Ars Poetica

Echoes of Gombrowicz’s Sensibility: Form and Chaos
How do we come to our senses? Who are we?

“…I actually thought it unseemly to pass over in silence the callow youth inside me, and I thought grown-ups far too perspicacious and clear-sighted to be so easily taken in, and, finally, I thought that anyone so closely beset by the callow youth inside him had no right to make a public appearance without him.” Ferdydurkek i

“’Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life is a mimicry, their passions quotations.’ And he might have added: ‘That’s why most people lack style.’” Oscar Wilde quote in italics. ii

The outré wit Oscar Wilde sensed in advance of the twentieth century the problem that beset Witold Gombrowicz in the way that people seemed to want a person’s character and personality shaped or fit into a well-behaved, mature conventional style or form. Therefore, the interior immature “real” self needs to be hidden beneath the masks of the adopted self-confident mature exterior. Oscar Wilde was obviously one who did not at all hide his unconventionality—well-behaved, respectable, or not—rather he flaunted his one-off-man-ship. In many respects, Witold Gombrowicz was an outré personality in his eccentricities as an avant-garde novelist and, without doubt, sui generis in his experimental styles of prose which were his art. Does his art and his idea about the flux of human nature somehow presage the society and politics of the 21st century? Acting outrageously or outré in fashions or idiosyncratic artistic manners has without doubt become stylistic, whether in the streets or in the political scene. (I would like to take this up at the conclusion of this essay.)

First, however, I will consider other voices regarding the idea of acting fully oneself, allowing the interior self to show itself boldly rather than hiding it by pretension. Outside the world of celebrities and artists, we are more used to persons in social and work life minding their place for security of employment and acceptance as well-adjusted human beings. We see every day what happens when someone is caught acting outrageously—namely, the Trump, Cosby, Weinstein “lady-killing” antics, the verbal or sexual faux-pas of politicians, TV personalities, news commentators, etc. For local social harmony to prevail, most of us put on our polite masks and behave accordingly. It simply wouldn’t do–would it?—if everyone tested the bounds of freedom. Ha! No, certainly not in America, the so-called land of the free! Oh, the criticism we fear, should we act out fully and freely our genuine selves, our faulty, not-so-fully-developed mature selves! Life is so damned various, as Gombrowicz says of the flux:

“What a curse it is that there is no permanent, stable order of things in our life on this planet, that everything in it is in perpetual motion, continual flux, that it is necessary for everyone to be understood and appreciated by his neighbor, and that what fools and simpletons and oafs think of us is as important as the opinions of the wise, the subtle, the acute! For at heart man depends on the picture of himself formed in the minds of others, even if the others are half-wits.” Ferdydurke iii

The Freedom of Poverty

Back in his time, Gombrowicz felt he had no choice but to find his rightful place as an émigré artist however he pleased or felt himself disposed in accordance with what made life “real” rather than playing artificial or artistic games in a hypocritical manner. His impoverished, mostly solitary life in Argentina helped him to shape his philosophy of writing and art, and periodically he was fortunate to find publication. He seemed to keep free from debt obligations by keeping to himself, saving himself for gifts through friendship. Émigrés do free themselves from homegrown values and prejudices. His actual life and behavior was hidden from view, save what he divulged in his episodically published Diary, which was as much essayist from his thinking and imaginative world as mere observations and accounts of daily doings, the nut-and-bolts travails of his making-do in new life experiences. To seek freedom in another culture and society was to be free of the strait-jacketing by the rules and traditional forms, habits that his Polish family, society and culture foisted upon him.

Freedom, truly going beyond bounds of even decency, can unfortunately seem very close to chaos and perversion, especially in the perpetuation of youthful or immature drives and solipsistic motivations when and where dignified and appropriate behaviors are still expected and respected as norms. Chaos is, however, the front that faces the future, and if you want something new, something different, you have to face the unknown, just as we Americans face the unknowable future with a totally free-wheeling, quixotic president, who many perceive as getting away with nearly everything he damned well pleases. What come-uppance will there be for his excesses? The patterns of politics have been broken.

