Witold Gombrowicz's shape-shifting Diary proposes an antiphilosophical philosophy
When Witold Gombrowicz departed Poland on the liner Chrobry in 1939, he was a minor literary figure unknown beyond his native country, the author of a collection of short stories, a play that virtually no one reviewed, and the novel Ferdydurke, his absurdist provocation that offered him a toehold among the more progressive critics and intellectuals in Warsaw. That July, Gombrowicz set sail for Argentina on the maiden voyage of the newly christened Chrobry as part of a cultural tour for the Polish government. The ship reached Buenos Aires a month later, just as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was announced. A week later, when Germany invaded Poland and the ship was given the order to return at once, Gombrowicz made an apparently last-minute and fateful decision to stay in Argentina, which spared him the terrors of wartime Poland but left him in a country where he was cut off from his livelihood, not to mention the culture and language of his native country. Like any number of those displaced by the war, he faced a future of extreme penury.
Gombrowicz’s displacement in Argentina is one of the mythical tales of European writers in exile, a rival and counterpart to Stefan Zweig’s suicidal dead end in Brazil, or to the Germans who amassed in California, some, like Brecht, to return after 1945, others to make an uneasy peace in their new, New World homes. Yet the tale of Gombrowicz’s exilic life in South America has a more quixotic cast than any of these. His hasty decision was––as critics such as John Bayley have noted—almost an impulse to maroon himself, like Conrad’s Lord Jim.
The place Gombrowicz set down in across the ocean—a country “distant from all that, exotic and forgiving, indifferent and given up to its own everydayness,” he writes in his three-volume Diary—provided him with a geographic correlate to imagine the earthy embrace of “immaturity” he had put into antic, fictional form in Ferdydurke.
From the first, I fell in love with the catastrophe that I hated, that, after all, also ruined me. My nature told me to greet it as an opportunity to join with inferiority in darkness. . . . What happened? Yes. I have to confess this: under the influence of the war, the strengthening of the “inferior” and regressive powers, an eruption of some sort of belated youth took place in me. I fled to youth in the face of defeat and slammed the door.
Gombrowicz’s love affair with his “catastrophe” would not be a fling. For another eighteen years after the cessation of the war, he opted to remain in Argentina, where he struggled to feed himself, far from Warsaw, far from Paris, where much of the Polish intelligentsia had gathered, where the émigré review Kultura published his novel Trans-Atlantic and his playThe Marriage in the early ’50s, and where the French translation of Ferdydurke in 1958 brought him international acclaim. As for Poland, he never stepped foot in it again, though seemingly every aspect of its literary, artistic, and political culture fired his thought and the pages that fill the Diary up to his death in 1969.
Gombrowicz was forty-nine when the installments of his Diary—a stream of parody, vituperation, provocation, high-pitched buffoonery, pointed literary criticism, sophisticated rants, philosophical investigation, and laconic autobiography––began appearing in Kultura. It provided an audience that he entertained and goaded in equal parts and a platform that announced itself as the private thoughts of an increasingly public man but was as literary in self-conscious ambition as any novel or play. “You may think that my method [in the Diary] is ‘confession’—a confession of immaturity or of a desire for superiority and maturity—sincerity, self-revelation,” he wrote in 1968. “This is far from being the case. Literature wriggles away like an eel. What would become of the eel if you caught it? You’d eat it. Literature and the eel live as long as they succeed in wriggling away.”
Few texts are quite as effective at wriggling away from the reader as Gombrowicz’s Diary. From day to day, the author reflected on an encyclopedic range of topics: Marxism, the Catholic Church, the power brokers of existentialism who were happy to count Gombrowicz as a kind of unwitting ambassador, the unhappy fate of Poland, exile, the exotic but lonely landscape of Argentina, homosexuality, art. Whatever confessions fill these pages, they are as philosophical as they are personal, though in Gombrowicz’s universe the two can never be neatly separated. It would slight his arsenal of caustic bad humor to say he reserved the driest of his ammunition for those who would philosophize from on high, but he savaged the engagé model of the intellectual with special glee whenever the occasion arose. Look at how he pulled the rug out from under Sartre:
When I applied maximum consciousness to life, in an attempt to found my existence on [authenticity], 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.
This dismissal of all philosophy “speculated in isolation from life” would carry much less of a spark had it not come from a writer who had studied philosophy as a young man in Paris, whose Ferdydurke was championed as a kind of naive but no less sage anticipation of the postwar gospels holding sway on the Left Bank, who in fact peddled a course in philosophy in Buenos Aires as a way to help supplement his income. Yet how decisively Gombrowicz lets the air out of the philosophical balloon! The spiky brilliance and episodes of vivid experience that share the pages of the Diary with essay-length reflections give the collection as a whole a restive, fugitive rhythm. Their errant quality contributes to the sense that their author is impossible to pin down, an eel we can’t catch.
The Diary now being published by Yale brings together in a single edition the three volumes that appeared in English in Lillian Vallee’s ambitious translations in the late ’80s and early ’90s . They aren’t new renderings, but they unite the out-of-print, difficult-to-find versions published by Northwestern University Press and restore a handful of entries (mostly mildly critical snipes at the Soviet Union) that were not included in the earlier translations, based on the Polish edition of the work. In her foreword to the edition, Gombrowicz’s widow, Rita, notes that the author took care to prepare the work for its final subsequent publication. Though written to appear in Kultura, and unfolding in installments, the entries read as though their author had in mind an epic creation when he first put pen to paper in the early months of 1953.
Long sections of the first volume of the Diary are devoted to Gombrowicz’s experiences in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, he shuns the literary salons and frequents instead the working-class area of Retiro, where he takes advantage of the rough-trade atmosphere of sailors and the louche pleasures of handsome, youthful boys. He is fascinated by the scenery not just of urban Buenos Aires but of rural South America, and his entries provide lengthy and frequently airy descriptions of the wild vistas, where the rawness of the elements and the strangeness of the topography provide a kind of primordial distinctiveness to the Europe left behind. He often movingly writes of the loneliness of his life in Argentina and his struggle to find a means of support. Although when he finally finds employment at a Polish-owned bank in Buenos Aires, he complains that it limits his writing to a Sunday-afternoon affair.
Against this backdrop, Gombrowicz greeted the project of the Diary as a serendipitous form of almost heroic self-invention. “I must become my own commentator, even better, my own theatrical director,” he wrote to the Kultura editor to whom he proposed the project. “I have to create Gombrowicz the thinker, Gombrowicz the genius, Gombrowicz the cultural demonologist, and many other necessary Gombrowiczes.” The playfulness of self-invention is the striking first impression of the Diary. In its most famous instance, Gombrowicz begins with a ludic stab at a thesis statement:
Indulgently mocking the pretensions of a diary, he returns again and again to the almost-comic construction of the self-presentation while casting doubts on the whole enterprise. “I write this diary reluctantly,” he admits to the reader early on. “Its dishonest honesty wearies me. For whom am I writing? If I am writing for myself, then why is it being published? If for the reader, why do I pretend that I am talking to myself? Are you talking to yourself so that others will hear you?”
Yet he coyly keeps his audience abreast of his day-to-day existence in Argentina, his chess matches at a café, the bargain he got on a set of summer shirts (so good he picks up six of them), his encounter with a con-artist photographer who steals a painter’s coat at the opening of an exhibition, his sarcastic retort to the society woman who congratulates him on the new seriousness of his writing. He interrupts philosophical passages with an entry like the one reporting on a Thursday in 1954: “I got up, as usual, around ten o’clock and ate breakfast: tea with ladyfingers, then Quaker Oats. Letters: one from Litka in New York, the other from JelenŽski in Paris. . . . At three, coffee and a ham sandwich.” More coffee follows, then a dinner of soup, steak, and potatoes, a salad, and compote, some idle talk about astrology, then a return home to read, followed by bedtime around 3 AM. There’s a kind of bravado banality to the picture Gombrowicz presents, but he’s happier playing the jester than succumbing to the demand that he stick to the agenda of responsibility forced upon him as a Polish intellectual (even one by default) in a politically explosive time. Yet the banality concealed a higher purpose as well: “Art consists of writing not what one has to say,” he concludes a run-of-the-mill report of a pleasant visit to a friend’s estancia, where he entertains the children by making funny faces, “but something altogether unexpected.”
Wherever those expectations lurked, Gombrowicz took pains to explode them. He was particularly nimble at tossing bombs at the Polish writers, critics, and intellectuals who read Kultura. He happily detonated every claim of nationalism, the purported patrimony of Romanticism, and the appointed burden of being called forth to represent the case for Poland in international letters. He bristled at the idea that there was any particular debt of responsibility to the homeland, and even more vehemently argued that the dilemma of the Polish writer was in accepting what he saw as the country’s immaturity, its marginality, as a version of strength. How was any artistic authenticity imaginable if it issued from the bad faith of “unexploited Polish possibilities”? Instead, Gombrowicz trumpeted his desire to lead “the Pole out of himself.” “My attitude to Poland is a consequence of my attitude to form: I would like to elude Poland as I elude style, I would like to soar above Poland, as above style, here and there, my task is the same.”
But what does it mean to elude Poland and to elude style? Gombrowicz’s writings in theDiary attempt to answer that unanswerable question by eluding the trappings of “abstract essences” and philosophical, theological, or aesthetic ideologies wherever they appeared. Whether writing on nationalism, Catholicism, Communism, or anti-Communism, he was systematic in his antisystematic arguments:
Either a person is someone or not—one cannot fabricate oneself artificially. In independent Poland, the artificial fabrication of existence became an ever more frequent substitute for a genuine existence: these intellectuals and artists tried to be someone with this arrière-pensée in order to simply be. To believe in God not because it is a necessity of the soul, but because faith strengthens. To be a nationalist not from nature and conviction but because it is necessary to a good life. To have ideals not because one carries them in one’s blood but because they “organize things.” All of them searched feverishly for some sort of form so they wouldn’t disintegrate . . . and I would have had nothing against this, if they had had the courage to admit what they were doing and if they had not deceived themselves.
Was Gombrowicz’s consistency across the span of the Diary ultimately accountable to a kind of rigorous philosophical stance against all manifestations of what he called Form, which social conventions impressed on human, all-too-human freedom? Or was there a still more elemental gadfly impulse to Gombrowicz’s ambitions to perturb at every chance in his Diary? Behind the mask, does the face belong to Zarathustra or Père Ubu? With theDiary the answer seems to be both, and what makes reading the volumes such a provocative experience is that Gombrowicz pulls off his act of double ventriloquy at once while speaking in a style that is firmly his own. Reading the Diary, you begin to feel you know Gombrowicz fully well and not at all. Which seems the aspect of Diary’s achievement that might have pleased the writer more than any other: Late in life he noted that critics had proposed a schematic adumbration of all the topics his Diary covered—from politics to aesthetics to the most solipsistic observations—to cut through its stylistic promiscuity. He had no quarrel with seeing the Diary indexed in that user’s-guide sort of way, provided, however, that all the categories were “well mixed up.” For indeed, “my diary is a hodgepodge,” he wrote, “and nearly every single sentence can serve several gods at the same time.”
Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum and currently the president of the National Book Critics Circle.