Witold Gombrowicz confronts (Polish) provincialism


Witold Gombrowicz (August 4, 1904 – July 24, 1969) is a name that must have popped up before me at one time or another, but I knew nothing about him. My interest was recently piqued in a volume of one of my favorite philosophy series:

Thinking about Provincialism in Thinking, Krzysztof Brzechczyn, Katarzyna Paprzycka (eds). Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi 2012. 301 pp. (Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities; vol. 100)

Full contents of the volume can be found here:

Thinking about Provincialism in Thinking: Contents & Abstracts

The key article of interest in this regard is:

Mieszko Ciesielski, “Human on the Periphery of Community. Witold Gombrowicz on Provincialism,” pp. 103-119.

Witold Gombrowicz has developed an interesting concept of a person entangled in a social sphere. I raise the questions of broadly understood “province-center” relations in the context of Gombrowicz’s anthropological theses. Is the attitude of conformity and imitative adopting of thinking and behavior patterns characteristic of the “province” or of the “center”? Is the “province” doomed to imitative nature of thinking and coping of what the “center” does? Where is it easier to free oneself from the social influence and reach intellectual and cultural autonomy?

Leslek Nowak, leader of the Poznan School, also treats Gombrowicz in his article “The Structure of Provincial Thought. Half Essay, Half Thesis (1998),” pp. 51-66.

Gombrowicz plays a major role in Nowak’s article. I shall treat Nowak’s and others’ contributions to this volume in separate posts. As a prelude to discussing the conceptual structure of provincialism, Nowak discusses the Polish predicament of provincialism and its attendant inferiority complex, taking off from Gombrowicz’s framing of same. Instead of hiding and dissimulating, Nowak, like Gombrowicz insists that one publicly confess one’s own provincialism. After liberally quoting Gombrowicz, and before plunging into the particulars of the depressing Polish scene, Nowak strikes one (and only one) optimistic chord:

The provincial writer has access to a kind of truth that is inaccessible to the lucky inhabitants of the metropolis. She has experienced the clash between the provincial perspective and the universal human problems first-hand, in her own scuffle with the centers of world culture. If she dilutes her experience pretending to be cosmopolitan, she is lost. If she takes advantage of it, she can enrich the culture of the centers with what is invisible from their point of view, with what she herself experiences on her spiritual way to them from the periphery. Then and only then can she succeed. [p. 54]

This paragraph, which in an existential sense I agree with, is out of synch with the rest of the article. Originality in philosophy, the sciences, and the conceptual basis of the humanities I think is harder to achieve on this basis and may not always be possible, as the possibilities of development of intellectual disciplines are constrained in ways the explication or literary treatment of concrete psychological and social experience is not.

Ciesielski, drawing on Gombrowicz’s writings, distinguishes three attitudes towards the world of (social) forms: the formal human, the inter-formal human, and the meta-formal human. [107-8] The formal human is unquestioningly locked into a given social form. They remain throughout their lives locked into a given tradition. The inter-formal human has overcome at least one given form. This type transcends or escapes one form to become locked into a different form. The meta-formal human type comprehends the essential nature of the tendency to become entrapped in forms and thus relativizes them all. The question remains whether this type can remain above all forms. It doesn’t seem so, as “the meta-formal human is also stuck in a singular and unique form”. The passages quoted seem to contradict the notion of being stuck, as the meta-form involves distancing oneself from all forms. I would say that if “distance” means self-consciousness, I can buy it; if it means transcending all finite commitments, I do not. Ciesielski concludes this explanation in a way that does make sense to me:

This singular “meta-form” enforces the attitude of distancing oneself from oneself and the others, in a way which would make one an observer of one’s life and thereby experience one’s own entanglement in the social surroundings. [109]

The references are to Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke and to his Diary (in three volumes).

