This is my second book by Mona Chollet, and I am still surprised none of her writing has been translated into English. The first book was Wiedźmy. Niezwyciężona Siła Kobiet (Witches. The Invincible Power of Women). It moved me, made me angry and pushed me out of the apathy. That’s also where I found the reference to this book, so I asked my mum to get it for me in Polish edition.
The title in English would probably look like this – The Tyranny of Reality. And that really is what this book is about. It is a long winding essay on the tyranny of reality. Of how every time we dare to dream of a different world someone slaps us in the face with ‘reality’ that is harsh, brutal and separate from us. Oh, and it is also unchangeable. Chollet tries to undermine this approach.
She asks why do we succumb to more and more violent working environment. Keep in mind this book was written in 2004, things have significantly deteriorated since then. Precariat was a relatively new thing back then, now it is so commonplace we rarely even notice it. On the flip side the corporate life has not improved much either. Especially in the pandemic people are trapped in a situation where they are working from home, in a decent space if they are lucky, but juggling the home responsibilities with working hours that spill into all times of the day, without anyone noticing. We agree to this because we all know how lucky we are to even have a job at all. This is also the fear that Chollet describes.
Chollet uses Madame Bovary to define the dreamer and their relation to reality. Flaubert as the model dreams-denier. But she remains critical, devoting a chapter to analysing how Madame Bovary is a toxic kind of dreamer, how in her case her own dreams make her distant and completely disconnected from reality. What Chollet advocates is different, a dreamer who is at one with the reality. A person that can dream and want things, but does not deny the world as it is, rather sees it as an opportunity to achieve the dreams. This is where reality becomes pliable, rather than harshly unchangeable.
Throughout the book she asks us to reevaluate the things we take for granted. We’re being pushed to question the status quo. ‘It has always been like this’ is not a sufficient answer. We need to dig deeper, to understand how things came to be the way they are. This is the only way to change them. And Chollet with all her heart advocated the need for change. A change that will not be introduced by politicians or corporations because it is not in their interest. A change each of us must introduce themselves in their own lives and their communities. For it is a change form which only we stand to benefit, we the people, not we the money, we the employees, or we the state. People.
Chollet decries all the dichotomies that modern life introduced into our lives. All the separations we feel, all those walls that bind us. She clearly points a finger at Descartes as the one to blame. The philosopher who separated mind from body, us from world. To change things we have to bring all of it back together. There is no mind without a body, there is no reality without us (if we don’t perceive it there’s no guarantee it exists) and vice versa. She writes about the opposition between the classical physics with it’s linear perception and it’s black/white oppositions. And then contrasts it with quantum physics with the idea of entanglement, with a clear notion of everything being connected.
She writes widely about consumerism and tyranny of perpetual growth. Of a system that generates needs only to perpetuate itself by addressing them. But we don’t get only the questions here, we also get solutions. To step off the hamster wheel we have to learn to be alone. Not lonely, but alone. To regain our inner balance, the center of our gravity. It is similar to what George Monbiot mentions in How Did We Get Into This Mess? when he writes about regaining the intrinsic values. Chollet writes also about self-care, how it is foundational for us to be able to then go out into the world and prosper with others.
For she doesn’t argue for loneliness as the end. It is means to gaining the inner balance that will then allow us to flourish in communities. Only those two things combined will bring us the full benefit of the change. Being sure of who and what we are, giving yourself the care and time to dream and then finding people who share some of those values and seeing how much we can accomplish together. We need stillness to become ready for action.
It is a beautiful essay, even if at times meandering and long-winded (some of it may be the fault of a not great translation, mixing lobbying with mobbing is not encouraging). Well worth reading and probably now even more timely than in 2004. It is sad how little has changed for the better. But then it means we can always change things for the better. There’s no place more boring than a paradise. What I liked about this book was that it focused on how each of us can do it, we’re not dependent on the large scale political force, or movement. Start small, get yourself right, find other like minded people and the rest will follow.