From Psychoanalysis to Literature: Olga Tokarczuk


The power of the unconscious accepted as a wise window on life, and poetic intelligence; creative thought and psychoanalysis as an anthropological look at cultural worlds and our everyday life against the backdrop of the cosmos, the intimacy of the self and of an immemorial time run in all possible directions through Olga Tokarczuk’s work.

“The subconscious loves to play tricks” (Tokarczuk, 1998, p. 186).  With these words, in the novel House of Day, House of Night, a character with the solemn name of Ergo Sum comments on a phrase of Plato in the eighth book of the Republic: “He who has tasted human entrails, must become a wolf”. A crucial phrase for his existence which he had never noticed, and which he feverishly seeks to confirm in several editions of the philosopher’s texts.

One may wonder whether Olga Tokarczuk’s work contains any trace of her studies and her previous profession as a psychoanalyst, that is whether psychology and psychoanalysis contributed to her literary accomplishment. The question somehow reverses the terms of a proposition that has always been known to psychoanalysts since Freud and Jung: writers, artists, know how to search out the secrets of the world better than anyone else, and they know more about the mind than psychoanalysts. Freud often liked to mention a phrase taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that expresses all his doubts about the possibilities of science alone: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet, Act I, Scene V).

I have examined various writings and statements, short stories and novels to try to give an answer. Among them especially the impervious and mysterious House of Day, House of Night, which I consider a sample par excellence in itself sufficient for my reflection. It shows a blend of arcane and solar, mystery and knowledge, enchantment and spirituality that pervades it and is independent of any ordinary logic. We can see it develop by fragments, or see links in what appeared to be only contiguity, or realize that we must continue to read and then look back to catch some connection, a thread that links the facts. At other times the themes resurface in a karstic way, but they are the main structures of the work, such as the edifying story of Saint Kummernis, aka Wilga, from Schonau, the one who forced the devil to confess in her arms.

The young woman had to take refuge in a convent to escape a marriage that had been arranged by her father, a baron. In sacred icons she will be portrayed with bare breasts and a beard, because actually Jesus Christ gave her his head to redeem her body from her earthly condition and from her awe of her father. The latter, confronted with this transformation, seeing the impossibility of reducing the young woman, who had been of unparalleled beauty, to his will, blinded by rage, ended up stabbing her to death and crucifying her on the beams of the prison where he had walled her up. The crucified image of the saint with bare breasts and her face adorned with a beard, together with her unprecedented mystical propositions and ecstatic dialogues with the Lord, will raise many questions in the Church. This story seems to be subversive to me, because it focuses on the issue of lack of neutralization of the telluric power of a female who refuses to be removed from history and religiosity, and to be reduced to mere erotic and procreative irrelated naturalness. Scratching the obvious coating of appearance, the lost face of Kummernis, the result of a procedure that on the one hand prevents her from being reduced to the rank of the wise, thinking and rebellious female – the witch of Jules Michelet – is on the other hand a metaphor of the nameless creative power of the unconscious, of its ability to change the world by moving with it, even refunding it, in an immediate and free way, and while easily finding allies. Something that the power in force, symbolized by the father, absolutely cannot accept. One could even say that Kummernis represents the perturbing, and ultimately psychoanalysis itself, and its ethical and social function.

Her biographer is a very young monk of humble origins named Paschalis, whose greatest desire is to become a woman. Paschalis, appointed for this hagiographic task by the abbess, is housed in a small separate building of a Benedictine nunnery immersed in the woods of the Sudetenland, beyond the wall of which he hears the shuffling and other secret noises of the nuns’ lives. Oppressed by the loneliness of his cell and inebriated by the noon demon, which is the contact with his own subjective intimacy and unconscious, one day the young man admits to the abbess that he would like to be recognized by the Pope as a woman to be among the nuns and be accepted to their table as an equal. But the abbess reveals to him that the ultimate purpose of his writings and of his stay is only to perorate the canonization of Kummernis, already blessed or otherwise venerated, as a saint with his writings in Rome. Paschalis would later travel to the city of Glatz, the bishop’s see, to present her story to the ecclesiastical authority, written with great torment of body and soul, and to get it to the Pope.

The story of the saint has the symbolic value of a revolution. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for its periodic re-emergence in the novel instead of a unitary recount, there’s no explanation of its way of appearing, which is different from a ritual reiteration, underlying an unknown sequence of psychic actions connected to each other, and the emergence of other elements of the narrative, as if to illuminate them, to flood the world with the light of a rebellion that is prudently cloaked in holiness but is actually an instance of liberation and disruptive creative gesture.

