Life itself (whatever that is)

If Gombrowicz would have written these notes just for himself, to refresh his memory, he would have asked his wife to destroy the manuscript. On the contrary: he always wanted her to save “Kronos” from the fire. It was meant to survive, writes Pawel Majewski.

Let’s start with two quotes, hopefully not too long.

The last entry in Gombrowicz’s journal1 from 1962 is dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges, the writer who – we can already say this today with a fair degree of certainty – has stood the test of time and the era of climate change much worse than our rebel. Gombrowicz writes about Borges poignantly, just like about any of his fellow human beings, and sums him up just as if he was looking at him now, not then:

This is a literature for literati, something like a special kind of writing for members of the jury, this is exactly the kind of candidate that is needed: an abstract artist, scholastic, metaphysical, unoriginal enough to find a road already paved, original enough in this unoriginality of his to become a new and even creative variant of something known and recognized. An excellent head cook! A gourmet cuisine!
I do not have the least doubt that Borges’ lectures on the “essence of metaphor” and the others by this same authority will be appropriately feted. And this will be exactly as it should be: sparklers, the fireworks of an intelligentsia intelligently deprived of intelligence, the pirouettes of rhetorical and unloving thought incapable of taking on a single living idea, of thought completely uninterested in “real” thinking, consciously fictional, arranging its arabesques, glosses, and exegeses on the sidelines consistently ornamental. Bah, but the métier! Literarily flawless! What a head cook! What could arouse greater enthusiasm in pure-blooded writers than this kind of bloodless, literary, verbal, unseeing writer who sees nothing except his own mental combinations?2

Next, Rajmund Kalicki in Tango Gombrowicz cites Borges commenting on Gombrowicz in 1976:

This Gombrowicz I have seen only once. He seemed to me to be a kind of a historian. He lived very modestly; he was forced to share his room with three other people and, together with them, keep it clean and tidy. Gombrowicz convinced them that he was a count and used the following argument: “We, the counts, are very sloppy.” This trick made some of them clean for him. In fact, he was not a count and I am surprised that some people have such a weakness for noble titles. The word “conde”, derived from the Latin comes, means the same as “gypsy chief”, and the duque – from the Latin dux, that’s just a “military commander”. As if, in a few hundred years time, people were to use the words “corporal”, “sergeant” or “lieutenant” as titles of nobility! […] When I arrived in Paris, journalists asked me if I knew Gombrowicz, and I said that I must admit my ignorance, I have not read any of his works. I started Ferdydurke but after ten minutes of reading I felt the desire to reach for another book.3

Two years later in an interview for Le Monde, Borges remarked: “When we did meet, we talked about general issues: metaphor, novels, poetry, rhymes […] His Spanish was pretty trashy. What happened to him?”4

Witold Gombrowicz in Vence. Photo: Bohdan Paczowski. Source:Wikimedia

While Gombrowicz saw through Borges’ sterile intelligence from the outset (although, Gombrowicz does not otherwise deny Borges’ significance), Borges probably understood nothing of Gombrowicz. He saw only a snob speaking Spanish with an accent and using the wrong noun attributes; and fled, to return to his etymology and the security of his own erudition.

The probability of finding anything in Borges’ oeuvre that resembles Kronos is close to zero. Or to be even more malicious: the publication of Kronos has finally resolved the salon chatter over whether Gombrowicz had sex with Rita Labrosse; however, analogous investigations concerning Borges and Maria Kodama may prove inconclusive. In general, minds confined within all too repressed bodies lose, in the long run, their edge in terms of artistic creation. Their creations are too disembodied. Borges barricaded himself in the library among the inert scrolls of someone else’s memory, which he considered to be his own. Gombrowicz plunged into the streets of Retiro, bustling with life.

But Kronos is not literature and it is not advisable to read it as literature. Kronos creates a contrast and provides a mark of Gombrowicz’s status.

To read this text – if it is a “text” and if it can be “read” – it is as if suddenly we saw someone who was always dressed in carefully selected outfits wearing ragged dirty underwear. And maybe this is what the author intended, maybe this was his last, deliberate move – he wrote about himself as if he wanted to conceal by revealing and reveal by concealing himself. We have known him for years as a paradoxical stripper who undresses in front of us at the same time as putting on more layers of clothing. And now, almost half a century after his death, he has completed his own image by shifting the background around – trivial, chaotic events, street cruising and itchy eczema, all in miserable, provisory bookkeeping.

If he wrote it for himself, to refresh his memory, to sort out those thoughts known to no one but the thinker, he would have asked his wife to destroy the manuscript. On the contrary: he had always wanted her to save Kronos from the fire. It was meant to survive.

Thus the contrast. But Kronos is also a mark of Gombrowicz’s status that secures him a unique position among alchemists of words. In it, he chips away at the monument erected in his honour during the latter half of his life in order to thwart the efforts of false glorifiers and others trawling for secrets to divulge. Kronos pre-empts the climate of the current era in which nothing can be hidden, and everyone is talking to everyone about everything – but no one listens. It is as if Gombrowicz is muttering to himself as he refers to writing about the imponderables and simultaneously scratching his chancres, or reading Hegel in a café and taking a closer look at the bottoms of the boys crossing the street outside. He clarifies and says to himself everything that would otherwise have been left to biographers to say, with their voyeuristic bent. In the twentieth century, the French were the masters of this type of game but none of them played it with such a sense of disrespect. Gombrowicz did his homework much more daringly than they did.

The short, detached, highly context-specific records, decipherable only to the author and those who were with him, records from the “here and now” of Gombrowicz’s life (chapeau bas to the editors of Kronos, who deciphered hundreds of such tiny enigmas): aren’t these like tweets, short text messages, or those half-articulated murmurs used by today’s teens? These notes resemble life stripped of literature. If a writer’s life is a tool used for reading his texts – and, after decades of the dictatorship of structure and deconstruction, we return to this assumption, less naive than our predecessors might have thought before fleeing from the real (with Borges, among others, leading the way) – then the deceased Gombrowicz gave us a valuable tool. In these incoherent, clumsy notes, he provides an intimate – impossibly intimate – account of his life. And just as the velvety skin of a young czango5 viewed under a magnifying glass would become odious, so the statuesque existence of the Diary as seen through the records of Kronos becomes just as clumsy as the life of every human being not subject to the pressures of creation: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there…” – Walt Whitman, in a fleeting burst of authenticity.

Browsing through the eight-hundred-page volume of Gombrowicz and Critics edited by Jan Blonski and Zdzislaw Lapinski,6 one can see that, for a long time, these critics could not find or create the tools that would enable a nontrivial reading of Gombrowicz’s works. One of the excellent critics, Antoni Libera, believed that Gombrowicz was an impotent man and his condition should be treated as a source of the tensions that inform his writing. Another, Janusz Pawlowski, provides a lengthy study on Gombrowicz’s erotics without mentioning a single young boy. Kronos would have made it easier for them, they would have been closer. Possibly.

In a few years, an ambitious graduate student will compare fragments from Kronos with the corresponding parties in the Diary. If – should luck have it – he or she is not only ambitious but also equipped with empathy, maybe he or she will notice a few new details that are of interest to a wider audience rather than exclusively to historians of literature.

Kronos is not even a cheque – it’s just a draft of a bill made out to the author himself. However, a nimble and curious mind will appreciate the creativity to be found, even in this particular record of events.

That is, in the Diary, the "real" journal; or perhaps the "false" one -- who knows, maybe this opposition is meaningless in the case of the Diary and Kronos? See Witold Gombrowicz, Diary (1953-1969), translated from Polish by Lillian Vallee with a foreword by Rita Gombrowicz, Yale University Press, 2012; and Witold Gombrowicz, Kronos, wstep Rita Gombrowicz, posl. Jerzy Jarzebski, przypisy Rita Gombrowicz, Jerzy Jarzebski, Klementyna Suchanow, 2013.

Gombrowicz, Diary (1953-1969), 582.

Rajmund Kalicki, Tango Gombrowicz, Kraków-Wroclaw, 1984. The reference made is to Gombrowicz's novel, Ferdydurke, translated by Danuta Borchardt with a foreword by Susan Sontag, Yale University Press, 2000.

Le Monde no. 86, 1978.

Young, lower class Argentinian boy; "czango" is a word that Gombrowicz uses frequently in the Diary.

Jan Blonski and Zdzislaw Lapinski, Gombrowicz i krytycy, Kraków-Wroclaw 1984.

Published 16 August 2013
Original in Polish
Translated by Adam Puchejda
First published by Kultura Liberalna 228 (2013) (Polish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Kultura Liberalna © Pawel Majewski / Kultura Liberalna / Eurozine



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