Witold Gombrowicz vs Lucien Goldmann

Goldmann on Gombrowicz’s ‘cultural denunciation’

Let me specify what might seem rather theoretical in this introduction: we must avoid playing with words that often designate very different things from each other. It is not a question of dogmatism in the sense of being faithful to a past that one would like fixed and immutable, but of a dogmatism constituted by the limits imposed by any creation and any search for unity. When at the level of perception I say that this is a bottle, when at the level of science I assert the validity of the principle of conservation or reversibility, we are dealing with a unity created by consciousness, with an ordering of data and, at most, with an entire global and integral universe which the activity and behavior of man tend to create. In every valid cultural creation and in every human life (and the more that this is so, the more valid it is), there is a synthesis of passivity and reception with activity and the organization of richness received from the world. This synthesis amounts to a unitary view. No human life, and thus no culture, is possible except within these two dimensions. To the extent that a society suppresses the activity of men and makes them passive, to that extent does it risk the harmonious development of the human personality. This is true even if society provides all the information available, by means of television and the mass media. In as much as the individual is unable to synthesize such information, he implicitly loses the effect of the cultural creation and his life will be limited to a process of passive adaptation. It is due to his education and formation that he cannot organize this information into a unity that is connected to action, thought and the cultural creation.

Therefore, it is within this problematic that the problem of contemporary art is posed and, more specifically, that of sociological and cultural denunciation which is the topic of my essay. It is within this problematic that I would like to analyze the theatrical works that brilliantly and rigorously raise the problem of the structure of our society and, consequently, man’s relationship to it. This is done in a highly realistic way and sets realism against naturalistic documentation and immediate description. I am referring to the work of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who so far has given us two famous texts, Yvonne and Le Mariage, and above all to the work of Jean Genet, especially his last four works, Les Bonnes, Le Balcon, Les Nègres and Les Paravents. His first work, Haute Surveillance, offers less interest for my theme.

In both instances, of course, I will insist on what gives coherence, unity and meaning to these works, without thereby forgetting their richness which constitutes an essential element of their aesthetic value. As I have already said, however, I will not stress this latter aspect. Besides, those who have read the works or have seen them performed will remember them well enough.

Before beginning my analysis of these works, I would like to connect my method to a very important problem, the reception of the works themselves. Indeed, the way in which they are received by the public and the critic is indicative of specific mental structures within modern society. For example, when Le Mariage was performed in Paris, the critics unanimously considered it an oneiric and incoherent work. Instead, it was rigorously coherent and meaningful, as I will try to demonstrate. To the extent that critics have tried to find a meaning for at least part of the work, if not all of it, they were immediately and spontaneously drawn to the individual Gombrowicz and the Oedipus complex rather than to a world view (which is always collective). This came about because they relied upon one of the first scenes in which there are two youths just back from the war who find themselves in a milieu in which other characters appear both familiar and strange to them. The two young men are speaking a language which the others both know and do not know. Suddenly, they realize that they are in front of the paternal house of one of them, which is now an inn. They are also facing this youth’s fiancée, who has become a prostitute, and his father, who is now the innkeeper. They realize that the language they are speaking is that of their childhood. Now, in considering this scene, no critic even for a moment has thought of the father’s house as an evocation of the youth’s country and the mother’s language, his maternal tongue. All this seems evident as the work unfolds. After having read the “dossier” containing almost all of the articles written about the play, I assure you that no one in the least alluded to such an interpretation and that the only explanation given resorted to the Oedipus complex.

Another more recent example: someone told me that the Living Theater had used only male actors in performing Les Bonnes, “as Genet wanted it.” Surprised by this statement, I re-read the preface to the work, in which Genet explicitly states that the waiters must be impersonated by women and that the problem of their sex is of little importance. In fact, the matter is otherwise quite important, as we will soon see. But, just as the father and mother “are” the Oedipus complex for Gombrowicz, so, in order to find the meaning of Genet’s work, critics immediately think of the homosexual aspect of his novels and life.

