Witold Gombrowicz Gombrowicz, Witold (Vol. 7) - Essay

Gombrowicz, Witold (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gombrowicz, Witold 1904–1969

Gombrowicz was a Polish novelist and playwright. Critics differ in their evaluations of his oeuvre, but agree that his was an individual and provocative talent. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Style is a form of tyranny, or so says the narrator of Witold Gombrowicz' Ferdydurke. Gombrowicz himself has a rather quirky style, but it is not that but his obsession with his Idea that tyrannizes his novels…. Both [Ferdydurke and Pornografia] are inexplicably titled, both are the work of a careful and immensely serious writer, both are enervating to read and distressing to write about. Here is Gombrowicz' tyrant, his Idea:

Existentialism tries to re-establish value, while for me the "under-value," the "insufficiency," the "under-development," are closer to man than any value. I believe the formula "Man wants to be God" expresses very well the nostalgia of existentialism, while I set up another immeasurable formula against it: "Man wants to be young."

In Ferdydurke a man of thirty suddenly finds he is fifteen-years old, the fit result of his love of the insufficient and the immature. In Pornografia two older men find the fulfillment of their vision of two youngsters in a murder committed by all four.

As an idea Gombrowicz' is certainly a lot better than many, but of course good servants make terrible masters and these novels collapse as the idea takes over. (p. 666)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1967–68.

Ferdydurke is a novel about immaturity and form. Man, Gombrowicz tells us, is an opaque and neuter being who must express himself through certain attitudes and poses and thus becomes for others much more defined than he is for himself. From this stems the tragic disproportion between his secret immaturity and the mask which he must don to deal with others. He ends in adapting inwardly to this mask, as if he really were what he appears to be. It is thus a question of two forms of maturity, one innate and consubstantial with man, the other imposed from the outside—by others, by social conditions, by culture…. Instead of being themselves, the characters of the novel act as functions of diverse social myths, which Gombrowicz defines as ideas grafted onto the intimate reality of man (the myth of the stable boy, of the modern school girl, of the aunt, etc.). Hence the problem of stereotyped forms which run the gambit of human expression, engendering "styles" which do not correspond to any interior reality and which exert a determining influence one upon the other. The man of Ferdydurke is created by others, for according to Gombrowicz, men create themselves among themselves and impose forms, or what we might call "ways of being" upon one another.

Is Ferdydurke, then, a novel? It seems to me rather an existential inquest into action which precedes the word, and also a poem, from which stems its unique character. Like Sartre, and five years before l'Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) Gombrowicz insists on the importance of the moment, on the potentialities of a sudden change in orientation, of a new position taken in regard to a past which cannot, in itself, change. I have found passages in L'Etre et le Néant which read like abstract formulations of certain existential themes in Gombrowicz. Thus: "Every act made against another may, in theory, become for the other an instrument to be used against me." (See the two duals between Mientus and Siphon, Philifor and Anti-Philifor….) Similarly, Sartre's regard d'autrui (the look of the other) and the famous phrase from No Exit, "Hell is other people" could serve as an exergue for Ferdydurke. One must not, however, exaggerate the intellectual significance of Ferdydurke. Today, thirty years after the publication of Ferdydurke, all these themes can be translated in terms of existential psychoanalysis, Marxism, behaviorism. What is unique in Gombrowicz is an anthropomorphic style which expresses abstract ideas in such a way as to make them painful and almost obscene. The role which the different parts of the body play in the work of Gombrowicz can hardly be overemphasized: hands, mouth, fingers, legs, all have in Ferdydurke a symbolic autonomy, while the essential mechanism of social life is summed up in the categories of gueule (face, "mug") and cucul (backside, "ass").

The gueule which the characters of Ferdydurke wear as an uncomfortable mask, which the hero is condemned to take with him in his ultimate flight, we too must wear at the slightest error in the direct expression of ourselves. The limits of translation weaken the Polish word, pupa, the fat pink bottom of the good bourgeois baby which man becomes in Ferdydurke under the pressure of social idealisms. (pp. 37-8)

