Literature as an ethical act: Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” and ecocriticism23 min read
Is writing a political act? Opinions on the matter certainly differ. Diatribes on engaging with art as opposed to art for art’s sake have never subsided, despite — and perhaps precisely because of — the continuous alternating points of view and ways of making literature that are always in flux. If, on the one hand, there is the conception of the artist as a superman on a pedestal, detached from society and its obligations, there is, on the other hand, the conception of the intellectual as a man with a debt to society and who, when inserted within a historical and political context, has the responsibility and moral duty to contribute to its improvement.
But times have changed, and with them also the figure of the intellectual, who is affected by the great topics of discussion of what is, at least so far in the twenty-first century, human rights, feminism, ecology, and borders. And in all likelihood, no one among contemporary authors has explored these folds of living in the world with the same wealth as Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
However, interpreting her work as political literature would be fallacious, as well as intellectually dishonest. While the term “political act” is inextricably linked to her era and the structure of current public affairs, the author decides to adopt a different position.
Olga Tokarczuk’s vision
In a 2010 interview, Tokarczuk states that “The role of the writer has always been political, in the broadest possible sense of the political. When I say political, I mean a conscious approach to the reality that surrounds us. [. . .] Having said that, writers, poets, and artists shine light on matters we have lost the ability to take notice of — matters which we’ve grown accustomed to and which appear obvious and normal to us. These are things that — particularly in authoritarian systems — are often wrong, and violent. In this way, a writer — and this may sound romantic — performs the duty of a bell that rings to call attention to our too-hasty, habit-bound acceptance of reality. I believe that there is no literature that can remain nonpolitical in this broad sense of the word, apart from romance novels or pulp fiction, of course. Quality literature, literature that wants to achieve something, is always political.”
In another interview from 2019, Tokarczuk reiterates and expands on this concept: “My books are not ‘political.’ I don’t make political demands. They actually describe life. But when we look at human life, politics creeps in everywhere. The book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is actually the story of the madness of an old lady who cannot bear the murder of animals. And suddenly, in this new context that opened up in Poland, the book becomes strictly political. That was not my intention. It was not meant to be a political book. I write books to open people’s minds, to present new perspectives, to make people realise that what they think is obvious is not so obvious, that you can look at a trivial situation from a different angle and suddenly reveal other meanings and levels. That’s what literature is for — so we can expand our consciousness, the ability to interpret our own lives and what is happening to us.”
Politics, therefore, falls within the territory of immanence, while Tokarczuk’s intent is ascribed to the need for ideological transcendence. Precisely for this reason, Tokarczuk’s literature is configured as an ethical act, independent of social and cultural circumstances. However, never more than in recent years have strictly political decisions found themselves in a relationship of close dependence with much broader ethical issues, which make it necessary to reflect on a global and extra-historical level aimed at redefining thinking regarding issues such as relationships of power, migrations, the tradition/progress dichotomy or, as in the case of Tokarczuk, the environment.
In this, the 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is an emblematic text. Rightly defined as an eco-thriller with an anarchic sensibility, it has numerous points in common with ecofeminist philosophy, whose ethics of thought is both the founding basis and key to interpreting the novel and Tokarczuk’s vision itself.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead tells the story of Janina Duszejko, an eccentric sixty-year-old from a remote village nestled in the woods of the Kłodzko basin, in Lower Silesia. Janina is an English teacher in an elementary school; a former bridge engineer; an astrology enthusiast, thanks to which she tries to give a higher order to her existence; an avid reader of William Blake’s poems; and, above all, a convicted animal rights activist. She leads an overall peaceful life — her isolation from the world is interrupted only by the visits of some secondary characters, from the gruff neighbour Bietolone to her former student Dyzio, a policeman and also, like Janina, a lover of Blake’s poetry.
In this remote, isolated area, on the border with the Czech Republic, life flows grey and monotonous, not unlike in many other small-towns. This far from idyllic picture, in which rural everyday life is unfortunately a reality marked by a bigoted and patriarchal legacy, will be interrupted by the mysterious death of another of Janina’s neighbours: the poacher Big Foot, suffocated after a small bone gets stuck in his throat. But the death of Big Foot will not be the only mystery to shake the apparent security of the community. Soon, in fact, many other hunters in the village will die in mysterious circumstances, which Janina sees as the revenge of animals and of nature itself.
