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Unsentimental Journey

Absurdism, modernity, and Eastern European identity in the work of Witold Gombrowicz


East European writers, as we have been told for years, are moral legislators of their people. They are supposed to stand like immovable rocks in the turbulent sea of the region's history. On a closer look, however, they appear, with a few notable exceptions, to be a strangely mercurial and unstable lot. It is not uncommon to see the same defender of absolute truths transform himself over the years from a devout Catholic into a zealous Stalinist, a dissenting Marxist, a leftist liberal, a free-market libertarian, a communitarian conservative and back into a devoted Catholic, all the while insisting upon an aura of uncompromising moral authority.

From his first literary attempts in the late 1920s until his death in 1969, the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz not only avoided those strange intellectual vicissitudes, but also offered a rather plausible explanation of the East European phenomenon in his own radical philosophy of endlessly shifting, transforming selfhood. In his three-volume Diary, published in English not long ago by Northwestern University Press and considered by many his most accomplished work, Gombrowicz advanced a theory that Polish writers are individuals only in a superficial sense. They are, in fact, social institutions, he claimed, "inhibited by something impersonal, superior, inter-human and collective emanating from the milieu ... Polish thought, Polish mythology, the Polish psyche." Overwhelmed by their sense of importance and duty, they almost never feel free to develop their own spirits and become masters of their imaginations.

In a country like Poland, suggested Gombrowicz, one does not become a writer to express something personal and authentic—a vision, an idea. One chooses the role of a writer and then looks around for a vision or an idea that at a given moment serves the writer's Promethean task. As a result, those who selflessly devote themselves to some high communal ideal are likely to change that ideal with every turn of history. On the other hand, those who choose the path of self-centered individualism, like Gombrowicz himself, often turn out more consistent and solid, as artists and as men. The self, even a transforming and capricious one, is a more powerful moral anchor, claimed Gombrowicz, than any abstract "system" imposed on the individual by the cultural milieu.

Gombrowicz built his literary reputation on many such paradoxes. He was a Polish writer who did not care much for Polish literature, a modernist who derided most of the major currents of modernity and a skeptical, dialectical mind with moralistic inclinations. In the 1970s some critics tried to present him as a forerunner of postmodernism, but in his own time he did not fit into any category. The fact that he spent most of his creative life in Argentina, a most unlikely place for a Polish writer, seems retrospectively quite logical, almost providential.

Trans-Atlantyk, Gombrowicz's first work written in exile and published in 1952 in Paris, is an autobiographical fantasy about his first days in Argentina. The real trip was almost as bizarre as the one described in the novel. On the eve of World War II, a young writer with only one novel to his credit, and a reputation for being a cynic and a jester, Gombrowicz was invited by the Polish government to take part in the maiden voyage of the ocean liner Boleslaw Chrobry. Together with another young writer he was to be paraded before the Polish community in Argentina as an "ambassador of Polish culture." It remains a mystery why the Polish government invited Gombrowicz to take part in this trip, and why the writer accepted the dubious assignment. Gombrowicz's irreverence toward national solemnities, and his unconventional literary style, surreal and conceptual at once, made him a strange choice for a literary envoy to conservative Polish estancieros in Argentina. Besides, war was inevitable, and one would expect the Polish government to have had more important things on its mind.

Indeed, war broke out, a few days after the Chrobry docked in Buenos Aires. Overcome by the absurdity of the situation, and by the empty patriotic rhetoric of his travel companions, Gombrowicz decided to stay in Argentina rather than return to Europe. Yet the role of a wretched emigré lost in the Argentinean pampa seemed to him equally absurd, and it required a radical gesture. "I felt anachronistic, draped in an antique style, entangled in some sort of almost ancient scleroticism—and this cheered me up so much that I immediately commenced writing something that was to have been an antiquated memoir from that time," he recalled many years later. "In my position it was important to write something quickly which could be translated and published in foreign languages. Or, if I wanted to write something for the Poles, something which didn't injure their national pride." Instead Gombrowicz produced a novel that was practically untranslatable, and that went to great lengths to offend its Polish readers. "What a luxury I permitted myself in my misery!" marveled the author in an interview given near the end of his life. 