One must not forget that Gombrowicz wrote in his Journal: I do not believe in a non-erotic philosophy. If eroticism is the base of his entire work, then his profound conception of the erotic is very close to that of George Bataille: it comprehends horror, degradation, death and—the only modern key to a time which is sacré [sacré may mean either "holy" or "damned"; Jelenski notes that it is probably used here in both senses at once]—it demands only the appearance of sanctity. Piety is ab-so-lute-ly … demanded, even the smallest of little pleasures cannot do without piety, says the terrible and derisive Léon in Cosmos. It would certainly be absurd to reduce Ferdydurke to homosexuality, Pornografia to an examination of the erotic, Cosmos to onanism. But in the genius of Gombrowicz, the most abstract ideas are expressed in relation to the eroticism. (pp. 40-1)

Gombrowicz often hesitates between maturity and immaturity, between the role of form and the yet-undetermined world. One might risk the hypothesis that the conflict itself, and inside the conflict, the hesitations of the writer, stem from a certain lack of equilibrium: as adult as Gombrowicz may be intellectually, he seems to suffer from a psychic immaturity. In speaking about the intellectual maturity of Gombrowicz, I am not alluding, of course, to his sharp and original intelligence: as buoyant as this may be, it could very well lack maturity. I mean, rather, that Gombrowicz is capable of an astounding mimesis of psychic maturity—that he sees his "superiority," his necessity, in the work of human "salvation." It would have been easy for Gombrowicz to consider his work as a struggle for real maturity. But his intelligence has nothing exterior. It is the natural respiration of his entire being, and could not admit a false note. His enormous pride would not permit him, on the other hand, to pretend anything whatsoever. Thus—although the conflict between maturity and immaturity, between form and indetermination, remains the central motif of his work—we have an alternation of motifs…. Gombrowicz' undertaking is new in the sense that he is trying to lead up to a paroxysm of those traits which are themselves opposed to paroxysm: "There is hardly any psychic position," he writes, "which, pushed to the extreme, does not command respect. Force can exist in weakness, security in indecision, coherence in inconsequence as well as grandeur in mediocrity; cowardice can be courageous, weakness as cutting as steel, and flight, aggressive."

This moral program of Gombrowicz leaves us perplexed. Is it a question of "pushing to paroxysm" a complex of traits opposed to form and maturity, or is it merely a question of becoming aware of them? In what concerns him personally, Gombrowicz leans toward the latter position: "I think I have shown by my own example that awareness of a 'lack'—lack of form, lack of evolution, immaturity—not only does not weaken, but may even give more strength." This "my own example" is linked to a heroic, poetic undertaking. Whatever Gombrowicz may think of himself, his work is neither "indeterminate" nor "un-evolved." In rejecting maturity and form Gombrowicz feels freer, but he cannot forget that he has only made, at the most, a particular transfer: in his work he tends—with what efficacy!—towards maturity and towards definitive form. (pp. 41-2)

K. A. Jelenski, "Witold Gombrowicz," translated by Joy N. Humes, in Tri-Quarterly 9 (© 1967 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1967, pp. 37-42.

Gombrowicz's claim to be—to quote L'Express—"the greatest unknown writer of our time" has reached us via the French, who took him up after his triumphant but short-lived resurrection in Poland itself, during a moment (in 1957) of cultural thaw….

The French presumably found congenial Gombrowicz's mixture of intellection and impudence, his familiar air of fascinated disillusion. This country may find its own contemporary style reflected in his free-wheeling "black humor" and his avid delineation of interpersonal "games." Myself, I must register my sensation that "Ferdydurke," a book about the imposition of form, has itself more the form—the assurance, the daring—of greatness than the substance. Beneath the energetic surface there is a static difficulty of event. The recurrent motifs seem merely curious—a strange jealousy of the young, an eccentric trick of seeing human bodies as assemblies of parts. Compared with the ideas (the recovery of time through involuntary memory, the eventual union of the paths of innocence and experience) that give momentum to Proust's masses of description, or with Kafka's intuitions of exclusion and interminability, Gombrowicz's themes are spindly, infertile, too much insisted upon, too little dramatized. There is, at least for a reader deprived of the nuances of the original Polish, not much warmth, of the kind that led Nathalie Sarraute to liken classics to furnaces still giving off the heat of their concern with reality.

