Translated by Lillian Vallee
Imagine if Gustave von Aschenbach didn’t catch the cholera but sustained himself on self-deprecating humour and the search for a new muse. Perhaps the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ would have turned out a ‘Diary’ not unlike this. Curiously, Mann’s model for Aschenbach’s muse, Tadzio, was based on an actual boy who not only went to the same school but was an actual acquaintance of Witold Gombrowicz, and, who, in all likelihood, probably served as his muse too. But less dour than Mann, ‘Diary’ is a self-depreciating work of bleak insight, or a kind of philosophical rumination disguised as hysterical bemusement. It has that distinctive Polish style of gallows humour, or at least it reminds me of my late Grandfather at any rate.
Like Mann’s Aschenbach, Gombrowicz seems fascinated by the subterranean co-dependency of youth and age, beauty and ugliness, inexperience and expertise, and the inextricable double-bind between faith and betrayal. These thematic oppositions are explored more directly in Gombrowicz’s ‘Pornografica’ (1960), an inverted Pascalian Wager of a novel where an insincere kneeling to believe in church can bring down the entire edifice of Catholic metaphysics. As it happens, in ‘Diary’, Gombrowicz recognises in Mann a worthy contemporary, but, as will prove typical, this won’t prevent him from passing negative judgement on his person, claiming that Mann’s ‘honesty, openness and integrity’ as a writer serves him as ‘just one more form of coquetry’ (404) in the pursuit of greatness.
It would be easy to level a similar accusation at Gombrowicz. Ostensibly an straight up account of a Polish writer in war-exile refusing to return to what he would consider a Soviet vassal state, Gombrowicz writes what might be termed a philosophical picaresque in a style somewhere between Nietzsche and Sancho Panza. Two parts cynical to one part naïve: perhaps what saves Gombrowicz from the charge of disingenuous is only his late-earned success.
Feigned or not, arguably, the best sections of the ‘Diary’ are those where he takes to task the pretension of artists and their sophisticated audiences who feign understanding. In the essay section entitled ‘Against Poetry’, Gombrowicz takes a thought experiment on the road, and assembles ‘a poem’ composed from random lines and phrases taken from a poet of high repute. Naturally, in his Argentine literary circle, many of his friends will profess to admire the reputed poet, so when he shows them the poem (without revealing the process of its manufacture), they will declare its excellence, much to his and this reader’s amusement. Gombrowicz asks us how these ‘provincial’ would-be littératuers can grow so enraptured with a poet when they don’t even recognise a crude forgery?
A similar operation occurs with would-be music aficionados. At another gathering; Gombrowicz arranges it so that he is introduced by an esteemed composer as a serious musician, and proceeds to strike the piano with gay abandon, thereafter earning their rapturous applause... Sure, these days, after the mainstreaming of Cage and Warhol we might not wonder so much, and Gombrowicz’s indignant carping might seem to earn him the charge of philistine. Clearly, the respective audiences were understandably duped because they were not experts on the particular poet or musician, and who can truly ascertain an artwork’s quality at first encounter? Yet Gombrowicz is surely right to point out how easy it is to deceive people who are non-experts but who would like to be thought of as cultured.
Naturally, such a cheap critique of elite culture does not refute it: life is short, we can’t read or listen to everything; practical day-to-day judgments rely on associations, positions, reputations, and even book covers. It would be interesting to see what Gombrowicz would have made of the postmodern trend in culture for interpreting pop culture as if it were as rich a resource as any other. Give a good critic a poem cobbled together from fragments and a date of publication and they can quite easily generate a whole history of ideas. This needn’t be a bad thing.