In this edition of essays, this being Part 4, on the art and experience of Witold Gombrowicz, I would like to open, as I mentioned, an exploration of other writers’ thoughts on the problem of finding one’s place in society. What does it mean to be one’s own self? This will be presented as a sampling, not a thorough investigation.

Oscar’s Right! We are Quotators.

Sorry. I will quote, even, I fear, imitate Mr. Gombrowicz. Down on my knees I go. I apologize. Oh, dear! How arrogantly I may rant and rave! It must seem quite irrational, quite out of bounds of formal scholarship, or journalship, or decent blogship, even WordPressship. What a fleet of fancies I presume to explain!

Chances are—I apologize on my knees again—indeed, there are many quoted passages in what follows. What can it hurt? Oscar Wilde was a Classicist at heart, a wit who may have spoken against those who quoted others’ aphorisms, but who himself would have been wildly delighted to be frequently quoted for his own witty remarks. His turns of phrase so eloquent and witty, he almost forced people to quote him.

Many ways there are that human beings vacillate in their being different selves to save the appearances, to save face, to put on the best face, to put on airs, to fit in, to hide one’s inferiority, to pretend superiority, to put on the style, etc. etc.

To illustrate the prevalence of Witold Gombrowicz’s psychological philosophical concept of finding one’s center—but never quite securing it—between the push and pull of conformity and rebellion in life’s experiences, I have chosen some modern poems and quotations from esteemed, and perhaps not so esteemed, even unknown, authors who corroborate Gombrowicz’s philosophy of human lives lived between the poles of Form and Chaos. Dangers exist on the right and on the left.

Naturally, in the above dichotomy, one can detect a profound structuralist scheme in Gombrowicz’s works, but it was not the highly intellectualized, academic system found in the works of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the exploiters of structuralism for literary analysis. That gets mathematically, symbolically difficult and ambivalent. Furthermore, because of the quixotic maneuvering of human experience, one expects an existential orientation to test one’s hold on the authentic reactive self as one has come to identify its range of styles and intentions. Gombowicz did not always fully comprehend the lay of the land of his art or philosophy. He was familiar with contradictions.

Let me begin as I opened the Retired Men’s Book Club discussion. Lucky I was to find the following gem, a poem by Czesław Miłosz:

1. A Miłosz Poem [ here I underline passages I feel may be Gombrowiczian.]

Ars Poetica?

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry and prose
and would let us understand each another without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing its tail.

That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

What reasonable man would like to be in a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?

It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.

There were times when only wise books were read,
helping us to bear our pains and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
And we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I am saying here is not, I agree, poetry
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
(Translated by Czesław Miłosz and Lillian Vallee) iv

2. André Gide in The Immoralist (1921) illustrates a character, Ménalque, not unlike Gombrowicz’s ideal self, who believes one must find an authentic nature not controlled by others. For example:

     “I began to congratulate him, but he interrupted me at the first words.
      ‘What! You too, my dear Michel! But you didn’t begin by insulting me,’ said he. ‘Leave all that nonsense to the papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself, for I exist only as a whole;
my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in an action I take as a sign that I ought to do it.’
      ‘That may lead far,’ I said.
      ‘Indeed, I hope so,’ answered Ménalque. ‘If only the people we know could persuade themselves of the truth of this! But most of them believe that it is only by constraint that they can get any good out of themselves, and so they live in a state of psychological distortion. Each of them sets up a pattern and imitates it; he doesn’t even choose the pattern he imitates; he accepts a pattern that has been chosen for him. And yet I verily believe there are other things to be read in a man. But people don’t dare to—they don’t dare to turn the page. Law of imitation! Laws of fear, I call them. The fear of finding oneself alone—that is what they suffer from—and so they don’t find themselves at all. I detest such moral agoraphobia—the most odious cowardice, I call it. Why, one always has to be alone to invent anything—but they don’t want to invent anything. The part in each of us that we feel is different from other people is just the part that is rare, the part that makes our special value—and that is the very thing people try to suppress. They go on imitating, and yet they think they love life.’” v