In her battle to shed light on the murders, Janina will incur the ridicule of her fellow villagers, who see in her investigations only the delusions of an eccentric sixty-year-old. Yet, the protagonist’s actions are imbued with her very profound ethical sense, which would be demeaning to define simply as “singular,” because Janina’s singularity, her status as a proud, incurable outcast, has its roots in the incompatibility of her own morality with that of the environment that surrounds her. It is thanks to this morality that she is able to question, at least for the reader, the Polish condition broken by the existence of centuries-old dynamics of obtuseness, religious hypocrisy, and, ultimately, systemic oppression of those who are different, whether men or animals, perceived by default as inferior. Unable to remain silent in the face of suffering and armed only with a sense of ethical responsibility, Janina will have to face the carelessness and ridicule of the authorities, trying to assert her beliefs in the name of civil disobedience.
Tokarczuk came up with the idea for the novel during a winter she spent alone with her two dogs in the Kłodzko basin after her separation from her husband. One day, the dogs disappeared: “I started to ask people what happened,” she said. “Somebody told me that there was a big hunting expedition in the area, and sometimes these drunken hunters used to kill dogs.” She went on, “It was many years ago, but I kept this idea in my mind for a long time. Ideas like this—it’s like they’re in the refrigerator. And then one day they appear on my table.”
Moreover, it is not difficult to recognize the author behind the figure of her heroine. Olga Tokarczuk is, just like Janina, an outsider in today’s Poland as a vegetarian, animal rights activist, and in favour of an environmentalist and liberal policy. Tokarczuk herself, moreover, declared that she had no intention of writing a canonical detective novel. Her initial intent, in her words, was anything but: “I wanted to explore this question, which is at the heart of the book: what can we do as good people against a law that is bad? Janina tries to behave like a good citizen but nobody listens to her. They think she is a madwoman and she becomes helpless.” In another interview, the author further elaborates on her intentions: “Just writing a book to know who is the killer is wasting paper and time, so I decided to put into it animal rights and a story of dissenting citizens who realise that the law is immoral and see how far can they can go with saying no to it (. . .) Some people said that once again Tokarczuk is an old crazy woman doing weird things, but then this big discussion started on the internet about what we can do about this very patriarchal, Catholic tradition.”
Eco-fiction and eco-criticism
In this, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead becomes a modern classic of eco-fiction, a literary branch dedicated to the exploration of issues related to the environment and the relationship between man and nature. Much of the ethical orientation of eco-fiction derives from ecocriticism, which in turn has numerous points of contact with current environmentalist philosophy. In Tokarczuk’s work, it takes on the traits of contemporary eco-feminism, which investigates the underlying relationships between women, animals and nature. Eco-feminism has now become an umbrella term that also includes intersectional feminism, which is aimed at examining the dynamics of oppression and discrimination while also taking into account different social identities, such as ethnicity or social class.
Much like Tokarczuk’s work, particularly Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, eco-feminist philosophy aims to re-examine the oppressive conceptual frameworks that make up the traditional European and Western mentality, questioning some canonical assumptions of philosophy as we know it.
But it is good to proceed in order: what is a conceptual framework? It is a set of beliefs and values that shape the world and are reflected in the perception of oneself and of external reality. As part of its criticism, eco-feminism aims to dismantle, at least partially, the dynamics of power and disparity existing in what defines the dominant ideology: first of all, the belief in fundamental dualisms such as reason/emotion, mind/body, culture/nature, and absolutism/relativism, as well as the belief in the existence of an ontological separation between human beings on the one hand, and animals and nature on the other. Within these dualisms there is a hierarchy of values that systematically favours one party over the other, justifying as a moral premise a logic of subordination in which women, animals, and nature suffer the consequences. The main difference between eco-criticism and eco-feminism is in fact the use of the gender perspective within traditional environmental ethics, correlating the exploitation of women with that of natural resources and perpetrating sexist and speciesist discrimination.