Actually, one can undeniably give an individualistic meaning to any human action and, implicitly, to any written text. The social level of organization can also drive elements of such an individualistic meaning into the unconscious. There is, however, a fundamental and total break between the coherence of a single subject and the coherence of the collective subject, the group. The former subject can be sacrificed and repressed by the social organization, since it is within the social and cultural realm. The latter tends to resolve its existential problems in a given environment and largely in a non-conscious way. Indeed, the French philosophical tradition from Descartes to Sartre has been too inclined toward a philosophy of consciousness in general and toward individual consciousness. Because of this, it has ignored a fundamental aspect of reality and has left no space to reflect on it. This aspect may be described in the following way: reason and sensation already exist at the biological level (a hungry cat which traps a mouse acts meaningfully, i.e., we can translate its actions into terms of problem and solution); on the other hand, at the human level, when consciousness appears (along with its corollaries, language and communication), it is undoubtedly an indispensable and inevitable element, but only an element of meaning not wholly conscious of collective behavior. And I will add that any valid work of art expresses the individual problems of the author but, at the same time, also the coherence of the collective view of which he is a part.

By examining human behavior and its expressions, I would say that at one end one finds behavior that, above all, expresses precisely individual realities. Freud has called this behavior “libidinal,” where the interlocutor is always considered as an object either of desire or repulsion. We have thousands of such expressions as the writings and designs of alienated and sick people. In these instances, however, one cannot include the work of art. If—as Freud has shown—alienation, dreams and madness are perfectly coherent with respect to the individual subject, one must add that a dream is not an art work precisely because its coherence disturbs social logic. At the other end, one finds works that express individual realities in such a way as to express social coherence at a very rigorous level, rather than disturb this coherence. This, for example, is the case with the works of Gombrowicz and Genet. Between these two extremes, madness and genius, there are numerous variations, and the mixing of individual and collective problems makes up the plot of our consciousness and our daily life.

The crucial thing in approaching a cultural creation, then, is to view the individual problems expressed there as an aspect of that richness which must be made coherent and which must be inserted into the social logic without disturbing it. That is why it seems to me rather questionable to reduce Genet’s work to problems of personal exorcism, or Gombrowicz’s to the Oedipus complex. It is eminently a social problem with which we are dealing, that of man’s life in a degraded world.

The works of these two writers pose the problem of culture and values in a universe that is undoubtedly imaginary, but which is profoundly linked to current social life. First of all, I will try to show the global coherence of their works. Then, since our recent work has permitted us to extend this analysis to include stylistic elements, I will give some conclusions on the microstructures that we have discovered in the first 25 lines of Genet’s The Blacks (Les Nèègres).

I will begin by studying the theater of Gombrowicz because I would like to treat Genet’s work more extensively. As far as I know, Gombrowicz has written only two theatrical works, Yvonne and Le Mariage. Both recreate an imaginary world linked to two historical moments of Polish society: in Yvonne an antebellum description of the ruling classes of that society; and in Le Mariage the new society that emerged from the war and the establishing of a popular democracy, especially the imaginative rendering of the events that generated it. I also immediately add that one finds a similar problematic for Western societies at the center of Genet’s Le Balcon.

Yvonne is a rather simple drama in appearance. It is the story of a prince who rules over an imaginary realm and who falls in love with a common woman called Yvonne, princess of Bourgogne, whom he marries. This creates an enormous scandal at court, where many beautiful girls spend their time dreaming of becoming princess. The prince then tires of his caprice—in this he is backed by the entire court—and decides to kill Yvonne. After doing so, life goes on “normally.” Written in 1935, the drama has come under attack often, but no one, as far as we know, has considered Yvonne’s function in the imaginary realm. According to the perspective of Christian existentialism at the base of the entire work, its structure is linear and very specific. We have before us an encounter between the court (composed of the king, the queen, the prince and their courtesans) and the “essence” of life. The encounter is unbearable because this essence reveals the truth in a society in which everyone obstinately persists in hiding it from himself and others. Finally, this situation becomes so intolerable that it is unanimously decided to suppress it in order to re-establish the earlier situation. Yvonne stands for the presence of nothing, the absolute, the absence of quality, or of any concrete position within the world. (And yet, she says she believes in God.) She does not speak—throughout the play she has eight brief lines, but 27 stage directions indicate that she remains quiet—but her presence alone will cause all the truths hidden under the everyday lies of that realm to emerge.

