In 1960, we eighth-graders at St. Raphael’s Catholic school took a series of standardized tests. Solemnly, Sister Cyprian went desk to desk handing each student a multipage test booklet and a number two pencil. We were tested on language and math skills, and I don’t remember what else.
For inexplicable reasons, the results came to the student. I opened the envelope and peeked at the grades like a poker player rolling out the corner of each card. I had all 99’s. I was disappointed. So close to 100. Why couldn’t I have gotten 100? It was much later that I learned that the scores were percentiles, and 99% was the top grade.
My error about the test scores had no real-world consequences. In retrospect, though, I might have made a mental note on how easy it was to misinterpret information. But I was steadfast in my belief that more data got me closer to understanding Reality with a capital R.
All my life, I’ve approached sticky situations by learning more. When I came to America from China, I scrambled to learn English. I needed language, not just to express myself, but to understand myself. I needed the words to untangle the inchoate feelings that sat like a mass of yarn in my heart. In college, I befriended fellow students to find out about music, politics and love. As a physician, the more I knew medicine, the more I could help patients. Control of the present and the future – in a word hope – rested on a firm grasp of Reality.
One book has made me rethink this belief. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead calls itself a murder mystery. Its author is Polish 2018 Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk.
Janina Duszejko is an old woman who lives in a Polish village just across the Czech border. She describes herself in her raincape as looking like “a large gnome.” Most people, including the authorities, see her as “an old woman, gone off her rocker, living in the wilderness.” She thinks that is why the police ignore her letters that explain the rash of mysterious deaths in the village. She tells them that the forest animals have killed these men in revenge for their being hunters.
Duszejko is an educated woman. She had been a bridge engineer. She is translating the poetry of William Blake. Her interior life is full, rich and completely original. She has definitive ideas about what’s going on in the world, in her life, and how everything should be.
Many of her assumptions center on astrology, her essential world view. A friend asks, “Why are some people evil and nasty?” “Saturn,” she answers matter-of-factly.
According to Duszejko, “order does exist, and it is within reach. The stars and planets establish it … no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up by a complex Cosmos of correspondences … that is how it works. Like a Japanese car.”
After studying her own horoscope, she concludes, “I know the date of my own death, and that lets me feel free.”
She embraces Anger, an emotion Blake expounded on. She concludes, “Without a doubt, Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.”
Despite Duszejko’s travels around the world building bridges, her thoughts about neighboring Czechoslovakia are fantasies:
“This [Poland] is a land of neurotic egotists … in the Czech Republic, it’s totally different. The people there are capable of discussing things calmly and nobody quarrels with anyone else. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t, because their language isn’t suited to quarreling.”
Duszejko explains the flawed logic of her ideas fully, unapologetically, even charmingly. She works hard at her astrology – searching out the birthdates of the dead men and calculating their charts. Yes, her ideas are whacked out, but she is so sincere in her belief. What’s the harm?
Then I remember reading an article shortly after Election Day quoting Republican leaders saying just that: What’s the harm, they said, in indulging Trump’s claim that he won the election? The harm came on January 6, 2021.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead shakes up my foundational belief that Reality is knowable. That belief drives my love of crosswords and mystery books: there is one, and only one, true answer. But this book raises a philosophical question. How can we trust that we know what we know?
Astrology is a wonderful example. It’s full of actual math, but constellations are random stars from disparate galaxies that make a pattern only from the view of earth. And even then, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Incas drew different inferences. Because there are, give or take, one billion trillion or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the Universe, not only are there no patterns but the data dots are too vast to ever make sense of them. Aargh!
I did help patients feel better, so they told me. But possibly I over-estimated my expertise. Perhaps they were helped as much by my listening, my concern for them, my sense of humor.
Since retiring from medicine, I joke that the only lives I save these days are the exhausted worms trying to cross the sidewalk or the street. I’d pick them up, some still able to wiggle and squirm in my fingers, and put them on the grass. Recently, after rain overnight, I found six pale skinny worms on one slab of sidewalk. I gently lifted them and deposited them on the grass.
Looking at the grass, I jumped at seeing a patch of it, less than a foot across, rising about three inches, then subsiding, then rising. Prelude to some kind of gas explosion? Is something going to jump out at me? I skedaddled.
I decided that it was probably a mole or a shrew digging underneath. Maybe the worms were trying to escape getting eaten. I had thrown them back into the jaws of death. I just don’t know any more.
Most novels change how you feel. This one changed how I think.
Tell me: Have you ever given up some hardcore belief?