“In fact Man has a great responsibility towards wild Animals — to help them to live their lives, and it’s his duty towards domesticated Animals to return their love and affection, for they give us far more than they receive from us. And they need to be able to live their lives with dignity, to be able to settle their Accounts and register their semester in the karmic index — I was an Animal, I lived and I ate; I grazed in green pastures, I bore Young, I kept them warm with my body; I built nests, I performed my duty. When you kill them, and they die in Fear and Terror — like that Boar whose body lay before me yesterday, and is still lying there, defiled, muddied and smeared with blood, reduced to carrion — you doom them to hell, and the whole world changes into hell. Can’t people see that? Are their minds incapable of reaching beyond petty, selfish pleasures? People have a duty towards Animals to lead them — in successive lives — to Liberation. We’re all travelling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.”
Framing the phenomenon in a historical perspective, it is believed that the separation between nature and culture was a product of the scientific revolution, which, thanks to the shift from an organic to a mechanistic model, was able to justify the exploitation of the earth as an inert matter, removing any moral barrier derived from the original association of nature, femininity, and motherhood. The beginning of a Western ecological philosophy occurred only in the 1970s, with the birth of environmental criticism after the examination of data on mistreatment in industrial farming, deforestation, and the toxic conditions of landfills. The starting point is very simple: human beings, unlike what is stated by Western philosophy, have a moral responsibility towards animals and nature, refuting the thesis of the ontological superiority of man in favour of the inclusion of the human being, however rational, among animals and, consequently, in nature.
It is precisely using the concept of morality, in a development by the American ecologist Aldo Leopold (ironically, a passionate hunter) who coined the term “land ethic,” in which environmentalist feminism has its roots. According to him, the role of the human being must be changed from conqueror and dominator to member of the moral community, which encompasses the land, the waters, the plants, and the animals: collectively, therefore, the earth. A moral attitude, however, can only be held in relation to something that one can understand, respect, or believe in, and aims only to preserve the biotic stability and beauty of the community. Therefore, the distinction of a wrong or harmful action can be found in the consequence of that action on the community, and Janina is aware of this.
“You have more compassion for animals than for people.’
‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. ‘At least not these days, I added.
‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’
It was only in the 1980s that a feminist contribution began to be made in environmental discourse, which saw the ecological crisis as the product of a capitalist culture built on the domination of nature and women. For philosopher Deane Curtin, the environmental crisis is a product of the collapse of traditional democracy: if all individuals live in equally cultural and ecological communities, these are not always democratic. Democracy, in Curtin’s words, occurs when a citizen exercises his civic and moral duty in the conciliation of culture and nature, encouraging the well-being of man and the environment to reflect self-care in the care of ecology.
Just as for Janina, a spokesperson for animism and revolutionarily sensitive for her context, ecofeminist politics sees nature as an object with agency, subjectivity, and the possibility to take part in political discourse on par with human beings. The emergence of the concept of deep ecology, crucial for the novel, is based precisely on this: on distancing from anthropocentrism and a utilitarian environmentalism that divides the human self from the natural one, creating a system in which justice is re-examined from the perspective of empathy, no longer reducible to ahistorical principles or rules, but rather aimed at protecting the intrinsic value of all parts of the ecosystem.
Eco-fiction, therefore, incorporates the syncretism and interdisciplinarity of eco-criticism within the literary and cultural sphere, seeking new possibilities of understanding the relationship between man and nature with a different, empathetic, and more ethical conscience. If in classical literature one of the key conflicts is that of man against nature, eco-fiction offers the reader a different model, which moves from a malignant, monstrous, nature adverse to human events towards a concept of nature as an often mystical entity, which plays a role independent of man within the narrative. The use that Tokarczuk makes of nature in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is to precisely create a series of philosophical questions to be asked for a reconciliation with nature itself: What is nature’s role in the life of human beings, whose interests are not and must not be the only ones at stake? Is a moral and conscience change in society’s actions necessary? This is what Tokarczuk’s work aims at: raising important questions about man’s place in the ecosystem, his ethical responsibility, and the urgency of a revolution of thought against the disease of capitalist modernity.
