Radio was a ‘childhood companion’ of Polish Nobel Prize author Olga Tokarczuk

I learned something today by reading on the Internet the Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture delivered on December 7, 2019 at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. As a young girl growing up in Poland in the 1960s and the 1970s, a country at that time still under communist rule until 1989, she was often listening to the radio. As she described it, radio was her “great childhood companion.” In her Nobel speech, Tokarczuk mentioned hearing programs from all kinds of different stations—Warsaw, London, Luxembourg and Paris.

Olga Tokarczuk – Nobel Lecture

Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

Literature Laureate Olga Tokarczuk
Photo: Clément Morin

The first photograph I ever experienced consciously is a picture of my mother from before she gave birth to me. Unfortunately, it’s a black-and-white photograph, which means that many of the details have been lost, turning into nothing but gray shapes. The light is soft, and rainy, likely a springtime light, and definitely the kind of light that seeps in through a window, holding the room in a barely perceptible glow. My mom is sitting beside our old radio, and it’s the kind with a green eye and two dials—one to regulate the volume, the other for finding a station.

Photo by Dušan Tatomirović

This radio later became my great childhood companion; from it I learned of the existence of the cosmos. Turning an ebony knob shifted the delicate feelers of the antennae, and into their purview fell all kinds of different stations—Warsaw, London, Luxembourg and Paris. Sometimes, however, the sound would falter, as though between Prague and New York, or Moscow and Madrid, the antennae’s feelers stumbled onto black holes. Whenever that happened, it sent shivers down my spine. 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.

News and literature in the age of the Internet

By Ted Lipien

Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

I have never met Olga Tokarczuk and never had a chance to interview her, but in 1984, when I was working for the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service broadcasting from Washington D.C., I interviewed for the radio the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Czesław Miłosz, a Polish poet of the World War II generation who had spent a good portion of his life living in exile in the United States before his death in 2004. His and Tokarczuk’s political outlook based on liberal ideas guiding their creative writing is similar, but the books they wrote express their interest in people and human events by looking at them from different angles and using different literary forms. One common theme uniting them is that Miłosz like Tokarczuk wanted to be a witness to history and was committed to preserving historical truth.

Now that I know about Olga Tokarczuk’s early fascination with radio, if I had had a chance to interview her, I would have wanted to ask her whether in her teenage years she had listened to Polish programs of Radio Free Europe, the BBC and the Voice of America as they had a great impact on me when I was growing up in Poland in the 1960s. Born in 1962, she could have heard these broadcasts if her mother had listened to them, as millions of Poles did at that time, or she may have started listening to them a few years later on her own, but she did not mention these stations by name in her Nobel Lecture. I wonder what she thought about life in Poland before the fall of communism. Did it bother her to be lied to about history by Communist Party officials and regime journalists? Did she at any time want to leave Poland and live in the West? Could she have become a great Polish writer if she had emigrated? Czesław Miłosz went into exile in the early 1950s, but he was already at that time a well-known poet in Poland.

By joining the Voice of America staff in 1973 as a young trainee-broadcaster after emigrating to the United States from Poland three years earlier, I tried to repay my debt of gratitude to the Western radio stations for giving me an honest portrayal of history. Radio was then the most powerful medium for instant international communication with nations whose rulers did not want theirs populations to receive outside news. Communist regimes resorted to jamming radio signals of these stations but without much success. Radio was the only way for journalists in the West to reach large numbers of people living in Poland under communism and is was largely the only way for the Poles to get uncensored news and information although some of them lived through World War II and experienced post-war communist repressions or they could learn about history from their parents and some of the more school teachers who were willing to take risks and teach true history to students. I had two such teachers in my youth.

In her lecture, Tokarczuk made some interesting observations how the media world has changed since the arrival of the Internet.

The world is a fabric we weave daily on the great looms of information, discussions, films, books, gossip, little anecdotes. Today the purview of these looms is enormous—thanks to the internet, almost everyone can take place in the process, taking responsibility and not, lovingly and hatefully, for better and for worse. When this story changes, so does the world. In this sense, the world is made of words.

The flood of stupidity, cruelty, hate speech and images of violence are desperately counterbalanced by all sorts of “good news,” but it hasn’t the capacity to rein in the painful impression, which I find hard to verbalize, that there is something wrong with the world. Nowadays this feeling, once the sole preserve of neurotic poets, is like an epidemic of lack of definition, a form of anxiety oozing from all directions.

There are now millions of sources of what is described as “news.“ Practically everyone with access to the world wide web can be a provider of either true knowledge or fake news, sometimes to hundreds of thousands or millions of people at practically no cost. During World War II and the Cold War, usually only governments could afford the high price of high-power transnational shortwave radio transmissions of news programs. Now, almost anyone can play the role of a journalist or a commentator. For the money totalitarian and authoritarian regimes spent before on radio transmissions, they can now hire at much less expense an army of anonymous trolls to manipulate public opinion at home and abroad.

