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.

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