In the end one has a less disturbing idea of the flow of the thoughts that ties the important things, but, in my opinion, with this writing that someone defines as “mosaic”, one is confronted with something that really aims at representing the impossibility of a completion and a harmonious conciliation solution, of something that is a metaphor of the disorder and complexity of the world, of secret interconnections. One has to find the meaning of things by going back and forth, and then patiently wait for it, as Paschalis does in his thoughtful and hesitant writing, questioning himself on the words to describe Kummernis’ life.

Tokarczuk’s perspective is oneiric:

«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». (From Flights by O. Tokarczuk).

If we imagine hearing it resonate in the air in a magical moment of vocal correspondence with writing, Olga Tokarczuk’s voice is unmistakable from the beginning in every page of her work, even in a whisper it is always her. It has specific tones, it is surrounded by a luminous material that does not detach and keeps it sharp. It produces a sense of impartial contemplation and attunement with the fantasy world in which it attracts. One wonders what makes its tone so particular that it happily binds the acoustic images, i.e. the words. When you think about it, many different explanations could be given, but it seems to me that it has no echo, or rather as if it had reabsorbed every possible echo in statu nascendi. It doesn’t meet the world, but creates it as a breath of life. She does not have to receive back sound signals of existence, she is there in all the things, she sleeps like a fairytale in the very pages of her books, in all the worlds she creates or perhaps awakens with her words, with her Polish language, so special and, as she says, marginal, spoken by a minority of people in the world, plastic and welcoming compared to foreign languages. A language – a pity to read only translations – ready to create new terms, and prone to diminution, which makes the world warmer and more reassuring, more familiar. In coffee shops in Poland you can drink little latte (mleczko), and on the trolley car you can festively be asked to show your little ticket (“Bileciki do kontroli!”). It is a gentleness that has nothing campy, it is a Weltanschauung, which, moreover, gently nourishes everybody’s secondary narcissism, through the gift of something comfortable. Paradoxically, her language is also listening in the form of words, and a sparkle of poetic power, life.

A language, as Tokarczuk herself states, is everything to a writer, but it would be wrong to understand it as a primordial broth in which everything takes shape.  We find ourselves thrown into the language as something that preexists us, she affirms.

We adapt to it, we find a space there through which we access ourselves, and our world.

“Our language is our literary destiny. It is also plainly obvious that in our language we can only be ourselves to a certain degree (and ‘being oneself’ seems to be an important demand of our culture), while to a large extent being subject to something bigger and stronger than us, over which we have no influence”.

Thus wrote the writer in 2011 in the online magazine Eurozine, in an article called A finger pointing at the moon, which was taken up by the Internazionale magazine in issue 1072 of 10 October 2014, from which also the information on the Polish language referred to above is derived. Speaking of language, there is here a first reference to psychoanalysis, to Freud and Lacan, perceptible, however, only by insiders, and, as far as we know, this is what she was, having received a psychological and psychoanalytical training, which led to her predilection for Jung. On the Guardian on August 24, 2018, Tokarczuk explicitly referred to psychoanalysis and Freud directly and his text Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

“I first read Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a young girl, and it helped me to understand that there are thousands of possible ways to interpret our experience, that everything has a meaning, and that interpretation is the key to reality. This was the first step to becoming a writer.”

The references are precise, and may seem schematic.

However, everyone can perceive the boundless openness of the discourse on unthought scenarios, those drawn by the continuous and traumatic drive (represented in the characters of her narratives by dissatisfaction, spirit of adventure, bizarre habits and conduct, unlimited fidelity to an ideal that calls to go far, even beyond themselves). This drive disrupts all certainty by comparing the rational world of humans with the natural world and archaic and non-human forces with time. Within the psychoanalytic perspective, it is perceptible in the dream and trauma of the real that occur unpredictably, in the extension of the search for an original absolute, in the hope of rediscovering the perception of a lost happiness in truth never possessed and unreachable: one could say that we are in the field of what Freud calls das Ding, and Jacques Lacan la Chose: the Thing. In the dreamy melancholy of so many pages of Tokarczuk there is the abandonment to this so very nostalgia that remains mysterious, the perception of a void that pushes to always try to fill it, through the action of the characters of literary fiction. This explains the tireless and timeless expectations supported by the desire for love. There are ethnic groups and generations that do not know they are looking for it, like the Bieguni[1] wanderers of the novel Flights, who always err, or like the bizarre and unthinkable von Goetzen in House of Day, House of Night who spend their lives in a narcissistic retreat in very private homes closed to the world, absorbed in extravagant and egocentric activities, almost abandoning themselves to states of pre-estasis that coincide with the lack of greater definitions, participation, involvement in the life of the world.  And who are unusual even in death:

[ ] the von Goetzen always died beautifully and gently. Death came over them like a mist, like a sudden break in the electricity supply – their eyes grew dim, their breathing slowed down and finally died away. Those attending the deathbed had only to close their departed relative’s eyelids and then go about their business – in the warmth of the conservatory, the coolness of the ground-floor corridors, among the rustling pages of illustrated books on horticulture and art [ ]. There were photographs left of the deceased, as well as flowerbeds, diaries, cupboards full of mouldering clothing, and crumbs in the bed-sheets, but someone else would immediately occupy his room, so it was as if they had never died. Besides, as a result of all the family intermarrying they were all so alike that the lack of a particular individual was never felt.” (Tokarczuk, 1998, p.196)

And, on the other hand, there are very sensitive hearts, who are accustomed to love and that look for it with resolution without losing track of it even when it is missing, who are willing to embark on any inner journey or on the tumult and the unknown of ordinary reality in order to meet it in another still unknown being. Even the beings of the vegetable world, as well as the animals, want to meet and speak to us in a spirit that is in a certain sense loving.

That something we do not control is also a total cosmos that embraces the human and the non-human, it is thrill, ecstasy, horror. It is the linguistic system, the symbolic universe that awaits us and that we find coming into the world, and it is also something that is in us and returns to us, what has been repressed in the unconscious. A part of this can never be known in any way because it is subject to the original repression. But there is also that part of the past that has not been crossed over, and this corresponds to the opening of the unpublished scene I was talking about. The return of the repressed and of the not processed past, which are superstitions, demons, monsters, primordial anxieties, are the source of the unheimlich feelings, described by Freud in his famous 1919 essay Das Unheimlische (The Uncanny), and which break into the arts and literature, showing that nothing can be taken for granted, that what we have always considered trustworthy and familiar is only ordinary and casually quiet, but can suddenly turn into something unexpected and animated with threat and danger, or that subverts the order of things, making, so to speak, the pillars of the temple waver.

Also in Olga Tokarczuk’s pages animals with strange behavior appear, werewolves, the devil, mysterious and invisible entities, disturbing characters.   But if they are ghostly and sinister it is not only because of their origin and the weird skin they wear as an innate distinctive feature, but also because reality continues to reserve such a place for them, despite the changing cultures. This is an irreducible ambiguity that psychoanalysis points out to us and that its art shows between the lines. There is a thin and sometimes evanescent line between life and an underground world that finds on the surface inapparent expressions that can, however, well reveal themselves. Isaac Basevic Singer, the great Polish narrator who died in 1991, almost passing the torch to the debutant Tokarczuk who began her career in 1989 with a book of poems entitled Miasto w lustrach (The City in Mirrors), remembers that his father always talked about how the spirits of the dead possessed the living, of reincarnations and wonders, of sinister presences, and that he said so as a warning to children so curious and imprudent that they want to discover and see everything, to “remind them, from time to time, that there are still mysterious forces at work in the world”.

When Olga Tokarczuk writes about hellish creatures and spells, it is not because of a technical display or an almost mechanical outflow of the contents of ethnic fantasy, but because her gaze/listening takes from the microcosm of the origin she carries within herself, into the voices of a world in permanent contact with her, which follows with the fluctuating attention of a psychoanalyst accustomed to accepting the real, even what is meaningless, by listening (of course with the third ear Theodor Reik wrote about) to what they say to give them a chance again, in the meaning and also outside of it, a chance to relive transfigured in her writing.

I speak of ethnic fantasy because somehow Olga Tokarczuk creates a literary world, but to do so she takes from her underground popular culture, to which she gives voice and artistic form, with its myths and history, made mostly of violent raids in a land disputed between the West (Rome and Christianity mark it with religiosity and the Latin alphabet, Germany invades it) and the East (Russia, the Slavic world).

The ethnos and myths, the fairy tale in the background of geography and the political and daily history of places, despite their peculiarity, link it to the history and universal ethos of humanity.