Journalism is only as good and as honest as the people who deliver the news. Had Tokarczuk been alive during World War II and listened to wartime Voice of America broadcasts, she would have heard pro-Soviet and pro-Stalin propaganda delivered from the United States in Polish by such journalists as Mira Złotowska and Stefan Arski who later went back to Poland to work for the communist state media, or she would have heard English news written by the Stalin Peace Prize future winner, American communist author Howard Fast. However, if she had listened to the Voice of America during her youth from the 1960s until the 1980s, she would have heard the programs of the famous World War II anti-Nazi Polish underground army fighter and anti-Communist VOA broadcaster Zofia Korbońska. Had she listened to Radio Free Europe in the 1960s and the 1970s, she would have heard not only political news, but also the RFE music program, “Rendez-vous at 6:10,” hosted by Janusz Hewel. I had tuned to his program regularly in my youth and later worked with him when he was hired by the Voice of America moved to Washington, DC. She mentioned listening to Radio Luxembourg. The station was famous among teenagers in Poland for its music programs.

When it came to political news and information, the message was then, as it is now, only as good as the messenger. Tokarczuk believes that in the current informational chaos filled with hate speech, feel-good stories and fake news, literature can help readers find a deeper understanding of the world by providing a broader context in which humans look at themselves and interact which each other. In remembrance of her mother, she titled her lecture “The Tender Narrator,” hoping perhaps that she may encourage more people to communicate with love rather than hatred. Her advice may be much more difficult to apply to short-form journalism and to social media posts on the web, but journalists should pay attention to her words. Tokarczuk has received anonymous death threats on social media from fringe anti-Semitic Polish extremists. I also saw respected Voice of America journalists in the United States publicly posting a video with the VOA logo condoning violence against an American politician. The Polish extremists are almost certainly not journalists, and some of them may be Vladimir Putin’s trolls, but both in the United States and in Poland, social media outlets have contributed to destroying among journalists and other Internet users many previously observed limits of personal and journalistic decency, not to mention journalistic accuracy and objectivity.

To my disappointment, I did not find last week on the Voice of America English news website any coverage of Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture. When international news radio broadcasting was still popular, it may seem now that it was a much better medium for practicing good and comprehensive journalism, allowing for a more nuanced presentation of facts and opinions than the Internet has done so far. That may be true to some degree. VOA’s radio journalists were focused not only on delivering news censored behind the Iron Curtain but also on presenting and explaining ideas behind the news. The Internet, however, has far more information that can be instantly accessed in much less time than the radio was able to provide during the Cold War. The problem is not the amount of information but people’s ability to find accurate news and, more importantly, find an objective analysis. During the Cold War, radio listeners learned to trust some of the individual broadcasters and reject those they disagreed with, just as they do now, but now their sources of information are almost limitless, confusing, and often anonymous or operating under false flags.

For better or for worse, the era of international radio broadcasting is largely gone, as it has been replaced now in most countries by Internet-based platforms of trans-border communication. Such trans-border communication in itself is also becoming less relevant in most countries for many news consumers interested in domestic issues, unless it is managed by journalists living in diaspora who are in touch with their audience and have in-country news contacts on a daily basis. In general, people prefer the ease of using domestic media and domestic information sources for both domestic and foreign news over media outlets run by foreign governments or other foreign entities. This was also the case for practical rand technical reasons during the Cold War, but people behind the Iron Curtain knew then that not all news from domestic sources was accurate and that much of it was disinformation and propaganda. They had to rely on stations such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the BBC or the Voice of America to be fully informed.

Thanks to the Internet, dissident journalists can now reach their audience in most countries and still remain independent from any inside or outside government support. They can be working in their own countries or abroad. There are still, however, states such as China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Vietnam, Iran and Russia, where many dissident journalists are in prison. Many journalists have been victims of assassinations. Hundreds of millions of poor people still have no Internet or mobile phones. If had a chance to interview Olga Tokarczuk, I would have asked her how she would propose to bring more decency to journalism and how she would want to communicate her message to help journalists in countries without a free media in their struggle for universal human rights. Would her message be different for countries such as the United States and Poland which have a free media and free speech? Olga Tokarczuk’s idea of relying on literature to expand understanding of other people’s emotions and actions is a correct one, but what would be her advice for journalists in the era of the Internet?

Olga Tokarczuk – Nobel Lecture

How we think about the world and—perhaps even more importantly—how we narrate it have a massive significance, therefore. A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians, but also (and perhaps above all) to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.

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.

John Amos Comenius, the great seventeenth-century pedagogue, coined the term “pansophism,” by which he meant the idea of potential omniscience, universal knowledge that would contain within it all possible cognition. This was also, and above all, a dream of information available to everyone. Would not access to facts about the world transform an illiterate peasant into a reflective individual conscious of himself and the world? Will not knowledge within easy reach mean that people will become sensible, that they will direct the progress of their lives with equanimity and wisdom?

When the Internet first came about, it seemed that this notion would finally be realized in a total way. Wikipedia, which I admire and support, might have seemed to Comenius, like many like-minded philosophers, the fulfillment of the dream of humanity—now we can create and receive an enormous store of facts being ceaselessly supplemented and updated that is democratically accessible to just about every place on Earth.

A dream fulfilled is often disappointing. It has turned out that we are not capable of bearing this enormity of information, which instead of uniting, generalizing and freeing, has differentiated, divided, enclosed in individual little bubbles, creating a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing.

Furthermore, the Internet, completely and unreflectively subject to market processes and dedicated to monopolists, controls gigantic quantities of data used not at all pansophically, for the broader access to information, but on the contrary, serving above all to program the behavior of users, as we learned after the Cambridge Analytica affair. Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat. The famous Shakespeare quote has never been a better fit than it is for this cacophonous new reality: more and more often, the Internet is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.

Research by political scientists unfortunately also contradicts John Amos Comenius’ intuitions, which were based on the conviction that the more universally available was information about the world, the more politicians would avail themselves of reason and make considered decisions. But it would appear that the matter is not at all so simple as that. Information can be overwhelming, and its complexity and ambiguity give rise to all sorts of defense mechanisms—from denial to repression, even to escape into the simple principles of simplifying, ideological, party-line thinking.

The category of fake news raises new questions about what fiction is. Readers who have been repeatedly deceived, misinformed or misled have begun to slowly acquire a specific neurotic idiosyncrasy. The reaction to such exhaustion with fiction could be the enormous success of non-fiction, which in this great informational chaos screams over our heads: “I will tell you the truth, nothing but the truth,” and “My story is based on facts!”

Fiction has lost the readers’ trust since lying has become a dangerous weapon of mass destruction, even if it is still a primitive tool. I am often asked this incredulous question: “Is this thing you wrote really true?” And every time I feel this question bodes the end of literature.

In this ardent division into truth and falsehood, the tales of our experience that literature creates have their own dimension.

I have never been particularly excited about any straight distinction between fiction and non-fiction, unless we understand such a distinction to be declarative and discretionary. In a sea of many definitions of fiction, the one I like the best is also the oldest, and it comes from Aristotle. Fiction is always a kind of truth.

I am also convinced by the distinction between true story and plot made by the writer and essayist E.M. Forster. He said that when we say, “The king died and then the queen died,” it’s a story. But when we say, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” that is a plot. Every fictionalization involves a transition from the question “What happened next?” to an attempt at understanding it based on our human experience: “Why did it happen that way?”

Literature begins with that “why,” even if we were to answer that question over and over with an ordinary “I don’t know.”

Thus literature poses questions that cannot be answered with the help of Wikipedia, since it goes beyond just information and events, referring directly to our experience.

But it is possible that the novel and literature in general are becoming before our very eyes something actually quite marginal in comparison with other forms of narration. That the weight of the image and of new forms of directly transmitting experience—film, photography, virtual reality—will constitute a viable alternative to traditional reading. Reading is quite a complicated psychological and perceptual process. To put it simply: first the most elusive content is conceptualized and verbalized, transforming into signs and symbols, and then it is “decoded” back from language into experience. That requires a certain intellectual competence. And above all it demands attention and focus, abilities ever rarer in today’s extremely distracting world.

Humanity has come a long way in its ways of communicating and sharing personal experience, from orality, relying on the living word and human memory, through the Gutenberg Revolution, when stories began to be widely mediated by writing and in this way fixed and codified as well as possible to reproduce without alteration. The major attainment of this change was that we came to identify thinking with language, with writing. Today we are facing a revolution on a similar scale, when experience can be transmitted directly, without recourse to the printed word.

There is no longer any need to keep a travel diary when you can simply take pictures and send those pictures via social networking sites straight into the world, at once and to all. There is no need to write letters, since it is easier to call. Why write fat novels, when you can just get into a television series instead? Instead of going out on the town with friends, it would be better to play a game. Reach for an autobiography? There’s no point, since I am following the lives of celebrities on Instagram and know everything about them.

It is not even the image that is the greatest opponent of text today, as we thought back in the twentieth century, worrying about the influence of television and film. It is instead a completely different dimension of the world—acting directly on our senses.

I don’t want to sketch an overall vision of crisis in telling stories about the world. But I’m often troubled by the feeling that there is something missing in the world―that by experiencing it through glass screens, and through apps, somehow it becomes unreal, distant, two-dimensional, and strangely non-descript, even though finding any particular piece of information is astoundingly easy. These days the worrying words “someone, “something,” “somewhere,” “some time” can seem riskier than very specific, definite ideas uttered with complete certainty―such as that “the earth is flat,” “vaccinations kill,” “climate change is nonsense,” or “democracy is not under threat anywhere in the world.” “Somewhere” some people are drowning as they try to cross the sea. “Somewhere,” for “some” time, “some sort of” a war has been going on. In the deluge of information individual messages lose their contours, dissipate in our memory, become unreal and vanish.

Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world, because by its very nature it is always psychological, because it focuses on the internal reasoning and motives of the characters, reveals their otherwise inaccessible experience to another person, or simply provokes the reader into a psychological interpretation of their conduct. Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

For full text of Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture, see:

Olga Tokarczuk Nobel Lecture: The Tender Narrator

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