"Ferdydurke" is peppered with essays on itself, disarming admissions of its own confusion, invitations to "start dancing with the book instead of asking for meanings." (p. 169)

What is the core of this repetitive whirligig of pretense, bluff, and annihilation? At one point in the country house, four men find themselves in total darkness, standing paralyzed by fear within inches of one another, unable to move, and Johnnie experiences "a sense of becoming enormous, gigantic and simultaneously a sense of growing smaller, shrinking and stiffening, a sense of escape and at the same time a kind of general and particular impoverishment, a sense of paralysing tension and tense paralysis, of being hung by a tense thread, as well as of being converted and changed into something, a sense of transmutation and also of relapse into a kind of accumulating and mounting mechanism." In this frozen moment of overwhelming, contradictory sensation, we seem close to Gombrowicz's central inkling—the duel between consciousness and will. Awareness mocks and clogs and warps action. From our sticky web of apprehension, sporadic and incongruous deeds shake loose. The narrator, "while suspense and repetition still remained ceaselessly at work," abruptly moves: "Suddenly I insolently moved and stepped behind the curtain." In the context of these pages even such a small exercise of volition is intensely dramatic. Perhaps the composition of "Ferdydurke" can be understood as another such act, a random, twitched escape from paralysis. Hence the book's flaws of flimsiness and centrifugality, hence the monotonous mood of wry nervousness. Gombrowicz has made his move, but he is not yet at home behind the curtain.

"Pornografia," written twenty years later, is a more conventional and integrated work, perfectly shaped and thoroughly sinister. (pp. 173-74)

Gombrowicz, an apostle of immaturity, has maturely subdued his formal preoccupations and instinctive obsessions to the principles of art and created, in his own prefatory words, "a noble, a classical novel … a sensually metaphysical novel." Is this victory at all Pyrrhic? Have the determined insights and dramatic thrust of "Pornografia" been obtained at the cost of a certain honesty present in the confusions of "Ferdydurke"? For in penetrating the imaginative curtain separating him from wartime Poland, and in creating behind it a coherent "classical" action, he in a sense hides; a book like "Ferdydurke" exists as a fantastical gloss upon the real world, whereas "Pornografia" is a small world complete in itself and sealed by its own completeness as if in cellophane. Its consummate finish deprives it of osmotic margins; it becomes an object we can turn our backs on, having experienced its catharsis, its systematic arousal and relief of suspense. Does the world require many more such novels? Or does a need nag, for the writer, to abolish, by exhortation and trickery, the glaring edge that divides the proscenium novel from its audience of readers? The promised further works of Gombrowicz—especially his intermediate novel, "The Trans-Atlantic," and his "Diary"—should vex these questions helpfully. (pp. 175-76)

John Updike, "Behold Gombrowicz," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 23, 1967, pp. 169, 173-76.

Not exactly a novel, more than a philosophical tract with stage directions, Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke … recalls Tristam Shandy in its defiance of neat critical distinctions. Considered as fiction, Ferdydurke is the story of a 30-year-old man who becomes a schoolboy. This sets off a chain reaction of discovery and recognition, giving a surrealistic twist to a familiar hero—the malicious adolescent, tortured by his youth and distressed by the stupidities of the adult world. Ferdydurke is Huckleberry Finn educated by Husserl, Proust, Kafka and Céline.

Maturity, teaches Gombrowicz, means inauthenticity, a constant posing as someone else to meet the demands of circumstances and the whims of other people. The notion is terrifying, and the author never for a moment blunts its impact with exceptions or conciliations. Employing an unrelentingly grotesque symbolism, he involves the reader in the unpleasant implications of his main premise: the "universal impossibility" governing existence, the dangers of degradation and dehumanization that lurk around each bend in life, behind a man's every act and word. It seems difficult to imagine that a work focusing on so contemporary a question as the relationship between youth and maturity could have been written 30 years ago. (p. 20)

Gombrowicz pays no heed to traditional literary concepts of time, space, logic or action; he also refuses to surrender to the tyranny of probability or the need for self-justification. Thus any attempt to summarize Ferdydurke is doomed to failure. Gombrowicz explores events on many levels, a fact that may explain the confused reactions of certain American reviewers to his work. They find him a mere describer of deformation, a mechanic of subjective realities that have been too often exploited by much larger talents.

Gombrowicz can best be understood, though, in the context of a complex culture whose quality and diversity is relatively unknown in the West. In Polish literature he has a precursor in Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and a contemporary in Bruno Schulz. Their universal visions of human alienation, their skillful decomposition of experience, their understanding of the absurd and its philosophical role in a world of dehumanized structures, correspond to the achievements of the early 20th-century French Surrealists and long preceded the cynicism of Céline, Ionesco or Beckett.

