Soul Notes 5: From a Nobel Laureate in Literature

Olga Tokarczuk Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 7, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk, born January 29, 1962 in Sulechów, Poland, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. She received her prize this year, and yesterday, delivered her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm.

All who have been following these Soul Notes will appreciate what she has to say, for her eye and heart register mysteries in places and situations we often take for granted. In tuning the radio in her childhood home, she says, “I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it.”

She tells how an old photograph of her mother led her to find find within herself, “something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.” Later she she says more about what she means by tenderness. “Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.”

I was especially struck by this passage in which she captures the difficulty of trying to describe today’s world and possible futures with an earlier era’s language and imagery, which are proving inadequate to the task:

“Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.”

Phrased in that manner, the simple effort to imagine and speak of where we find ourselves today becomes a soul issue. As her mother told her, just as we often miss things that are gone, it’s possible to miss things that haven’t arrived yet.

This is a dense lecture, filled with wise observation and speculation, that I expect to read again and again.

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