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.

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