Who Is Gombrowicz?

Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) was a Polish novelist and playwright who lived nearly half his life in Argentina. He is the author of four novels: Ferdydurke, Pornografia, Cosmos, and Trans-Atlantyk, all of which have been translated into English (the latter published by Northwestern University Press; the others published in the US by Grove Press, and in England by Marion Boyars), as well as some short stories and plays, notably The Marriage. His novel Cosmos won him the International Publishers’ Prize in 1968, and the previous year he was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize, but lost out to Jorge Luis Borges. Although virtually unknown in North America, Gombrowicz is well known and admired not only in his native Poland but also throughout Western Europe, especially France.

Gombrowicz’s works are absurdist and almost burlesque investigations of “the power Form wields over human life.” His characters, perpetually struggling against Form — that is, culture, meaning, roles — end up only trapped inside new formal systems and patterns. His writing is quite funny, because he relentlessly pursues the sources of human shame and embarrassment — the shameful and degraded mythologies people concoct for themselves out of the scrap-heap of public culture, and out of their own inability to live up to the ideals they profess. In his last novel Cosmos, for example, the protagonist becomes obsessed with meanings and portents during his stay in a rural penzion on his school vacation, and engages in a sort of bizarre and pathetic “investigation”; at the end, the aging patriarch of the family he is staying with winds up indoctrinating this young man into a delightfully coherent onanistic philosophy (“Berging”) that the older man has found to be the best answer to the pointlessness of existence.

The theme of paranoia — the obsessive pursuit of hidden meanings and structures and the question of the agent’s role in creating meanings as opposed to finding them already ‘out there’ — is not unique to Gombrowicz; you can compare him, in this respect, to Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, and others. But he combines the structuralist obsession with systems of meaning with an “existentialist” concern with identity, action, and the fundamental interdependence of man upon man.

Gombrowicz’s three-volume Diary, published in English by Northwestern University Press, and covering the years 1953 until the end of his life, is regarded by many to be his masterpiece. It is brilliant, stunningly beautiful, and bears many rereadings. In it one finds extensive musings on the themes I mentioned, on form and immaturity, on his life in ‘exile’ in Argentina, and on his lovingly antagonistic relation to his Polish homeland. Also found here are his thoughts on the problem of coming from what he took quite openly to be a secondary or inferior culture of Europe, one that perpetually puffed itself up to be on par with France, England, Germany, but always sadly falling short, like an adolescent awkwardly striving to be seen as an adult.

Most importantly in all this, and what makes Gombrowicz’s Diary so affirming to read, is his insistence on the necessity of actively determining (or at least struggling to determine) one’s own identity, rather than accept the identity(ies) others impose on us. Unlike other exile or expatriate writers of the early and mid-century (Henry Miller comes to mind), he doesn’t simply proclaim this struggle from the height of having already achieved some kind of liberation, but merely acknowledges the difficulty and inevitability of the struggle, and notes his reactions, and formulates battle plans. To be human, he argues, is to constantly suffer from the deformations of our culture and other people, and to struggle against this deformation, though the struggle ultimately is futile.

The Diary is a great testament and dossier on the struggle of a writer to ‘achieve himself’ through his art. Although Gombrowicz gives insight onto the sources of imagination and creativity, particularly compelling is his relentless investigation of the motives for creating. Literature’s primary motive, he argues, is prominence; and the surest approach for a writer is openness about his overriding desire to place himself on a pedestal. “[M]odesty is useless,” he writes; “Arrogance, loftiness, ambitions cannot be removed from writing because they are its motor. They must be divulged and then they can be civilized.” Consequently in all his work he gives full expression to his own lofty ambitions, constantly scrutinising himself for the subtle forms taken by his ambitions — in relation to others as persons, and in relation to literature as a whole.

