A Brief Guide to Gombrowiczanalysis

Gombrowicz extracted great comedy from deflating his own and others’ philosophical, nationalistic, class, and age pretentions. It was central to his philosophy (or really, psychology), that humans are divided between our pretentious outward selves and our incomplete or immature inner worlds, and that these two realities are constantly crashing together and making us look simultaneously ridiculous and adorable.

He will write, for instance, about trying to live up to Sartre’s Existentialist ideals about “being” and simultaneously be a person who wears pants and talks on the telephone. What can ever be philosophical or “existentially authentic” (or for that matter inauthentic) about wearing pants? And when you think about that, you realize, how can any philosophy ever be completely valid if it doesn’t make a space for our absurd, ridiculous, imperfect, culturally-formed bodies and lives?

Where Gombrowicz could be said to differ from most tragicomic writers is that he does more than extract laughter or pathos from this essential duality of our nature; he shows that there is actually a therapeutic benefit to be derived from getting in touch with our immaturity, our inner incomplete and embarrassingly unformed half. Constantly bringing it out and divulging it was his method for self-cure in his diary, and he comes across as an inspiring prophet of honest self-examination and disclosure. We can’t get rid of our cultural pretentions (what he called “form”), and we shouldn’t try; instead, we should embrace our duality and bring our pretentions and our immaturity into contact as much and as often as possible. In this way, we deflate ourselves and deflate life with an invigorating force. His writings, especially his Diary, develop and teach a simultaneously self-therapeutic and culture-critical “method” of living, one that is more humorous, more vital, more fun, and kind of more interesting than the dour critical-therapeutic ethics preached by his Marxist, Existentialist, and Psychoanalytic contemporaries.

Gombrowiczoanalysis is something different from psychoanalytic self-examination. It doesn’t presume that our hidden complexes are really buried that deep that they require professional help to excavate. With your eyes open, they are right there in you: quiet little impulses and motives that all it requires is self-honesty and a sense of humor to discern. It is simply the side of ourselves that we keep out of sight, under the table, not because it is morally unspeakable but because we simply feel it is beneath us, less dignified. It manifests in the way we constantly scurry around in our imagination; our furtive inner self is constantly covering up and rectifying our imperfections, spinning new stories about how we are better than that. (The image that comes to mind is Woody Allen’s character in Play It Again, Sam, who frantically rushes around his apartment before a date arrives, strewing jazz records etc. around to create an impression of casual intellectuality and taste.)

To defeat this inner anxious imp, simply ask: What is beneath me right now? What am I hiding? Where am I really coming from? It’s no different from what Zen asks of us, in fact. The Zen masters of China and Japan were always asking their charges to do the simplest thing, which was just to check in with themselves, ask who was the person really answering when they called your name. Many koans, the frequently absurd anecdotal encounters between master and student, are often quite Gombrowiczean–a simple inquiry or matter-of-fact statement will result in a whack with a broom or some other seemingly ridiculous act, for no apparent reason. Zen meditation in fact results in the same kind of insights that Gombrowiczoanalysis does: an awareness of the ancient childish roots of our ego. Since Zen is an overused word, I like Gombrowiczoanalysis better. And you can do it anywhere.

Gombrowicz would suggest this: Wherever you are, whoever you are with, step back (inside) and see what is going on under the table. Who is needing what from whom? What is this person? What are you? Underneath this completely straightforward encounter of two respectably attired grown adults being mature and important, are there perhaps two insecure children vying for something childish, beneath notice? Why not bring that out, bring out your child, and respond to the child in others? You might enliven the encounter, open it up to something new. This hidden wellspring of immaturity is the enlivening force in life, always at hand to keep things from getting stiff, pretentious, and dull.

In Ferdydurke, he writes:

Try to set yourself against form, try to shake free of it. Cease to identify yourself with that which defines you. Try to escape from all expressions of yourself. Mistrust your opinions. Mistrust your beliefs, and defend yourself against your feelings. Withdraw from what you seem to be on the outside, and flee from all externalizations just as the bird flees from the snake.

For—but frankly I do not know whether the time has yet come to tell you this—it is a false assumption that man should be definite, that is to say, unshakeable in his ideas, categorical in his statements, clear in his ideologies, rigid in his tastes, responsible in his speech and actions, crystallized and precise in his way of being. Examine more closely the chimerical nature of the assumption. Our element is eternal immaturity. The things that we think, feel, and say today will necessarily seem foolish to our grandchildren; so it would surely be better to forestall this now, and treat them as if they were foolish already; moreover, the force that impels you to premature finality is not, as you believe, an entirely human force. We shall soon realize that henceforward the most important thing is not to die for ideas, styles, theories, or even to attach oneself to and buttress oneself with them; but to take a step backwards and withdraw in the face of all the things that keep on happening inside us.