The first to emerge are totally soothing. One learns that a certain noble lady has false teeth, another false breasts, and another a distorted foot. These are physical defects, of course, but when revealed they create a great deal of affliction and provoke animosity toward Yvonne. Later on, these truths that we gradually discover become more serious. The king is suddenly reminded of the assassination by which he has been able to take the throne, an assassination that he had removed from his heart. Yvonne’s mere presence stirs up in him the desire to be himself and to continue killing. The queen fears that her most intimate secret has been snatched from her. In performing her role in society, she loves poetry and writes verses. As for the prince, who only wanted to marry Yvonne in order to scandalize the court and to break the monotony of daily life, he suddenly realizes that he is prevented from playing his princely role and from leading the life he carried on previously. In short, nothing in society can continue to function without the intruder, Yvonne, being removed. Individually and without conscious agreement, the protagonists find themselves in the same room and with the same plan: to kill her. Nothing remains but to study the most “correct” way to do it, to have it occur “from above” and to respect the rules. After some discussion, it is decided to have her swallow a fish whose bones will choke her. Once the assassination is carried out, there is another problem: what to do with the body. Since Yvonne is a princess, a period of national mourning is decreed involving all the signs of sorrow. With order re-established, the lies can exist once again. Even if the prince still has some scruples in delighting in the situation, since he retains a vague remembrance of his guilt in the deed, he too will finally forget it and will take up his usual life.

Yvonne has a relatively simple structure in that the different modes of inauthentic existence within a specific social group are made apparent through a confrontation with one and the same character. The structure of Le Mariage, on the other hand, is much more complex. Like Genet’s Le Balcon, it adds the further dimension of time and becoming. For the sociologist, this poses the problem of finding out in what way such a problematic informs these works. Although received by critics as an absurd and purely oneiric work, it rigorously presents the poetic representation of the social transformations that occurred in the popular democracies of central Europe. The perspective is that of an aristocratic Polish emigrant. As I already said at the start of my essay, in the first scenes we see two boys, Henri and Jeannot, returning from the war and finding themselves in a strange environment and in the presence of strange people whom they knew long ago. The house of Henri’s father has become an inn, his parents the innkeepers and his fiancée, a prostitute. This is due to the threat of a drunkard, a man of the people, whom Henri’s father fears. This threat degrades everything, even though the drunkard is also terrorized by the “immobile figure of the father” and does not dare attack him openly. As a result, we have fear and the sense of a threat reciprocally balancing each other.

Once the two youths grasp the situation, they ally themselves with the father and the balance is upset. When Henri kneels before his father, order and legitimacy are re-established. The father becomes king, the fiancée, becomes a princess, and the drunkard is thrown into prison. Preparations are begun for a legitimate marriage.

Soon, however, the drunkard escapes and returns to the court while the marriage preparations are being made. Turning to Henri, he explains that he is also a priest, though not connected to a traditional religion such as Henri’s (“high” religion) but to a “low” religion that is “humanly human, lowly, unofficial, obscure and blind, earthly and savage.” He proposes an alliance so that they might establish another order of legitimacy, overthrow his father the king and so that he, Henri, might become king through his own decision. After some uncertainty, Henri accepts the drunkard’s alliance and the balance is once again upset. Just as the father had become king through Henri’s help, so the drunkard now becomes a very powerful ambassador with real historical power. Henri takes power but is not satisfied in locking up his father and other dignitaries. He also has the drunkard thrown into prison, whence he rules alone, as a true dictator. Before disappearing, however, this last “priest of a human, earthly and savage religion” marries Jeannot, and Henri’s fiancée.