I then turned to the first volume of the Diary (1953-1956). Here we find extensive comments on Polish provincialism from the standpoint of Gombrowicz’s exile in Argentina. Gombrowicz argues that vainglorious boasting about Poland and the accomplishments of outstanding Poles is really a manifestation of a deep-seated inferiority complex, proving the opposite of what it ostensibly intends. He cuts through the threadbare nostalgia for a sterile tradition and calls for honesty about one’s real condition with all its defects as a prerequisite for a genuinely creative approach to existence. The individual must acknowledge his individuality apart from tradition, apart from the given collectivity, in order to truly come to life. Also, in criticizing Czesław Miłosz for his worries about doing justice to an ideological perspective in his writing, Gombrowicz emphasizes the need for personal authenticity, for doing justice to one’s perception and experience.

One can see in all this the terrible oppression of Polish circumstances and the encrustations on the human soul by the piling on of socially instituted ideological illusions. Gombrowicz knows also that one cannot simply declare one’s individual autonomy in vacuo, as one does not exist apart from the pressures and conditioning one is subjected to. He puts it bluntly, stating for example that people kill because others kill. Using Hegelian language, one might say that Gombrowicz proposes a determinate negation of one’s circumstantial conditioning.

I will return to Gombrowicz, but I will end here by adducing just a few brief quotes from the Diary suggesting Gombrowicz’s philosophical orientation.

“If a person who complicates himself cannot also simplify himself at the same time, then he loses his inner resistance to the forces that he has awakened in himself and that will destroy him.”

“He who fears human scorn and loneliness among people, let him be silent. [....] Only he who is capable of standing apart from people and existing as a separate man and who only later wins two, three, or perhaps ten admirers, only he, my brothers, has overcome the isolation within the established boundaries of art.”

“Has man ever lived anywhere else other than in himself? You are at home even if you were to find yourself in Argentina or Canada [i.e. not Poland — RD], because a homeland is not a blot on a map but the living essence of man.

“Stop cultivating pious illusions and false sentiments in yourself. No, we were not happy at home. Those pines, birches, and weeping willows were really ordinary trees that filled you with endless yawning when, bored, you looked at them occasionally through the window. It is not true that Grojec is something more than an awful and provincial backwater in which your drab existence once fended for itself.

“No, these are all lies: Radom was never a poem, even at sunrise! Those flowers were never wondrous and unforgettable! Grinding poverty, dirt, disease, boredom, and injustice encircled you even then like the howling dogs of remote Polish villages at dusk.”

Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on February 22nd, 2014.
Polish philosophy, Witold Gombrowicz, existentialism, literature, philosophy, provincialism.


Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Volume I: 1953-56; translated by Lillian Vallee; general editor Jan Kott; introduction by Wojciech Karpinski, Afterword by Jan Kott. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988. xvi, 232 pp.

In my previous post I very briefly summarized and quoted from Gombrowicz’s diary entries of 1953. I’ll now just fill in a few gaps from the same year.

Gombrowicz finds Camus too cold (p. 42; this reminds me of Richard Wright’s comment–see previous post on Wright and Camus), and too individualistic (42-4). This last comment is made in the context of Gombrowicz’s famous remark on the weakness of autonomous conscience: “Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so? He kills because others kill. He tortures because others torture.”

Contra Cioran,  Gombrowicz sees exile as advantageous (39-40).

In section V from 1953, Gombrowicz argues against nostalgia.

In 1954 he continues his campaign against Polish provincialism:

We will discover that other Pole when we turn against ourselves. At that time contrariness should become the dominant characteristic of our development. We will have to give ourselves over to contrariness, seeking in ourselves that which we do not want, before which we recoil. Literature? We ought to have a literature that is exactly the opposite of that which has been written up to now. We must become the iconoclasts of our own history, relying only on our present for it is exactly history that has been our hereditary flaw. History imposes upon us an artificial conception of ourselves and forces us to simulate historical deduction instead of living our own reality. The most painful thing, though, will be to attack Polish style and Polish beauty in ourselves, to create a new mythology and new custom from the other half of our globe, from that other pole—to broaden and enrich our beauty in such a way that a Pole could like himself in two opposing forms—as he who is right now and he who destroys the one who he is. (110)

Gombrowicz defends himself against the charge that he is too self-preoccupied:

Once again a certain woman (because it is usually a woman, but this one is a woman-enemy who does battle with me) accuses me of egotism. She writes: “To me, sir, you are not eccentric, but egocentric. This is simply a stage in your development (vide Byron, Wilde, Gide). Some pass from this to the next phase which may be even more extreme but others don’t go anywhere at all and remain fixed in their egos. This is a tragedy but a private one. It enters neither the Pantheon nor history.”

