Gombrowicz, Witold 1904–1969
A Polish-born novelist, playwright, and-short story writer, Gombrowicz lived in Argentina from 1939 to 1963, and then settled in France. He viewed man as a social animal, needing the affection and stability of personal relationships, but needing at the same time to express independence and individuality. His works, with their modern existentialist themes and brilliant satire, have been noted for their important and innovative contribution to European letters. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[Gombrowicz' plays Ivona, Princess of Burgundia and The Marriage] are compelling satires of society….
The two plays deal with two different societies. In Ivona, Princess of Burgundia it is pre-World War II European society (the play was written in 1935) or, more precisely, the ruling classes of that society. The Marriage (1946) is about the new society which resulted from the war and from the seizure of power by the communist parties, with emphasis on the events leading up to that seizure. But Gombrowicz goes beyond the localized framework which he attacks and which inspires him to describe an essence which, if not universal (something difficult to imagine in a social satire), is at least much more general. Ivona, Princess of Burgundia describes the dominant strata of any more or less bourgeois society; The Marriage, the essential schema of a revolutionary seizure of power by the masses and its consequent transformation into dictatorship, as in Russia, Poland, and most other "people's democracies." All of this is presented, of course, from Gombrowicz' aristocratic point of view and in the light of his Christian values.
To some extent Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, written in the entre-deux-guerres, reflects the ideas of that period's dominant philosophy, existentialism—specifically, Christian existentialism. (p. 102)
The play's structure is simple and precise. The court (King Ignatius, Queen Margaret, Prince Philip, and courtiers) of an imaginary country encounters essence and finds it intolerable since essence reveals truth in a society where everyone is frantically trying to hide it, both from themselves and others. The situation persists until there is a unanimous decision to see to it that the intruder be killed, "from above"—Gombrowicz emphasizes this term—and to reestablish the original state of affairs.
Were it not for the line where Ivona affirms her faith, with a "contemptuous" expression for the others, she could be defined … as akin to "nothingness." Ivona is without admirable qualities. Stupid, ugly, practically wordless (she has eight lines in the play), she is an object of everyone's hostility and ridicule. In her few lines she tells us only that she lives in a circle which offers no way out. (pp. 102-03)
The Prince, bored by the routine of daily life, blasé, unable to find any further interest in his existence, decides to scandalize his entourage with a great joke: he announces he is going to marry Ivona…. The Prince tires of his joke and wants to leave Ivona, but finds this no longer possible. Ivona has taken possession of him; he is part of her, she of him. He must now take his joke seriously.
Ivona awakens in the King repressed memories of his past crimes. She makes him want to be himself, to go on killing. The Queen feels that her most intimate secret—that she loves and writes poetry—has been pried from her and is in danger of being made public. And this, society would never accept. In short, the society cannot continue to function unless Ivona is eliminated. (p. 103)
But even after Ivona's death, the King, Queen, Prince, and dignitaries still feel disoriented. How should they behave now that normalcy has been restored? How should they react to this sudden, radical transformation? By respecting the formalities…. Unanimity restored, "normal" life can continue.
The structure of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is relatively simple because various modalities of inauthentic existence within a specific social group are made visible in an encounter with a single character. The universe presented in The Marriage incorporates a further dimension of reality: time and becoming. The play is a grotesque but homologous transposition of events which occurred in several Central European countries as well as in Russia, all viewed from Gombrowicz' aristocratic and Christian perspective. The grotesque is present in both plays, but in The Marriage it assumes a distinctly oneiric form, for reasons which seem clearly sociological. In 1935 Gombrowicz was depicting a society in which he was still living and in which he continued to participate. In 1946 he stood at a distance to re-create a historical development which, in his view, had led to...
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The project of Ferdydurke is an existential quest for a solution to the problem of form, a problem which is characterized from a variety of perspectives, but which refuses to yield anything but further problems, more intricate questions. While it is pleasant enough, in studying Gombrowicz, to recall Chekhov's famous distinction between "the solution of a question and the correct putting of a question," and his conclusion that "Only the last is required of the artist," Gombrowicz puts so many questions, and with such incredible abandon, that one is hard put to take consolation in the recollection of precedents. (pp. 284-85)
Gombrowicz's handling of the problem of form is in an older tradition, ultimately, I think, more satisfying than many more recent experimentalists want to concede…. Where one has every reason to suspect a writer like Robbe-Grillet of deliberately concealing meanings which even he would be unable to identify, concealing them in the interests of sheer surface play and display, Gombrowicz's fiction more closely resembles the Kafkan parable—pregnant with meanings too painful to liberate from the contexts of fiction. Where in Beckett we have, in Frank Kermode's terms, not much more than "a form commenting upon itself, an autistic stir of language," a fiction which at its climax "virtually disclaims its own authenticity," Gombrowicz juxtaposes the grim and the farcical in such a way that neither can operate without reference to the other, and to our lives. Gombrowicz's fictions stand in analogy to our lives, rather than as digressions from human experience, and his allegorical creations never threaten to disappear into thin air.
