunate syndrome. I’m not drawn to centrally located collections, but rather to the smaller places near hospitals, frequently moved down to basements since they’re deemed unworthy of prized exhibition spots, and since they suggest the questionable tastes of their original collectors. A salamander with two tails, face up in an oblong jar, awaiting its judgment day—for all the specimens in the world will be resurrected in the end. A dolphin’s kidney in formaldehyde. A sheep’s skull, a total anomaly, with double sets of eyes and ears and double mouths, pretty as the figure of an ancient god with a dual nature. A human fetus draped in beads and a label in careful calligraphy saying” “Fetus aethiopis 5 mensium.” Collected over the years, these freaks of nature, two-headed and no-headed, unborn, float lazily in formaldehyde solution. Or take the case of the Cephalothoracopagus monosymetro, exhibited to this day in a museum in Pennsylvania—where the pathological morphology of a fetus with one head and two bodies calls into question the foundations of logic by asserting that 1=2. And finally the moving homemade, domestic specimens: apples from 1848, dormant in alcohol, abnormally shaped; evidently there was someone who recognized that these freaks of nature were owed immortality, and that only what is different will survive.

It’s this I make my way towards on my travels, slowly but surely, trailing the errors and the blunders of creation.

I learned to write on trains and in hotels and waiting rooms. On the tray tables on planes. I take notes at lunch, under the table, or in the bathroom. I write on museum stairwells, in cafés, in the car on the shoulder of the highway. I jot things down on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on postcards, on my other hand, on napkins, in the margins of books. Usually they’re short sentences, little images, but sometimes I copy out quotes from the papers. Sometimes a figure carves itself out of the crowd, and then I deviate from my itinerary to follow it for a moment, start on its story. It’s a good method; I excel at it. With the years, time has become my ally, as it does for every woman—I’ve become invisible, see-through. I am able to move around like a ghost, look over people’s shoulders, listen in on their arguments and watch them sleep with their heads on their backpacks or watch them talk to themselves, unaware of my presence, moving just their lips, forming words that I will soon pronounce for them.


Seeing is Knowing

The aim of any of my pilgrimages is always another pilgrim. In this case, fragmented, broken down.

Here, for instance, is a collection of bones—but only bones that have something wrong with them: curved spines and ribs in ribbons, taken out of what must have been equally deformed bodies, treated, desiccated, and even varnished. There is a little number to help the viewer locate a description of the illness in directories that have long since ceased to exist. What kind of durability, after all, does paper have in comparison with bone? They should have written right along the spine.

And here you have a femur that some curious person sawed open lengthwise, in order to take a peek at what was hidden inside. Said person must have been disappointed with the result, because then they tied the two halves together with hemp string and put the femur back in the showcase, their mind already elsewhere.

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 museum eternity; they must be the envy of those bones that got stuck in eternal wrestling matches with the earth. But aren’t there some among them—the bones of Catholics, perhaps—that worry as to how they will get found on Judgment Day, as to how, dispersed as they are, they’ll be able to build back those bodies that committed sins and did good deeds?

Skulls with growths of all conceivable structures, with bullet holes and other holes, or atrophied. Hand bones wrecked by arthritis. An arm with multiple breaks that then healed naturally, however they pleased: petrified long-term pain.

Long bones that are too short and short bones that are too long, tuberculitic, covered in patterns of alterations; you might think they’d been eaten by bark beetles. Poor human skulls, backlit in Victorian showcases, where they bare their teeth in big grins. This one, for instance, has a big hole in the middle of the forehead, but nice teeth. Who knows if that hole was lethal. Not necessarily. There was a man once, a railway engineer, whose brain was run clean through by a metal rod, but he lived for many more years with that wound, which needless to say came in quite handy for neuropsychology as it proclaimed to all and sundry the news of our existence in our brains. He didn’t die, but he changed completely. He became a different person, as the expression goes. Since who we are is dependent on our brains, let us proceed directly to our left, down the hall of brains. Here they are! Cream-colored anemones in solution, large and small, brilliant ones and ones that couldn’t count to two.

