This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information

    Rituals at the Limits of Literature: A New Reading of Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos

George Gasyna

In 1965 just as the problem of inscribing the emerging “postmodern” subject was beginning to enthrall literary critics,[1] Witold Gombrowicz, then living in exile in southern France, was applying the final touches to his last novel, Cosmos (1966). Advancing far beyond Gombrowicz‘s earlier confrontations with his émigré vicissitudes and his role as Poland’s antibard, Cosmos is something of a narrative to end all narratives, the “kropka nad i” [dot over the i] that completed his poetics by paradoxically returning him to the subject matter of youth and to the seductions of the form-chaos dialectic (Gombrowicz 2000b, 164) that had been explored in such works as his 1937 debut novel Ferdydurke and Pornografia (1960). Because the dominant thematic of this novel is the problem of modern self-inscription, the often-noted sentiment of metaphysical horror with which the narrative opens is swiftly transferred onto the ontological plane. In other words, the desire to get to know the world and its mysteries is coupled with a coming-into-being of an alternative mode of perception that the narrator forges as both his agency and his anxiety about what he is witnessing escalate. In so doing, the text attempts to delineate a possible other world by confirming the impossibility of ordering this world. The basic movement, then, is akin to Michel Foucault’s elaboration of interstitial or heterotopic discourse: an alternative mode of seeing that is delineated using the symbolic and imaginary vocabularies of the Other, and that relies for its “powers of contagion” on the localized force of accident and the domestication of the signs of alterity.[2]

The act of textual representation requires that an author rise above one’s particular time and place in certain ways; some might say that the narrative process contains something of the metaphysical and specifically demiurgic about it. As Jerzy Jarzębski has observed apropos of Cosmos, the phenomenon of a “raw, naked world,” ontically “divorced from a viewpoint,” is “unpalatable” for the Gombrowiczian subject; it simply cannot be assimilated [jest nieprzyswajalny]. In other words, it is in the nature of subjective cognition to seek to control the phenomenal world, to invest it with shape and meaning, even though these may be “accidental and deprived of a higher sanctioning power.” Jarzębski concludes with the felicitous phrase that in Gombrowicz the world can be manipulated at will but that it may not be “possessed” or made over into “my world”[3] by the subject who speaks.

It is clear, then, that the fundamental notion of reality is at stake here. But what is reality, what is a world, Gombrowicz asks? How can the subject construct order and form from the chaos of phenomena and random objects that surround him or her? My aim here is to show how, by interrogating those aspects of the phenomenal world that defy classification, by folding the narrative back against the limits of perception, Cosmos heralds the slide of modern subjectivity into a mise-en-abime of competing simulacra imposed on what appears to be the vast cosmic indifference of the world.

Cosmos engages and then immediately subverts the conventions of the detective story. As befits works of this genre, a crime is needed. In this case the offense is an absurd one: a hung sparrow discovered supposedly “by chance” by the narrator and his companion while on a holiday in the Tatra mountains. So far, so good-or so it would seem. In reality the situation is semiologically fraught right up to its epistemologically transgressive limits. The narrative makes it obvious that this discovery is made both by chance and obviously not by chance, since the event has been preinscribed textually, and Cosmos is a work of fiction. Without the find being made, there would be no story to tell. This suggests, in turn, that the metatext, the discourse of narratorial construction, constantly foregrounds its own constructedness in a manner that makes the authorial interference quite impossible to ignore.

In Looking Awry, Slavoj Zižek writes of the nature of narrativity that “the experience of a linear ‘organic’ flow of events is a necessary illusion that masks the fact that it is the ending that retroactively confers the consistency of a whole on the preceding events. What is masked is the radical contingency of the enchainment, the fact that at every point things might have turned out otherwise.”[4] In Cosmos the descriptions of objects, utterances, possible clues, deformities in appearance, or eccentricities in behavior observed are all subsumed into this kind of a fortiori classification. This pursuit is not effected merely out of boredom. Rather, its object is exegetical and hermeneutic; it serves a privileged instrumental truth, that is, finding a solution to the initial riddle. But the resulting textual superabundance, doubling, inversion, and repetition in the end are nothing but a semiological flirtation; they do not offer any “readerly” solace. While, as Jarzębski correctly stipulates,the cause of these semiotic experiments is the author himself and this “demiurgic” element is a new source of existential terror for the Gombrowiczian subject, such a solution to the riddle of Cosmos does not satisfy all my questions. This is because the narratological demiurge in the novel, much as the earlier epistemological deviant (for instance in Ivona, Princess of Burgundy or in Pornografia), is in fact a phantasmal Other. To be able to bear the brunt of the possible systems of thought of the Other, to enter into an intersubjective relationship with the Other, is precisely to be textually postmodern. Michel Foucault gestures to this ontological predicament in the Preface to The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought - our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography - breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. The passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” In the wonderment of this taxonomy [w]hat transgresses the boundaries of all imagination, of all possible thought, is simply that alphabetical series (a, b, c, d) which links each of those categories to all the others.[5]

I would propose that the locus where the fantastic and the Other from the Chinese encyclopedia meet or coincide is in the immaterial sound of the narrative voice, in the nonplace of language that could be theorized as the space of heterotopia. Cosmos constitutes Gombrowicz’s final episode in the construction of such a symbolic zone.