Let the cry be backwards! I foresee (though I do not know if the time has yet come to admit it) that the general retreat will soon be sounded. The son of man will realize that he is not expressing himself in harmony with his true nature, but in an artificial manner painfully inflicted on him from outside, either by other men or by circumstances. He will then begin to fear this form that is his own, and to be as ashamed of it as he was previously proud of it and sought stability in it. We shall soon begin to be afraid of ourselves and our personalities, because we shall discover that they do not completely belong to us. And instead of bellowing and shouting: I believe this, I feel that, I am this, I stand for that, we shall say more humbly: In me there is a belief, a feeling, a thought, I am the vehicle for such-and-such an action, production, or whatever it may be. … The poet will repudiate his song, the commander will tremble at his own orders, the priest will fear his altar, mothers will no longer be satisfied with teaching their children principles, but will also teach them how to evade them, to prevent them from being stifled by them. And, above all, human beings will one day meet other human beings face to face.

Life Is a Chapeau Shop

As a hypochondriac, I have always had frequent “health scares” in which I go through a kind of ritual of worrying and agonizing, wondering if it’s just my hypochondria, finally consulting a doctor and learning that my worrying is indeed unfounded. If I were honest with myself, I’d admit that my biannual hypochondria ritual is a kind of bargaining, somehow buying myself immunity from disease through the price of constant worry.

Recently, though, I had what to my great indignance turned out to be a “real” – i.e. warranted, requiring tests – health scare. I was scared shitless for a week, awaiting the test results, and my fright was completely different from my usual fear. It turned out to be nothing, in the end (thank the gods), but it did make me think about mortality in a more serious, non-bargaining sort of way. It was kind of a valuable experience, actually.

One thing I realized was that a big part of my fear of having a serious illness was actually a fear of having to act out the role of someone facing a serious illness. My relief at the end of the ordeal was largely a relief of not having to put on an act for other people and for myself – and act that, moreover, thrusts you into a kind of limelight. Mortality is the biggest drama, and the sick or dying man is center stage, with the lights shining brightly on him.

Fear of a major calamity like a serious illness is partly a kind of stage fright, in other words. Going through this brief scare, I suddenly understood why, when my father was fighting and, eventually, dying from cancer, he avoided contact with people, and avoided telling even his closest friends about it. Now I can totally understand not wanting to have to play that role. Now I felt bad, in retrospect, for having tried to make him talk about what he was going through: I had been forcing him to play a role that compounded his suffering.

I think people naturally do that as a way of showing their own concern, making sure their concern is registered and recognized. But to some degree it can be selfish, overlooking the pain of forcing the sick person to dramatize.

Sartre wrote about life as perpetual act, but he put it in strenuous, moralistic terms: You were a liar, living in bad faith, when you dramatized your predicament, allowing social roles to define you. G. put the issue of dramatizing your life in much more humane and forgiving terms. The problem with acting is not some metaphysical wrongness or dishonesty; the problem is simply that it causes pain, and it’s a pain we can never quite escape. The best we can do is think carefully about that pain, notice how our acting causes it, and try to defy or subvert the roles that are pre-written for whatever situation or predicament we are in.

My favorite part of G’s memoir A Kind of Testament is his description of a trip to Rome after the publication of Ferdydurke. A Polish painting student he met there wondered about his disinterest in the beautiful churches. He said they all looked the same inside, but in reality his distaste at visiting St. Peters and the other monuments of Western civilization was a desire to avoid the standard act of feeling humbled and dwarfed by them, having to take your hat off. The painter said, well why don’t you just not take your hat off? So that’s what he did. He went into the churches with his hat on and this choice empowered him.

Death is like a big awesome dark cathedral. It is so frightening that mostly we ignore it or push it out of view. But then when we are dragged kicking and screaming to its doorstep, we genufluct and bow and scrape. We are frightened and humbled by it, and we go through the postures and the poses and make the grimaces of awe and fear. Because that’s what other people expect of us. In other words, we remove our hats. Or, we go to great lengths to try and escape it, flee from it, which is kind of like chasing after our hat in a wind. And as some European writer said (not G.), there’s nothing so absurd as a man chasing after his hat.

So I hope that, when eventually I do approach the doors of that cathedral, I figure out how to do it on my own terms—maybe by just not taking my hat off.


I started this blog because, in the Hirshhorn Gallery, I got into a conversation about Gombrowicz and couldn’t explain what I saw in him. I recently went back, and was delighted (and inspired) to see some of my favorite Magrittes back on display–which of course reminded me of G.

G. wrote about art fairly cynically. Art, culture, is something people use to get others to obey, to dominate and control them, he said. His image is of one person grabbing another by the scruff of the neck and forcing him to bow down before High Culture. And what happens, inevitably, is that everyone winds up obeying each other—everyone bows down out of fear, or anxiety, or insecurity—and no one is left in charge (except perhaps the individual artist). Art ends up ridiculing us, humiliating us, almost like a dominatrix in some private fetishistic scenario.

G. was partly using art to tell a story about relations among people. But he also wanted to change this inauthentic relationship to Art, and remind us of Art’s possibilities to make us free.

We always need to ask of Art, or of Culture—does it open doors? Can we use to it expand or improve ourselves, or to love each other better? This is one way, indeed, to use Gombrowicz—the way he would have wanted to be used.

