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.)

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