As a result, Henri will not be able to re-establish an order of legitimacy. On the occasion of his marriage feast, he will demand that Jeannot kill himself. This is agreed upon and Henri is again in power by himself. He is not sure, however, whether he governs the policemen surrounding him or whether they are overseeing him. While Jeannot’s corpse is being carried away, Henri explains his action in a monologue: “If I’m imprisoned here, down there, elsewhere and far away, may my act be raised to supreme heights! And may the funeral march lead there!”

One may see here a rigorous poetic description of the events that took place after World War II in central European countries, where the grave social crisis resulting from the conflict depended for its solution on the attitude of the combatants and intellectuals returning from the front. If this description takes on a nightmarish aspect, it is because the viewpoint is that of an aristocrat. Further, the events that took place ended with the suppression of the aristocracy, the death of its values and the suppression of history. By revolting, the people endanger the values which form the basis of the traditional social order. Still, they cannot overthrow this order by their efforts alone. This is brought about by the precarious balance of power between the father and the drunkard at the beginning of the drama.

Henri and Jeannot represent the combatants and intellectuals and their attitude will resolve the conflict. First, we see them side with traditional values, religion and legitimacy. The defense of religion and Christian values, however, is no longer a problem of morality for them. They easily allow themselves to be seduced by that new “human and earthly” religion that can re-establish a new order of legitimacy based on humanistic values. Now, a new and valid human order was not able to be brought about through such an alliance with the people, but rather the omnipotence of the executive and a dictatorship. Although there is a total victory of the oppressors and the governors—and we will find this echoed in Le Balcon—still, Le Mariage somewhat faintly conserves the echo of a continuing action. Henri hopes that his “act will be raised to supreme heights.”

As for Jeannot’s suicide, it seems to me that precisely because Gombrowicz wrote the play from an aristocratic perspective, he was able to see what someone else, more involved in the new society, could have discovered only with great difficulty: that Henri and Jeannot, or, if you prefer, Stalin and Trotsky, the new rulers and those who remained in opposition, were not at first antagonists but brothers of one and the same character—the revolutionary intellectuals. Later, events made dictators out of some and opponents out of others. The first forgot their revolutionary ideals in taking power, the second still hope to establish a new order of legitimacy but are unable to fight back in their oppositional role. These “commit suicide” in order to guarantee the country’s unity, faced as it is with the new threat of war.

Thus, in this play we have all the elements of the events that took place to culminate only in the omnipotence of the governors: a revolutionary situation which could have been resolved only by a return to traditional values. With the position which the intelligentsia took, however, the situation ended in a dictatorship. For Gombrowicz, who maintains that nothing can be done outside the religious realm and that of traditional values, man has become degenerate and has suppressed history. Line by line, situation by situation, the work is rigorously coherent. All the blindness of criticism is needed to have recognized only an incoherent dream or an expression of the Oedipus complex in the play.

If I have dealt at length with this work, it is because it seems to offer a good example of cultural denunciation in contemporary theater and because we will find the same denunciatory problematic in Le Balcon, only this time applied to the West.

SOURCE: Goldmann, Lucien. “Sociological and Cultural Denunciation,” in Essays on Method in the Sociology of Literature, translated and edited by William Q. Boelhower (St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1980), Chapter 7: pp. 117-140; this excerpt: pp. 122-130.

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Gombrowicz refutes Goldmann

Professor Lucien Goldmann. Broad shouldered, with a warrior’s chest, bearing down, something like a truck or even a thirty-ton ship. He was at the Recamier theater at a production of The Marriage, participated in the discussions, explained to people left and right where the whole secret lay, until he finally came out with an article in France Observateur entitled ‘‘Critics Understood Nothing’’ in which he gave his own interpretation of the play. It began promisingly. The Marriage, in his opinion, is closely bound to the historical cataclysms of our times, it is a ‘‘chronicle of history gone crazy,’’ the action of The Marriage is a grotesque parody of real events. But then? Goldmann makes the Drunkard into the rebellious masses, Henry’s fiancee into the nation, the King into the government, and me into a ‘‘Polish squire’’ who contained the historical drama in these symbols. I timidly protested, yes, I do not deny that The Marriage is a wild version of a crazy history; in the dreamy or drunken becoming of this action is mirrored the fantasticality of the historical process, but to make Molly the nation and Father the state . . . ?? Nothing doing. Goldmann, professor, critic, broad-shouldered Marxist, decreed that I did not know, that he knew better! Rabid Marxist imperialism! They use that doctrine to invade people! Goldmann, armed with Marxism, was the subject—I, deprived of Marxism, was the object—a few people, not at all amazed that Goldmann was interpreting me and not the other way around, listened to the discussion.

