Flowers of the Mind

Flowers of the Mind 16

From Elena Shvarts, “Black Easter” I read faint traces of the Burning Archive.

Scraps of burnt archives,
circling flocks of crows

The Word won’t burn through paper
but the edges will be sacred.

Elena Shvarts, Black Easter – 6. The Usual Mistake


During my beach holiday, I completed reading Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob. It was a vast, playful engagement with a remarkable history, that of the religious chameleon (Jew, Muslim, Christian, heretic) and self-proclaimed messiah, mystic and charlatan, Jacob Frank.  

Frank (1726 – 1791) was born Jakub Lejbowicz in the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania in a town then seen as part of Poland and now Ukraine. He grew up in a tradition of Jewish mysticism among followers of Sabbatai Zevi, who claimed to be the messiah. He also lived in the wake and through profound social, cultural, imperial and political changes, many of which I learned about through this wonderful novel. Persecutions of the Jews. The Khmelnitsky Uprisings/Massacres ( 1648-57). The End of the Polish Golden Age and the beginning of the Deluge that would end in the Partition of Poland. The beginning of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The competition in Europe between Austria, France, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. This remarkable period is opened up through this enigmatic, strange figure in a great piece of polyphonic narrative.

Drawn from life or from historical documents, there are many intriguing characters in addition to the central figure – Frank, Eva Frank, Saltyk, Chmiemlowski, Druzbacka, Joseph II, Molawdi, and so many more. Tokarczuk paints them all with her psychologist’s eye for complexity, and her liberal compassion for diversity. Whether Frank was a charlatan or a messiah is never fully resolved, and is seen through the eyes of believers and haters, insiders and outsiders, cultists and breakaways.

Poland had some traditions of tolerance of multiple faiths that have at times faded. Tokarczuk celebrates these in the strange efflorescence of Jacob Frank and tells the tragic story of the hardening of belief into persecution. It is in some ways contrary to Polish nationalist historical traditions, but is a very deep engagement with the remarkable history of Eastern Europe.

It is also in many ways a reflection on history. Tokarczuk reflects

“Over time, moments occur that are very similar to one another. The threads of time have their knots and tangles, and every so often there is a symmetry, every once in a while something repeats, as if refrains and motifs were controlling them, a troubling thing to notice. Such order tends to overburden the mind, which cannot know how to respond. Chaos has always seemed more familiar and safe, like the disarray in our drawer.”

Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob, p. 158

Such a view of history as strange music with troubling, ominous signs of order persuades me more than any tiresome repetition of the bending arc of history, repeating as rhyme. We have learned perhaps to fear those who wish to bring order to the course of human history.


Why would people follow Jacob Frank with such passion or believe him to be the Messiah? Why would people consent to the sexual rituals he reveled in? Tokarczuk gives many responses to this question. One strand that has resonance across anthropology is the Stranger Effect.

In The Books of Jacob, describes both the appeal of being foreign to Jacob, and the power his strangeness gives him. His devoted follower, and insightful chronicler Nahman notes his adoption of the name “Frank” (“what Jews from the West are called in Nikopol”) reflects Jacob’s embracing of his stranger status.

“Nahman knows Jacob likes this – being foreign is a quality of those who have frequently changed their place of residence. He’s told Nahman that he feels best in new places, because it is as if the world begins afresh every time. To be foreign is to be free. To have a great expanse stretch out before you – the desert, the steppe…. To have your own history, not for everyone, just your own history written in the tracks you leave behind.”

Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob, pp. 777-776.

Jacob observes the gifts that come at least to this charismatic, stranger – “to feel like a guest everywhere you go”. And it is this stranger chemistry that Jacob intuits in the faces and behaviour of his followers and the people he encounters on his mystical journey that he assiduously practices. He discovers the Guru’s hidden principle.

“This state of foreignness must be carefully guarded, for it gives enormous power.”

Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob, pp. 776

The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto makes a similar observation when discussing the response of many of the indigenous people on America to the incoming Spanish conquistadores, missionaries and settlers (Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, 2014). What could explain, Fernandez-Armesto asked, how these people not allied with the conquering Spaniards against the neighbours with who they had many causes of war and competition and jealousy, but that they deferred to the newcomers, bowed before them, and placed them in positions of command in war and culture? Fernandez-Armesto speculates there is a “stranger-effect – the propensity some cultures have to receive the stranger with exceptional honour.” It was shown in how they were obligated by “sacred rules of hospitality” – apparent in many cultures – that require hosts “to greet strangers with their best gifts and goods and women and even actual deference”. Many cultures value visitors from afar more with the distance they have travelled. It gives them a hint of the divine. The host is treating the Strange Guest as special, even sacred, by the rules of a cultural practice or even a psychological instinct, and not mistaking the foreigners for gods or even a Messiah. Yet for the Stranger, the conquistadores or the wandering mystic, like Jacob Frank, this sacred hospitality is intoxicating, empowering and can create illusions that they may well be a God or Messiah or Prophet at least in the eyes of the Host.


On the holiday I also picked up from the shelves of the holiday house, Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich. I had not read the history of Germany or the Nazis since my first year at university when I studied European history, not beyond passing discussion of debates, new interpretations and broad schematic ideas. Of course, so much of this history is presented in fragments and narratives through the popular culture. But at last I began through Evan’s book to reassemble my understanding of these events – the origins of anti-semitism, the social and political conditions of Wilhelmine Germany, the events of the loss of the war, the “stab in the back” theory, and the failed German “revolutions” of 1918, Weimar democracy, and cultural conditions in Germany in the 1920s. I may come back to this topic, after completing Evans’ books.

However, I did not the troubling complicity of many medical, social work and institutional professions in the cleansing of society of undesirables in 1920s Germany. This cannot but have resonance for us today, even if it is a fainter echo, and a different form of order being pursued.

The sensibility of many Germans was so blunted by this tide of anti-semitic rhetoric [tied to the idea of ‘Jewish subversion’ in World War One and the ‘stab in the back’] that they failed to recognize that there was anything exceptional about a new political movement that emerged after the end of the war to put anti-semitism at the very core of its fanatically held beliefs: the Nazi Party.”

Evans, Coming of the Third Reich, p. 153


As if connecting the dots, I picked up from my shelves as the next novel to read on this holiday of literature, Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil. Some consider the book an anti-Nazi novel. In some early scenes Broch describes the aversion the power feels on encountering the mass crowd he makes his way through, in which Virgil senses the “nameless and unutterable accumulation of contemptibleness” (p. 52). Broch began the book in the late 1930s in Nazi Germany which he then fled as a Jew. He completed the book between 1940 and 1945 in exile in the United States.

But the profound question at the heart of the book is what is the value of art, poetry, literature against the evil of the world? And is it not rather vain folly in comparison to the ordinary help, the simple kindness that can dissolve the contempt of the masses and the abuses of the powerful? As Virgil weakens towards death, he engages in a long and musical inner monologue concerning this question. Consumed by moments of hatred he wonders if he should not “Burn the Aeneid!” as at times his inner voices command.

“What future,” the dying Virgil asks himself “was worth this unspeakable effort to remember” (p. 28)? He questions his own dreams inspired by Orpheus that “the might of beauty, that the magic of song, would finally bridge the abyss of incommunication and would exalt him, the poet to the rank of perception-bringer in the restored community of men”. So Broch exposes Shelley’s vain and concealed ambition that the poet be the unacknowledged legislator of the world. Virgil mocks these thoughts as “vain and preposterous dreams of grandeur, such flagrant overestimation of poetry” (p. 135).

These words of poetry are not tablets of power, not rings of magic fire. They are flowers of the mind that we gather as we may. And like the dying Virgil and the retiring Prospero there will come a time when we must let go of this brief entertainment, and no longer control its journey through the circles of time.

Image Source: – Olga Tokarczuk,  photo: Grażyna Makara

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