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CHAPTER THREE

VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE


WOMEN TRAVELLERS1

Everything which a person encounters in life exists


in relation to the body and is received by it. The
body, as our means of orienting ourselves in time
and space, has at its disposal a certain kind of
knowledge and understanding, which arises out of
direct dealings with the world, possessing a
paralinguistic and pre-conceptual character.
(Museum Of Human Bodies, Wieczorkiewicz,
2000, 6)
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he
who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
(Ecclesiastes I, 18)

We will concern ourselves here with three figures of the contemporary


literary scene: Izabela Filipiak, Manuela Gretkowska and Olga Tokarczuk,
and with three hybrid novels, all of which take the form of interrelated
short stories, notes, scribbles and mini-stories, namely The Blue
Menagerie (Niebieska mena eria, 1997, referred to later in this chapter as
BM) by Filipiak, World-Viewer ( wiatowidz, 1999, later WV) by
Gretkowska and Runners (Bieguny, 2007, later R) by Tokarczuk. All three
books share the common theme of a female protagonist suspended in midjourney (or migration), trapped within certain returns and departures, and
contain strong autobiographical elements, in which the figure of the
female author-narrator frequently appears through personalized comments
1

The first version of this chapter was published in Polish in the book Od poetyki
do polityki, edited by Cezary Zalewski (2010), dedicated to the supervisor of my
doctoral thesis and friend, Professor Stanis aw Jaworski, who also knew the taste
of emigration (while living abroad in France). I wish to thank the Polish publisher
Universitas for granting me permission to publish this English edition. All literary
exerpts in this chapter are translated by Marek Kazmierski.

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and short tales about othersall those interesting characters met along the
way.2 This form of autobiographical writing involves the theme of the
female writer as protagonist, while the narration is marked by selfreferences, including experiences of travel, out of which emerge images of
the writer/narrator/travellers gender, by which I mean a portrait of a
woman and the specific aspects of her modes of travel as well as the motif
of the homeland, Poland, which is always somehow the start of these
womens journeys.
Here, I will primarily analyse the figure of the travelling woman, who
records the world during her peregrinations, capturing in narrations what
she sees around her, and above all her own, very often physical,
experiences and trials as a travelling woman. The protagonistthe
wandering womanenriches and modifies the literary motif of the
journey, which is a common theme in literature, especially present in
mythology, fairy tales, folklore, and in such figures as Gilgamesh,
Theseus, Odysseus, The Wandering Jew and Moses.3 We will focus on the
divide between the familiar place of origin and the ill-defined place to
which one travels, the need to journey, to experience dislocation; though
in fact, as is explained in the fragment essays on the psychology of
travel in Olga Tokarczuks Runners, the desire to keep moving
is in and by itself hollow, showing only the direction, not the destination,
which always remains phantasmagorical and unclear [] it is in no way
possible to reach such a destination or to satisfy such needs. The
preposition toward highlights this process of attempting. Toward what?
(R, 86)4

Interpretations therefore focus on the metaphorical, allegorical and


existential path of the traveller. We will also concern ourselves with the
conditions that make the experience of travel possiblewhether it be for a
woman, a writer, a solitary traveller, a tourist, an emigrant, a voyagerin
the world of the contemporary media, immediate communications, instant
exchange of information and Google Earth, a world where what is distant,
exotic, unknown, the archetypal destination, can always be seen in
2

In Polish criticism, the useful term autobiographism (autobiografizm) has


been used to describe this poetics of travel writing; see, for example, Dorota
Kozicka (2003).
3
On the topoi of travelling in Polish twentieth-century fiction, see Anna
Wieczorkiewicz (1996).
4
See also the complementary fragment of Runners quoted in Chapter Two of this
book.

Visible and Invisible Women Travellers

83

advance, is somehow familiar, and hence accessible. What then remains?