And the uncanny we find in her pages is not only the past that returns or the repressed that bursts in, but also a shock to the torpor of clichés and feelings stiffened by fear, routine and selfishness, a new intelligence of things. It takes the form of a call to contemplation of the new and the nothingness, of an awakening, of a moment of appearance and free circulation of energy in the psychic and natural worlds. Or of the manifestation of events that question the human presence on earth, that renew the challenge to the subject to maintain their cohesion by finding new balances, accepting new boundaries of the self.

What is close to psychoanalysis is perhaps not only Olga Tokarczuk, with her gaze and her narration, but the human substratum of her imagination, telluric and astral, sedimented during countless seasons. It is the ground itself and the object of anthropological and psychoanalytic observation: a physical and political, religious, symbolic world that assumes an absolute centrality for its inhabitants and then for all readers, and lives again in the mythological and mythopoietic dimension that it nourishes. A voice that animates the pages of the writer, but as an emerging written expression of a collective oral history or her memory. I don’t see any archetypes emerging in this shared inspiration, despite the closeness to Jung attributed to the writer or declared by her, but an original literary reworking that can always be read as new. There are rather minute, ordinary stories, or the imaginary heraldry of generations of characters who live the places of dreams in a time that is mythical, the epic of a city and an entire nation, or more often of simple, humble men and women, who also rise to the dimension of universality through literature. Within the visible horizon of this scene are snows, woods, fields or muddy streets, frozen gardens, mountains, houses inhabited by misery and abandonment, rich bourgeois houses that are like small palaces with abundance of goods and highly fashionable furnishings, territories and borders where the only consolation is vodka or berry wine, until death comes. Or vice versa hot kitchens, sunny summer terraces, flowers and insects. In this world there are sweet and dreamy female figures, always mysterious and alien to themselves. As if in the storytelling they learnt for the first time the secrets they have discovered crossing years and history, famines and wars, undaunted, clinging to life like strong shrubs without fear in the proximity of death, keepers of houses, habits, pots and furniture, wigs, memories, dreams, youthful adventures, summer plenilunes and frog songs. Guardians and interpreters also of a memory widespread in objects and interstices, in dens and cliffs, in the existence of people and of every other animated being and inanimate thing. There are dreams full of meaning and intentions of which one can search and jungianly decipher a meaning according to general laws of interpretation not too dissimilar from divination, and also because for Tokarczuk, who in this echoes Foucault’s Order of Things, God created the world by disseminating signals that can guide us.  And the stars look at us from the sky, knowing about us much more than we can imagine, also to show us a way (“consider”, etymologically, is a bit like talking to the stars).

And there are men condemned to impossible existences, such as Mr. Sum, baptized with the name of Ergo because of a whim of his father, who, at some point in his life, finds himself becoming a cannibal in heartbreaking starvation besieged by wolves (wolves and psychoanalysis go hand in hand after Freud’s paper Wolf Man) just as ravenous, together with his fellow sufferers in a hell of ice and desolation, and then himself as a wolf, werewolf, son of the moon, a survivor forced by abysmal anguish to repel the horrendous metamorphoses and their memory and terror, to leave his social rank of professor and his philosophical studies, to annihilate himself in a beastly, we would say post-human, life as a cowherd and hard-working man.

From Plato, who during one of his usual readings one day revealed him that he who has eaten human flesh will become a wolf, to us, to Nietzsche, to Jung’s Red Book, Freud’s Uncanny and Lacan’s real, Picasso’s Guernica and Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the question what is human, what is true and false, what is fantasy or reality, what is freedom, life or death, what is abyss or world bounces along the spiral of thought and art.

Tokarczuk detects the worlds that speak by reshaping them in her volcanic fantasy and poetic language. With that textural femininity of her characters, both sweet and raw, of bodies with a pungent and still soft taste, that recall the fulminating descriptions of women by a poet of the remoteness and radiance of being like Saint-John Perse. And with a psychoanalytically refined sensitivity ready to capture the psychic function of every detail, to capture the eternity of every moment, in a narrative that thus has more and more points in common with the very particular way of being of space and time in psychoanalysis, along the border between the so-called setting and everything else. A way that is a mirror of elusiveness and senselessness even in everyday life, of what eludes us of these dimensions and is revealed instead when the deceptive familiarizing network stretched over by culture, which had been stretched to extinguish all anxiety, falls.

