What Olga Tokarczuk’s notion of the tender narrator, certain philosophical ideas and the Buddha’s teachings all have in common is a kind of caring guardianship.
Where can we meet someone who cares for us? At home, in the family, but also in religion and philosophy. In each of these areas, it is currently hard to find such a figure. Not impossible, but definitely difficult. In our culture, more and more women are giving up the archetypal role of carer (unless they are caring for one another, motivated by the idea of feminist sisterhood). With the revolutionary wave of emancipation, the archetype of the female warrior comes to the fore. Men – as Zimbardo and other psychologists have long claimed – are weak and are becoming weaker, increasingly submissive, and lack a sense of the meaning of life. Meanwhile, the carer should provide a sense of security, thanks to – among others – the strength of their character, as well as their wisdom and experience. Still, the most important feature that distinguishes the avatars of archetypal carers from avatars of other archetypes (for example, sage or master) is the intention to help those who are suffering.
The carer protects us from suffering or helps us get through it. We recognize them immediately by what they say, but most of all how they talk – tenderly, with empathy for the difficult situation faced by their interlocutor. For them, speaking is primarily an activity that brings help and support. Such a message cannot be mistaken for the icy teachings of intellectuals.
Most philosophers do not speak with such thoughtful intentions. The stoics – the masters of life, whose writings were meant to help particular people – would sometimes act as carers. In contrast, most philosophers are authoritarian savants speaking to all mankind or an entire nation, or possibly intellectual adventurers critical of the traditions from which they emerge. Meanwhile, the carer stands at the opposite extreme of the dispute between dogmatists and revolutionaries of this kind. For them, this dispute is not a priority – what they care about is coming to the aid of suffering individuals. This is why we often find carers and guardians in the field of religion.
As the influence of the Catholic Church is declining, the desperate and lonely are turning to contacting Jesus outside of institutions, or to Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. Once we understand that what people look for in religion is, above all, care and spiritual guidance in overcoming suffering, this process turns out to be entirely natural. This is what the Buddha did and what Buddhists, whose teachings and meditation are available on YouTube, continue to do. Why is Western philosophy in crisis? In my view, this is not because it is being replaced by technological practices and the ubiquitous counting that Martin Heidegger warned us, Europeans, about. Rather, it is because philosophers have rarely aspired to be the protectors of humanity. More often, they have taken on the role of educators and sages, ardent critics or creators of new concepts; men of letters and intellectuals, but rarely men of the spirit.
The need for philosophy as spiritual care for those suffering has hardly diminished; only few philosophers are able to cope with this task. Among the few positive examples in the Western tradition are Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Epicureans were also helpful; Pascal aided the Christians. For many, Arthur Schopenhauer – a pessimist and misanthropist – paradoxically brings consolation without offering any hope. Émile Cioran or Michel Houellebecq are the inheritors of his spiritual legacy. Stoicism, on the other hand, is still popular as one of the few philosophical trends that have objectively fulfilled its tasks.
Of course, Buddhism leads the way in spiritual care. After all, its essential message – the four noble truths – was formulated precisely from the position of the master-guardian, i.e. the Buddha. The whole of Buddhism is permeated with caring intention. The holy bodhisattva does not disappear into nirvana – out of compassion, he returns in subsequent incarnations in the circle of samsara, and accepts the suffering of birth and death in order to help those who suffer. Hence, the popularity of Buddhism in this age of crisis of representation of the carer archetype is growing and will probably grow in the future. When the archetype faces a crisis, the avatars change.
The archetype of the carer also resounds in the category of the ‘tender narrator’ recently introduced by Polish writer and intellectual Olga Tokarczuk. The caring intention rarely comes to the forefront in art, but it is certainly palpable when it comes to socially and ecologically engaged art. Indeed, such art is created and promoted in our current times of crisis, encapsulated by the pandemic, as well as economic and climate collapse.
Why does philosophy still exist? Why is there humanist thought? After all, the triumph of post-humanism was announced some time ago, as was the absolute, civilizational domination of technocracy. Well, the reason for the continued existence of both philosophy and, more broadly, humanist tenderness in literary art – just like the reason for the existence of religion – is human nature’s deeply rooted need to find someone who will help us live, who will guide us through the adversities of existence and will reduce our suffering. Post-humanists are not interested in responding to this need, because meeting human needs is not their priority. Meanwhile, technology is a tool that can be used for this purpose, because it enables better medical care and universal, distanced communication. The idea of Tokarczuk’s tender narrator– as far as I understand it – is an attempt to introduce a caring intention into literary art. We are witnessing the rebirth of the archetype of the carer in new circumstances and in new areas of culture. However, transformation cannot take place without pain.
Feminist sisterhood, largely replacing social roles assigned to women by the patriarchy, constitutes a change in the trajectory of care. This change has profound implications on intimate relationships between the genders. More and more women do not accept social roles imposed by tradition. In turn, men fall into isolation or turn to compensatory practices – they become radicalized by patriarchal, toxic masculinity or, on the contrary, seek in themselves feminine elements that allegedly might save them.
Rituals change when culture changes. Increasingly, getting married is no longer a matter of exchanging vows at the altar or in front of an official, but rather both partners deleting their Tinder accounts. Listening to YouTube sermons instead of visiting church is the symptom of a deep cultural transformation, at the core of which lies the crisis of representation of the carer archetype. The transformation of the space of avatars, the emergence of new carers and new ideas focused on the notion of care is important and permits a cautious optimism. A constructive way out of the crisis – if the crisis ever ends – will consist in the fact that following a period of negativity and a purgative revolution, the negative side effects of which are the intensification of the feelings of loneliness and loss of a sense of security, carers and guardians will return, and with them perhaps a feeling of tender mutual belonging will reappear.
All this is taking place simultaneously – after all, our history is not linear, but rhizomatic. History is the antagonist of herstory, and aside from a moral revolution, we are experiencing a counter-revolution taking place simultaneously. In the process that we live in, each action provokes a reaction. Everything is just action and reaction – even silence and inaction. This becomes clear when we look a little closer.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel
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