Sour Grapes

Because Richard Rorty just died, I keep thinking of him, and his reading of Orwell’s 1984, particularly the ‘undoing’ of Winston Smith: “Do it to Julia” as the turning point in his character. This is an extreme example, but it reminds me of the zone of “sub-culture” revealed by G. We all start out heroes, ethical beings, and our failures and weaknesses show us up, drag us down into an “inferior” realm. Having once done something cowardly or confused, how can I now rise up to be a hero? Instead I try to make my existence an argument for why that cowardly or confused act was consistent with my values and with my being, and indeed consistent with my carefully constructed picture of humanity.

G. didn’t mean “sub-culture” in the 60s sociological catchword meaning, youth and rebellion, etc.; he meant it in the old sense of “culture” as nurture, as cultivation, as well as culture as “high culture.” Sub-culture is our inferior, degraded, idiosyncratic mythology constituted out of our inability to live up to our high (and, I would add, youthful) ideals. We sooner describe ourselves as evil than as misguided.

In this connection I’m reminded of William S. Burroughs again. He shot his wife in the head, playing a “William Tell” game. He became a misogynist, a lover of guns, even wrote of the Zen of marksmanship. All of these things, lifestyle choices, identities, interests and fascinations, predicated on covering up a trauma. The trauma was not the death of his wife. The trauma was that he had once done something singularly stupid and thoughtless, and had bad aim, and it had tragic consequences. How was he supposed to continue after that moment, being who he had been? If he was to go on living (some people would have killed themselves directly or indirectly), he had to make it make sense.

So he formed an identity in which, retroactively, his killing of his wife became not really such a terrible thing within the larger context of his values.

People do thoughtless or careless things, often in their youth, and if those things end in tragedy for someone, or otherwise stick in people’s memory, they spend their lives trying to live up to those acts. This is the roots, not of “evil” because that’s too strong a word for what most people are, but of “badness.” Of how we choose paths of selfishness and irresponsibility and make them into ethical choices. Transforming (unconscious, unchosen) practice, or accident, into (willed, self-defining) action.

It’s the tendency of the mind to claim happenstance and transform it into fate (which is just character) – the tendency that therapists often find themselves deconstructing and undoing, or helping patients to undo.

You could call it “sour grapes.” Principles, standards, ambitions, capacities – these upper definitions of ourselves – become grapes, and in our failure to live up to them, in our confusion, our lapses, our clumsiness, our failures, etc., our attitude toward those grapes is that they are sour. We redefine our ideals – not “downward,” because that would be to admit failure (and confusion, and clumsiness, etc.), but in some other direction. Upward in another direction.

(It’s what happens to us when we are old, too: Our bodies go out from under us, and we become sad to ourselves. You stumble. “I meant to do that.” Because someone who ‘just stumbles’ is sad, pathetic, pitiable. Does the mind, the personality, chase the body into its decrepitude, to have the whole thing be consistent?)

The most well-developed Western philosophies of failure are Catholicism (the Fall), Psychoanalysis (the Unconscious, Trauma), Marxism (again, trauma, due to class oppression). Other cultures, like Japan, make less room for failure. Saving face, honor, may well demand suicide. It’s an interesting attitude to human failure. In the West, failure is more negotiable. Because values are more negotiable, I suppose. Our culture makes room for disagreement. Whatever wrong you have done, there is always some point of view you could adopt from which it is right. Your story of getting there could be a story of self-discovery. The personal journey is always a good story, in whatever direction you travel.

Animal Suffering

G. writes in Ferdydurke of the “metaphysical pain” of a fly with its legs pulled off in the bottom of a trashcan. Various places in his Diary he writes of the pain of animals, and of the confused, deeply troubled human response to animal pain. (The farmer’s dying dog; the beetles on the beach, etc.) One of the things I like about Eastern European writers is that they all seem to make sympathy with animals a marker of our humanity (strong hints of this in Kundera, for example, and Hrabal was as much an animal lover as he was a writer).

G’s meditations on animal suffering have made me wonder whether that suffering isn’t sometimes at the heart of our alienation from them, particularly in people’s fears and phobias. I retain a silly childhood phobia of crickets, for example. I think in our unconscious we retain memories of our own or a parent’s destruction of an animal pest, which may have given us our first taste of death and pain and mortal suffering. Fear of a hated animal is fear of its pain, fear of it dying or dead — and thus, indirectly, a fear of our own destruction, our own mutilation.

It is like a fetish, really: In your mind you fix on the last thing you saw before the thing you couldn’t bear to see. You hate and fear an alive, intact snake because you can’t face the picture of a headless snake or one cut in half, writhing on the driveway; you fear an alive, intact spider because you’ve irrevocably buried the memory of one struggling with its legs pulled off; you maintain a foolish phobia of alive, intact crickets because you can’t bear the memory of one you saw once that was struggling, only half alive — only still alive — dragging its smooshed-out insides across the basement floor. (Still alive is the worst, most awful kind of alive. Insects disturb us because they may persist in their struggles, their movements, with only half a body, or without a head)

The ongoing hatred and fear of certain creatures that we carry into adulthood is an acausal loathing. An acausal reaction. Maybe all phobic reactions to things are acausal or have an acausal aspect: I hate you because I hate what will become of you after I have attacked you (attacked you because I hate you), etc.