The question of hunting and religious authority
It is the theme of hunting that has had the greatest impact on politics. In 2019, Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski, the Minister of Agriculture and member of PiS, a nationalist and ultra-conservative party in Poland, announced a plan for the large-scale culling of wild boars in order to contain African swine fever infections. The measure triggered protests from environmental groups, scientists, and citizens, who, in just a few days, gathered more than 300,000 signatures in a petition created specifically to stop the approval of such a reckless plan, which, according to experts’ opinion, would have led the wild boars to migrate towards cities to escape the hunters, increasing the risk of infection.
It is worth underlining that, in addition to the native hunters, Poland is a very popular destination for hunting tourism. The country has a strong hunting culture, which is even supported by the clerical tradition, of which Father Fruscio is the spokesperson in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. His homily in the novel’s final scenes, Tokarczuk writes in the afterword, is taken from an internet compilation of authentic sermons given by various hunting chaplains.
For what on earth was taught from that sort of pulpit? What sort of gospel was preached? Isn’t it the height of arrogance, isn’t it a diabolical idea to call a place from which one kills a pulpit?
The paroxysm of the logic of domination occurs precisely during the climax of the novel, the mass on the day of Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunting. Like Tokarczuk, Janina, throughout the novel, insists on reiterating her anti-clerical position, warning against the dangers of fanatical religiosity, particularly the indoctrination of children. Criticism of religious dogmas, moreover, has become an integral part of the feminist debate, both in the academic panorama and in that of more mainstream movements. Already in 1885, the American activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton stated that “The moral degradation of women is due more to theological superstitions than to all other influences together.” Without necessarily orienting ourselves on a feminist level, it is undeniable that religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, have given shape to concepts, symbols, and mentalities that still remain today in thought and institutions, and which are still used to justify oppressive positions in the name of a deity.
Tokarczuk’s digression on Saint Hubert is not accidental; it is aimed at revealing the androcentrism and hypocrisy of similar ideologies. Guided by Janina’s inner voice, the reader retraces the story of the saint, who converts after seeing the cross of Christ on the head of the deer he was about to kill. So how does such a guy become the patron saint of hunters? Why do his followers make him the patron saint of the same sin that they justify and force onto other living beings?
In appealing to hunters as saviours of the natural order in compliance with hunting regulations, Father Fruscio is well aware that he is equating divine law with temporal law. It is thanks to the ideological juxtaposition between public and private spheres — i.e. religious — that it is possible to maintain the status quo on two fronts.
Now it seemed clear to me why those hunting towers, which do after all bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps, are called ‘pulpits’. In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper. The priest spoke with inspiration, almost elation:
‘Make the land your subject. It was to you, the hunters, that God addressed these words, because God makes man his associate, to take part in the work of creation, and to be sure this work will be carried through to the finish.’
Environmentalism and deforestation
Unfortunately, the support of the authorities — not only religious — also concerns deforestation. The legislation on the deforestation of the Białowieża forest, a UNESCO site since 1979, has been at the centre of a political debate for years now. According to the words of the Minister of Environment Jan Szyszko, who is in favour of the large-scale felling of trees, the reason for such measures is to combat the proliferation of insects, which risk degrading the natural habitat of many forest species. The protests of scientists, ecologists, and European Union representatives were of no avail, as can, unfortunately, be easily understood. As late as 2016, Greenpeace did everything possible to protect the area, warning Szyszko and Poland itself against punitive procedures from the EU.
The importance of the Białowieża Forest is not only symbolic. Within its 100,000 hectares there are over 20,000 animal species, including bison, as well as and pine, oak, and ash trees among the tallest in Europe, constituting an ecosystem that has remained intact for millennia.
However, in the end, the Szyszko Law was passed and came into force in 2017, removing the obligation for private landowners to request permission to cut trees, to pay compensation for any trees cut, to plant new ones, or even to notify local authorities of the removal of any trees. It is easy to imagine the sad consequences of the amendment.
In response, a very particular protest arose in Krakow along the lines of the Chipko movement of the 1970s, which saw the mobilisation of women in India who, in order to conserve the forests, created a non-violent form of dissent aimed at shedding light on the economic consequences of rapidly increasing deforestation. By placing themselves between the trees — embracing their trunks — and the lumberjacks, they managed to make the latter desist and generate strong awareness in public opinion at an international level.
This form of dissent is embodied by the Polish Mothers on Tree Stumps, a group of women who raise awareness among citizens by publishing photographs on social media that portray themselves sitting on cut tree stumps while breastfeeding their children. The founder of the movement, Cecylia Malik, expressed her concern when she noticed how deforestation continues everyday in the city of Krakow. The mayor of Kielce, Wojciech Lubawski, even went so far as to suggest the planting of new trees as a form of political dissidence.
Confirming what has been criticised by the ecofeminist theories summarised in the previous paragraphs is another statement by Szyszko, dating back to February 2017: “We must accept two assumptions (. . .) First, that it is man that is the subject of sustainable development, and so man has not only the right, but the duty to use natural resources. Second, that human development is not detrimental to the environment.” Authorities from both the Orthodox and Catholic churches also spoke out in favour of uncontrolled deforestation, using the passage from Genesis “Therefore, increase and multiply; spread yourselves over the earth and multiply in it.” It is no surprise that Szyszko is also a regular guest on Radio Maria, or that he has appeared at rallies and speeches accompanied by a priest wearing a forester’s uniform over his cassock.
The very role of forest rangers in Poland is quite peculiar, as they are personifications of the same patriarchal sacredness that Janina tries to oppose. Furthermore, Poland’s Forest Guard has been repeatedly criticised for its lobbying attitude towards the state wood monopoly, as well as for the enormous profits earned from the conflict of interest between the proceeds from the sale of wood and the facade of environmental protection.
The Grey Lady was right — people are only capable of understanding what they invent for themselves and feed on. The idea of a conspiracy among people from the provincial authorities, corrupt and demoralised, fitted the sort of story the television and the newspapers revelled in reporting. Neither the newspapers nor the television are interested in Animals, unless a Tiger escapes from the Z00.
How can we rebel against a present that seems immutable, then? How can a woman, alone, eradicate a system that rests on the shoulders of the majority of citizens? How can she question the superiority of man over animals that almost everyone takes for granted? It is quite clear that, at least in a limited story like that of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a revolution is not possible. This is also clear from the final pages, which reveal the truth about the crimes committed in an extremely anticlimactic twist, especially when compared to those harbingers of the apocalypse with magical realist tones that loomed from the beginning of the investigations. Yet, their conviction cannot fail to make a difference, at least to the reader.
In literature there is a strange law capable of reversing the fate of morality. The defeat of the ideal in the novel results in its triumph in reality. Representing Janina as a character with morally ambiguous conduct requires a more in-depth reflection. It forces us to examine our actions and our ethical orientation as well as that of the entire society? It makes us ask ourselves what the limit we must draw is. Is her act an act of faith, a crime, a heroic form of civil disobedience, or perhaps all three together?
With her depth, Janina cannot help but become a symbol. Her mystical and animistic sensitivity leads her to see the surrounding world as a network of connections, as flows of life and superstitions, distinguished by capital letters à la Blake. In addition, it revives a fascination for a paganism which — not surprisingly — was cradled by the initial matriarchal culture of the first civilizations of the Slavic area, which, added to the original conception of nature as a woman, both maternal and fearsome, makes the eccentric and determined Janina much more than the sum of her parts. Starting as a fighter for the rights of nature, the heroine rises to a personified concept of nature itself, and, fortunately for the environmentalist battle, her influence has crossed the boundaries of the narrative.
With the sadly prophetic fortune of the novel, which after more than ten years from publication remains a powerful message against current events, Janina has become a symbol of political struggle. Amid the protests over Białowieża, one sentence in particular attracted the attention of the media: in the crowd of demonstrators, a girl was photographed holding the sign “Janina Duszejko wam tego nie daruje” (En: Janina Duszejko will not forgive you).
The political immediacy (using the meaning of “political” in the most everyday and pragmatic sense of the term) and the novel’s ability to resonate in the collective conscience are merely the most superficial aspects of the strength of her writing. The current questioning of political, environmental, and ideological issues is nothing other than a voice for the need for a new beginning about which it is good to ask questions. A beginning with fairer, more ethical premises, which obviously cannot be born or manifested immediately, but which has been simmering in the human soul for centuries. Concrete politics is far from irrelevant, but it must be the starting point for moral change.
Because, in Janina’s words, if evil created the world, then it is good that must destroy it.