3. Quentin Crisp, biographed in the film “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) and represented again by John Hurt in a later performance as “An Englishman in New York,” vi was an original from his earliest life, though quite similar to Oscar Wilde in his later revelations about the queer life. With the publisher Donald Carroll, he produced a work on Style: definition: “Style is an idiom which arises spontaneously from one’s personality but which is deliberately maintained. Or to put it another way: To be a stylist is to be yourself, but on purpose.” vii Here is an excerpt:

…[N]ever pretend to be what you are not. Even by just a wee bit.Instead you should embrace your limitations. Make them part of your style. If you are basically lazy, don’t make yourself miserable with pointless displays of energy. Follow Oblomov’s example and stay in bed. If reading bores you, don’t spread books and magazines around to advertise your literacy. Rather, empty your place of all reading matter so that the world will know you have lived a life untouched by the printed word. Likewise, if you are indifferent to the glories of art, don’t inflict pictures on your wall to try to cover the gaps in your aesthetic appreciation. Instead, banish from your sight everything suitable for framing. viii

As you can see, there are many ways of expressing Witold Gombrowicz’s dichotomy of Form and Chaos. Once you understand the general idea, many variations will show up.

4. In his memoir on Hillbilly life in Jackson Kentucky, J.D. Vance wrote about his “playing the game” to escape being looked down upon. This is the type of negotiating roles that enables one to escape difficult situations of lying explanations and which can set a pattern of behavior that makes it difficult to know the true self. The inability to stand up for oneself is part of creating a malleable, flaccid character. In Gombowicz’s novels and short stories there are few examples of genuine love and even touching is reserved for rather harsh treatment and masochistic injury. Vance explains of his childhood how love helped determine the self he wanted to be:

“In Ohio, I had grown especially skillful at navigating various father figures. With Steve, a midlife crisis-sufferer with an earring to prove it, I pretended earrings were cool—so much so that he thought it appropriate to pierce my ear, too. With Chip, an alcoholic police officer who saw my earring as a sign of ‘girlieness,’ I had thick skin and loved police cars. With Ken, an odd man who proposed to Mom three days into their relationship, I played the kind brother to his two children. But none of these things were really true. I hated earrings, I hated police cars, and I knew that Ken’s kids would be out of my life by next year. In Kentucky, I didn’t have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, because the only men in my life—my grandmother’s brothers and brother-in-law—already knew me. Did I want to make them proud? Of course I did, but not because I pretended to like them; I genuinely loved them.” ix

If you recall the young Tobias Wolff in his memoir This Boy’s Life x (Ron Power’s selection, 2016), the young pretender of his youth had habitually lied himself into being a social delinquent and a charlatan, and not until after his war years in Vietnam did the author have his self-recognition. Though he truly loved his mother, young Toby could exploit her weaknesses as much as he did those in others for his own gain. The child-imposter became a college professor, taught literature at Stanford University and wrote his memoirs as cautionary tales.

5. A few weeks ago, I began to peruse a fairly recent New Yorker and came upon a review of Jordan Peterson and his new work 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (“Sort Yourself Out, Bucko,” by Kelefa Sanneh (March 5, 2018, p. 70-75)). In many respects, he, too, is espousing Gombrowicz admonition to be oneself and speak one’s mind, rather than playing some fashionable games of language and displaying a pseudo-self in order to fit in with what one thinks people would like. In a slightly contrary way, Gombrowicz seems to say that, not unlike the troubled “Mr. Gombrowicz” of Trans-Atlantyk, one goes on all one’s life buffeted by the poles of doing it right and messing up, because there are occasions when one doesn’t want to hurt or disarm other people, especially one’s superiors or the innocent. In Trans-Atlantyk, Gombrowicz the newcomer has a devil of a time accepting benefactors, a disastrous time defying their wishes. He becomes imprisoned by the cliques who want his allegiance. However, in matters of art and creation, in fantasy, Gombrowicz did believe that art is full of contradictions. He says:

“I would like to apologize to my reader for my incapacity to convey, even approximately, the greatness, the power, the majesty, the horror of my life. Of course, my life, like every man’s life, is a hundred times more gigantic. So please excuse an excess of modesty, which has led to too modest results.

