Witold Gombrowicz Long Fiction Analysis
Seemingly nonsensical and capricious, Witold Gombrowicz’s work is revealed, on a closer look, to be based on an amazingly consistent and complex philosophical system, as original as it is profound. Regardless of genre, the writer explores throughout his works the fundamental notions and antinomies that underlie his vision of the human world; in a sense, his novels are modern versions of the philosophical parable, although they are far from being didactic.
What can be called the basic existential experience of Gombrowicz is his awareness of human solitude and helplessness in confrontation with the powerful pressure of culture—if “culture” is understood in a Freudian sense, as a collective superego that stifles the authentic impulses of the human self. Accordingly, the chief antinomy of Gombrowicz’s philosophical system is the omnipresent conflict between the solitary individual and the rest of the human world; the individual’s natural need is to remain free, independent, spontaneous, unique, whereas the outside world crams the individual into the schematic frames of what is socially and culturally acceptable.
This conviction would appear as not particularly original (in fact, it would seem a mere continuation of the argument of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics) were it not for the fact that Gombrowicz immediately counterpoises it with its exact opposite. He is equally aware that, contrary to his need to remain free and unique, the individual also feels constantly the fear of isolation and desires to affirm himself (or herself) through contacts with other people, through his reflection in the eyes of others. This contradiction is particularly dominant in the case of an artist or writer: He wishes to reveal his individual uniqueness to the audience, but to reach the latter and be understood, he has to resort to a “language” of approved convention, which, in turn, destroys his uniqueness. In other words, each manifestation of the artist’s freedom-seeking self means his imprisonment in a rigid scheme of finished shapes—and thus, it means his death as an artist.
The situation of an artist, however, is considered by Gombrowicz as only one particularly dramatic version of a more universal paradox of human existence as such. In his view, every individual lives his or her life in constant suspension between two ideals: “Divinity” and “Youth.” Divinity can be understood as fullness, completeness, perfection; Youth is synonymous with unfulfillment, spontaneity, freedom. In yet other terms, the opposition of Divinity versus Youth equals that of Form versus Chaos. The main characters in Gombrowicz’s fiction (more often than not, fictional impersonations of himself and his own neurotic obsessions) are always torn between their striving for Form on one hand and Chaos on the other; or the plot consists of a clash between characters symbolizing Form and those symbolizing Chaos (significantly, the motif of a duel or fight is frequently used in crucial scenes).
This basic opposition takes on many specific shapes. The struggle between Form and Chaos may reveal itself, for example, in its sociological version, in which Aristocracy (or higher classes in general) represents the complete, perfect Form, while Peasantry (or lower classes in general) stands for spontaneous, chaotic Youth. It may also be illustrated by the inequality of civilizations—Western civilization is, in this respect, a symbol of Form, while the “second-rate,” “immature” civilizations of countries such as Poland represent Chaos. Finally, the tension between the extremes of Form and Chaos can also be demonstrated on the level of individuals; here, the already shaped personality of an adult is another version of Form, while the still-developing personality of a child or teenager is a symbolic image of Chaos. It is evident that all possible embodiments of the opposition between Form and Chaos have a common denominator in the concept of inequality; each opposed pair can be interpreted as a case of Superiority confronted with Inferiority. According to Gombrowicz, the essence of human existence lies in the individual’s striving all of his or her life for Superiority and Form but is not really attracted by these values, since their ultimate attainment would be tantamount to death. Therefore, the individual secretly desires Inferiority and Chaos, because only these extremes offer a chance of freedom. On the other hand, the ultimate attainment of this other goal would mean isolation, lack of communication, and impossibility of affirming one’s self-image through its reflection in the eyes of others. In the final analysis, the conflict is insoluble.
It can be, however, partly overcome and contained, if not fully resolved, by artistic creativity. Gombrowicz, as noted above, views the artist as someone who experiences the existential antinomy in a particularly acute way, but the artist has, at the same time, a certain advantage that nobody else has. Even though he cannot avoid the use of Form—if he did, he would not be understood—he can at least be aware of the artificial nature of Form and, as a consequence, he can be free to play with it. To play with Form means, in practice, to use it consciously and to make it “visible” instead of concealing it. Accordingly, Gombrowicz’s own works are filled with...
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