And in fact next comes the designated section for fetuses, for miniature munchkins. Here are the little dolls, the specimenettes—everything in miniature, so that a whole person will fit in a little jar. These youngest ones, the embryos, which you can barely even see at all, are little fish, little frogs, suspended from a horse’s hair in an expanse made of formaldehyde. These bigger ones display the order of the human body, its marvelous packaging. Little not-yet-human crumbs, semi-hominid young, whose lives never crossed the magic border of potentiality. They have the right shape, but they never grew into souls—perhaps the presence of a soul is somehow connected with the size of the shape. In them matter had begun, with somnolent obstinacy, to gear up to live, to accumulate tissue and get organs going and systems running; work on the eyes was already underway, and the lungs were being readied, though to light and air there still remained a ways.

The next row holds the same organs, but now fully grown, pleased to have been allowed by circumstances to attain their full dimensions. Their full dimensions? How did they know how big they were supposed to get, when to stop? Some of them didn’t: these intestines grew and grew, and it was hard for our professors to find a jar that would contain them. It’s even harder to imagine how they would have fit into the stomach of this man who figures on the label as a pair of initials.

The heart. All its mystery has been revealed, for all time—for it’s that unshapely lump the size of a fist, its color a dirty light brown. Because please note that that is, in fact, the color of our bodies: grayish brown, ugly. We would not want to have walls like that in our houses or a car like that, either. It’s the color 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 the blood: the 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 color. When the heart pumps out blood as it’s supposed to, that’s exactly how it looks—like snot.


Seven Years of Trips

“Every year we take a trip, we’ve done it for seven years, ever since we got married,” said the young man on the train. He was wearing a long, elegant, black overcoat, and he was carrying a stiff briefcase that looked a little like a fancy case for a set of cutlery.

“We have tons of pictures,” he was saying, “and we keep them organized. The South of France, Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, Crete, Croatia—even Scandinavia.” He said they usually looked at the pictures several times: first with their families, then at the office, and then with their friends, and after that the photographs got safely tucked away inside of plastic folders, like evidence in a detective’s closet—evidence that they had been there.

Lost in thought, he gazed out the window at the landscape that seemed to hurry off somewhere. Didn’t he ever think: What does “we were there” really even mean? Where did those two weeks in France go? Those weeks that today can squeeze into just a couple of memories—the sudden onset of hunger by the city’s medieval walls and the twinkling of evening at a café where the roof was covered in grapevines. What happened to Norway? All that’s left is the chill of the water in the lake and that day that didn’t want to end, and then the delight of the beer bought just before the store shut, or the arresting first glimpse of the fjord. 

“The things I’ve seen are mine now,” the young man, suddenly revived, concluded, slapping his palm down on his thigh.


Guidance from Cioran

Another man—gentle, shy—always took a book of Cioran with him when he traveled for work, one of the ones with very short texts. At hotels, he’d keep it on his bedside table, and every morning, as soon as he woke up, he would open it at random and look for his guidelines for that day. He believed that hotels in Europe ought to swap out all their copies of the Bible for Cioran as soon as possible. From Romania to France. That for the purposes of predicting the future, the Bible was no longer any good. What use is the following verse, for example, come upon at random one April Friday or December Wednesday: “All the articles used in the service of the tabernacle, whatever their function, including all the tent pegs for it and those for the courtyard are to be of bronze” (Book of Exodus 27:19). How are we supposed to take that? In any case, he said it wasn’t Cioran in particular. There was a challenge in his eyes as he continued: “Feel free to suggest something else.”

Nothing came to my mind. He took from his backpack a worn, slender volume, which he opened to a random page. His face lit up.

“Instead of paying attention to the faces of people passing by, I watched their feet, and all these busy types were reduced to hurrying steps—toward what? And it was clear to me that our mission was to graze the dust in search of a mystery stripped of anything serious.”

translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft