One or Many Gombrowicz’s?

One or Many Gombrowicz’s?

Michael Goddard
Gombrowicz's Grimaces
Ewa Plonowska Ziarek (editor)
SUNY Press, 1998. 327 pages.
Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz's Fiction with Lacan
Hanjo Berressem
Northwestern University Press, 1998. 352 pages.

On twentieth-century Poland’s leading author.

Gombrowicz and Reception

Considered by many Polish critics as the most important Twentieth Century Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz (1904-69), remains relatively little known in the English speaking world. Nevertheless, his experimentation with “form,” not only in literature but also in the way he lived his life, makes his work particularly resonant with contemporary questions of aesthetics, desire, and subjectivity. What is particularly evident in both these recent responses to his work is a dynamic relationship between Gombrowicz’s literary production, contemporary theory, and social and cultural practices, especially through the subversion of national and sexual identity. In order to situate the various responses to Gombrowicz contained in these two volumes, it is necessary first to indicate some of his work’s reception history both in Poland and elsewhere in order to underline the already multiple and complex nature of Gombrowicz as a literary and cultural phenomenon.

Reception was a feature of Gombrowicz’s work from its very beginnings; after entitling his first collection of stories Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity, he was accused by contemporary literary critics of the very immaturity he had indicated in the title of his collection. Incensed by this critical response, Gombrowicz went on the offensive in his next and most influential work, the novel Ferdydurke, which was conceived primarily as a counter-attack against these “literary Aunts,” whom he satirised through the memorable and infantilising figure of the pedagogue Professor T. Pimko.

These polemics against his critics were only the beginning of the complexities of Gombrowicz’s reception, which took place in diverse cultural and literary contexts. For example, whereas his first novel Ferdydurke was considered as an avant-gardist expression of intoxication by pre-war literary critics, in the context of the post-war People’s Republic of Poland it was read as the epitome of sobriety and a cogent critique of totalitarian regimes of power. Similarly in the France of the late 1960’s, Gombrowicz could be read as both the uncanny precursor to May 1968, particularly through his affirmation of youth and immaturity, and as the spearhead of a right-wing, libertarian rejection of all forms of collectivity in the name of the sovereign individual, especially by Dominique De Roux (1978, 1996). Throughout his career Gombrowicz was seen as resonant with diverse intellectual movements such as psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and as a precursor to existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism. As Jean-Pierre Salgas puts it, Gombrowicz’s relations to contemporary intellectual trends can be summed up by the formula “J’etais… avant tout le monde” (Salgas 2000: 217-234). What is significant about this reception history, is both the multiplicity of Gombrowicz’s work, the fact that it can be seen as embodying diverse and sometimes directly opposed political or intellectual positions, and its proximity to contemporary developments in thought itself. While Gombrowicz was always an artist, rather than a philosopher, his work develops out of a strong engagement with the history of philosophy and is inscribed in the intersection between literature, philosophy, and socio-cultural practices in a particularly hybrid way as is evidenced by the series of “lectures” he gave on the history of philosophy towards the end of his life (Gombrowicz 1995).

Gombrowicz’s Grimaces: Aesthetics, Exile and Provocations

Gombrowicz’s Grimaces is usefully divided into three sections, which help to identify three dimensions of his work or rather three domains of critical intervention with it. In the first section “Aesthetics,” the essays engage with “formal” aspects, which in the case of Gombrowicz entails not merely the pre-existent concept of literary form but rather various critical approaches to Gombrowicz’s interrogation of form itself.

Tomislav Longinović focuses on the strategies at play not in Gombrowicz’s literary works but in the series of interviews he did with Dominique De Roux towards the end of his life entitled A Kind of Testament. The intimate relations between Gombrowicz’s work and the history of philosophy are emphasised by Longonović, who compares this work to Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. However, Longinović is more interested in what he calls “strategies of formal abjection” (Ziarek 33ff) present throughout Gombrowicz’s work and which he relates to Julia Kristeva’s conception of the abject. Essentially, these strategies involve the subversion of subjectivity so that the authorial “I” is deprived of its stability and authority in favour of a much more mobile and ungrounded form of identity. As Longinović points out, the question of identity, of the “I” in Gombrowicz is intimately bound up with that of form: “Gombrowicz’s testament is shaped by the struggle to formulate the ‘I’ according to the authorial desire that is placed in perpetual conflict with established forms” (Ziarek 35). However, the strength of Longinović’s analysis is that he doesn’t merely reduce Gombrowicz to Kristeva’s terms but rather shows how his exploration of abjection takes in completely different dimensions, particularly through his experiences of exile, homosexuality and immersion in the world of impoverished Argentinian youth.

Also in this section is Dorota Głowacka’s treatment of the tensions between Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz, the writer whom Gombrowicz and his critics have regarded as his closest contemporary. Their relations, however, were far from a cosy mutual adoration society, and part of what Głowacka presents is a fascinating piece of intellectual history concerning the humorous yet serious polemics between the two writers that took place in the avant-garde journal Studio. Głowacka’s reading of this seemingly inconsequential debate, uncovers fundamental differences related to the different cultural traditions inherited by the two writers, namely Polishness and Jewishness: for example whereas as Schulz’s fiction presents a fascination for the magical power of the written word, embodied both in the figure of the primordial Book, as well as in Schulz’s own style, Gombrowicz’s aesthetic aims for a destruction and demystification of this power in favour of the raw or even banal forms of life that are covered over by poetic literary conventions. As Głowacka puts it, “Gombrowicz inflates form from within until it quivers and allows for a transient moment of ‘flight from form,’ while Schulz presses upon it from the outside, inundating it with leftovers it has itself discarded or excreted” (79). In the end we have not merely the contrast between two distinct traditions but a very contemporary analysis of their intertwining, and how via these two visionary writers, they achieve markedly different, yet interacting modes of expression.

In the middle section of the book, a variety of approaches are taken specifically to the relations between Gombrowicz’s work, modernity, and exile. This includes a detailed analysis of Gombrowicz’s exile in Argentina and his (non)-relation to Argentinian literature by Marzena Grzegorczyk, which points out his paradoxical effect on avant-garde Argentinian literature. For Grzegorczyk, Gombrowicz’s exile in Argentina was essential for his development of the concept of Form, since it enabled him to develop a new understanding of Polish culture as a related `secondary’ culture with a distinctly different relation to national form than cultures emerging out of France or Germany. While not assimilating the experience of being on the margins of Europe to the postcolonial context of Latin America, for Gombrowicz, the latter was a liberating force, allowing the minoritarian nature of Polishness to emerge more clearly. Grzegorczyk points out how this national specificity is expressed in Gombrowicz’s deliberate adoption of the discarded aesthetics of the Polish Baroque, which he transformed into a kind of “garbage aesthetics” (142ff) particularly resonant with the literary situation of a country like Argentina.

Gombrowicz’s singular mode of being an exile is taken up also by Piotr Parlej; after all, going back to the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, exile has been almost a Polish literary tradition. However, Gombrowicz’s experience of exile seems to preclude rather than intensify what Parlej identifies as the Polish tendency towards lyricism. For Parlej, nearly all contemporary Polish dissident writers adopted a kind of anti-dialectical lyricism, in order to escape the orbit of the communist regime, which fed off a corrupted version of Hegelian dialectics; for Zbigniew Herbert, for example, the assertion of “good taste” (161) is sufficient to distance oneself both from the regime and from any potential criticism. Gombrowicz, in contrast, rather than leaving the dialectic to its transformation into hollow political rhetoric, seeks to re-invent it through a collision of opposites in a dynamic process of re-invention. Hence the dialectic as embodied in Gombrowicz’s key concepts of form and immaturity is not so much Hegelian as Nietzschean, or even as Parlej points out a Foucauldian interplay of competing but contingent forces rather than stable oppositions (169ff). According to Parlej, by means of this reworking of the dialectic Gombrowicz is able to maintain an intellectual rigour, fully adapted to the uncertainties of modern conditions, which is beyond the reach of the writers who take the easier option of dissident lyricism.

The final and most controversial section of the book deals with Gombrowicz’s relation to queer and national problematics and indeed it is his provocative linking of these two domains that is arguably his most original contribution to modern dilemmas of subjectivity and desire. Not surprisingly, this is the section of the book that has posed the most problems of translation back into the Polish context in both a literal and figurative sense: not only is there no precise Polish equivalent for both the word and the cultural politics designated by `Queer,’ but this term itself embodies the strange relationship between the North American and Polish literary and cultural contexts.

Allen Kuharski’s essay, for example, explicitly claims Gombrowicz as a “queer voice in Polish literature” (267). Finding evidence for this assertion is not difficult: both in Gombrowicz’s Diary (1988: 89, 93), especially when he writes of his Argentinian experiences, and in the works that transform these experiences into literature, in which there is a singular lack of or derision of heterosexual couplings, and a constant vein of homoeroticism. For Kuharski, it is not merely a case of finding these instances but pointing out a whole logic of queer performativity that while traversing all of Gombrowicz’s work is particularly evident in his theatre. This emphasis on performativity draws parallels between Gombrowicz’s approach to performance, and contemporary theories of gender as performativity such as those of Judith Butler, and is a very telling example of the relevance of Gombrowicz’s aesthetics to contemporary problematics of gender and desire. What is most controversial about Kuharski’s essay however, particularly for Polish critics, is Kuharski’s reading of Gombrowicz’s “confessions” of homosexuality in his Diary (142) in relation to the memories of Gombrowicz’s friend Virgilio Pinera as retold in Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls. The play of intertextuality is very dense here; not only are there the conflicting accounts between an avowedly “artificial” and at times fictional journal and the memories of a flamboyant raconteur retold in the form of a historical fiction, but there is also further interpenetration of art and life in that Piñera was the model for the explicitly homosexual character in Gombrowicz’s novel Trans-Atlantyk. Yet there is also a sense in which Kuharski at this point seems to be outing Gombrowicz, a gesture which runs the risk of undermining the gender complexity of the rest of his essay.

Finally, Ewa Ziarek’s complex essay on Gombrowicz’s most explicitly queer novel, Trans-Atlantyk, brings these problematics of a queer reading of Gombrowicz into relation with some of the earlier essays by emphasising Gombrowicz’s recourse to the Polish Baroque and the relations between queer subjecitivty and the experience of exile (215). One crossing point of these domains is in Gombrowicz’s use of a re-worked Polish Baroque style in Trans-Atlantyk. Ziarek points out that this was not an arbitrary choice but a conscious strategy, in which the politics of nationalism is criticised through “juxtaposing the modern experience of queer eroticism in exile with the obsolete aesthetics of the Baroque” (215). For Ziarek these are two dangerous tropes that the Romantic mythology of Polish martyrdom cannot contain, made all the more potent by their combination. Drawing on Deleuze, Ziarek shows that the Baroque operates in Gombrowicz’s work as an undoing of a national signifying economy, the tragic and romantic matrix that underlies the “imagined community” of Polish patriotism. But this baroque and carnivalesque laughter in the face of tragedy is also the expression of Gombrowicz’s ambiguous status as an exile, which Ziarek analyses using Kristeva’s work on the foreigner (Kristeva 1991). For both Kristeva and Gombrowicz the situation of the exile simultaneously exarcebrates national identifications and is an aberration from them. According to Ziarek, however, Gombrowicz adds another dimension to Kristeva’s analysis, by insisting that national identifications are based on the opposition between heterosexual and homosexual forms of masculinity, and thus on the “homophobic logic of nationality” (Ziarek 229). Therefore both the subversion of sexual identity and the subversion of literary style through the recourse to the Baroque are inextricably linked as strategies to undermine conventional and patriarchal forms of belonging in favour of an opening towards an unknowable and yet to be determined futurity; an opening that, particularly given current political events, has relevance well beyond the socio-historical context that is dealt with in the novel.

Lines of Desire or Putting Gombrowicz on the Couch

Hanjo Berressem’s book, Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz’s Fiction with Lacan, in relation to Gombrowicz’s Grimaces, presents a surprisingly systematic attempt to analyse all of Gombrowicz’s novels according to a Lacanian framework. Each chapter deals with a specific novel and even begins with a section that outlines the plot and structure of each literary narrative, including the specific way each novel corresponds to the Lacanian categories of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. This is even more surprising given the dizzying array of elements evident in his essay contained in the Ziarek collection, which moves with apparent ease from Hegel and Kant, through Lacan and Deleuze, to concepts derived from contemporary science such as catastrophe theory. However, the essay’s multiplication of references is in fact the flipside of the book’s systems approach and organization, which allows for multiple reference points and conceptual frameworks whether taken from European literature, the history of philosophy or contemporary science.

So, in a sense Berressem’s book, like Ziarek’s collection, attempts to negotiate the dynamics of singularity and multiplicity in Gombrowicz’s work, but comes up with an inverse method; instead of the assemblage of multiple perspectives on Gombrowicz’s work that converge around certain key problematics, Berressem poses a unity, that nevertheless interweaves multiple approaches and conceptual frameworks. Certainly (and inevitably) a different Gombrowicz emerges here, who is no less a poststructuralist avant la lettre, but who is not so much a cultural activist as a systematic creator of a philosophical system. While it is certainly possible to dispute Berressem’s method, the quality and detail of his analyses, as well as his engagement with complex theoretical apparatus including, but not limited to, Lacanian theory, is highly sophisticated and productive. As with Gombrowicz’s Grimaces, this is no mere application of theory to a body of work but a veritable encounter between text and theory in which both are transformed and made to reveal new dimensions. If, in the end Berressem’s project reduces to a psycho-analytic framework, it nevertheless, along with the best essays in Ziarek’s collection, opens up new perspectives not only in relation to Gombrowicz but for literary criticism more generally; along with their other virtues, both these volumes emphatically call for a re-vitalisation of literary criticism and new ways of bringing theory, literary texts, and social practices into productive and dynamic relations. This re-vitalization is very much in keeping with the reading Gombrowicz’s work itself, which the appearance of these two excellent volumes is no doubt already encouraging in the English-speaking world.

works cited

Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Trans Delores M. Koch. New York: Viking, 1993.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

De Roux, Dominique. Gombrowicz. Paris: Christian Bourgeois Editeur, 1978,1996.

Gombrowicz, Witold. A Kind of Testament. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.

–Bakakai, (Republication of Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity). Trans. Allan Kosko and Georges Sédir. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1998.

Cours de Philosophie en Six Heures et Quart, Paris: Éditions Payot et Rivages, 1995.

Diary: Volumes I-III. Trans. Lillian Vallee. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988, 1989, 1993.

Ferdydurke. Trans. Danuta Borchardt. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Trans-Atlantyk. Trans. Carolyn French and Nina Karsov. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo, The Portable Nietzsche. Ed and trans. Walter Kaufmann. London: Penguin, 1968.

Salgas, Jean-Pierre. Gombrowicz ou L’Athéisme Genéralisé, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2000.