Instead of hating death and suffering, which are too painful and abstract to think about, we hate the being that first made us aware of such surpassing, metaphysical pain in the universe.

Gombrowicz with Magritte

My French paperback translation of Bakakai has Magritte’s Golconde on the cover — rain imagined as men in bowler hats descending from a blue sky.

Maybe it’s because of this cover, but I can’t not think of Magritte when I think of Gombrowicz. The two are never very far apart in my mind. I picture them both as a little bit aloof and alone. For some reason, I picture them both in bowler hats.

I imagine them both, Magritte and Gombrowicz, struggling to find a method to cut through appearances and find something true, something rock solid, lying underneath. In both cases — as painting, or as fiction — the result is surrealistic, as well as charming and humane. You could escape into one of Magritte’s evening paintings, just like you can escape into G.’s Diary.

I even imagine their domesticity similarly — with their wives and dogs (in Gombrowicz’s case, only late in life).

When I look at the photo of G. and his wife Rita, from the cover of her book Gombrowicz w Europie, Paul Simon’s song “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” (based on a photo caption that captured the songwriter’s imagination) runs through my head.

The End of the Bookstore

One of the best things I ever read was not by Gombrowicz but it expresses something that, to me, sort of rhymes with G.’s take on the promise and danger of fellow humanity. In an interview Allen Ginsberg did in the Paris Review, the poet described a religious experience he had as an undergraduate, brought on by reading William Blake. He describes visiting the Columbia University bookstore while in this transcendent frame of mind and his sudden realization on encountering the face of one of the familiar bookstore clerks — whom he described as a “pleading cousin in the universe” — that “the fixed expressions that people have, the habitual expressions, the manners, the mode of talk, are all masks.”

Because almost at that moment it seemed that it would be too terrible if we communicated to each other on a level of total consciousness and awareness each of the other — like it would be too terrible, it would be the end of the bookstore, it would be the end of civ- … not civilization, but in other words the position that everybody was in was ridiculous, everybody running around peddling books to each other. Here in the universe!

(Like much of Ginsberg’s work, the account of his Blake-inspired fervor really could be described as “intense,” “exhilarating,” or “lived at a fever pitch.” There’s nothing wrong with those categories as long as they are truthfully, honestly applied.)

The point is: Humanity has devised a billion ways of not contacting each other. Everything you look at, everything we’ve done or accomplished, can be seen as a way of avoiding contact. The Hebrews of the Old Testament kept God behind a curtain because to be in his presence, they thought, was fatal. I think really being in the presence of the human is fatal, so we create structures, channels, protocols, machines, to redirect the energy, redirect ourselves, and protect ourselves.

Books, ideas, art, like grimaces, are too often just ways of not making contact. Just smoke and bars. Gombrowicz’s books are, refreshingly, not like that.

Sinking Ships

I first encountered Gombrowicz during a period of my life when I was reading the Beats — Burroughs, Ginsberg, especially. There’s an interesting contrast between G. and Burroughs. In various writings and interviews throughout his life, Burroughs returned again and again to the sinking of the Titanic, and his admiration for the men on the ship who supposedly donned women’s clothing in order to get into the lifeboats and save their own lives. Partly, I suppose, Burroughs was drawn to the comic possibilities of the lifeboat scenario — plus, he was an unashamed misogynist and resented the old-fashioned “women and children first” idea.

But also, the notion of abandoning all pride and decorum, donning a costume to save your life, has redemptive possibility. I am not I, I am not what I am. It represents the ultimate power to escape from past conditioning, the power as Burroughs puts it, to travel into space. It’s a very American dream, obviously. Reinventing yourself.

Well, ocean liners figure prominently in G.’s life and in his writing, and his own thought experiment of how a man behaves on a sinking ship makes an interesting, and very European, contrast:

[A] person for whom everything is over and done with is in a different position than those for whom much is over and done with. In what sense, in what direction, can a person whose meanings and directions have evaporated change? What remains if not the one thing still left to do: repeat oneself? This is why people who appear completely defeated by life function “as if nothing had ever happened” down to the very last minute of their lives. The captain of a sinking ship knows that in a minute the water will swallow him up–him and his honor, responsibility, duty–that for all practical purposes these no longer exist, that the water is already reaching his calves…why, then, does he recite his captainhood to the last minute of his life, instead of, let us say, singing or dancing? Perhaps because when there is nothing else to cling to, man can only grab onto himself, the principle of identity. “I am I” is a fundamental principle not only of logic but also the ultimate right of humanity; and when everything disappears, there is only the fact that I was someone; such a person and no other; and loyalty toward oneself appears to be the last law we can still obey.

So, which man is more free? The man who puts on a dress to save his life, or the captain who clings to his captain-hood as the ocean swallows him — claiming, as G. puts it, his “ultimate right of humanity”?

I don’t have an answer to this question. But in this quote I see America facing Europe across a vast dark ocean.

What Do You Want?

It is all about other people. Art and philosophy are just ways of contacting other people.