But when he is not lampooning artistic pretension, Gombrowicz is most persuasive in his understanding of how elite artworks can function as exercises in sensibility. Where Gombrowicz’s own literary taste can only accept poetry when it is alloyed with literary narrative or drama, he is highly perceptive at seeing the disavowed performance of sensibility in others. In this regard, a trip to the art gallery will prove instructive. Like an out-take from Thomas Bernhared’s ‘Old Masters’, a painter-friend takes him along and becomes irritated by what he takes to be affected objections: Gombrowicz asks him what it is you actually gain from going to a gallery? For Gombrowicz, the answer isn’t obvious: Firstly, he notes the problem of the awful attention-seeking competition. Each painting is meant to represent the summit of human artistic creation, and they’re lucky if we give on average a minute to each one. What does the artist or the audience get out of that? The sheer amount of artworks points towards its futility. Secondly, in terms of painting, the tools of expression are inferior to nature, no matter who wields them. Gombrowicz will claim that we overlook the fact that the medium is composed from pig-hair brushes, crumbling pigment and flat rough canvas, and the received idea that a two-dimensional frozen image can somehow capture the richness of our three-dimensional world in motion shouldn’t be accepted on trust. Lastly, if, as a painter, you believed you were blessed with the capacities to appreciate form and colour, then why do you need to make a painting? Isn’t the external world rich enough? Apply your capacities to the museum guard and be done with it.
Art isn’t only mimesis, and the painter-friend is justifiably put out by these provocations. But Gombrowicz’s ‘Diary’ well describes how the average would-be cultured person interacts with artworks. We train ourselves to adopt a certain poise, with a certain good cheer and lightness of touch, and murmur a discreet approval of a detail in a manner which shows oblique discernment. It is gauche to be angry or anxious by an artwork, and such behaviour betrays unfamiliarity with the gallery’s tacit codes. And yet, aren’t we hoping for some kind of richer experience? Don’t we want to be moved to tears or laughter in some rare transport? And don’t we check the museum text label to ensure we are being moved by one of the greats and not some pretender? For Gombrowicz, culture is not your friend. He describes it as being like a powerful hand which pushes you down on your knees to worship. And the artist-connoisseur’s blithe ease in the gallery only testifies to this self-same power. In this regard he anticipates the findings of Pierre Bourdieu's 'Distinction'.
If the Nietzschean overtones to Gombrowicz’s understanding of art’s pathos of distance is highly effective, then the Nietzschean critiques of the scientific worldview and Marxism via Soviet-Communism are slightly more whimsical and derivative. Nevertheless, he will have the good taste to not indulge in the histrionic anti-communist sentiments of his fellow emigres. Gombrowicz is like a good Catholic, and reminds us that, whatever urgent issue a writer is supposed to take a stand on today, each day millions will die for no other reason than old-age, accident or illness. We are back to Pascal: ‘Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows and, looking at each other with grief and despair, await their turn.’ How is it we manage to contemplate each our own doom without much by way of anger or fervour?
Aside from the hundreds of pages Gombrowicz devoted to acerbic and frequently hilarious ripostes to his critics, together with his comic-heroic accounts of social-angst amongst what passes for Argentine literary society, there is an unspoken dignity in the way in which Gombrowicz copes with his exile and his final illnesses. His critical animus is reserved for those who misconstrue his literary works, and he never complains about his actual material conditions. This despite the fact that for most of his adult life, Gombrowicz survived on charity and the pittance he earned as a low-level bank clerk. His reticence to bring up the base conditions of life is matched by his decorum regarding his actual sex-life. In the ‘Diary’, he expresses irritation at critics who try to use it to explain the themes of his plays and novels, but it is difficult not to read his many philosophical ruminations on the corruption of youth by age and vice versa as a justification for his hidden pursuits. Today, in an age where everyone must announce their ‘type’ and what they are ‘into’ as a proof of pride, then Gombrowicz’s unwillingness to be explicit could strike a contemporary reader as cowardly, or as a product of residual self-disgust. Arguably, there is a paradox at work in this ‘Diary’ whereby the writer pre-empts enquiry by overloading the reader with personal information: surely, you don’t need to hear more than what he has already confessed? To my mind, there are more than enough honest reflections in the ‘Diary’ to compensate for any perceived reservations. Read Gombrowicz’s account of the futility of insect suffering as proof of a meaningless universe, read his account of visiting Berlin in 1963 and his pursuit of the spectre of blame, and if you write, read his surprisingly revealing account of how to construct his stories and be inspired. His secret? You’ll have to pay for it.