The Poetics of (Subjective) Failure

What, then, is Gombrowicz’s Cosmos? While stylistically and thematically the work retains something of the aura of the nouveau-roman, especially in the vacillation between objective appearances of objects and phenomena, and our perception and domestication of them, Gombrowicz’s novel is really about the engagementand dissatisfaction with the currents in contemporary literature; it is a postmodern refusal to arrive at any positivist solution to the problems of narrativity and of the subject who is narrating and is becoming narrated. Still, the influences and authorial dialogues that this work reflects require comment. Even though by 1965 the nouveau-roman’s influence was on the wane, the genre represented the kind of narrative Gombrowicz wrote against, while certainly recognizing the technical innovations of its practitioners, Alain Robbe-Grillet in particular.[6] Especially in Eric Mosbacher’s English version of Cosmos, compiled from earlier French and German direct translations, the grammatical structuring of some passages and even the text’s physical appearance on the page tend to give the impression that the author and/or the narrating subject is concerned with the positions and functions of each object or person described, and ultimately with depiction of static forms of being and differences between them.[7]

But while the style of the nouveau-roman may recur as a phantom figure in the text, it is not really substantiated in the architectonics, especially in terms of the linear temporal scheme of Gombrowicz’s novel where, by contrast, the nouveau-roman relishes loop structures, “slices” of time, and logics of circularity.[8] One swiftly realizes that, in fact, each object or person depicted in Cosmos plays an emphatically kinetic and phenomenal role, and is defined specifically by the potentiality of its being, including the promise of meaningful exchange, of creating, sustaining, or defining a series of causal links; indeed a self-sufficient cosmos. Each event, too, potentially fits in in ways to be determined with the greater scheme or logic, the delineation of which constitutes the principal task for the narrator. If the objects are represented apparently as merely “being there,” in succession and in a kind of exposed objectivizing physicality, it is principally because the narrator is interested in and becomes gradually obsessed with their potential for becoming parts in a causal series, and with finding a specific motivating teleology for constructing such a series in the first place. What counts, therefore, is the objects’ possible importance, the sense of their contingency with other things, and finally the politics of their relation to an ultimately occluded and unrepresentable yet forever sought-after totality that, too, is always already subjective. In other words, as readers of this text we find ourselves consistently propelled forward, toward some end that is analogous to the inevitable and self-sufficient a,b,c,d,e procession that so engaged Foucault in his reading of Borges’s Chinese taxonomy.

Cosmos . . . reads like Robinson Crusoe for the mind.

We will thus look in vain in Cosmos for subjective involutions of the type inscribed in, for example, Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, in which the readerly hermeneutic desire for narrative closure is substituted, in effect, by repetition of entire narrative units with subtle differences. [9] Indeed, the textual experience of Jealousy deceives one’s expectations of a readerly [lisible] narrative; as Kermode suggests, after Barthes, “The sense in which we, skillfully enough, see through a text [is] frustrated; we are checked at the surface” (Kermode 106). In other words, Robbe-Grillet’s narrator (though in fact the word “narrator” is somewhat inaccurate here) is no Sherlock Holmes. If he were, he would seize on a small observed detail and render a hypothesis, which could explicate and account for all the other details collected and duly noted. With the suspected reality revealed, the story could end with an actual or implied resolution of the characters’ inner conflict: were Franck and A. . . in fact having an affair, thus substantiating the narrator’s jealousy? Did they-or in any event, Franck-in fact perish in a fiery automobile crash? But the narrator in Jealousy is not interested in the grounds of knowledge and its objects. He is not ontological in his primary orientation. By contrast, in the Gombrowiczian universe Witold is frankly obsessed with finding a whole, that “thread running through all these things” (Gombrowicz 1985, 86) amid the “oppressive profusion of. . . links and clues” (Gombrowicz 1985, 36). At the same time, as Francesco Cataluccio points out in his preface to Gombrowicz’s Przewodnik po filozofii w sześć godzin i kwadrans [A Guide Through Philosophy in Six and a Quarter Hours], any pretense to objectivity, so dear to the nouveau-romanciers, is a priori abstracted in this novel: “The objective world does not exist; it is unknowable like the Kantian noumen. Every individual forms his own reality, but the order imposed on such a reality is highly personal, isolated, private. The order that we impose on the world, according to Gombrowicz, is boundlessly subjective. There are as many worlds as there are subjects who thought them up” (Cataluccio 16-8). This essential textual subjectivity, then, is one reason why the narrator “Witold” feels compelled to go to such great lengths in his investigations of objects and events witnessed: with a mounting desperation as the story progresses (or fails to progress), he is seeking to determine their ontological status and impose on them their proper place in the symbolic and semiotic order of the real. He is conspicuously unsatisfied with simply noting that they do in fact exist and take up space, and then letting the matter rest - even though it causes him utmost fatigue and anxiety to continue his indexing endeavors: “Byłem roztargniony, jakże męcząca ta obfitość wciąż wywalająca nowe osoby, zdarzenia, rzeczy, żebyż raz przerwał się ten cały strumień” (Gombrowicz 2001, 95) [“I was distracted. How exhausting was this superabundance and the excess from which new persons, events and things constantly emerged” (Gombrowicz 1985, 109)]. This psychic overbearance represents a significant departure from the poetics of the nouveau roman, while sharing its rejection of the normative teleology of the bourgeois novel and especially the nineteenth-century realist/positivist narrative. Specifically, Cosmos ignores the nouveau-roman tendency to disrupt chronology and the hierarchies of events (which then perforce privileges the reader as coconspirator in the task of narrative reconstruction) in favor of recuperating the narrator’s prerogative of ordering the world for the reader, even though the enterprise is doomed to failure.[10] In Mosbacher’s English version the inadvertent nouveau-romanization of the text has the unwelcome effect, to my mind, of bluntly countering the logic of the narration by masking the obsessiveness of the narrator’s gaze and desire for ordering, and concealing the weaving chains of linguistic dispersion and association produced by this process. For it is the gaze, in the end, that can be held responsible for making the narrator’s descriptions and repetitions appear patently subjective; that is, for his refusal to restore any sort of narratorial objectivity. This effect, then, represents the opposite of the aesthetics of the nouveau roman whose modus operandi was the undermining of the Cartesian assumptions behind the bourgeois realist novel, in particular those concerning the inner logics of narrative time and plot teleology, and especially the refusal to provide any further “explanations of the world.” The world, this world of ours, and the objects in it, Robbe-Grillet wrote, are “neither significant nor absurd,” nor for that matter cruel. Rather, the world simply “is” (Robbe-Grillet 1965, 19). Robbe-Grillet’s conceptualization and privileging of chosisme,[11] as in the essays in his collection For a New Novel, form a philosophical foundation for the “exploration” (Robbe-Grillet 1965, 134) of the nouveau-roman genre.

By contrast, what Witold the narrator is desperaely searching for is a program of rational explanations for behaviors, and in the traditional signification of "rational" as subject to empirical authentication and reification, and of "behaviors" in the sense of helping outline and then maintain a psychological profile of the subject who speaks. Indeed, Gombrowicz allows the narrator to intermittently rise above the world of confusion that surrounds him and his story. This is especially evident at the beginning and end of chapter or section breaks, where he “abstracts” himself from narrative flow to emphasize his precarious grip on the reality he is apprehending, while at the same time leaving little doubt that it is in fact he who is in charge of the retelling.[12] A fine example of this dynamic is found at the beginning of the last chapter. Resigned to recounting the conclusion of the story he has woven thus far, Witold admits that “I shall find it difficult to tell the rest of this story. Incidentally, I am not sure that it is one. Such a continual accumulation and disintegration of things can hardly be called a story” (Gombrowicz 1985, 153). In other words, there is no external referent, no winking authorial presence to which the reader can appeal; that figure is already fully inscribed in the text and shares some of the reader’s frustrations! This metatextual interjection and others like it reinforce Witold’s status as a narrating subject attempting to forge order from what, to him, constitutes an undifferentiated, strange, and vaguely terrifying reality-even though this is an order that nonetheless constantly threatens to descend into chaos again with the accumulation of ubiquitous new details. Cosmos, then, is Witold’s “highly personal, isolated, private” world (Legierski 149-50); it is delineated and focalized by his narratorial gaze and hence self-sufficient. Further, Witold is frankly obsessed with the world and its spectacular phenomena to an extent some may find troubling. As the main textual fabricator, he has as his desperate task to fill the horror of the sidereal void, to tame the existential strangeness of his cosmos. The narrator of Cosmos, in short, is launched on a major metaphysical quest amid growing uncertainty.

It is largely because it is he who is constructing his specular world, responding to the optic and ontological challenge posed by the “blackness,” the “chaos,” and the “perversion”[13] of what he encounters, that Witold-narrator also rises beyond those moralistic readings of the book that make much of his apparent deviations and “seediness.”[14] His narratologicalmannerisms, such as repetitions, games with analogy, metonymic associations, and play of signs, render his confusion about signs more apparent to the reader.[15] A concrete instance of this includes Gombrowicz’s one-word sentences: the most devious of these is the famous free-floating “Berg” and its variations. These phrases function much as their analogues in Samuel Beckett, containing extraordinary ideational force. Moreover, they represent hinges or pivots that give insight into purer-in a sense more amoral and acultural-states of consciousness, so that in the course of reading Cosmos the reader may be surprised that he has ceased to contemplate them as aesthetic objects. They alternate with long lists of occasionally discordant things or objects arranged into series and systems of “correspondances” (Legierski 151). The musical and rhythmical nature of Gombrowicz’s language, the limpid structures of grammatical play, also gives the readerly effect of a mounting tension, psychological but also erotic, culminating with a moment of jouissance-in part represented by final masturbatory “Berg,” the spectacular and self-sufficient phrase “Lunęło” of the ultimate paragraph (Gombrowicz 2001, 148).