It can be both positive and negative. It’s Gombrowiczean the way we share music with people, for example. We have in our heads images, fantasies, of others when we are appreciating music. We want to put it out there for others. Somewhere there’s a box of mix tapes I made for my girlfriend in college. I hear a great song and I imagine making a film just so I could put it on the soundtrack. These days we make cds for our friends. The great sharing of culture now in the digital age is Gombrowiczean in the best sense.

On the other hand, under the table, there’s often a power play going on. Buried in outward discussion of aesthetics in an art gallery, say, there’s one person grabbing another by the scruff of the neck and forcing genuflection.

Like a ball in a tennis match, art is really just something that binds and connects the players. G. suggested we need to feel this leash. Whether aggressively or erotically, we wish to bind others to us, and ourselves to others, and art is one way. It is never solitary. Never alone. In our heads, at least.

In his Diary G. wrote about artists and writers, but he measured them against his own experience, not the other way around. He started from himself and wrote about his encounter with life and ideas. He described it as being a country squire strolling through the orchard of culture, picking an apple or a peach and tasting it and commenting on whether or not it was to his liking. Lillian Vallee, the translator of G.’s Diary, sums it up G.’s approach to art and literature really nicely: You should ask of it, “Does it strengthen or debilitate? Does it make you regard your identity as a more expansive, spacious, freer place — failures, complexes, ignorance notwithstanding — or does it paralyze, gag, diminish?”

G. had the same approach to philosophy. Although a voracious reader of philosophy, he tended to distrust systems of any kind because of the way they make an end-run around our humanity and our bodies. Systems, ideologies, religious, scientific theories all cut people down to size and compartmentalize them; they deform us when we attempt to live up to their ideals. G. spends many pages in the Diary reacting to Sartre, for example, who was all the rage at the time. I love this quote:

How should I explain why existentialism did not lead me astray? …

When I applied maximum consciousness to life, in an attempt to found my existence on this, I noticed that something stupid was happening to me. Too bad, but no way. It can’t be done. It seems impossible to meet the demands of Dasein and simultaneously have coffee and croissants for an evening snack. To fear nothingness, but to fear the dentist more. To be consciousness, which walks around in pants and talks on the telephone. To be responsibility, which runs little shopping errands downtown. To bear the weight of significant being, to instill the world with meaning and then return the change from ten pesos. What do you want?

Other People

In one of his earliest stories, G. wrote: “there’s nothing so difficult and delicate, so sacred even, as human individuality; nothing can equal the rapacity of secret connections that arise, faint and purposeless, between strangers, only to bind imperceptibly with a terrible chain.”

People that (we think) shouldn’t matter to us, do. Being slighted or ignored by a clerk or some anonymous person on the subway can ruin you for hours, sometimes. G. noted that having something he wrote criticized by some anonymous person was far more stinging than having a book savaged by a noted reviewer, because the smaller the shoe, the more it hurts.

It is particularly humiliating to want or need the approval of people who are “inferior” to us — that is, inferior in age, in station, in experience. It can produce a deformation of perception, whereby younger people seem much older, poorer people much richer, and so on. The power of the inferior and the “immature” over the superior and the mature is one of G.’s main themes. But this humiliation contains the seeds of something transcendent.

G. writes: “Allow a child, a puppy, a half-wit to seduce you.” That he spent his life mixing with people of different classes and ages is one of the most inspiring things about him. His gang of young friends in Buenos Aires. The young Canadian student he met and married during the last years of his life. It would be easy to compartmentalize him as a writer of the midlife crisis. A recurring theme in his fiction is middle aged men trying to orchestrate contact with youth. And indeed, much of his Diary is an extended meditation on youth and the way age feeds and depends on it.

Acknowledgement of the “inferior.” Declining to it willingly, allowing it to support you. It is like an underlying water to the universe. A water below the water. (I am thinking now of the Talking Heads line, “There is water at the bottom of the ocean” from that great midlife crisis song “Once in a Lifetime.”) Through intense and honest contact across divides of age and station, we can achieve a broader reinterpretation of our humanity.

(G. never would have called other people “hell,” like Sartre did.)

Gradations of Humanity

Thinking more about Gombrowiczean themes in J.R.R. Tolkien …

The interdependence of the three central characters, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, is the best literary example of the blending of people, the “interhuman church,” that I can think of–and here I include even G’s own novels! The Lord of the Rings–at least, the core narrative of the ringbearer and his two companions–is a perfect literary expression of G’s “terrible chains” that, like it or not, bind different people to one another in secret and powerful, destiny-altering ways.

In the chain of persons bearing the ring–Gollum, Frodo, Sam–Frodo is a kind of intermediate figure, holding in suspension the opposite forces or archetypes represented by his “fallen” and his virtuous companion. Tolkien writes (in his letters) that the small and the human requires the noble, lest it fall into the base, just as the noble requires the small and the human lest it veer into arrogance. Or something like that. Thus, between Gollum the fallen and Sam who refuses to countenance him, there is Frodo who binds them both to himself. This relationship among these three characters is the human core of the whole trilogy.