The greatest importance should be given to the gaze that detaches things from the world of objects and sees them as a mark within an extraordinary vision of the whole that overflows from everywhere, as the author affirms in an interview:
“There are two ways to look. With one you simply see objects, things that are useful to mankind, honest and concrete, you immediately know how to use them, what they are for.  And then there is a panoramic view, more general, with which you can see the links between objects, their rebound nets. Things stop being things, the fact that they are used is a matter of secondary importance, it’s only appearance.  Now they are signs, they indicate something that is not there in photographs, that lies beyond the edges of the images. You have to focus to be able to maintain that look that is essentially a gift, a real grace”.[2]

Olga Tokarczuk listens to voices from parallel worlds or on different levels than ordinary reality and the human world. “In literature everything that could have happened is true”, that’s her idea. And so she also questions, and we go back to psychoanalytic perception for the construction of her literary work, looking for the small things and the smallest details, a smell or the vaulting of a leaf in the air, on the one hand, what is not there or not seen, but is expected or imagined in a different logic from the current one, inspired, one would say, by the chemist Mendelejev as well as Freud, on the other hand. This is how Paschalis faced his hagiographic task:

It seemed to him that it was important to not only report what had happened [ ].  That it was just as important, and perhaps even more important, to leave places and spaces for what hadn’t been there, that had never happened and that could have happened – he just had to imagine it. The life of the saint was also made of what was not there.  So he would have even wanted to leave empty spaces on paper [ ]. He wanted to leave an empty space beyond the described events of Kummernis’s life – vast flatlands of possibilities of all kinds, the consequences of the action that developed in the background of the entire scene.[1]

But Paschalis/Tokarczuk does even more. She explicitly wonders according to lines of reflection that seem to me clearly psychoanalytic. However, without being able to have the final world on which one, between Tokarczuk with her art and psychoanalysis, owes to the other, i.e. whether it is art that enriches and enlightens psychoanalysis, or whether it is rather the latter that allows us to understand art.

More and more often, as he finished writing out of one of her sentences, he would grasp its entire inner meaning in a sudden flash of understanding. He found it deeply moving and a source of wonder that the same words could be read and understood in so many different ways (Tokarczuk, 1998, p.117).

Or that one could grasp the meaning of a sentence without experiencing it themselves.  That one could know what was written, but without understanding it. [2]

Although not everyone knows it, in this logic there are new entries on the scene, whether people or armies, bees or cannons, or furniture and objects, treasures found in houses emptied by the war: photos and kitsch paintings, teacups, various trinkets, bed linen, letters, tables and sideboards, jam jars, purees, cider, laundry tickets or milk teeth, feelings and passions. Wrecks of shipwrecks and stormy forces that have given no escape to anything but to some things and memories woven with them, things whose meaning can always be recovered, however, while people are dead or lost or wondering, coming out of the paths of permanent solitude immersed in fantasy or in wandering and in a nomadism full of adventure.

Travel, and space, is another central theme in the writer’s poetics. Her journeys are whirlpools of energy that irresistibly attract cosmic urges that affect humans.

In Flights a woman named Ludwika, Chopin’s sister, travels to bring her brother’s heart back from Paris to Warsaw; the monk Paschalis travels from his cell in a convent in the woods to the city of Glatz to bring his destabilizing panegyric of St. Kummernis so that it would finally get to Rome. A woman goes from a small town to a larger city in search of a lover that whispers her poignant words in her dream, and her imaginative audacity is rewarded by fate. In our experience, too, we find the way things are presented in Tokarczuk’s novels: facts and characters who had stayed alive and did things even while we were busy and talking about something else appear again, without being afraid of bothering us.

Things usually ignored or treated with carelessness, invisible presences such as the radio audience waiting to be triggered and with a leading role according to the wishes of Walter Benjamin, or other media or the internet, forgotten objects, dreamers who tell their dreams in local newspapers or on the internet, who want to talk to us and can do so through these narratives. Dreams are aggregated according to what they have in common, which colors the nights.

There are nights when everybody seems to dream of running away, nights of war, nights of babies being born, nights of dubious love-making. There are nights spent wandering in labyrinths – in hotels, stations, student hostels or the dreamer’s own flats. Or nights spent opening doors, boxes, chests and cupboards. And there are nights full of travel, when the dreamers negotiate stations, airports, trains, motorways and roadside motels, lose suitcases, wait for tickets, and worry that they won’t make their connections on time.