One has to commend the English translators of the book, Carolyn French and Nina Karsov, for tackling the challenge with daring and grace. For the challenge is considerable: the style of Trans-Atlantyk is a parody of the seventeenth-century Polish tale developed as an oral genre by the Polish gentry. Later on it acquired the status of the style most representative of the worst and the best features of the "Polish mentality" as it was envisioned by the Romantic myth-makers. This style, boastful and hyperbolic, full of bizarre neologisms and grammatical monstrosities, was said to convey the rugged pastoral chivalry, the verbal jingoism and the drunken fantasy of provincial Polish squires. The original Polish tales from that time were usually fantastic narratives about military exploits, or, like Gombrowicz's novel, picaresque stories about travels to remote and fantastic lands. 

The translators point out that, in their search for an English equivalent, they reached for the language of Samuel Pepys and the lesser prose writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The result is a highly inventive linguistic mixture that conveys much of the energy and the self-parody of the original. By no fault of the translators, however, it lacks the rich historical associations and the literary references of Gombrowicz's work. This is unfortunate, because most of the novel's meaning is conveyed through particular resonances of its language. Retold in uncontemporary English, the episodes of the story may sound too much like the antiquated farce they were supposed to mock.

In one of the opening scenes, the protagonist, who bears Gombrowicz's name, sneaks down the gangway of a ship—the symbolic Polish "ship of state"—departing from Argentina to Poland. With evident relief, he inveighs against its martyred motherland:

Sail, sail, you Compatriots, to your People! Sail to that holy Nation of yours haply Cursed! Sail to that St. Monster Dark, dying for ages yet unable to die! Sail to your St. Freak, cursed by all Nature, ever being born and still Unborn! Sail, sail, so he will not suffer you to Live or Die but will keep you forever between Being and Non-being. Sail to your St. Slug that she may ever the more Enslime you. 

Soon afterward, however, the protagonist falls into the snare set by a group of Argentinean Poles who inflate his literary reputation and set him up for a verbal duel with a local literary celebrity, supposedly to win respect for their country's artistic genius: 

And here Pyckal and the Baron into my ear: "Yoicks, yoicks!" Likewise the Counsellor from the other side: "Yoicks, yoicks, sick him, yoicks!" Say I: "I am not a dog." Whispered the Counsellor: "Sick him, else Shame for he is their most Famous Author and it cannot be that they Celebrate him when the Great Polish Author, Genius is in the room! Bite him, you chitsht, you genius, bite him for if not, we will bite you!

This scene is only the first of many humiliations that befall the bemused hero. No sooner does he manage to elude his literary persecutors than he gets entangled in a bizarre tug-of-war between Colonel Tomasz, a noble Polish gentleman, and Gonzalo, a rich Argentinean homosexual who has set his eyes on Tomasz's young son Ignac. Forced to serve as a procurer, a false friend and a second in a duel, the protagonist is torn between "Patria," the conservative, patriotic and authoritarian world of the father, and "Filistria," the anarchic, morally ambiguous and exciting kingdom of sons, into which Gonzalo tries to lure the innocent Ignac.

As in most novels and dramas by Gombrowicz, the battle for the hero's soul is fought by proxy as a battle for the body of a younger, immature and often "inferior" person. Soon the novelistic "Gombrowicz" discovers that Tomasz, in order to wipe the stain from his Polish honor, designs to kill Ignac with his own hand, while Gonzalo wants to incite Ignac to kill his own father. The plot grows even more fantastic when the hero is kidnapped and forcefully initiated into a secret society called the Order of the Chevaliers of the Spur, which is in search of a sublime crime plot to assassinate the Polish ambassador.

All this would be more than sufficient material for a farce about the phantasmagoric, insecure world of an emigré, and about the Polish proclivity for self-aggrandizement, especially in a time of defeat. Yet the archaic, stylized language of the novel adds a strangely hollow and ominous resonance to the narrative. Its characters resemble miscast actors who are painfully uncomfortable in their roles and try to fill the inner void with the most conventional gestures and rhetoric. Emptiness is the novel's predominant theme. The duel between Tomasz and Gonzalo is fought with empty pistols. Gonzalo's magnificent mansion, though filled with treasures, emanates vacancy and banality. The secret society was created out of a sense of emptiness by a humble accountant. "Empty, empty, empty ..." is the refrain repeated by the protagonist whenever he is called upon to take a moral stance. In the final scene of the novel, the emptiness erupts in a sudden burst of laughter that overpowers the characters and, happily, foils all their murderous plans. Yet the ending seems itself rather empty and inconclusive, as if the writer decided to walk away from his subject instead of striving for some kind of resolution.

Gombrowicz admitted in an interview that one of the aims of the novel was to explode the "Polish legend" and to provoke his compatriots who were living among "chimeras, illusions, phraseology." While in Argentina he was irked by a tendency to turn the Polish tragedy into a political and moral cliché. He once remarked that Poland's problem was less that of "bad press" than of "bad poetry." He was also disturbed by his compatriots' willingness to perpetuate this lachrymose style and constantly to invoke the names of Copernicus, Chopin and Kosciuszko as a claim to the world's sympathy and support. Gombrowicz believed that such behavior was embarrassing and counterproductive. He insisted that the true liberation of Poland should start with the liberation of a Pole from the "Polish legend." Because the legend tightened its grip at times of historical disasters, such liberation required a deliberately crass and provocative gesture: "Like a burst of laughter at a funeral."

And yet Gombrowicz often protested that his contentious and convoluted relationship with his "Polishness" was merely a manifestation of a much more universal question at the heart of his writing. What was at issue in Trans-Atlantyk and his other works, he said, was nothing less than the problem of modern man's identity, or, to use Gombrowicz's favorite term, of his Form. Like most modernists, Gombrowicz believed that modern man, bereft of God and a clear definition of his self, must create himself out of nothingness. Unlike most other modernists, however, he perceived this process neither as a lonely effort of the autonomous human will, nor as a work of anonymous social forces. In his Diary, Gombrowicz wrote: 

I do not deny that the individual is dependent on his milieu—but for me it is far more important, artistically far more creative, psychologically far more profound and philosophically far more disturbing that man is also created by an individual man, by another person. In chance encounters. Every minute of the day.

Man, claimed Gombrowicz, exists only in relation to other men. When left alone he is a shapeless, changeable lump of contradictions. He receives Form—his "self," his character, his multiple public images—in myriads of encounters with others. The persona by which he knows himself, and is known to the world, is defined not within an individual, but in the inter-human space that Gombrowicz called the "inter-human church." The process is philosophically disturbing, says the writer, because no one really controls it—neither the individual nor his environment. Form appears "like a wave made up of a million tiny particles, which takes on a specific form every minute." Thus created, Form is often ridiculous and awkward. Most importantly, however, it is the only thing modern man can hold on to when describing his "identity." There is no "authentic" self that can be "liberated" from Form. Man is always artificial, and his rebellion inevitably turns into a new Form. "Form is not in harmony with the essence of life, but all thought which tries to describe this imperfection also becomes Form and thereby only confirms our striving for it." 

In Gombrowicz's world, disaster strikes when ossified Form becomes the driving force in an individual or a community. As Trans-Atlantyk clearly shows, the aspect of Form that intrigued him most was the "national identity" and the strange claims it often puts on the individual. Yet most of the characters in the novel—the Polish patriots, the literati, the conspirators, even the dandy Gonzalo—seem to be trapped inside several, often contradictory Forms. If there is a darker shadow lurking behind their seemingly comic exploits, it is probably because at the time that Trans-Atlantyk was written Gombrowicz was painfully aware of the destructive force of Form when it becomes a unifying principle in a mass society. In an interview published toward the end of his life, he observed:

I saw with amazement how, with the war, Europe, particularly Central and Eastern Europe, entered a demoniacal period of formal mobilization. The Nazis and the Communists fashioned menacing, fanatical masks for themselves; the fabrication of faiths, enthusiasm and ideals resembled the fabrication of cannons and bombs. Blind obedience and blind faith had become essential, and not only in the barracks. People were artificially putting themselves into artificial states, and everything—even, and above all, reality—had to be sacrificed in order to obtain strength. 

It is quite possible that in his Argentinean exile Gombrowicz experienced the shocking truth of his times more deeply than he was ready to admit: the ideological and political lunacy of the twentieth century could not be adequately explained either by "objective" historical processes, or by a primordial evil of human nature. In fact, it did not seem to have any explanation beyond the "artificial states" of the collective mind that appeared out of nowhere and obliterated individual conscience. "Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so?" asked Gombrowicz. "He kills because others kill. He tortures because others torture."

Yet if there is no escape from Form, as Gombrowicz seemed to believe, how could such tragedies be avoided? There is no clear answer to those questions in Gombrowicz's world. The only clue is the burst of laughter at the end of Trans-Atlantyk. In order to save oneself from the dictatorship of Form, he seems to suggest, modern man has to learn to treat his own ideals, his art, his political doctrines a little bit less seriously. He needs to become aware of the artificiality of all Great Ideas, especially when they compel one to Great Deeds. Only in this way can he transform himself from someone who has Form into someone who creates Form. In 1954, he wrote in his Diary:

To be a concrete man. To be an individual. Not to strive to transform the whole world. To live in the world, changing it only as much as possible from within the reach of my nature. To become real in harmony with my needs, my individual needs.

I do not want to say that collective and abstract thought, that Humanity as such, are not important. Yet a certain balance must be restored. The most modern direction of thought is one that will rediscover the individual man. 

Gombrowicz's message of radical skepticism and individualism, combined with his iconoclasm, made him an anathema among emigré Poles, but—as we learn from an informative introduction by Stanislaw Baranczak—it met with a surprisingly positive response among the young, postwar intelligentsia in Poland, where some of his works started to be available after the thaw of 1956. A writer who sneered at the role of a "committed" intellectual as "too pretentious and too frivolous" became, paradoxically, one of the mentors of the dissenting intelligentsia of the '60s and '70s. Gombrowicz was a perfect antidote to the nationalist pieties that were practically the only available language of anti-Communist opposition. He cautioned against the dangers of excessive loyalty to the East European heritage of doom. He demonstrated that repeated historical disasters have hampered the spiritual development of the region and made the intellectual classes too self-conscious to be really creative, and to achieve the spiritual freedom necessary to oppose collectivist doctrines. 

This attitude, together with Gombrowicz's famous egotism and his disdain for literary idols (he considered Borges "unintelligent" and Proust "full of faults," and even tried to show that Dante's tercets could have been better written), made him delightfully subversive and liberating, especially in the stifling years of decaying communism. In retrospect, however, this iconoclast and intellectual rogue appears almost an apostle of normalcy and moderation. The rediscovery of the individual, the counsel of restraint in national self-adulation, the priority of concrete tasks over abstract ideals: All this sounds like a rather reasonable program for today's Eastern Europe.

In one of his notes Gombrowicz expressed hope that Eastern and Central Europeans would one day assimilate the terrible experiences of the war and the postwar decades and turn them into their intellectual and spiritual capital. Those experiences would not make them any better than the rest of us (Gombrowicz derided the idea that suffering ennobles the spirit), but they would put them in touch with reality, and would allow them to crawl from under their historical myths and build their future according to their ordinary human needs. 

Sadly, in many quarters of the post-Communist world, something akin to a new "formal mobilization" seems to be taking place. It is hard not to see the Yugoslav tragedy, at least psychologically, as the product of an absurd "artificial state" of mind that managed to inflate minor variations of custom and dialect into full-scale "national conflict," and allowed otherwise normal people to kill and to rape their neighbors and co-workers with a clear conscience. Even in less afflicted parts of the region, there are political and intellectual leaders who seem to resemble the hero of Trans-Atlantyk, lost in alien territory, tormented by a sense of vacuity and pursued by the "chimeras, illusions, phraseology" of the past. If Gombrowicz were alive to witness this spectacle, he would probably conclude that the problem of a new identity for his native realm has not yet been resolved. As early as 1957, he wrote that only when his compatriots manage to "get at least one foot out of history" will their future finally come to life.

This article was originally published on December 12, 1994. 

Lede image via Shutterstock.