There is something to be said about those who demand respect but do not give it. Respect isn’t necessarily a transactional term, but in this specific scenario, it should be. Janina explicitly states that she does not want to be called Janina; it’s not clear what she wants to be called, just that Janina is not a good fit for her. She believes that names should be like epithets, an expression or representation of the person that they are designated to. However, she does not respect the personal agency of other people, assigning them “names” based on their most apparent characteristics. While this example is not apparently egregious, a closer look exposes Janina for who she really is, or rather, what she identifies as. Janina believes she is an Ubermensch, a person with extraordinary abilities and the authority to use them at their own discretion. The Ubermensch is not confined by laws, morality, or any karmic system, for they are above any external repercussions. The Ubermensch is decisive in mind, actions, and resolve; however, they are their greatest enemy. Punishment is not inflicted via an external source; the Ubermensch punishes themselves.
A great example is Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, a character similar to Janina. Raskolnikov is an impoverished university student from St.Petersburg who believes himself to be, similarly to Janina, an Ubermensch. However, they neither explicitly say they are Ubermenschs; their actions speak otherwise. The Ubermensch should be known as a title or label for a phenomenon or repeated pattern in history; it is not the actual condition but a label for it. Janina doesn’t feel remorse for killing the hunters; she is relatively unfazed, only showing great emotion when confronted with her crime. Either due to thematic or intentional choices, Janina spends very little time thinking about the killers of her dogs. While it can be assumed she thinks about them a great deal, she has demonstrated the capacity to express normal emotions and behaviors when she murders those men. P.258 “I didn’t stop to think about it. I was sure I had killed him, and it seemed quite all right. I had no pangs of conscience. I only felt great relief.” P.261 “Once again, I felt nothing but relief.” Then, with the foxes, “I wish I could forget what I saw there. Weeping, I tried to open the cages and chase out the foxes.” She feels more emotions for the animals than she does for the men. This invites the reader to think about why? P.245 “But I don’t want us to reject them, as you put it. It’s just that I refuse to let anyone encourage children to do evil things or teach them hypocrisy. Glorifying killing is evil. It’s as simple as that.” This inconsistency brings to mind the concept of the Ubermensch. This idea of the Ubermensch is defined loosely in Crime and Punishment by the main character Raskolnikov. He says that an ordinary man has to live in submission and has no right to transgress the law because he is ordinary. On the contrary, extraordinary men have the right to commit any crime and transgress the law. They are extraordinary because they are men with the gift or talent to utter a New Word. Janina, in a way, punishes herself via her illness (which I believe is a cause of repressed emotions having a physical manifestation) as opposed to any punishment via usual avenues such as the police. She expresses her ability to transgress the law without repercussions by doing so. She also shows her free and complete agency over herself, even if that control is used to punish herself.
To Janina, moral and ethical hypocrisy matters are nothing in the face of a purpose. She lends herself to her ideas, divorcing herself from any accountability and guilt (supposedly). This is where Janina becomes more than just a person, but something resembling a thought experiment. Throughout the book, we, the reader, are exposed to many elements likely foreign to us, such as living entirely alone in the woods, complex astrology, and many different types of soliloquy and poetry. In the beginning, all of these concepts are foreign and divergent from what we are used to, and we look at them with wary, skeptical eyes. But as we live with Janina and follow her throughout 200+ pages, we begin to warm up to these ideas, not necessarily accepting them but just coming to understand them more. However, the end of the book and its subsequent reveal change the framing of this socialization.
Janina does not want to be called Janina; she explicitly states so. However, you will notice that nearly everyone who has finished the books calls her Janina. Whenever I wrote or talked about Drive Your Plow before the reveal, I referred to her as narrator. I respected her wishes as someone I was living with, sharing the same headspace, and learning about. I refer to her as Janina now because of what she has done and what she represents. No matter the ideological purity, righteousness, or moral piety, murder in such a way is not tolerable. There is something to be said about how the only alternative, the bureaucracy/police/law, was heavily biased against Janina. How this avenue for change had been tried and tested with no results, and how, if real change were to be made, it would take decades. Violence in pursuit of an otherwise unobtainable goal is a grey area and something one should not resort to. What is good and wrong is not defined by you but by others around you. Every action incurs a reaction, and humans respond to that act accordingly. We are pack animals by nature; we have a base instinct to be liked and to have more people in our “circle.” The reason for this is that in pre-historic times larger groups of humans were the ones to survive, and the same is true today. You alter your behavior constantly based on what others around you like or dislike; good and evil are not absolute truths. The moral grey encompasses much of our lives and is something we deal with all of the time; however, to each his one, everyone has a different perspective and views. Humans can be loosely defined as an intricately woven web of past experiences, cerebral processes, and imagination. As humans, we can never truly relate to one another, but we must try to sympathize with the plights of others. This is what Tokarczuk invites us to do. She invites us to think, weigh the options, and to consider the following:
- Is violence for a cause justifiable?
- Is violence justifiable at all?
- What do you do when all options have been exhausted?
- Are divergent ideologies acceptable?
- How does one deal with repressed emotions?
- How should one cope with their own biases?
- Is a tortured artist a better artist?
- Etc, etc.
But, the most important question presented by Tokarczuck to the reader is Janina. When viewed through the final few chapters, Janina is more of a concept than a person. She invites the reader to question the very fabric of people and whether their past experiences justify their actions. She makes the reader critical of the people she wrote about and the concepts they represent.
One thought on “Your Canvas is Empty? Paint With Pain, Lovely Artist, Paint Your Pain.”
I’m obsessed with the way you phrased this; it really puts into words something I was feeling but didn’t know how to articulate. I also had no idea there was a word for this kind of person: Ubermensch, but I will definitely be using it from now on. That sort of moral relativity and disguised narcissism is definitely a big part of what makes Janina such a unique and fascinating character.