I must apologize for my absence of modesty, for I have served up something like a romanticized autobiography, embellishing and dramatizing the bleakness of my existence. I did this so as not to tire my reader. These pages are intended for a wide readership. I would like them to be accessible and, as far as possible, to be colourful. If someone were to tell me I was acting at being a genius (I don’t think that will happen, but one never knows) I would say I don’t reply to such idiotic accusations.” xi

Though Dr. Peterson in his 12 Rules feels he is presenting an antidote to chaos, he would not be seducing many true Gombowiczian readers to sample his rules, for “rules” by any number completely goes against Gombrowicz’s thinking: “I,” says Gombrowicz, “a private and concrete individual, hate structures and if I reveal Form in any way, it is to defend myself.”

Reminiscences of Eliot: the Emptiness

6. Though Gombrowicz did not imitate anyone too closely, he was able to leave traces of imitation in some rare passages. What follows is a comparison between language and imagery of T. S. Eliot and the “empty” imagery of Gombrowicz in Trans-Atlantyk xiii:

The Hollow Men
A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quite meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

	Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

	Those who have crossed 
With direct eyes, to Death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only 
As the hollow men,
The stuffed men. xiv

Though T.S. Eliot’s symbolism might seem far afield from Gombowicz’s more obvious signs of rhetoric, it did occur to me that in the exasperated exclamations of Gombrowicz the narrator, about the emptiness he felt in dealing with the intractable characters and the unsolvable dilemmas of Trans-Atlantyk, there were reminiscences of Eliot’s wording in “The Hollow Men.” Examples from Trans-Atlantyk:

[At Gonazalo’s palace] “We ate confections not confections, chat and do not chat, and although not Drunk yet Drunk, amidst Furniture the which who knows now if Furniture or perchance Vases . . . but Empty as in a Waste. And though something is to be conceived, resolved, any Thought, any resolution as stubble, as Straw, as a Stalk through-blown with wind on a dry plain.” (French-Karsov, p. 86)


“Thereupon I perceived that for him [Major Tomasz Kobrzycky] likewise empty . . . And thus as amidst pines when dry, Empty and a distant wind Stalks, dry Plants blows about, nudges, rustles, Mosses calls upon with leaves, with stems plays . . .” (p. 88)

And, as if in Hell:
“. . . for more awful than Fear is the inability to fear. But we as dry Stalks as an Empty Bottle and likewise everything for us as an Empty Gourd. . . . But no matter naught. Say I, Here death, here Disgrace threatens! Yet naught on’t.” (p. 97)

Characters from the RMBC Library

In other works from our library of readings over the years, we have encountered man protagonists who found their true selves after a series of crises or came to discover their inner nature in later life. For example, Thomas Mann’s Gustav Von Aschenbach (Death in Venice, my selection, 2011), that upstanding, exemplary, formal literary figure known better for his style of writing than the content of his work. In old age, after having lived a controlled, unemotional existence, he found himself emotionally obsessed, sick with cholera, made up like a youngish dandy to appeal to a young Polish boy. Another example is the protagonist of The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier, (my selection 2010) who found his nature after flying for a vacation to Venezuela, where he fell in love with a plain mountain peasant woman. In time, however, after following her into a jungle retreat, he came to realize that he was a creature of modern civilization in need of cultural technologies not found in the wilds of South America.

What would literature be without characters in search of their true selves? I recall distinctly in one work we found several characters who were successful in their quests. In Let the Great World Spin by Column McCann, Ron Powers selection 2013), the young Irish boy, Corrigan, was an example of a character true to himself. As a boy he was thought a deranged idiot by locals for giving his family’s goods and money to impoverished strangers in Dublin. As a young man, he emigrated from Ireland to New York City where his older brother found him continuing his self-less charitable behaviors as a care-giver to whores and the homeless. He was an example of Kierkegaard’s Knight of the Faith, the most virtuous rank of spiritual human being. The other example of a true-to-self character in that work was Phillipe Petit, the tight-rope walker who lived to perform stunts of outrageous daring, risking his life, care-free of the laws of the city. His acts were inspired by needs of his inner being. Other similar sui generis types in our library’s works are Meursault (The Stranger, Ron Boothe’s selection 2015), Mathias (The Voyeur, Peter Farnum’s selection 2015), Uncle Toby (Tristram Shandy, my selection 2016), and there are others. I’m sure. Dear Members, can you name any others?

One work that seemed to get the goat of some RMBC readers was Broom of the System xv by David Foster Wallace (my selection, 2010), a writer who confessed his works were written for himself to articulate and to help people learn what it is to “be a better fucking human being xvi.” In that work, young Lenore Beadsman, suffers from an identity complex, a Gombrowiczian dilemma, because as her family states, they think of themselves “more as members of the family than as real people who were special individual people” (Broom, p. 167) In a bizarre scene, a masked family ceremony played out on occasions, the various members take off their masks and stare “deeply into the empty eyeholes of their own faces.” (Broom, p. 173) In order to see herself, instead of trying to be a good Beadsman, following the Forms of her family’s programed existence, Lenore must eventually go inward toward her real honest desires. Again, as it was stated by J. D. Vance, it is through love that Lenore recognizes herself.

So, How did Trans-Atlantyk Come to Life for you?

Witold Gombrowicz did not encourage critics and readers to search for such “borrowings” of style or diction as I have just illustrated, but rather that they become absorbed in his style of rendering story and to feel the import of his odd stylistic effects, to fully sense the affectivity of his intense rhetoric. What did you make of the Capitalization of verbs, nouns and adjectives? Does that really matter? How did the farcical repetitious behaviors—“the Walking, Walk did I,” etc.—affect your humor? Was it not funny? The sadomasochistic behaviors of the Baron, Pyckal, and Ciumcała….—the jealous codependent scratching and the horrible jabbing and cutting with spurs—what effect did they have upon the reader? As Gombrowicz said, he wrote his work as a confrontation, he wanted engagement with his readers, to surprise and astonish us with something bold and new. He himself was writing to help reveal himself:

“To tell the truth, the artist doesn’t think, if by ‘thinking’ we mean the elaboration of a chain of concepts. In him thought is born from the contact with the matter which it forms, like something auxiliary, like the demands of matter itself, like the requirement of a form in the process of being born. Truth is less important to the artist than that his work should succeed, that it should come to life. My ‘thoughts’ were formed together with my work, they gnawed their way perversely and tenaciously into a world that gradually revealed itself.” xvii

David Gilmour

—— NOTES ——

i. Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, translated by Eric Mosbacher; Introduction by Czesław Miłosz (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p15.

ii. From Quentin Crisp and Donald Carroll, Doing it with Style (New York: Franklin Watts: 1981), p.9. Quote of Oscar Wilde in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas.

iii. Gombrowizc, Ferdydurke, p. 16.

iv. From Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2007), p 106-107.

v. The Immoralist, translated by Dorothy Bussy (New York: Vintage Books, c1958) p. 89-90


vii. Op. cit. Doing it with Style, p. 8.

viii. Ibid. p. 8.

ix. Hillbilly Elegy (New York: HarperCollins, 2016) p. 13.

x. This Boy’s Life: a Memoir (New York, rove Press, 1988)

xi. A Kind of Testament, p. 171.

xii. Ibid.

xiii.Here, I am merely fleshing this reference out from the suggestion by French and Karsov in their “Translators’ Note” of Trans-Atlantyk, p. xxv.

xiv. T. S. Eliot: Selected Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967), p. 75.

xv. (New York, Penguin Books, 1987)

xvi. “An interview with David Foster Wallace”an interview with Larry McCaffrey, Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (Summer, 1993): p. 131.

xvii. A Kind of Testament, p. 63-64.

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