The reality of things is, one person cannot reach across the chasm, yet by linking hands they can. Sam cannot “touch” Gollum himself, both are morally repugnant to the other. Frodo’s courage is seeing past the ring-spell of belief that the quest is, like the ring, “his own.” Seeing that he needs these two others and that the three of them form a chain of redemption. Thus, Gollum, Frodo, and Sam form a human chain. Chain. Change. Redemption (as in ex-change).

We all introduce something to someone else. We all are a conduit, a tube, that carries a thing to another thing (and thus god back to god, god back to godself).

Is the elevator operating? Is the elevator working?

This “chain” goes beyond strictly the human in Tolkien–it links the human to the nonhuman, and even life to death. Tolkien’s books are about the ways people blend into each other, the ways things blend into things, and even the way life blends into death.

It is often said that Tolkien’s books are about death. I think Tolkien’s books are about the specter of death, and about states of un-death that can be lived in life if you are not on your guard, or if you have endured too much suffering. The books make a thought experiment about death through the device of a race of people who are immortal and long to be able to die in the same way that mortal men long to be immortal.

For such a dark story, it is strange how few characters actually die in it. It seems (at least) like Tolkien was afraid of letting a character die. Characters fade away. Or sail away. And they have been around for a long, long time, so it’s not like they really had births or childhoods either. It seems like he was afraid of defining things at the edges. He is reluctant to show death in its senselessness. He is reluctant to show an ending of things. He had trouble ending his book. His stories, they fade out rather than terminate.

The races of beings that populate Middle Earth also share this quality. They are hard to define, ambiguous at the boundaries. And because of his reluctance to define and delineate, Tolkien propogates new and intermediate forms that plug the conceptual gaps. For every two kinds of thing in his world, there can be found a third thing between them, some intermediate phase in creation. There’s always this blending, forms merging one into another.

In this way, Tolkien was like Nature. Nature also, if you look closely, produces these intermediate forms, these secondary and tertiary forms of things, different in very slight ways. Middle Earth oddly resembles the natural world, with its astonishing spectra of species. What S.J. Gould called (referring to the Burgess Shale), “wonderful life.”

Immaturity and The Fall

I’ve been rereading the fiction and, for the first time, the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I find myself increasingly interested in the fantasy novelist’s Catholicism. It is through his Letters that I first began to grasp the appeal of the notion of The Fall, which previously only ever seemed like the most stupid, harmful idea. But now I realize that this theological concept is really just another term for G’s most basic, fundamental theme: what you could call our human tendency, the fact that we are less than what we would be, less than what we promise, and in our essence bound to disappoint and thwart ourselves. In his great saga of Middle Earth, Tolkien depicts the inevitability of strife between our ideals and the world we actually end up creating, and it’s the same thing as what G depicts in his novels.

We may impose or try to form ourselves with technology and techniques and raise ourselves, but there is a fundamental gravity, a weight pulling us to ourselves, to our “thrown” being. G names this downward force “sub-culture” or “immaturity.” It is the realm of other things, distractions, minor obsessions, faults, secondary priorities, imps of the perverse, and what have you, that derail and deflect us, pull us down to another level. Despite the vastness of our hopes for ourselves, we end up ‘middling.’ (Tolkien loved middles, and saw redemption in them.)

It is easy to see ourselves as fallen. It is not so easy, at least without reminding ourselves, of the fallenness of others. When we look at other people’s lives, we see them as having chosen what they are and who they are. We see them as hard and definitive. They wear those clothes because they want to, we think; they work where they do because they must have wanted that more than anything else. We have no trouble blaming them for their mistakes, because they surely intended them. Yet when we look at our own lives, it is as through wholly different eyes. We see a random and haphazard and oftentimes ill-thought-out meandering of action and happenstance. The decisions we made we see as, more often than not, not our own, or not completely our own. We see how random and unchosen much of it is. The exceptions, those rare moments when we have felt like we have actually chosen our fate, stand out and make us feel proud. But they are the exceptions.

Why do we view ourselves through such different eyes? Why do we apply so sterner a metric to the lives of other people?

In a letter to Tolkien, Auden says he experiences life as a series of choices: “Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives.” That to me seems most enviable, most what I would aspire after, yet what seems so elusive that it may only come once in a blue moon (if ever) that one would actually feel one’s ability to choose among alternatives. Mostly don’t we just persist in life? Stay a course?Don’t our choices get buried under the weight of dead desire and necessity? Beethoven’s “Es muss sein!”?

Sartre or Freud would say that we are always choosing, and even our avoidance of choice is a choice.. But those are strenuous, basically Nietzschean philosophies, that belong in a sci-fi universe like Dune. I think, in reality, choice takes energy, and eventually everyone gets tired. To consciously live each moment as if it was a choice between alternatives, and that you always had it in you to make a choice (not just passively accept one), would be wonderful, but I don’t believe it can be done.It makes me distrust Auden, that maybe he is not so honest with himself.

Auden’s larger point was that such a sense of life—as choices—naturally produces the quest or journey as a literary form of expression. I think Tolkien’s point was that he produced a quest novel not out of some special sense of living life as choices (though that may be laudable) but from its being a tried and true way of stringing together the things that matter most to oneself. And, mainly, even more importantly, because a quest, however objectively small, takes you out of the passive condition. In effect, a quest makes you choose, makes you experience your life objectively.

So they are both saying the opposite—

Auden: Conscious living produces the Quest as its natural artistic form. Tolkien: The Quest produces the feeling of consciousness that most people, most of the time, lack. (Tolkien’s view is, as always, the more pragmatic and humane, and seems more right on.)

In his reply to the poet, Tolkien talked about people making themselves, his faith that some people do manage to create themselves. Yet the ordeal of Frodo, Sam and Golluum shows that this can only be achieved through other people. That’s the beauty and fascination of the story. It’s what Gombrowicz was always on about too, in his Diary: the redemptive possibility of people forming each other, even deliberately using other people who are unlike themselves (perhaps not too unlike, but just-right-unlike), to alter themselves in desired directions.To help them, in other words, choose themselves.

Better-Sounding Reasons

From outside, objectively, it is hard not to ascribe a fullness of meaning to the things other people do. They did X therefore they must feel Y. But human action is seldom so tightly chained to will or desire.

As with the character earnestly, doubtfully questioning the dark — but quietly, in case no one is actually there — people’s actions sometimes are senseless, are not thought through, don’t have a completeness of meaning. They’re absurd, in other words.

We can’t always know why we do or say certain things. There’s no reason, sometimes. Or — and here’s where G. rises above Freud, in my opinion — the reason is so stupid or shoddy, so objectively beneath the occasion, that it is better kept in the dark, so we invent better-sounding reasons, even if those reasons make us look worse. We’ll sooner describe ourselves as evil than as confused.

The stories we tell to make ourselves appear adequate to our shared ideals betray our humanity, force our human looseness, our unformedness, into some kind of straightjacket. Gombrowicz was about resisting those stories, those little sclerotic dishonesties — the better-sounding reasons for our inconsistent lives. Such stories harden the human countenance into a grimace.

Instead you should reveal your truth, G. said. Come clean with what is shoddy and obscure and inconsistent about you, revel in it and glorify it, and it will in turn strengthen you rather than pull you down.

I went to the fashionable store Ostende and bought a pair of yellow shoes, which turned out to be too tight. So I went back to the store and exchanged this pair for another in exactly the same style and size and identical in every other respect and they turned out to be equally tight.
Sometimes I amaze myself.

(from Diary)

Who’s There?

So what is G. about? I think the key utterance in his works is in Ferdydurke — the query, posed by the owner of a country estate to the darkness in his parlor, in which he has heard a noise at night:

“Who’s there?” he asked cautiously, to avoid looking foolish if nobody was there.

To get at what humanity means in the context of Gombrowicz, it’s necessary to talk about the blurring, the deforming, that happens between humans and in spite of them — even when, or perhaps especially when, “nobody is there.”

How often do you feel like yourself? I suspect that for most people, this feeling is not a constant companion but something that waxes and wanes. I only know I have trouble with myself. I get in trouble with myself. I get lost with other people and get lost in other people.

This is the thing, the herd instinct in us, the thing that makes us “social animals.” We are pulled away from our own uniqueness, our individuality, and in the direction of who we are with, or who we are thinking about. Our boundaries are permeable, weak, non-fortified. When confronted by another person (or the possibility of another person) I go forward to meet them, but I become blurred in the process. Even if only momentarily, for an instant, I may forget who I am and become instead some amalgam of them and me. (I “italicize,” to borrow an apt expression used by the novelist Padgett Powell.)

It is like a king who gets up to go meet a supplicant, rather than remaining seated in his throne and letting them approach, which more becomes a true king. When another person annoys me, the annoyance, if I am honest, comes from my own momentary mistake of thinking that I am them. When we thrill to another’s exploits, or fall under the spell of someone’s charisma, isn’t it because they have caused us to feel heroic or charismatic ourselves?

Deformation is this loss of boundaries brought on by the exciting, unseating, overthrowing, perilous presence of the other. Ceasing to be oneself and in essence “trying on” that other person like they are clothes, then frequently lamenting when we look in the mirror because those clothes don’t fit or suit us. All of G.’s writing is, in one way or another, about this.

It starts with the face. The most memorable scene in Ferdydurke is a “grimace war” between two rival schoolboys. Psychology should begin not with the mind but with the faces we make, the ways we force ourselves to look a certain way, and thus impress upon ourselves a certain impression of who we are, both for and with other people. (When the Zen Buddhists talk about “finding your original face,” they mean dropping all these habitual grimaces.)

Fever Pitch??

Start, I suppose, with what his humanity isn’t.

There’s a quote from Publisher’s Weekly on the back of the Northwestern University Press edition of G.’s Diary. This quote has always bugged me; it goes: “Nearly every moment is lived at fever pitch in this dark, exhilarating masterpiece…”

Nothing could be farther from the truth, I feel like saying to the back of this book. Well, the word “masterpiece” is surely apt, but its easy to use that word, isn’t it? (Take it from a book reviewer, book reviewers inflate everything they write. They give every writer an A, and then to top themselves, they start giving them A-plusses. The business of reviewing is just to get yourself onto the back of a book, like a tattoo.)