Gombrowicz’s readings of twentieth century philosophy offer a concrete example of Harold Bloom’s theory of revisionism. Indeed Gombrowicz was fully aware of his project — that it was essential for his own sanity, if nothing else, to confront the enormity of a writer like Sartre or Camus, and through writing to discover or invent a way to cut that writer down to manageable size, and then respectably but firmly put it behind him. In other words his genius was to read ever vigilant for a thought, or a thinker, more original than himself, and when he encountered one to find a way of gaining mastery over that thinker, becoming more original than him. This struggle of his, and the techniques he learned for waging it, evolved out of his struggle with “form” more generally, and have its roots in his struggle with his own class upbringing as a young man. He writes of his encounters with aristocratic relatives, and he takes these encounters as a problem to be worked through by finding a demeanor through which to, if not deflate the superiority of them, then find a secure stance or footing that is not bullied by their aristocracy and his relative commonness (I say relative because he was from a somewhat lower stock — landowning gentry but not full aristocracy). Gombrowicz’s life and writing methodology might easily be called, from today’s perspective, “passive aggressive.” He waged the same war with morals and conventions too — for instance deciding to enter an Italian cathedral with his hat on.

This relic of the landed gentry in Poland loved to trash sclerotic and insincere modes of aesthetic “appreciation,” which actually amount to pathetic self-congratulation — for example, the ways people behave in museums, or at concerts, not to mention literary salons. His frankness about the tedious pretentiousness of artistic or literary movements alienated him from the company of respectable, established writers in Buenos Aires — people like Borges and his sycophants (deftly parodied in the novel Trans-Atlantyk) — just as the early, yet-inchoate manifestation of this attitude caused him to separate himself from the literary cliques and movements of pre-war Warsaw when he was just breaking into the literary scene there.

Gombrowicz famously describes his approach to art and philosophy as one of an anachronistic bumpkin, strolling through the orchards of Culture, tasting whatever strikes his fancy, discarding whatever doesn’t appeal to him. His remarks on Camus, Sartre, Kafka, for instance, delicately balance the obvious importance and talent of these writers against their nagging tedium — for instance he admits to finding Kafka interesting, certainly “important”…but too boring to read for more than a few pages. He also admits to not having read the stories shown to him by his friend and admirer Bruno Shultz, but only gave plausible, vague reactions to them at the time. Shultz went on to deliver what is still the most important and discerning analysis of Ferdydurke in a 1938 review that is included in The Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schultz; he was shot and killed by a Gestapo officer early on in the war, cutting short his extremely promising career. Shultz’s collections of fantastic short stories, as well as his masochistic erotic drawings, gained him deserved posthumous fame.

Throughout the Diary, Gombrowicz wrestles with Sartre and existentialism, the main intellectual current at the time. Despite the acknowledged similarities he finds with his own thought, he finds he must depart from it insofar as Sartre’s intellectual edifice pretends to be an ethics — that is, insofar as it seems to offer any kind of guidelines for conduct and experience:


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

Perhaps I was close to choosing an existence, which they call authentic — in contrast to a frivolous temporal life, which they call banal. That is how great the pressure of seriousness is from all sides. Today, in today’s raw times, there is no thought or art which does not shout to you in a loud voice: don’t escape, don’t play, don’t poke fun at yourself, don’t run away! Fine. I, too, in spite of everything, would also prefer not to lie to my own being. I, therefore, tried this authentic life, full of loyalty to existence in myself. But what do you want? It can’t be done. It can’t be done because that authenticity turned out to be falser than all my previous deceptions, games, and leaps taken together. I, with my artistic temperament, don’t understand much theory, but I do have a nose when it comes to style. 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?

Aspects of Gombrowicz’s philosophy also harmonize with the structuralism of Foucault. He writes somewhere in the Diary that he rejects any philosophy that doesn’t make a place for the body. Indeed there is a subtle eroticism (auto-, homo-) which pervades all of his work, but it is always deformed or twisted (though not squalid, as in W.S. Burroughs) or disguised. The eroticism is hinted at, suggested, then shied-away-from in the manner of victorian or a prude — which is all part of Gombrowicz’s comic writing persona. He assumes the anachronistic voice of a rural squire. (This enables him for instance to write Cosmos, a novel having masturbation as one of its central themes, and yet never even use the word; instead he relies on allusion, ‘cutesy’ neologisms, and a kind of burlesque winking, to hilarious effect.) In his first novel, Ferdydurke, the narrator’s childish but slightly less repressed sidekick leads him on a Quixotic quest out into the rural environs of Warsaw in search of a simple, rustic stable lad with whom to “fra…ternise”; all the while it remains unclear just what the nature of this “fra…ternization” is — to what extent it is homoerotic, to what extent it is a kind of liberal gesture toward the ‘common man.’