[ …] If someone were able to research this idea properly, if they could quantify the characters, images and emotions that appear in dreams, strip them down to their motifs,[ …] linking things together that seem impossible to connect, maybe they would discover some sense in it all, like the pattern to which stock exchanges function, or large airports operate. (Tokarczuk, 1998, pp.24-25)

Tokarczuk also notes:

All over the world, wherever people are sleeping, small, jumbled worlds are flaring up in their heads, growing over reality like scar tissue. There might be experts who know what each of them means individually, but no one knows what they all mean collectively. (Tokarczuk, 199b, p.89)

But those who dream and speak are actually ourselves, or ourselves as well, who discover ourselves on the literary wave like never before. In a neo-platonic game of alternating microcosm and macrocosm, the universal voice of humanity suddenly becomes ours, and vice versa. We realize that we are listening to ourselves, knowing things and dimensions previously hidden within us, that we are transcending ourselves.

It is no coincidence that one of the essential components of Tokarczuk’s reflection and fascination are borders. Country borders, with border guards and the ghost of smugglers, boundaries between fantasy and reality, between us and others, between conscious and unconscious, between old and new, between jamais vu, jamais entendu, and known and familiar things. Until they surprise us and suddenly become new and disturbing. Tokarczuk also breaks down the barrier between human, plant and animal worlds. Animals and even plants communicate with humans who want to listen. Between these worlds the living beings belong to the same vital sphere, they share the same substance. Drive your plow over the bones of the dead is the title of one of her books, which introduces the topic of the animal world and its intimate relationship with humanity. Once again, a borderline that is neither clear or impassable, a drift of life (or non-life) of which the end is not to be seen, a line that denies itself by being pulverized for long stretches, which becomes the relationship between man and nature in other pages. A naturally mythical nature, like the unravelling of the lives of the characters, including the writer.

The frontier between human and divine, between earthly and ultra-worldly, like any other, is a line of attraction to hidden or distant worlds.

Longed for or feared, they respond to the profound needs of humanity, to the recovery of paradises or new objects to be covered with those impulses that are always in search of new articulations, as science fiction and fantasy literature teach us with their wish for new homelands and new possibilities of realization, yet paying the price of anxiety of the new and unfamiliar, and the alienating tension of the unknown and the supernatural.

Discoveries and knowledge, intrepid and vibrant epic gestures, which can adopt the tones of tragedy, but give the disclosure of the secret of life. The topic of the revealing journey is ancient and appears in a story by Rabbi Eisik of Krakow revised in Martin Buber’s Chassidische Bücher, studied by Mircea Eliade. Ernesto de Martino tells us about it in The End of the World. Eliade reports the comment by the Indianist Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943) on the “”strange and constant fact” that it is only after a pious journey to a distant region, in a strange land, a new country, that the meaning of the inner voice guiding our search can be revealed to us”.

The border of dreams is crossed over and over again in Tokarczuk’s storytelling. Love goes even back and forth along its border and often crosses it, looking for an image, a relationship, the taste of something, the memory of a word, a situation, a figure in which it is reflected and can materialize as in the stories of customs officers fleeing from the loneliness and harshness of an abstract and often cruel role, or fanciful women, such as those of Playing on Many Drums by Tokarczuk, or similar to Ella Marchmill, the main character of Thomas Hardy’s short story An imaginative woman, locked in remote provinces or cities chasing the world and in it love even for unknown but idealized human beings, supported by dreams and media. Even the smartest reader is astonished when reading the short story, that I mentioned earlier, of a bank employee in a small town, who hears sublime and irresistible words of love in a dream, completely out of her control, we would say in the form of real auditory hallucinations, if they were not poetic wonders. Having only his name, ecstatic, Krysia searches and ends up finding the address of the dream lover, Amos, after a feverish search in phone books in various cities. Amos (or A. Mos as the nameplate on his door indicates, in a psychoanalytically delicious game of alliteration) is a poet who welcomes her into his home in Częstochowa on the eve of his flight to the West. The encounter is the opportunity for a carnal erotic encounter, which Krysia does not avoid, considering it as the price of the dream, of which this is only a pale appendix. Much more important is having read on Amos’s typewriter the title of his last poem, made of the same words that appeared in her dream: A Night in Mariand.

Along the border between night and dawn, left desperately alone without food and especially without alcohol in a cold house, in the last episode of another karst narration of House of Day, House of Night, Marek Marek dies. He had been a beautiful child, with “white-blond hair and the face of an angel” (Tokarczuk , 1998, p.11), beaten by his drunken father almost every night. And he dies hanged, already exhausted by despair, tiredness, starvation and an empty fury against himself, only after several clumsy attempts, almost due to a miscalculation of the rope and the height of the suspension, perhaps without having really wanted it.

Thus he crosses the extreme border and enters the realm of the dead. And Paschalis dies in the same way, and is found dead in his cell.