“Dark?” “Exhilarating?” The worst is the “fever pitch.” Clearly the reviewer had Gombrowicz confused with someone else. Maybe Henry Miller.

Actually, the astonishing thing about Gombrowicz is how exciting his words can be when objectively much of his life seems to have unfolded at a languid pace. I find little “fever pitch” in the pages of his Diary. Sure, there are some mythic, iconic moments in his biography — being stranded (or, stranding himself) in Argentina at the outbreak of WWII. Okay. That’s romantic, full of possibilities. And the years of poverty that preceded the Diary did have, one gathers, some dark and exhilarating moments. But most of the moments actually lived in these three volumes have a much quieter and more tentative quality, and it’s precisely this that makes G. so great and that sets his image of humanity apart, for me, from other writers.

In one of his early stories, he writes: “Someone once said that life is boldness. No: Boldness is slow death, whereas life is apprehensive bashfulness.” That’s the quality that comes through so much of his Diary and his life, and it’s hard to reconcile that with fever pitch.

We drove to the Tigre in the delta of the Parana. Our motorboat cruised along the dark and quiet surface that ripples through a forest of islands. All is green, blue, pleasant, and fun. We stopped and picked up a young girl who, how should I say this? Beauty has its secrets: there are many such beautiful melodies, but only a few are like a hand that strangles. Her beauty was so “fetching” that everyone felt strange and perhaps even bashful. No one dared betray that he was watching her, even though there was not a pair of eyes that was not casting furtive glances at her luminous being.

The girl then calmly began to pick her nose.


You wouldn’t probably think of G. as a particularly human or humane writer if all you had to go on was his fictional works. His stories, plays, and novels are thought experiments about the disturbing mess, the confusion, that takes place between humans. He was obsessed with this “inter” place, the oozing, blurring borders between people. In his novels he made this thing monstrous and comical. His narratives explore the obscure, dark, and perverse ways humans affect each other.

I think of G.’s fiction like Seinfeld episodes — you might call them situation tragicomedies that are essentially “about nothing.” Selfish, surly protagonists maintain outward social decorum while surreptitiously trying to accomplish something perverse and selfish behind the scenes, or, as G. put it, “under the table.” As in Seinfeld, it might involve a character taking advantage of someone weaker, younger, or poorer. Typically, as in Seinfeld, a cascading chain of ridiculous events leads to a big, humiliating trainwreck of an end. In G.’s stories, sometimes it’s very funny, other times dark and strange.

In his most famous novel, Ferdydurke, the narrator is led by a childish sidekick on a Quixotic quest out into the rural environs of Warsaw in search of a simple, rustic stable lad with whom to “fra…ternise” — and it remains unclear just what the nature of this “fra…ternization” is — to what extent it is a homoerotic quest, to what extent it is a kind of liberal gesture toward the “common man”; in any event, the hubris of their pathetic and trivial odyssey leads to humiliations for everyone involved.

But the best thing Gombrowicz wrote, and the reason readers fall in love with him, was his Diary, written over two decades in Argentina and Western Europe for serial publication in a Polish literary journal. Because it was for public consumption and sort of a mix of personal experiences and opinions and reactions to contemporary literature and philosophy, G.’s Diary was really more of an early “blog.”

It is here, mainly, that the author’s humanity … I won’t say “shines forth” because that is exactly wrong, exactly what humanity doesn’t do. But there’s that ball in my mouth again. What does humanity do? What does anybody’s humanity do? What’s the operative verb?

What’s in a Face?

I suppose it’s a normal feeling to have about a favorite writer. I have this nice experience whenever I pick up — I mean, really, carefully, pick up, and look at — a book with G.’s face on the cover. I particularly love the picture on the cover of Gombrowicz w Europie (Gombrowicz in Europe), by his wife Rita. Leaning against the hood of his Deux Chevaux, G. has that sort of pained, asthmatic expression he always has, eyes squinting, face drawn, hands thrust in pockets, looking off to the sea (I like to think). I find I am both humbled and strengthened by something that’s right there in his face.

G. would understand if we approached his writing indirectly, via his appearance. He would appreciate the gesture of responding, first, not to what he wrote, but just to what he looked like. Because we do judge books by covers, and people by faces. Our bodies are the most fundamental fact about us.

What’s so great about G.’s face? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the pain that I see there. He felt his age and his aging most acutely. The absurd situation of his life, this genteel Pole having endured decades in exile, obscurity, and poverty in Argentina, shows in his face, along with his increasingly ill health during his last years when he returned to Europe. But the only word I know to describe what I feel about that face is “humanity.”

Yesterday three men at Teodolina’s: one clean shaven, the second mustached, the third bearded, and they were amazed they could not come to an agreement about the political situation in the Far East. I said: I am amazed that you talk to one another at all. Each of you is a different solution to the human face and personifies a different understanding of man. If a bearded man is okay, then a clean-shaven or mustached one is a monster, a clown, a degenerate, and a general absurdity; and if a clean-shaven man is the right type, then a bearded one is a monstrosity, sloppiness, nonsense, and foulness. Well then! What are you waiting for? Start punching!

(from Diary)