The problem of form, as Gombrowicz treats it, then, is basically an existential, rather than merely an artistic, problem, and requires an approach that can account for its terrible consequences in human lives. Gombrowicz's method in Ferdydurke involves an examination of three standard milieux, each of which is founded upon a rigid structure and imposes upon the individual a series of forms that stand between him and others. Thus, we are taken for relatively extended visits to a secondary school, an ostensibly typical middle-class home, and the country mansion of provincial aristocrats. Each milieu is described in a detail that can only be called enigmatic, and is organized around recurrent motifs that appear in numerous guises but do not develop. Nor can it be said that Gombrowicz's vision of modern culture, including its intersection with older traditions that have as yet to be completely displaced, is arranged in patterns of increasing intensity—the emotional level of the novel is relatively constant, and while conflicts can assume the form of genuine encounters, there is never any possibility of resolutions in time. In fact, time has no function in this novel—the reader can never be disposed to consider events in terms of probabilities or historical necessities, nor is there any question as to the propriety of simultaneities established by the novel's structure. What Gombrowicz posits is a hypothetical present flexible enough to embrace any number of anachronisms. Obviously, in Gombrowicz's view, the problem of form transcends historical considerations, and the novelist's meanings cut across superficial social structures. Thus, each of the novel's three main sections ends on a note of anarchic destruction signifying an abolition of social distinctions and symmetries which had been carefully constructed, but no permanent strategies of evasion are available to the protagonist.
The problem of form in Ferdydurke is further complicated by the fact that the protagonist does not really know who or what he is, as we do not know him. Though he addresses us in the first person, he assigns several names to himself in the course of the novel, and he is hardly what one would call a stable personality. At the beginning of the novel he tells us that he is thirty years old, and that he is writing the present work in order to explain himself and gain entrance to an adult world which had seemed to deny him admission ever since he could remember. Thus we have a variant of a literary phenomenon that has become so familiar in our time: the work in the act of creating its creator. Only, of course, what Ferdydurke enforces ultimately is an existentialist view of man as perpetually in the act of becoming, perpetually insecure and filled with that neurotic dread of extinction that is a visible component of works by Sartre, Beckett and others. That is to say, no stable, focused personality is emergent in Ferdydurke…. What astonishes Gombrowicz's protagonist, as it must astonish us, is the degree to which we are bound by forms and conventions the fragility of which we are thoroughly aware, and towards which we direct a devastating cynicism. Stranger still is our inability to sustain a stable identity as a result of this commitment to forms. Gombrowicz's is a radical vision of the human personality precisely in this sense, that while he does not claim to know what constitutes a satisfying psychological maturity, he counsels against acceptance of conventions that provide most of us with a measure of security and hope.
Gombrowicz's fiction, then, is nourished by his understanding of art as insurrection, and is characterized by a strenuous effort to indict what passes for sanity in the twentieth century. His novel stands as a kind of symbolic attempt to be reborn through suicide, involving the cutting away of human possibilities as they are ordinarily conceived, leaving the subject at once exposed and isolated. There is no suggestion that Gombrowicz's protagonist will prove to be either brave or strong, that he will find the strength to fashion himself in the image of his desire. All he knows, like his creator, is that he must cease to live for others, that he cannot forever continue to be a projection of the needs of others. If that is to be his only sanity, his only security, then he will better destroy himself. The conclusion of Ferdydurke suggests there may be no viable prospect for rebirth, and there is nothing ennobling in the suffering and confusion to which Gombrowicz's protagonist is subject, to which he in fact subjects himself by his inability to reside comfortably within the confines of conventional milieux. His insurrection, then, is largely defensive in nature—he mocks and imaginatively destroys what he cannot tolerate, what threatens to enlist him in procedures that seem to him insane, but his responses to experience are basically bizarre and compulsive—he is a very sick man, not at all suited to make the existential, conscious choices that a Sartre might commend. Obviously, Gombrowicz's exposition refuses to adhere to therapeutic imperatives—he can proclaim nothing more than the necessary destruction of inhibiting forms. (pp. 285-88)
[The analogy between a philosophical conflict and the contest between the features of adolescence and senility] are precisely the terms of Gombrowicz's fictional explorations, both in the novel Pornographia and in Ferdydurke. The dynamic is set in motion on the very first page of Ferdydurke, with the protagonist's reference to earlier dreams of regression to adolescence, dreams which so absorb him in his present moment that he surrenders to them, the dreamer succumbing finally to the identity of fifteen-year-old ward of the philologist Pimko. The process whereby such a startling conversion is effected is not really novel at all: the protagonist's acquiescence is never really threatened, despite his occasional calls upon police … to dispel the nightmare…. Once he consents to hear himself addressed as "Johnnie," we cannot but assent to that manipulation of reality which is Gombrowicz's revenge upon us and upon the world we share. What he will make us see, whether we wish so to be taken into his confidence or not, is the perversity with which we customarily relate to reality, and the way that relation affects human potential. The perversity lies in our gravitation towards the vulgar and infantile in experience, despite the necessary revulsion from these elements, and the intellectual detachment which we affect to maintain from what is gross and petty and ignorant. In Gombrowicz's words: "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 a necessity 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 opinion 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 … the more inept and petty criticism is, the more...
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