The borderline between all things remains uncertain, and there is not, as I said at the beginning, the aspiration to a universal or final synthesis, but rather the contemporary drift of endless stories. Tokarczuk seems to prefer the myriad of uncertain boundaries and different things that follow one another, that continually begin to seduce, dazzle, palpitate, and who knows if in the end they will make up one world or many worlds. A saga of all possible and dreamed worlds in continuous contamination between sleep and wakefulness, a basic complexity and disharmony that psychoanalysis postulates and contemplates like perhaps no other theory of the mind.

The importance of the full and the empty spaces that the boundary lines delimit is among what is often overlooked. The profile line of the jug on which Heidegger speculates in the essay Das Ding, which generates the outside and an empty inside, an indispensable condition to have a full.

One of the stories is about the man called Whatsisname, the man who finds the body of the hanged man Marek Marek, his neighbor, but he is incredulous, denies what he has seen, so that he cannot have a memory, and instead he is presented with a spirit, an apparition that haunts him in his own home. In the background here and also in the story of Ergo Sum “the werewolf”, one can glimpse the concept of Verneinung (denial) evolving up to that of Verwerfung (Lacan’s forclusion, a particular form of exclusion, literally “foreclosure”), the idea of something that for Freud escapes representability.

Whoever sees spirits, says Marta, the mysterious friend of the narrator, “is empty inside”. And so is Whatsisname:

He’s one of those people who imagine God on one side, and them on the other.  Whatsisname sees everything outside himself, he even sees himself outside himself, he looks at himself as he would look at a photograph. He only sees himself in mirrors. [ ] Only when he dresses for his daily pilgrimage to Nowa Ruda to buy a pack of cigarettes [ ], when he sees himself ready in the mirror, does he think of himself as “he”. Never as “I”.  He can only see himself with the eyes of others, which is why his appearance becomes so important, his new jacket made of synthetic fabric, his cream-colored shirt whose light collar makes his tanned face stand out.  That’s why Whatsisname is also out for himself.  Inside there is nothing to look at from the inside, so there are no reflections.  It is in this condition that one can see spirits.[3]

There are seemingly absurd and incomprehensible rules that regulate the flow of signals in true reality, and fantasy can embrace even what you don’t see or what not everyone sees, including ghosts, or spirits. Readiness and familiarity in dealing with the irrational and the supernatural are still clues of psychoanalytic competence. Its prerogative is the ability to be in a position of unconditional listening, free, able to accept the surprise of the unconscious and the perturbing incarnate in the repressed, in the not dealt with, in the dead which is not really dead without the necessary ritual, in the invisible, in the fantastic, without fear of the unknown, of events of life and death. Some of Tokarczuk’s narratives seem to echo the words of Virgil’s verses that Freud puts into practice in the Interpretation of DreamsFlectere si nequeo superos, acheronta movebo. Or the words of ancient Rome: mundus patet. That is, on certain recurrences of the year, those in which the rite of Mundus is celebrated, the gates of Hades open up, and the sulfurous underground world and the solar, mercurial, iridescent world of the living come into contact. In those days all normal activities are interrupted, everything remains suspended. In Tokarczuk’s writing these doors are open all year round.

In certain pages the writer wanders in a trance-like state into no man’s land between waking and dreaming, between life and death, immersed in a magical world in which what happens does not necessarily correspond to what is known by human rationality, science, common sense.

A hand of a guest touched the peaches on a warm terrace, in an imperceptible instant all hands touched the peaches; a leaf brushed against a plum, and the word “brushing” appeared in the conversation, without anyone noticing.

Then it occurred to me that somehow I was getting close to the end. That I don’t’ know what twelfth hour had stroked [ ]. That I had already begun to die, and before that I would see everything in that astonishing way from below, from the geometry of events [ ]. I would have been left with nothing but the astonishment of not having seen such an evident order until then, an order that was not where I believed – in thoughts, in ideas, in mathematical schemes, in the calculation of probabilities – but in the events themselves. The axis of the world is made of iterative configurations of instants, movements and gestures. Nothing new happens.[4]

(From House of Day, House of Night).

The character of an episode of House of Day, House of Night, named Pieter Dieter, goes to die right on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic after a strenuous mountain climb. The border guards on one side will pull him to the other where he will be found by the policemen on patrol. But who are really the border guards?

The scene we walk on is a world of contrasts, of undecidability, that, once again echoes Freud’s voice.

A world of uncertainty and conflict that is not only external but intimately runs over the subject, in the game of mirrors that is established with special identification and projection figures such as the character of Marta, the mysterious friend. A border that is only virtual and is always crossed by images, memories, psychic experiences of various kinds that summon the unthought. The strangest things.

