Witold Gombrowicz—a man of contradictions, a writer-provocateur, and an eccentric intellectual—was as idiosyncratic an essayist as he was a novelist and a playwright. His formally and stylistically diversified essays range from a mock interview (“Byłem pierwszym strukturalistà” [1967; I was the first structuralist]), through a series of autobiographical radio talks, initially prepared for Radio Free Europe and published posthumously in 1977 as Wspomnienia polskie (Memories of Poland) and Wędrowki po Argentynie (Wandering in Argentina), to a highly original “Przewodnik po filozofii w sześć godzin i kwadrans” (1971; Guide through philosophy in six hours and a quarter), a collection of thoughts on Schopenhauer, Hegel, Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, and Marx. To fight sickness and boredom, the bedridden Gombrowicz delivered them as lectures to his wife and a friend.
A four-volume Dziennik (1957–69; Diary) is probably Gombrowicz’s most important achievement. Carefully structured for publication in the Parisian monthly Kultura, and later polished for book form, the Diary is no less a work of fiction than Gombrowicz’s novels. It combines autobiographical entries with pure fiction, essays (“Przeciwko poetom” [“Against Poets”] and “Sienkiewicz” crown its first volume) and essayistic fragments with commentaries on his own works, literary criticism with personal and intellectual polemics.
The Diary opens with symptomatic words:
“Monday/Me. /Tuesday/Me./Wednesday/Me./Thursday/Me.” This unmistakable provocation reveals the core of Gombrowicz’s artistic and philosophical position. The writer scrutinizes himself as both a human being and an artist. Consequently, Gombrowicz’s most original work concerns man and art. His interests are anthropocentric and existential; his focus is on an individual life—his own; his attitude is to transcend every position he takes; his purpose is to decipher the mechanisms governing one’s relation to others (the main concern is authenticity), to reality and how we communicate with it.
The writer views man as both a producer and a product of form, which he defines as “all modes of our self-expression such as language, ideas, gestures, decisions, deeds…”
Being born in human interaction, form makes every manifestation of individuality, including artistic expression of uniqueness, irreversibly artificial. Form also dominates human perception and understanding of reality, and creates important oppositions: between our sense of self and the roles we play, between our thinking and being, between our form and the form of others, and finally between our consciousness and the world.
Gombrowicz believes that the essence of culture is a dialectical relationship between man and form; the purpose of artistic creation is to enter reality by penetrating and manipulating the realm of form.
Since art is a social phenomenon, its perception is governed by social rituals and conventions, and in the case of literature by the authority of critics. Therefore it is never authentic and rarely accurate. No one reads the works everyone claims to admire, Gombrowicz alleges in “Against Poets.” Poets write for other poets, remain isolated in their hierarchical milieu, and are oblivious to the important tensions in the world. He disapproves of cultural institutions and claims that museums, literary conventions and awards, academic conferences, and the coteries of critics are deadly for art and boring for their participants. Institutionalized, ritualized, and abundant, with no clear criteria for the evaluation of its merits, art exists for its own sake and loses touch with reality. This is its gravest sin, Gombrowicz maintains, for whom writing was a form of living and the most important way of saying something meaningful about the reality in which he lived.
That is not to say that art should be subjected to ideological, intellectual, or literary tenets. Despite his respect for and partial affiliation with existentialism, Gombrowicz attacks writers who use literature to propagate the doctrine. His own polemic with existentialism (as well as with Marxism and Catholicism) is part of the most captivating fragments in his writings. Gombrowicz criticizes the nouveau roman and the apocalyptic cries of his contemporaries with equal intensity. As a Polish writer, he also recognizes the restrictions of the national mission of literature. In “Sienkiewicz” he reproaches Polish literature and culture for being invariably immersed in virtuous mythologies and naïve self-adoration, for isolating itself and for ignoring the most important contemporary philosophical and aesthetic problems. On the other hand, Gombrowicz uses his stylized identity of “a simple country bumpkin, just a Pole,” to confront the West and win his
artistic sovereignty from and superiority over its manifested avantgarde sophistication.
Gombrowicz does not spare Paris, this mecca of modern thought, literature, and philosophy, sneering at it as ruthlessly as he does at provincial Poland.
For a writer who declares himself to be “a form in motion,” Gombrowicz’s most important task is to execute a strategically designed attitude to himself and his readers.
“Writing is nothing more than a battle that the artist wages with others for his own prominence,” Gombrowicz declares in his Diary. Through laughter, jokes, and outright buffoonery, through parodies of genres and styles, and through serious intellectual contemplation, he creates a dynamic artistic personality for himself, a personality based on permanent ambivalence and transformation. If a struggle with form is the main theme of Gombrowicz’s works, then the main strategy in this struggle, as Jerzy Jarzębski has superbly shown in his book, Gra w Gombrowicza (1982; Playing Gombrowicz), is the game—a well-planned series of maneuvers that enables the writer to find a necessary distance from form and to impose the desired image of himself on his readers.
Sometimes Gombrowicz is aggressive, often unfair and petty in his artistic and intellectual battles “for his own prominence,” but so long as he manages to escape final classification, he is always ready to pay the highest price for his choices—the price of dismissal, ridicule, and hostility. His contradictions, oppositions, and paralogisms, his style of direct but rarely didactic persuasion, his provocations and maneuvers, his seriousness and unmatched understanding of pain make him one of the most original Polish writers and thinkers.
Born 4 August 1904 in Maloszyce. Studied at Warsaw University, 1922–27, law degree, 1927; studied philosophy and economics at the Institut des Hautes Études Internationales, Paris, 1927. Law clerk briefly, Warsaw. Wrote for Warsaw newspapers, from 1933.
Visited Argentina, 1939, and stayed there once war had broken out. Wrote for Buenos Aires newspapers, from 1940; secretary, Polish Bank, Buenos Aires, 1947–53. Left Argentina, 1963, living in Berlin, 1963–64, and Vence, France, 1964–69. Married Marie-Rita Labrosse, 1969. Awards: Kultura Prize, 1961; International Literary Prize, 1967.
Died in Vence, 25 July 1969.
Essays and Related Prose
Dziennik, 3 vols., 1957–66; vol. 4 of fragments, in Dzieła, 1969; as Diary, edited by Jan Kott, translated by Lillian Vallee, 3 vols., 1988–93
Przewodnik po filozofii w sześć godzin i kwadrans, 1971
Wspomnienia polskie; Wędrowki po Argentynie, 1977
Gombrowicz filozof, edited by Francesco M.Cataluccio and Jerzy Illg, 1991
Aforyzmy, refleksje, myśli i sentencje, edited by Joachim Glensk, 1994
Other writings: five novels (Ferdydurke, 1937; Trans-Atlantyk, 1953; Pornografia, 1960; Kosmos, 1965; Opętani [Possessed], 1973), short stories, and four plays (Slub [The Marriage], 1953; Iwona, księzniczka Burgunda [Princess Ivona], 1957; Operetka [Operetta], 1966; Historia [unfinished], 1975).
Collected works editions: Dzieła zebrane, II vols., 1969–77; Dzieła, 15 vols., 1986–(in progress).
Barilli, R., “Sartre et Camus, juges dans le journal,” in Gombrowicz, edited by Constantin Jeleński and Dominique de Roux, Paris: L’Herne, 1971
Błoński, Jan, Forma, śmiech i rzeczy ostateczne, Cracow: Znák, 1994:141–79, 215–51, 259–77
Bujnowski, Józef, Esej, szkic literacki i krytyka artystyczna w literaturze polskiej na obczyźnie 1940–1960, London: Związek Pisarzy Polskich, 1964
Dedieu, Jean-Claude, Witold Gombrowicz, Paris: Marval, 1993
Jarzębski, Jerzy, Gra w Gombrowicza, Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1982:59–139
Karpiński, Wojciech, “Gombrowiczowska przestrzeń,” Współczesność 20 (1969)
Kott, Jan, Introduction to Four Decades of Polish Essays, edited by Kott, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990
Łapiński, Zdzisław, editor, Gombrowicz i krytycy, Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1984
Łapiński, Zdzisław, Ja Ferdydurke: Gombrowicza świat interakcji, Lublin: Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, 1985
Lęgierski, Michał, Modernizm Witolda Gombrowicza: Wybrane zagadnienia, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1996
Malic, Zdravko, “Felietony literackie Witolda Gombrowicza,” Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1973):251–61
Proguidis, Lakis, Un écrivain malgré la critique: Essai sur l’oeuvre de Witold Gombrowicz, Paris: Gallimard, 1989
Thompson, Ewa M., Witold Gombrowicz, Boston: Twayne, 1979
Volle, Jacques, Gombrowicz, bourreau, martyr, Paris: Bourgois, 1972
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