As an example of Witold’s provisional and at best uncertain control over the world he is charged with describing, consider the seemingly innocent opening paragraphs:

I’ll tell you about another, even more curious adventure. . .Sweat, there goes Fuchs, me I’m behind him, trouser-legs, heels, sand, we plod on, plod on, earth, ruts, clumps, glitter from shiny pebbles, glare, the heat buzzes, shimmers, everything black in the sunlight, little houses, fences, fields, woods, this road, this march, where from, how, what can you say, to tell the truth I was sick of my father and mother, and my family in general, and besides I wanted to get at least one exam out of the way, and also make a change, get away from it all, go somewhere far away for a while. I left for Zakopane, I’m walking along Krupůwki Street, thinking where could I find a cheap little pension when I run into Fuchs, blond, faded red mug, protruding, a glance smeared with apathy, but he was happy to see me, and I was happy too, how are you, what are you doing here, I’m looking for a room, so am I, I’ve got an address- he said-of a small manor-house where it’s cheaper because it’s a long way out, out in the sticks. So on we walk, trouser-legs, heels in the sand, the road and the heat, I look down, earth and sand, the shiny pebbles sparkle, one, two, one, two, trouser-legs, heels, sweat, sleepy eyes, tired, I had slept badly in the train, and nothing besides this pacing down below. He stopped.

- Should we rest a moment?

- Is it far now?

- Not far.[16]

The first thing you will notice is how the story rushes forward, with almost no full stops; in fact the first two paragraphs are comprised of just five sentences. The total effect of this preamble, I think, is that of staccato introduction to a traumatic event. It is as though the narrator, in addition to attempting to quickly set the conventional scene, feels anxious to initiate the actual fabula: the flabbergasting and terrifying inability to effect an ordering situation, which soon grows in scope to become synecdochal of a “world.”

If Cosmos represents a metaphysical detective story, i.e., one dealing with the nature of the world as we see it, specifically as the narrator sees it, we also have to wonder about the question of reception: what might the reader’s role be in the instersubjective structures of this text? What kind of dialogic function might be expected of us? Czesław Miłosz once remarked that the action in Cosmos principally concerns the rules governing focalization. In his entry on Gombrowicz in The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz suggests that the architectonics of the narrative itself represents one of such particular “series of reasonings,” whose zero point is the urgent need to account for both the hung sparrow and for its discovery (Miłosz 436). The broader point is that this discovery, rooted in contingency because it is purely accidental, soon becomes written into a system-and a system, by definition, must contain some element of coercion.

In contrast to the politicized exiles like Miłosz (at least when writing about Polish fellow-travelers of the post-WWII period) or synchronic theorists of power such as (the early, structuralist) Foucault, Gombrowicz does not seem especially preoccupied with either explicating or exposing any dominant authorizing schemes behind the systems of perception. His discourse functions on the level of individual resistance, on the level of ritual language and intersubjective communication. He seems even less concerned about exposing the modes of organization behind our theories of the world than was his Argentinian contemporary and (as Gombrowicz saw it) rival, Jorge Luis Borges. In the dazzling short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges implies that there may exist major conspiratorial forces at work behind the modern world, and that they create systems of knowledge for their own ends, though for our docile consumption. This process, described as the “intrusion of [the] fantastic into the world of reality,” is “inhuman” for Borges (Borges 16-17). Its very otherness incriminates both the procedures whereby realities as we know them are constructed, and the nature of the transformation of “events” into “facts” by those who wield power, including the power over language. The progressive dominance of power over reality and then eventually over consciousness itself, embodied by “a new knowledge [called Tlön] which, it is conjectured, is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebraists” (Borges 7-8), could justly be termed mystical and demonic. The unnamed Borgesian narrator feels that he has a good sense of the true nature of this arcane society and its progression over cultural production:

Around 1944, a person doing research for the newspaper The American (of Nashville, Tennessee), brought to light in a Memphis library the forty volumes of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Even today there is a controversy over whether this discovery was accidental or whether it was permitted by the directors of the still nebulous Orbis Tertius. The latter is more likely. . . .The fact is that the international press infinitely proclaimed the “find.” . . . Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order-dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism-was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one but submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world . . . already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood. (Borges 17-8; my italics)

Borges’s superb parable of totalitarian power transforming the logic of social functioning and forcing the substitution of one past/future couplet for another in ways previously inconceivable predates Cosmos by over a decade. But there is a deep symmetry here with Gombrowicz’s dystopian vision of intersubjectivity: both texts are chiefly concerned with our enchantment with the appearance of “rigor,” and with the dream of a philosophically and semiologically orderly cosmos. Still, I think that on the political as opposed to the ontological register, Gombrowicz would have viewed the largely undetected eruption of discursive influence over intellectuals, so key to the poetics of Borges’s text, as self-evident and ultimately deserving only contempt. After all, for Gombrowicz the individual’s job (and especially the intellectual’s) is to resist any such forms of influence, which are as pervasive as they are inevitable.[17]

Interestingly, the narrator of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” confronted by the sober realization that the “world will be Tlön” (Borges 18), capitulates before the force of history. The narrator tells us that “in the still days at the Adrogué hotel” (18), he persists in revising a translation of an obscure work that he knows will never be published because the old languages of the world, “English and French and mere Spanish,” will soon “disappear from the globe” (18). The narrator’s submission to the logic of events may be real; however, his intellectual work takes on the form of active, if futile, resistance. Either way, his mind will not be colonized but that might not, probably will not, be enough to secure his subjective autonomy.

By contrast, Gombrowicz’s engagement with discourses of power and authority, no less averse to colonization by discourse, instead concentrates on one of the corollaries of the techniques of power maintenance. Cosmos surveys the paradoxical pressures that are exerted on an individual who has suddenly been given a temporary reprieve from some of the rules with which civilization holds us; like the heretic, he fashions his own self-reflexive order, or at least tries or is compelled to create (the illusion of) such ritualized space in the epistemological vacuum that ensues, before either chaos or the metadiscourses of power threaten to close in again. Cosmos thus reads like Robinson Crusoe for the mind. It presents an open ideational space to be recolonized and mastered using the self-reflexive discourse of the subject.

While on the topic of the production and the ordering of space, a few words need to be said about the setting of Cosmos since it is the launchpad for the metaphysical quest that follows. Like its more famous Alpine equivalents (Davos, Annecy), the town of Zakopane, qua cultural locus, is all about the promise of difference, of countercultural or avant-gardist artistic form. Central to this aura of difference is the town’s psychogeography as a privileged space, historically prized by the national consciousness: Zakopane is the final point on the itinerary from “ordinary” Poland of the plain and the forest to the extraordinary Poland of the mountainous frontier, with the surrounding High Tatra alpine chain forming a headland where one goes to encounter the sublime.[18] As the critic Kazimierz Bartoszyński points out in an essay on Cosmos, “Zakopane has long inspired both the writers of high realist literature and those like Miciński or Witkacy, whose texts veer very far away from that type of realism” (Bartoszyński 153). Indeed, in Cosmos the budding sentimental narrative-let us say, for the sake of schematic convenience, a Bildungsroman-becomes subverted almost immediately, on the second page, with the troublesome hanging sparrow and the sense of “shrieking eccentricity” this fact generates.

Unlike the pieces of evidence in a classic detective story where everything will be accounted for at the end, here the objects of suspicion such as Katasia’s distorted mouth, the needle stuck into the “middle of a table” in her room, (Gombrowicz 1985, 19, 26), or the piece of wood “hanging by a bit of thread” (Gombrowicz 1985, 37), have no semiotic “ownership.” Thus the labyrinth keeps expanding. Discourse, however, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and thus various ideological interventions are soon staged. First, Leo, the paterfamilias, obliquely suggests a positivist solution to the growing mystery at hand. He is the earliest character to bring up one of the Grand Narratives of modernity. “Organization” is Leo’s code for the Grand Narrative of science (Gombrowicz 1985, 46); it stands for the “organizing principle” of the new technocratic cohort, the generation of his bourgeois son-in-law. But when Louis, for his part, proposes “rational organization of the world” to be something that is theoretically possible, Leo immediately rebuffs both the technique and its governing assumptions as “fiddlesticks” (Gombrowicz 1985, 47). In fact, Leo strikes Louis where it hurts, exposing the bleakly formalist element of scientific thought. He challenges Louis to “explain to the immaculate tabula rasa of my mind just how you with your scientific training are going to go about organizing the world, what your objectives and methods are going to be, how you are going to tackle the problem, what model you are going to follow, where and how you are going to begin” (Gombrowicz 1985, 47). So while Leo may be rejecting formalism with an arch Gombrowiczian curtsy to chłopski rozum (common sense), the common sense of those living close to the land and the seasons, what he is specifically refuting is scientific materialism in favor of a more esoteric set of organizing theses. Instead, Leo’s personal cosmogony is guided by an eclectic pleasure principle, the famous “Berg.” For Witold, on the other hand, while science has the potential for insight beyond mere enumeration and repetition, the problem is that it is a sterile mantra when not spanned by an objective ideational framework. This, in turn, is impossible, if for no other reason than simply because perception is always already subjective.[19] Witold is therefore quite right to mock Fuchs for the latter’s excessive reliance on cataloguing and generating self-reflexive patterns without any analysis. He actually calls Fuchs an idiot; the id part of “idiot” is what is important for us to consider, the implication being that the primary urge of the subject is what governs the acts of hapless Fuchs (Gombrowicz 1985, 74)

In the end, what imprisons Witold the narrator is his hyperawareness of the fact that he himself represents a part of the chaos and as such is destined to keep making systematic connections: “The word ‘permutations’ used by Louis suggested all the combinations going on in my own mind, in fact I was drowning in them at that moment. The dreadful baffling thing was that I could never be sure to what extent I was myself the creator of the permutations. And was it really so strange, after all, for one mouth to lead to another since everything always led to something else? There was always something behind everything" (Gombrowicz 1985, 54-55, 36). Thus narration itself, asn ex post facto search for a privileged form to regulate these elements and surfaces, implies a continual destruction of other, potential forms and also of alternated modes of seeing. Therefore, any resulting "cosmos" nececssarily excludes all other possible worlds. Optimistically speaking, following Foucault's suggestion, we may at most catch glimpses of them in those "interstitial" moments in consciousness that leak out of the intervals between discourse, words, and things (Foucault xvi).

Witold’s admission of his glimpses of infinite voids of signification, against which (in his view) humanity forever mobilizes, represents a key moment of tragic self-knowledge: “Born as we are out of Chaos, can we never establish contact with it?” he inquires at one point. The answer comes swiftly and it is in the negative: “No sooner do we look at it than order, pattern, shape is born under our eyes” (Gombrowicz 1985, 31). The implication is clear: the teleological imperative and, along with it the abject desire for coherence remains the default mode of consciousness. At the same time, in Witold’s mind the will to order is largely what is responsible both for totalitarianisms and for the social neuroses that characterize modern society. For Gombrowicz, in the end, postmodern subjectivity comes down to one of two axes of his dialectical philosophy of life. The subject can elect to incarnate a kind of psychoneurotic modernity of the self, comprising epistemological quests as part of an inhuman signifying system. But this quest is doomed to failure more or less from the start precisely because the system, and nature itself, are inhuman and in the end unknowable, while the “scientific” and “rational” models of ordering or managing nature are revealed, at least here, as reductive, tendentious fictions. Ultimately, with Louis’s suicide, they are symbolically exposed as untenable. Alternatively, the subject can abandon himself to solipsistic anarchy, in which obscurantist mysticism reigns, in the style of Leo’s devotion to his ejaculatory but in the end sterile Berging. Suspended between such alternatives, that is, Witold’s paranoiac obsession with the authority of perception and language, Louis’s naive materialist faith, and Leo’s atavistic desertion of philosophy in favor of complacent and decadent abandonment to life’s little pleasures, does there exist any other viable option for a philosophy for/of life? It is perhaps this question that forms the novel’s broadest framing narrative.

When I suggested that Cosmos represents a return to a semiology of youthful versus completform, first encountered in the debut novel Ferdydurke, that statement was incomplete; now hopefully we can see why. The topos of the return in Cosmos is predicated on a dialectic of past-future which in effect legislates the entire text. In fact, the ostensible point of departure itself is structurally predetermined to be the site of failure. The opening passage, introducing the reader to a twenty-something Witold escaping his own past-which very clearly signifies family, the Capital, the cultural hierarchy-reinstates Gombrowicz, and here I mean the exiled author and not the belletristic character, in the discourse of a futile domestic past from which there is only one exit: literal escape (that is, exile). On the other hand, this saga of personal failure also contains a blunt critique of the failures of Western culture. In the depiction of an ontological crisis occasioned by the dissonant element of the dead sparrow, Gombrowicz first rejects science and positivism by hanging, in a moment of pure conceptual luminosity, its proponent Louis. He then silences organized religion by penetrating the priest’s mouth with his metonymic finger, thereby privileging the body over Logos, and figuratively reproducing the ascendance of pleasure and the phallus over explication and over philosophy or philology. Finally, he shows that decadence, which is pleasure for its own stylistic sake, is on its own incapable of accounting for the appearance of irregularity, of chronic subjective doubt, of the accident, of crisis itself; rather, decadence is their symptom. I should note here that, though amounting to masturbation in the case of Leo’s various “Bergs,” decadence was one of the founding principles of elite or “high” modernism, as John Carey has recently demonstrated.[20] Thus the chief narratives that have propelled the major streams of Western modernity for over a hundred years are summarily dismissed. The metaphysics of failure frames the narrative, and it is here that Gombrowicz anticipates those among the postmoderns who have called for a major reconsideration of the foundational narratives of Western civilization. Leo, the precociously modern pleasure seeker and compulsive self-authorizer, may indeed be the author of the final textual spasm, and thus have the last laugh. It is, however, a hollow laugh. This is because reality-brought back violently via the one-word sentence on the last page of the novel (“Lunęło.”), the moment after which everything would necessarily be different-asserts itself as standing before and greater than all the devices we use in our efforts to grasp and represent it.

Perhaps more importantly, this moment of transcendental clarity, “Lunęło,” sends the narrator back whence he came: to the beginning of things and texts. We are told that he has returned to Warsaw, the signifying center; he has been restored to the lunch of “chicken and rice” that represents the triumph of the cultural norm, and to “warfare with my father” which symbolizes his longstanding conflict with the paternal order (Gombrowicz 1985, 166). He has come back to the basic configuration of things he had hoped to escape while in Zakopane, where for a time he was both free and compelled by circumstances, by the very mystery of existence, to produce his own script. However, in this flight, eerily echoing the uncanny desire for escape in the opening passages of Gombrowicz’s first novel, the narrator is patently underequipped to forge anything new, aside from a histrionic yearning, fueled by a thirst for (experiential) knowledge but undercut by his abject lack of agency, for a new intersubjective discourse. That novel, Ferdydurke, opened in effect with an existential shiver:

We wtorek obudziłem się o tej porze bezdusznej i nikłej, kiedy właściwie noc się już skończyła, a świt nie zdążył jeszcze zacząć się na dobre. Zbudzony nagle, chciałem pędzić taksówką na dworzec, zdawało mi się bowiem, że wyježdžam- dopiero w następnej minucie z biedą rozeznałem, že pociąg dla mnie na dworcu nie stoi, nie wybiła žadna godzina. Ležałem w mętnymświetle, a ciało moje bało się nieznośnie, uciskając strachem mego ducha, duch uciskał ciało i každa najdrobniejsza fibra kurczyła się w oczekiwaniu, že nic się nie stanie, nic się nie odmieni, nic nigdy nie nastąpi i cokolwiek by sę przedsięwzieło, nie pocznie się nic i nic. (Gombrowicz 2000, 33)

Tuesday morning I awoke at that pale and lifeless hour when night is almost gone but dawn has not yet come into its own. Awakened suddenly, I wanted to take a taxi and dash to the railroad station, thinking I was due to leave, when, in the next minute, I realized to my chagrin that no train was waiting for me at the station, that no hour had struck. I lay in the murky light while my body, unbearably frightened, crushed my spirit with fear, and my spirit crushed my body, whose tiniest fibers cringed in apprehension that nothing would ever happen, nothing ever change, that nothing would ever come to pass, and whatever I undertook, nothing, but nothing, would ever come of it. (Gombrowicz 2000a, 1)

At this precise moment, in a move that is typical for the early Gombrowicz but in a way that would seem out of character in the exilic texts to come, the narrator offers a major clue that ensures that the reader will understand the metaphysical and eschatological component of his anxiety:

Był to lęk nieistnienia, strach niebytu, niepokój niežycia, obawa nierzeczywistości, krzyk biologiczny, wszystkich komórek moich wobec wewnętrznego rozdarcia, rozproszenia i rozproszkowania. (33)

It was the dread of nonexistence, the terror of extinction, it was the angst of nonlife, the fear of unreality, a biological scream of all my cells in the face of an inner disintegration when all would be blown to pieces and scattered to the winds. (Gombrowicz 2000a, 1)

In Cosmos, on the other hand, Witold possesses the firm certainty that he really exists in space, that he is functioning between concrete temporal markers; on the other hand, he grows increasingly unsure both of the structures he is perceiving and eventually even of the rules that govern perception. However, this loss of horizon, paradoxically, rebounds him back to subjectivity, to being in time, to ipseity, and to existence through language. Though language as a tool is not the prime suspect for Witold, its instrumental use for ordering his particular cosmos foregrounds its susceptibility to the laws of contingency. Language, then, is the law but it is also the adjudicator in the service of the demiurge. Gombrowicz, by that point habituated himself to playing his identity games in between the spaces of languages, cultures, and writings, was as good a judge of language as anyone. When all else began its inevitable representational collapse as at the end of Leo’s triumphant jouissance and his final “Berg,” there was at least language left. Language, and thought, thus consciousness, thus our essential condition and our “narratological” enchainment as conscious beings: these are perhaps the only realities to which one can remain faithful. However, they need not necessarily avert us from our desires, such as planning to commit a murder:

Uciszył się zupełnie i nic nie było słychać, ja myślałem wróbel Lena patyk Lena kot w usta miód warga wywichnąć ściana grudka rysa palec Ludwik krzaki wisi wiszą usta Lena sam tam czajnik kot patyk płot droga Ludwik ksiądz mur kot patyk wróbel kot Ludwik wisi patyk wisi wróbel wisi Ludwik kot powieszę. (Gombrowicz 2001, 148)

He quieted down completely and total silence prevailed. I thought sparrow Lena bit of wood cat in the mouth honey disfigured lip little clump of earth tear in the wallpaper finger Louis young trees hanging Lena lonely there teapot cat bit of wood fence road Louis priest wall cat bit of wood sparrow cat Louis hanged bit of wood hanged sparrow hanged Louis cat I’m going to hang. (Gombrowicz 1985, 165-66)

Gombrowicz leaves it to us to complete this ultimate series, “I am going to hang. . . Lena.” But then, suddenly, comes the masterstroke: “Lunęło.”[21] The symmetry and the power of reality are re-established; primal cravings are nipped in the bud, the line of desire is stymied.

If there is one thing that can be said with certainty about this astonishing associational chain, it is that if indeed “languageality” represents the conditional space of freedom, and I submit it does, it is anteceded by the libidinal economy of the subject for whom sex might, under certain phenomenological conditions, equal murder. In other words, for Gombrowicz the narratological demiurge in parting scores a purely Nietzschean point: what some of us like to call morality comes after-as an aftereffect, not always intentional, of the imposition of subjectivity and all the struggles involved in its maintenance.


1. Ihab Hassan, “The Dismemberment of Orpheus,” American Scholar, 32 (1963), 463-84, and The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (New York: Knopf, 1967); Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” and “Godard’s Vivre sa vie,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Dell, 1967), 3-14, 196-208; Frank Kermode, “Modernisms Again: Objects, Jokes, and Art,” Encounter 26 (1966), 65-74; Leslie Fiedler, “Cross the Border-Close that Gap: Post-modernism” (1969), in American Literature Since 1900, edited by Marcus Cunliffe (London: Sphere Books, 1975), 344-66.

2. Foucault xx-xxi.

3. Jarzębski 32; unless otherwise indicated, all translations from the Polish are mine.

4. Žižek 69; my emphasis.

5. Foucault xv-xvi.

6. Gombrowicz 2000c, passim.

7. A new translation, more faithful to Gombrowicz’s stylistic innovations, is now available. Both are noted in the Works Cited; however, when I wrote this essay the Borchardt version was not yet available so for English-language citations I relied where necessary on the Mosbacher version.

8. See Robbe-Grillet’s essay “On Several Obsolete Notions,” in Robbe-Grillet 1965, 25-47, especially 29-34, on the structures and teleologies of “the story.”

9. Kermode 67-68.

10. See also Gombrowicz 2001, 33, 54, 86.

11. His hope is that his kind of emphatic representation of objects and gestures will help render them “hard, unalterable, eternally present” and help them lose their “instability and their pseudo-mystery, that suspect interiority which Roland Barthes has called ‘the romantic heart of things’” (Robbe-Grillet 1965, 21).

12. See, for example, Gombrowicz 2001, 31, 87, 101, 105, 112, 133.

13. Regarding this all-too-common critical charge, see Gombrowicz’s rebuttal in “Testament” (edited by de Roux, 51-52, 124-28).

14. Legierski 162 -78.

14. See back cover of Mosbacher’s version. There the narrator is described as “a seedy, pathetic and witty student, who is charming and appalling by turns.”

15. Legierski 16-78.

16. My translation of this passage is adapted from Eric Mosbacher and Hamilton’s English version of the text (Gombrowicz 1985, 1).

17. This stance is routinely articulated in the Diaries. As a point of departure to Gombrowicz’s intellectual positions, see Dziennik I, 1953-1956 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000). With regard to his suspicions of artistic canons, see 39-43; with regard to forms of collective consciousness, see 45-51 (Catholicism), 135-40 (Marxism), and nationalism, 260-63 and passim; on his critique of Polish literature and the Polish collective national/cultural consciousness, see especially 2-31; on his resistance to existentialism as an alternative form of individual resistance, see 279-97. For further elaborations and dialectical counterdiscourses, see also Diary volumes II and III.

18. Considering the long tradition of suspension of cultural norms that travel to “hotspots” can occasion, we should also note the venerable practice, going back at least to the Romantics, of trips to the mountains in order to partake of extraordinary experiences. For those Poles who could not afford to embark on a grand tour of the Alps, Zakopane and environs provided an authentic if circumscribed alpine headland which guaranteed a geographic paradigm shift.

19. Indeed, the root of the failure of such explanatory metaparadigms as the Grand Narrative of Science is precisely their inherent dependence on ideology, which for Gombrowicz constitutes a mode of coercion that both masks and attempts to naturalize the drive to implement those mechanisms. See, for example, Gombrowicz 2000b, 145-48.

20. See John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1898-1939 (London: Faber and Faber, 1992).

21. Gombrowicz 2001, 148. In Mosbacher’s translation this phrase is rendered as the unsatisfactory “Suddenly it started raining,” completely obscuring the sheer violence and definitiveness of this moment of “natural” narratological intervention. Rendering “Lunęło” as “Suddenly it started pouring,” Borchardt’s translation is only marginally better at imparting the connotation of an all-encompassing deluge (Gombrowicz 2005, 188).


Bartoszyński, Kazimierz. “Lektury Kosmosu.” In Witold Gombrowicz, Kosmos (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2001), 149-64.

Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, translated by James E. Irby et al. (New York: New Directions), 1964, 3-18.

Cataluccio, Francesco M. “Wstęp.” In Witold Gombrowicz, Lekcja filozofii w 6 godzin i kwadrans (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 1995), 1-20.

Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1970).

Gombrowicz, Witold. Cosmos, translated by Danuta Borchardt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).

_______, Kosmos (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2001).

_______. Ferdydurke (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000).

_______, Ferdydurke, translated by Danuta Borchardt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000a).

_______, Dziennik: 1957-1961 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000b).

_______, Dziennik: 1961-1967 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000c).

_______, Cosmos and Pornografia: Two Novels by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Eric Mosbacher and Alastair Hamilton (New York: Grove Press, 1985).

Jarzębski, Jerzy. Podgądanie Gombrowicza (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000).

Kermode, Frank, Essays on Fiction 1971-82 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).

Legierski, Michał, Modernizm Witolda Gombrowicza (Warsaw: Instytut Badań Literackich, 1999).

Miłosz, Czesław, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

Robbe-Grillet, Alain, Two Novels: Jealousy and In The Labyrinth, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1989).

______, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965).

Dominique de Roux, ed., and Witold Gombrowicz, Rozmowy z Gombrowiczem [Conversations with Gombrowicz; also known as “Testament”] (Paris: Institut Littéraire, 1969).

Zižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1991)

Back to the September 2007 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 9/21/07