Only the language barrier has prevented these writers from breaking out of the ghetto of Polish culture. Gombrowicz's great phrases—"O, what an instrument of tyranny is style!"; "The pain of unformed form!"; "the burden of being created inside ourselves by others"—move beyond their specific national tradition to encompass our Western literary heritage….

While Ferdydurke deals with the forced nightmare of immaturity, Pornografia is about the treasures of immaturity….

The primary weakness of Pornografia is its setting—the action takes place in German-occupied Poland, which the author did not know and does not understand. There is, as well, a lack of impartiality in the book's scale of sexual values, giving it a deep if unstated homosexual commitment. It is easy to trace in this novel the main ideas from Ferdydurke: the notion of aristocracy; the torments and lacerations of a noble origin; the playful anachronisms that come through like Beaumarchais emended by Alfred Jarry. Despite these repetitions and borrowed themes, however, Pornografia is a substantial supplement to Gombrowicz's commentaries on one of the chief problems of our time: the irresistible victory of immaturity everywhere. (p. 21)

Leopold Tyrmand, "Huck Finn in Poland," in The New Leader (© 1968 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 8, 1968, pp. 20-1.

Gombrowicz is one of the most assiduously philosophical novelists we have had in this century, certainly one of the most bracing and rewarding as well, for in him the will to power so vigorously adumbrated by Nietzsche is indistinguishable from the concern with truth: "A will to the think-ability of all being," Nietzsche called it, and added that "Philosophy is this tyrannic urge itself, the most spiritual will to power." Only what must be remembered, of course, is that to think the unthinkable, even to evoke it vividly in a work of fiction, is hardly tantamount to advocacy, and Gombrowicz did not until the end of his career move beyond the "small single questions and experiments" Nietzsche defended as the limits of his resolutely unsystematic philosophy. Up to the end, one may say, both Gombrowicz and Nietzsche decided that all systems, all ideas, even notions of personality and of value, are fictions, and are to be embraced tentatively if at all. (pp. 19-20)

Gombrowicz, the would-be pornographer, characteristically delivers in his most successful performances an eroticism so qualified, so continuously undercut and examined, that it becomes but one in a veritable sequence of concerns. Gombrowicz the extremist is as committed to the pluralities of experience as he is to the stringencies of erotic exploration, and his capacity to admit diversity liberates him from the excesses of mechanism and compulsional design. Only at the very end of Gombrowicz' career, in the novel Cosmos, did he yield to such excesses, and to the debilitating effects that follow inevitably in their wake. (p. 20)

Why … should Gombrowicz have given us a major novel—and of its stature there can be no doubt—with the title Pornografia? A kind of sequel to the early novel Ferdydurke (1937), it is at once less various and more puzzling, less familiar in what it treats and more beautiful. Gombrowicz himself notes in his preface to the English language edition that it is a nobler work than Ferdydurke, certainly more classically proportioned, and not as given to the satirical thrust as its predecessor. And yet it participates a good deal more regularly in the perverse and the grotesque than Ferdydurke, is more brutal in the events it deals in, and a survey of the ground it covers would give every indication of an intention to assault readers more determinedly even than the earlier book. What we wonder about, in fact, is why the field of action in Pornografia should disturb us as little as it does. Lacking the height and distance of satire and the obviously alienating effects of caricature, the novel ought to frighten us a good deal more than it does, we suppose.

What we conclude is that Gombrowicz has not written a pornographic novel at all, that it is his own bad conscience that encourages him always to think the worst of himself, and to ascribe the most gruesome motives to characters he genuinely likes. It is as though nothing less could permit him to lay claim to honest representation in the fabric of his fiction. At the same time, of course, there exists another tendency which would restore balance, a complexity we identify in the richness of life in general and that asserts its dominion from time to time in opposition to the parochial, straitening vision that would impose itself on everything. Pornografia is a novel of perpetual tension, in which bad faith struggles with good, maturity with inanity, neurotic play with genuine lightness. As it fails and in fact refuses to appall, so too it will have nothing to do with the sort of titillation that is a staple feature of literary erotica. As we turn its pages, we are not permitted to forget precisely who we are, and just so are we prepared to keep meaning and reality in their respective places. If characters in the novel complain about their acquiescence in dream and trance, we keep our feet on the ground, and whatever spell the volume casts, it is surely far from hypnotic. Whatever its concern for the ugly and perverse in human behavior, Pornografia is an eminently sane novel by a writer resolutely in control of himself, his craft, and his readers. If we do not like what he thinks, or what he does, we may reject his projects with no sense of having betrayed a trust, for Gombrowicz knows in this volume that all visions are partial at best, that fictions never manage to present all of life's options in their full potentiality, and that obsessions, like perceptual conventions, have their limited uses. What Pornografia does in fact is to legitimize a response that includes both sympathy and rejection, both involvement and critical detachment. Gombrowicz allows us temporarily to enter his vision, the world of his personae, without having to share in its rigours. For all its cruelties and even its coldness, it is a generous fiction. (pp. 20-1)

In Ferdydurke the protagonist and his friend escape into the aristocratic countryside in the hopes of discovering some order, some comprehensive formality which will prove to be at once constraining and natural, an order that will banish the doubt and anxiety that typically beset those who confront the modern world skeptically. In the novel Cosmos, published several years after Pornografia, the protagonist and his friend likewise escape, only what they flee from there is something more specifically internalized and psychologically obsessional, a sense of their own indecency and sinfulness. The protagonists in Pornografia, though, are not afflicted in the same way as these others by a neurotic dread, and they leave the intellectual world to which they are accustomed to forget about the political tensions that hounded every European in the early forties. To be sure, metaphysical speculations abound even in the opening pages of Pornografia, and it is by no stretch of imagination what we ordinarily would call a political novel. And yet, it is not without significance that its major characters retreat to the countryside for a wholly credible reason which has reference to an undeniably real situation in an undoubtedly substantial universe. In this sense it is set apart at once from Gombrowicz' other novels, and from his plays as well, all of which are as much committed to explorations of the bizarre and fantastic, the patently imaginary, as to evocations of reality. What is bizarre in Pornografia, on the other hand, is bizarre within the context of the real. Illusion does not in this novel vie with reality, nor does neurosis threaten to invade or absorb sanity. Perversion, illusion, madness exist in the real world—Gombrowicz is unwilling to suggest or to make us respond to anything more extreme than that in this novel. He concedes that other emotions also exist, that other dispensations frequently hold sway.

Pornografia, then, is a novel that deals with certain kinds of pornographic experience; it is not a pornographic novel, since it does not succumb to the temptations of the genre…. That [the author] should actually name his narrator Witold Gombrowicz is of course a matter of real concern for us, and it is difficult here to identify the author with his narrator…. While in a literal sense we see only what the narrator wants us to, we are in the end considerably less bewildered than he, and as he feels himself coming apart, we sense a coherence in the vision of the novel that is strangely reassuring. (pp. 22-3)

The dialectical subversion of his own plottings and characters that is a hallmark of Gombrowicz' art expresses a number of deeply felt needs, and his novels are structures of inference that allow us to locate our own relation to these needs…. Gombrowicz manages in a novel like Pornografia to distance us from his characters, to develop a perspective that is broader than theirs, that takes them in, as a matter of fact. We are permitted, that is, to identify what they do as evil, in the sense that Sartre describes it in St. Genet: "Evil is the systematic substitution of the abstract for the concrete."… Indeed, Frederick and Witold [the protagonists] convert others to abstractions, to mere shadow figures, because they are engaged in another way with something even less substantial. Their concerns are ultimately spiritual and idealized, Gombrowicz would have us understand, and as they find it necessary to project themselves as abstractions, so will they relate to other men. Witold reflects upon his friend at one point as follows: "… how strange that every word, every movement of Frederick's only seemed to refer to whomever they were addressed, while he continued his inexhaustible dialogue with the Power … a cunning dialogue where the truth seemed the lie, and the lie the truth."

We are here at the philosophical center of Gombrowicz' entire fictive vision, and it is indeed a vision in which "the truth seemed the lie, and the lie the truth," in which form and abandon, the beautiful and ugly, the young and old want to dissolve in one another, give up the mockery of distinctness. (pp. 42-3)

Gombrowicz' protagonists wish … to validate … the futility of their entire project. They turn the passions of living men into a comic or absurd spectacle, a theatrical performance in which everyone present is conscious of playing assigned roles in a drama they never made. The quality of alienation is unmistakable in such a spectacle, and what it does, aside from validating initial assumptions of alienated reality, is to promote just that sense of illusion that is required for all actions to take on the cast of ultimate inconsequence…. That we reject the protagonists, and what they do, says a great deal for Gombrowicz—he resists the inclination to acknowledge that illusion is all, that we are nothing but what we make of each other, and that no judgment can ever finally locate or modify what we are. So skillfully is the fiction woven that even when at the very end murders are committed, we do not experience loathing or shock, but know precisely that we have witnessed an enactment to which we must not lend our consent. Why we do not respond to these murders with a greater sense of outrage is not really a difficult question to answer, of course. (p. 46)

Robert Boyers, "Aspects of the Perverse in Gombrowicz' 'Pornografia'," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1971 by Skidmore College), Fall, 1971, pp. 19-46.

Witold Gombrowicz's work consists of short stories, novels, plays and diaries. Seen as a whole, it represents an amazingly consistent application of his philosophy which, while never systematic, developed a very complex conception of man. This is akin to existentialism, in that Gombrowicz is concerned not with human nature but with interpersonal relationships. His peculiar kind of "situational determinism" follows the model: I am not a fool but find myself in a foolish situation and therefore have to act as a fool. This finds application in his work, developing from a simple motif in the early stories into an intricate and original vision.

Gombrowicz is undoubtedly one of the important—if as yet unrecognized—writers of our time. He transcends Sartre's existentialist individualism by showing that the longing for authenticity—no matter how authentic—cannot result in actions which are free from the deformation caused by our dealings with other people. He reverses the Western belief in the absolute value of development and progress by showing that underdevelopment and immaturity could be values sui generis. He exposes ideology and culture's false claims to absolute value by showing them to be dependent on relations between human beings.

He is of course a writer not a philosopher, and his achievement is to be seen not in the demonstration of theses but in the discovery of a genuine artistic expression for these assumptions….

Gombrowicz's idiom is unique, for he explores the tradition of old literary Polish and has contributed, as few contemporary writers have done, to the expressive quality of modern Polish….

[Ferdydurke] is a complex novel, which on first reading appears more humorous than profound; but it conceals a philosophy which Gombrowicz took seriously. Existentialist in its basic assumptions, this philosophy holds that man's destiny is man, and that man can escape from men only by taking refuge in other men. According to Gombrowicz, it is easier to accept this idea intellectually than to live up to it. We are bound, therefore, to exist in a permanent but futile revolt against our mutual involvements, which appear to us as painful and unpredictable deformations. Our existence is made up of constant attempts to escape the deformation created by contact with other people, and thus becomes a struggle with form.

Ferdydurke is both a novel and a treatise about the delusions of this struggle….

On the epistemological level, Gombrowicz's hero experiences reality as warped by human relationships, which leaves him in a permanent ambivalence, at once searching for and escaping from human involvement. But Gombrowicz also describes this deformation as being socially conditioned. Here, as on the philosophical level, where he anticipated Sartre, Gombrowicz offers remarkable thoughts. For instance, his understanding of permissiveness (in the 1930s) as maintaining immaturity rather than promoting maturity; likewise his exploration of the mystique of "touching" in social intercourse, which satirically anticipates certain contemporary psychotherapeutic attempts to transcend alienation: thus a slap in the face is the only acceptable way for the landlord to touch the peasant.

In Gombrowicz's work, the conflict between our image of ourselves and its reflection in others has a tragicomic quality. (p. 155)

Kosmos (1965) is a metaphysical thriller. With an awkward but consistent "situational logic", an absurd investigation is conducted to find out who hung a sparrow on a tree, which ends with a (human) suicide by hanging. All the situations are patently artificial, creating a deliberate "alienation effect" which reveals Gombrowicz's interest in the formal mechanisms of human relations rather than their psychological substance….

In one way Gombrowicz's dramatic theory appears more radical than Brecht's. Brecht characterized his own theatre as being opposed to the "Aristotelian" model, by which he meant a drama determined by character; whereas his own was determined by action. His plays are a perfect embodiment of his materialist social philosophy that character does not matter, that if you are a capitalist you will act like one: action is "real." For Gombrowicz, neither the action nor the character are real. The only real thing is the situation, as a permanently changing outcome of human intercourse.

There is in his plays neither continuity nor consistency of character or action. Both are artificial because determined, necessarily, by constantly changing situations…. [For] Gombrowicz drama and self-expression are a contradiction in terms: "Pretending to be yourself—even to your self itself." To experience this contradiction is to exist….

In him, for the first time, Polish literature produced a writer to whom the agonies of being Polish were less important than the tragi-comedy of being human. (p. 156)

"The Struggle to Be Ourselves," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 11, 1972, pp. 155-56.