Olga Tokarczuk, as I was saying, often talks about dreams. She even says that she has been looking for new ones through dedicated columns in local newspapers and on the internet. A mediatic Traumdeutung reveals itself in her pages like an arrangement of the mind, reflected and refracted in the prism of the legions of dreamers who publish their dreams.

As ready as she is to welcome scattered fragments of words and thoughts, Olga Tokarczuk tells stories that are articulated according to a causality that can at least be deciphered in hypothesis, which reconstructs a symbolic sense. The novel is structured in fragments that seem to arise from free associations. Only a psychoanalyst/writer can welcome and approach in such a natural way vague signals, impulses, memories and dreams, fragments of stories, stories not correlated by a perceptible sense, recurrences of apparently exhausted themes that keep coming back with new details, within a literary architecture that is always provisional. Which, perhaps in an asymptotic future, to paraphrase Freud, will find a unitary fulfilment in the reconstruction of its plural parts, integrating things according to unexpected or not commonly imaginable criteria, because they respond to a special logic. Talking about “divination from the sky” (Tokarczuk, 1998, p.292), how you can read the clouds, and other signs that form on that screen in “diaphanous drawings”, a character from the novel, R., thinks that he can shoot frames of the sky for entire seasons using a tripod, starting in spring. “He’ll aim the lens up at the sky, above the crowns of the twin spruce trees, and leave it there until autumn.  Every day he’ll take a photograph [ ]. It’ll be possible to put all the photographs together like a jigsaw puzzle, or to load them one on top of another in the computer, or” – these are the last words of the novel House of Day, House of Night – ” to make one single sky out of them with the help of a software programme.  And then we’ll know”. (Tokarczuk, 1998, p.293)


Translated from the Italian by Anna Franchi


Benjamin, W. (2014) Radio Benjamin, J. Lutes, tr. (London, UK: Verso Books) Original book published in 1933.


Cataluccio, F.M. (2019) “Lo sguardo di Olga Tokarczuk”, Doppiozero, rivista online, 14/10/2019.


de Martino, E.:

–       (1948) Il mondo magico. Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri 2007).

–       (2019) La fine del mondo. Contributo all’analisi delle apocalissi culturali, Nuova edizione a cura di G. Charuty, D. Fabre e M. Massenzio (Torino: Einaudi).


Hardy, T. (1894) An imaginative woman, in Life little ironies, Tr. it. in Racconti Scelti, traduzione e introduzione di P. Pascarelli (Potenza: Edizioni Grenelle 2017).


Heidegger, M. (1949-1950) “Das Ding”, in Bremer und Friburger Vorträge 1. Einblick in da was ist. 2 Grandsätze de Denkens, edited by P. Jaeger (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann 1994).


Michelet, J. (1862) La sorcière (Paris: Librairie de L. Hachette et Co.).


Singer, I. B.  (1966) In my Father’s Court (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).


Tokarczuk, O.:

–          (2001) Gra na wielu bębenkach [Playing on Many Drums]. (Wałbrzych: Ruta).

–         (2003) House of Day, House of Night. A. Lloyd-Jones tr. (Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press). 

–          (2009) Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. A. Lloyd-Jones tr. (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions). Original book published in 2009.

–          (2010), Primeval and Other Times. A. Lloyd-Jones tr. (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press) Original book published in 1996.

–         (2018), Flights. J. Croft tr. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books) Original book published in 2007.


Since some of the quotes of the Italian text cited in the article are not present in the English version – Tokarczuk, O. (2003) House of Day, House of Night (A. Lloyd-Jones tr.). Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press – my English translation was inserted into the English text. These translations of mine are indicated in the footnote.

Anna Franchi

[1] These  lines in italics from the Italian text  are translated by Anna Franchi, because they are not found in the English official translation.


[2] These last two lines in italics from the Italian text are translated by Anna Franchi, because they are not found in the English official translation.


[3] These lines in italics from the Italian text are translated by Anna Franchi, because they are not found in the English official translation.


[4]These lines in italics from the Italian text are translated by Anna Franchi, because they are not found in the official English translation.


Pietro Pascarelli, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, lives in Reggio Emilia (Italy).  His interests and publishing activities are expanded to literature (and to poetry, as a special form of knowledge) and to interdisciplinary psychoanalytic, anthropological, literary, and philosophical essays. []

Publication Date:

April 24, 2020

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis