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.” Witold Gombrowicz
About the author
In his “Testament—Conversations with Dominique de Roux”, Witold Gombrowicz said about himself: “I am a humorist, a clown, a tightrope walker, a provocateur, my works stand on their head to please, I am a circus, lyricism, poetry, terror, struggle, fun and games—what more do you want?”
Gombrowicz was born in a small town in Congress Poland, Russian Empire to a wealthy gentry family. “He was the youngest of four children of Jan and Antonina (née Kotkowska.) In 1911 his family moved to Warsaw. After completing his education at Saint Stanislaus Kostka’s Gymnasium in 1922, he studied law at Warsaw University (in 1927 he obtained a master’s degree in law.) Gombrowicz spent a year in Paris where he studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales; although he was less than diligent in his studies his time in France brought him in constant contact with other young intellectuals.” (4)
‘Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is part of a celebrated generation of mid-20th-century Polish writers, one that includes the doomed magic-realist short story writer Bruno Schulz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, author of the great and sexily titled novel “Insatiability.” All these writers knew, admired and supported one another. ‘ (5)
In 1939, shortly before the Second World War errupted, Gombrowicz went to Argentine, more by chance than by design. He stayed there until 1963.
“In July 1939, fellow writer Czeslaw Straszewicz met Gombrowicz at Zodiak, a bohemian café in Warsaw. Straszewicz told Gombrowicz that he had been invited to participate in the Chrobry’s maiden voyage to Argentina. In exchange, he would write on the Chrobry for the Polish press. Gombrowicz asked Straszewicz if he could get the same deal and Straszewicz promised to pass Gombrowicz’s name to the Gdynia America Line. It obviously worked out, and Gombrowicz was added to the exclusive list of guests.” (3)
Gombrowicz was to stay in Argentina longer than he initially planned. The Nazis invaded Poland on the 1st September 1939 and Gombrowicz decided to stay in Argentina rather than return to occupied Poland. In 1953, still living as an expatriate in Argentina, Gombrowicz began his Diary with one of literature’s most memorable openings:
Gombrowicz was not a mainstream writer. Indicative is his distaste for Borges.
Jennifer Marquart writes in her review of Pornografia: ‘One of my favorite (apocryphal) anecdotes about Gombrowicz is about how one day in Buenos Aires he was ranting about Borges to his friends (the two authors didn’t really get along), and one of them interrupted to ask if he had ever even read Borges. “Pfft. Why would I waste my time reading that crap?” (1)
Gombrowicz stayed in Argentina until 1963, when he crossed the Atlantic and went to Berlin, with a Ford Foundation grant for a year’s stay. After Berlin he went to France. His friendship ties, however, remained strong.
In a letter to his friend Gomez, Gombrowicz writes (9):
Poor Goma, you are unaware of one thing: I had been hiding before you, in part in order to spare you, and in part so as to avoid questioning, etc., that since the moment that I left Argentina, I haven’t had a single good day. (…) You, and also Ada think that I am lazily streched out on a bed of roses, and what’s more, together with Rita. And meanwhile, I am exhausting myself here bit by bit in each direction. In the last resort, maybe it is not all that dramatic. There are moments of good humour. But – my friend – I have never resembled an egoistic and demonic monster more than I do now. Bye, W.G. Now I weigh 68 kg I w e i g h e d 83 kg
During the crossing of the Atlantic from Buenos Aires to Europe Gombrowicz notes, upon reading Sein und Zeit in Spanish, “It’s rocking hard. […] Reading Heidegger is calming”. (10)
Pornografia was published in 1960. I read it in 1985 in a Greek translation, and since then it is one of my favourite novels. The story is as follows. Two middle aged friends visit the country side during the nazi occupation of Poland.
“The narrator, Witold (Gombrowicz), and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.” (1) ‘Henia is engaged to an upright young lawyer; Karol is a handsome 16-year-old farmhand. The narrator, who is named Witold, and his extremist friend Fryderyk soon decide that these two “children” belong together, even though they reveal absolutely no particular interest in each other. But what does that matter? … Karol admits that he would like to sleep with Henia’s mother; Henia confesses that marriage will keep her from giving in to certain of her sexual inclinations. Following such revelations, Witold proclaims that he is virtually “bathing in their eroticism.” ‘ (5)
“In cryptic conversations and memorably febrile internal monologues, the two men share their fantasies about the young people and scheme to make them a couple. But nothing comes of this folie à quatre until Vaclav’s mother is suddenly stabbed to death, and a resistance fighter who’s come to the end of his courage announces his intention of abandoning the cause and going back home. Goaded by a series of unsigned notes that play on their already considerable paranoia, Witold and Fryderyk hatch a monstrous new plan to bring Henia and Karol together.” (6)
In an interview (2) Pornografia’s translator into English, Danuta Borchardt, says: “Pornografia focuses, perhaps more than his other three novels, on the outer limits of the imagination—on the “forbidden”—on the erotic fantasies of middle age and on living them through the young, and on manipulations that influence the young to the point of crime and murder.
Also, in Pornografia Gombrowicz tests the notion of belief in God versus non-belief. According to Jerzy Jarzębski, one of Gombrowicz’s foremost scholars: “Pornografia is blasphemous in the sense that it presents traditional culture and national customs in a state of exhaustion and atrophy.”
Jarzębski, suggests that Gombrowicz’s ideas may originate from the existentialists’ “death of God,” from old age generally, from World War II and the demands it placed on Polish society, and from the collapse of moral values.” Jennifer Marquart says it all in one sentence:
“It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession.” (1)
‘Gombrowicz himself once dryly described “Pornografia” as “a noble, a classical novel. . . . The novel of two middle-aged men and a couple of adolescents; a sensually metaphysical novel.” ‘ (5)
When Gombrowicz finished the noval on 4 February 1958, he wrote in his diary:
“…One of my most persistent needs, during the writing of this…. was: to pass the world through youth; to translate it into the language of youth, that is, into the language of attraction… To soften it with youth…. To spice it up with youth – so it allows itself to be violated.” (quoted by Hanjo Beressem in source 7).
In the 2013 Summer Festival “Spoleto 56 Festival dei 2 Mondi“, Italian Theater Director Luca Ronconi staged “Pornography”, based on Witold Gombrowicz’s novel.
The play is staged in Rome during April 2014.
As an epilogue, I quote from Gombrowicz’ Diary a paassage on the clarity of art.
“Clarity? Its clarity is the clarity of night, not day. Its brightness is exactly like that of a flashlight that extracts just one object out of the darkness, immersing the rest in an even more bottomless night. It should be, beyond the boundaries of its light, dark like the pronouncements of the Pythia, veiled, not spelled out, shimmering with a multiplicity of meanings and broader than precision. A classical clarity? The clarity of the Greeks? If this seems clear to you then it is because you are blind. Go at high noon to take a good look at the most classical Venus, and you will see the darkest night.”
(1) Three Percent, a review of Gombrowicz’s Pornografia
(2) Translating Gombrowicz’s Pornografia – an interview with Danuta Borchardt, Raintaxi Online
(3) Gombrowicz on the Chrobry (1939)
(4) Goodreads, Pornografia
(5) Book World: Michael Dirda reviews ‘Pornografia’ by Witold Gombrowicz. The Washington Post.
(6) Pornografia, Kirkus Review
(7) Hanjo Berressem. Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz’ Fiction with Lacan.
(8) Friday: Me, The Paris Review
(9) Gombrowicz to Gomez, Culture.PL
(10) What you didn’t know about Gombrowicz, Culture.PL