SOURCE: Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary, vols. 1-3, translated by Lillian Vallee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), Volume 3, p. 670 (1965, XV). (Margellos World Republic of Letters Book)

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Other sources

Cohen, Mitchell. The Wager of Lucien Goldmann: Tragedy, Dialectics, and a Hidden God (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 198-199, 317 n183.

On Goldmann’s analysis of Gombrowicz’s plays. “Goldmann seems to have found a transindividual subject here, though Gombrowicz denied he was an aristocrat and called Goldmann’s interpretation ‘heresy’. Writing in 1970, Goldmann claimed that Gombrowicz’s 1966 Operetta anticipated the May 1968 rebellions; Goldmann claimed to see in it a rejection of the old established order and Stalinism.” (p. 199) “Gombrowicz’s comment is in a letter he sent to Goldmann, December 17, 1966, AGA.” (p. 317, note 183. AGA = Annie Goldmann Archives (private collection).)

Goldmann, Lucien. Structures mentales et création culturelle. Paris: Anthopos, 1970.

8. Le théâtre de Gombrowicz,” Paragone, nuova serie, 32, 1967.

9. “A propos d’Operette de Gombrowicz,” in La Quinzaine Littéraire, 88 (Jan or Feb 1-15, 1970).

Goldmann, Lucien. “The Theatre of Gombrowicz,” translated by Patricia Dreyfus, The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 14, no. 3, Spring 1970, pp. 102-122. [1967 in French]

Books on Goldmann in English

Cohen, Mitchell. The Wager of Lucien Goldmann: Tragedy, Dialectics, and a Hidden God. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Donaldson, Aidan. The Thought of Lucien Goldmann: a Critical Study. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.

Evans, Mary. Lucien Goldmann: An Introduction. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1981.

Zimmerman, Marc. Lucien Goldmann: Genetic Structuralism and Cultural Creation in the Capitalist World. Santiago, Chile: Bravo y Allende; Houston, TX: Global Casa, 2007. (Based on Ph.D. thesis, 1975.)

Witold Gombrowicz on Existentialism (1956)
(See also for offsite links)

Witold Gombrowicz on Jorge Luis Borges
(See also for offsite links)

Witold Gombrowicz confronts (Polish) provincialism

Witold Gombrowicz: Philosophy in 6 1/4 hours (1)

Ferdydurke in Catalan
by Roberto Bolaño

An Ars Poetica? (excerpts) by Sergio Pitol

Theoretical Fables: Conclusions (Excerpt)
by Alicia Borinsky

Recherches dialectiques
(Table des matières, Bibliographie, Postface)

par Lucien Goldmann

Jorge Luis Borges & Lucien Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism

Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium
edited by Erich Fromm

In Memoriam György Lukács (1885-1971),
The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 47 (vol. 13, Autumn 1972)
(Special issue)

On Goldmann, Lukacs, Heidegger, and Adorno
by Ralph Dumain

Marxism & Totality & Gramsci & Della Volpe
by Ralph Dumain

Freedom and Polydeterminism in the Criticism of Culture
by Rudi Supek

Reification by Gajo Petrović

Philosophy and Revolution: Twenty Sheaves of Questions
by Gajo Petrović

Adorno and the Frankfurt School by Jack Lindsay

The Concept of Ideology by Jorge Larrain

Ideological Discourse as Rationality and False Consciousness
by Alvin Gouldner

Blake and Ideology” by Edward Larrissy

2003 Reading Review by Ralph Dumain

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


by Witold Gombrowicz
(Yale University Press, 2012 edition, 3 vols. in 1,
with 10 censored pages from 1969)

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