Platitudes? Only a madman would soberly demand that a man not occupy himself with himself, that he not concern himself with himself, and that, in brief, he not take himself for himself. That woman demands that I forget that I am I, yet she knows quite well that if I have an appendix attack, it will be I that will be screaming not she.

The colossal pressure to which we are subjected today from all sides just to give up our own existence leads only to a warping and falsifying of life as does every postulate that is unrealistic. The person who is so dishonest with himself that he can say: someone else’s pain is more important to me than my own, immediately falls into this “easiness” that is the mother of verbalism and all generalities and everything that is too easily made lofty. As for me: No, never, never, never. I am.

Especially an artist who lets himself be taken in and submits to that aggressive convention is lost. Do not allow yourselves to be intimidated. The word “I” is so basic and inborn, so full of the most palpable and thereby the most honest reality, as infallible as a guide and severe as a touchstone, that instead of sneering at it, it would be better to fall to your knees before it. I think rather that I am not yet fanatical enough in my concern with myself and that I did not know how, out of fear of other people, to surrender myself to this vocation with enough of a categorical ruthlessness to push the matter far enough. I am the most important and probably the only problem I have: the only one of all my protagonists to whom I attach real importance.

To commence creating myself and to make a character like Hamlet or Don Quixote out of Gombrowicz ——? ——! (113)

Gombrowicz meditates on female beauty and the psychology of adornment (116-8).

In 1955 Gombrowicz describes his meeting with Jorge Luis Borges and his reactions to Argentina and Borges’s work. (134-5) Gombrowicz writes of youth, but he sees nothing of the kind in Borges or in Borges’ relationship to Argentina. Borges is an older man detached from his Argentine environment, more a European artist than an Argentine one. Gombrowicz would like to see something more organically and authentically Argentine in Argentine art: it seems to me that he is thinking analogously to the way that he views the problem of Polish culture.

Considering the time in which he wrote, Gombrowicz is surprisingly candid about his fascination with youth and homosexuality. (142-146)

Conscious of the extremely flawed but admirable vitality of his environment, Gombrowicz pooh-poohs Nietzsche:

Nietzscheism and its affirmation of life? Why Nietzsche didn’t have the least idea about these things, it is difficult to imagine something more tawdry, ridiculous, or in worse taste than his superman and his young human beast, no, it’s not true, not completeness but inadequacy, worseness, inferiority, immaturity are appropriate to that which is still young, i.e., alive. Then I was not yet aware that various existentialisms (which did not become well known until after the war) were battering their brains over difficulties somewhat similar to mine, tied to the desire to understand life in the raw, in motion. Try to understand my loneliness and the internal contradiction which became a crack throughout my entire artistic undertaking: as an artist I was called to strive for perfection, but I was drawn by imperfection; I was supposed to create values, however something like subvalue or imperfect value was what I really valued. I exchanged the Venus de Milo, Apollo, the Parthenon, the Sistine Chapel and all the Bach fugues for one trivial joke expressed with the lips of those related to degradation, with lips that were themselves degraded. . . . (144)

Gombrowicz is unimpressed with the period of Polish independence, 1919-1939, as he finds the inner independence he seeks to be lacking. (151) He then launches into a critique of Polish literary figures, beginning with Sinkiewicz and Źeromski (152-8) Inter alia, the glorification of peasants Gombrowicz considers mistaken, as peasants themselves do not adore the rustic. (156) Again, we are in the element of provincialism and slavishness dressed up in ideology.

In order for a writer to ‘reach’ reality, he must do both simultaneously: express the collective spirit but also his own individual existence. He must be an individuality controlled by the collectivity, but also a collectivity controlled by an individual. (157)

In chapter XVII, the final section of the 1955 entries, in the process of criticizing Polish poetry, Gombrowicz also criticizes the avant-garde, which he sees as born of “poverty”, and too brittle to withstand the onslaught of Stalinism. (161) In sum, Polish literature could not express Polish reality. This is the dilemma in which Gombrowicz found himself.

Therefore it seemed paradoxical to me that the only means by which I, a Pole, could become a fully valuable phenomenon in culture, was this one: not to hide my immaturity, but to admit it; and with this admission to break away from it; and to make a steed out of the tiger that was devouring me up to now, which steed (if I could mount it) could take me farther than those Western folks who were “delineated.” . . . At first glance, this does not look threatening as a program or rallying cry—behold, one more caprice of the intellect, seeking ways out . . . but when I penetrated its consequences (while writing Ferdydurke), I distinctly noticed their devastating perversity. What did this mean? One simply had to turn everything upside down, beginning with the Poles themselves. To turn the complacent, preening Pole, so enamoured of himself, into a creature equally aware of its inadequacy and ephemerality—and turn this keenness of vision, this ruthlessness in not concealing weaknesses into a strength. Not only would our approach to history and national art have to undergo annihilation, but our entire notion of patriotism would get transformed at its base. More, a lot more, our entire attitude toward the world would have to change and our assignment then would no longer be working out some sort of specific Polish form, but the acquisition of a new approach to form as something that is endlessly created by people and never satisfies them. In addition: one has to demonstrate that everyone is like us, that is, one has to reveal the complete inadequacy of the civilized man in the face of the culture which is too much for him. (167)

The entries of 1956 are heavily philosophical.

After Kierkegaard, the old God of the philosophers as Reason is no longer believable. How can Simone Weil believe in God as she does?

I feel the God locked in this life as a power that is purely human, connected to no supraterrestrial realm, a God that she created herself with her own might. Pure fiction. (173)

Weil is in love with God, an orientation utterly alien to Gombrowicz. He finds her a boring egotist. Ordinary people are bored by wise and holy men, by profundity. (174-5) The old God is dead to Gombrowicz. (176)

Gombrowicz finds Lefebvre the Marxist sometimes insightful, sometimes falling flat with respect to Kierkegaard. (177)

Gombrowicz has some cutting remarks about Polish Catholicism, a symptom of Poland’s failure to enter adulthood. (178)

Gombrowicz enters into a discussion of existentialism so interesting I have reproduced part of it on my web site:

Witold Gombrowicz on Existentialism

Poland has yet to reckon with existentialism, as it must. Gombrowicz has engaged existentialism and rejects it because “it does not fit my life.” (186-7)

The balance of the 1956 entries are mostly about Marxism and Communism in Poland. Gombrowicz acknowledges the moral sense (justice) on which Marxism is theoretically based, but does not believe in it as a basis for actual social organization. (190) He finds the arguments for Marxism, compelling, but he cannot get on board. The critical spirit of Marxism under the regime of capitalism disappears completely in a social order purportedly founded on communism. Then thought is crushed, and the purported unmasking of ideology becomes another mask. (194-5) World War II and the subsequent Communist order in Poland have not yet been digested. (206-8)

Gombrowicz mentions the presence of his notions of the “formal” and “interhuman” in his fiction. The Communist order has not helped in furthering the honesty Gombrowicz sought. (192)

Two sections are appended following the 1956 entries. In the first, “Against Poets,” Gombrowicz examines the disconnect between the adoration of poetry and engagement with it. Poets are self-enclosed with illusions about their universal importance. In the second, “Sinkiewicz”, Gombrowicz judges Sinkiewicz a first-rate second-rate writer, who fed the Poles’ need for beauty and fortified their illusions.

Jan Kott in his Afterword claims that Gombrowicz was both attracted to and ultimately repelled by Sartre, finding his abstractions too rigid.

Presumably, the succeeding volumes of the Diary yield some intringuing observations as well. If I am to continue with Gombrowicz, my first priority should be his novel Ferdydurke.

Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on March 20th, 2014
Jean-Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Polish philosophy, Witold Gombrowicz, existentialism, intellectual life, literature, reflexivity.

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