Motion alone, moving from place to place, and as a result vanishing from
maps, from geographical maps, from the web of phone lines, and also
from roles, social roles, duties and obligations. We are left with that which
is perennially new, and yet which reminds us simultaneously that
something has been left behind. Journeys then are often painful
adventures, marked by melancholy caused by that toward noted by
Tokarczuks narrator, that absent object of our longing. Womens
journeying, the motif of the road as an allegory of growing up and
gathering wisdom as well as experiencing something fundamentally other,
provides us with a new perspective on this historically and symbolically
masculine topic.

Women Vanishing From Maps


Lets start towards the end of the decade 19972007, marked by a book
which is of particular interest to our topicRunners. This book is almost a
treatise on contemporary journeys and the travelling woman. From the
perspective of travel literature, Tokarczuks novel is auto-thematic,
containing a detailed vivisection of the process of travel itself. The main
narrative arc, onto which she affixes disparate stories, is the theme of the
woman traveller in the modern, globalized world. This travelling hyperawareness, arising out of the incessant self-questioning of the female
narrator/traveller, strips her journeying of all signs of innocence, and
hence spontaneity or joy of discovery. Only movement is of importance,
the vanishing of the self from previously agreed maps and relationships:
Whenever I set off on a journey, I vanish from all maps. No one knows
where I am. At the point at which I left or the point towards which I am
heading? Does any sort of in between exist? Or am I like that day which is
lost when one flies east, and the recovered night when going in the
opposite direction? [] I think that there are many others like me.
Vanished, absent. Popping up suddenly in arrivals terminals, where they
begin to exist again, at the point when officials stamp markings in their
passports or when a smiling receptionist hands them their hotel room key.
They have certainly already discovered their impermanence and
dependence on places, times of day, languages or cities and their varied
climates. Liquidity, mobility, unrealitythis is what it means to be
civilized. Barbarians do not travel, they simply head for defined
destinations and pillage when they get there. (R, 6061)

A journey then is like a suspension of the self, which while in motion


manoeuvres between two semantic poles: that which is clear (day) and that

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which is dark (night), the foretelling of birth (east, sunrise) and the danger
of death (west, sunset, night). The emergence of the subject from this
unarticulated semiotic field is only possible due to social contextthe
Other, in this case a customs official or a receptionist, who presents the
traveller with keys (perhaps to language). The narrator simultaneously
emphasizes the fact that she is a woman. In her narrative experience,
gender plays a vital role in this story of travel. The narrator of Tokarczuks
book highlights the gender aspect of the narration. How and why we look
is defined by gender too, by symbols imposed by it. But luckily for her
status as a woman traveller, she is no longer a young female, and hence is
invisible:
Year by year, time becomes my ally, as it does to all womenI have
become invisible, transparent. I can move about like a ghost, look over
peoples shoulders, listen in on their arguments and watch as they sleep
with their heads resting on rucksacks, how they talk to each other, unaware
of my presence, they move the scales, formulate words, which I will then
utter in their names. (R, 25)

Behind the above statement is the assumption that women become


visible through external beauty. One of the most dramatic pieces of
evidence for the power of culturally marked models of physical
attractiveness (and the symbolic violence which is done by them to
specific bodies) is body shaping: the altering of body weight, the training
of the flesh through regular exercise, the building up of muscle, diets,
botox injections, cosmetic surgery, including the correction of inherent
flaws. The body is a space where culturally defined gender regulations
are enacted. Put plainly, the female body lives under particular pressure to
conform to these regulations and to approach clearly defined and desirable
determinants. The sociologist Debra Gimlin presents the process of
creating individual identities in the following way:
Because the body is arguably the location from which all social life begins,
it is a logical starting point for sociological study. More important, though,
the body is a medium of culture. It is the surface on which prevailing rules
of a culture are written. The shared attitudes and practices of social groups
are played out at the level of the body, revealing cultural notions of
distinctions based on age, sexual orientation, social class, gender, and
ethnicity. But cultural rules are not only revealed through the body; they
also shape the ways in which the body performs and appears. Ultimately, it
is through the bodys actions and demeanour that the self is constructed
and displayed to the social world. []