Tag Archives: Witold Gombrowicz

Gombrowicz on social theory

Gombrowicz_hatFrom Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary:

I am not interested in arguments and counterarguments, that two-step in which wise men lose themselves as easily as any old layperson. Having the straightforward emotions of a man, I look at your faces when you speak and I see how theory makes your face grimace. I am not called to confirm the justice of your reasoning. I am concerned that your being right does not change your faces into mugs, and that being right does not make you repulsive, hateful, and impossible to swallow. My job is not to control ideas, but merely to confirm how an idea affects a person. An artist is he who says: This man speaks wisely, but he himself cannot keep up with his morality and turns into a swine.

Witold Gombrowicz on criticism

Witold-GombrowiczFrom Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary:


Criticism has been a burning issue for me for a long time, perhaps even from my first literary contacts with people. Poles are not generally psychologists. A Pole is incapable, for example, of correctly judging a man with whom he is talking or whose book he is reading. I knew that a Pole would not take the trouble to inquire about the point at which my joke becomes seriousness; my irresponsibility, responsibility; immaturity, maturity. He is incapable of unmasking my game or understanding its causes.

But of all Poles, the literary critic, that professional evaluator, is exactly the being that knows the least about people and, what follows, about literature because his intellectual ballast crushes the remainder of the direct, intuitive feelings of a man. Because of this, I knew, when writing Ferdydurke–a book that is unusually difficult and, what is more, is misleading and deceptive–that if I gave myself up into the hands of these men unarmed, I would be lost.

At the same time, I plied myself with a series of questions. Is it okay for an author to be unarmed before a critic? Why am I supposed to agree without protest to Mr. X’s public assessment of me if perhaps he possesses less knowledge about life than I do and certainly has a worse idea of what not his, but my concerns are. Why should the opinion of Mr. X, which is really just one more private opinion, be raised to the level of a verdict by the mere fact that he writes for a newspaper? Why should I bear this arrogance and impertinence, that hurried sloppiness solemnly called criticism? Wouldn’t I be in contradiction with the basic striving of my work, which is supposed to have assured me freedom and sovereignty and granted me a “sureness of self” if I agreed to this dependency on human opinion? But, most of all, I asked myself (because in Ferdydurke I strove to reveal myself on the broadest scale possible) if it was right that authors should pretend that criticism does not matter to them at all, just as if those verdicts were being decreed on another planet whereas in reality we all write for people, their judgement is crucial, and our fear of it dominates us.

These questions were all the more painful because I, who was a little-known author and certainly one devoid of authority, wrote a book that was outrageously bold and provocative, in which I, a young whippersnapper, settled accounts with all of culture! My strength, however, lay precisely in the disclosure of my weakness. The starting point of the book, the revelation of my own immaturity, was supposed to have been its strong point. I decided, therefore, also to reveal my attitude to criticism and, instead of avoiding this aspect of creativity with shame-filled silence, as is usually done, I tried to show as distinctly as I could that my book was written in fear and hatred of criticism, with the desire to escape it.

Today, naturally, I feel a lot more secure of myself as I am more firmly rooted in people and I am not so terribly alone as when I approached Kister with my first manuscript. Today I can oppose the opinion of Mr. X, who considers me a half-wit, to the opinion of Mr. Y, who appreciates me. Nevertheless . . .

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Witold Gombrowicz’s letter to a book club discussing his work

witold-gombrowiz-at-deskFrom Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, his letter to the members of the Discussion Club in Los Angeles, Argentina:

Thank you for your nice Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s wishes and for the news that the first meeting of the Club was devoted to discussing my works, which delights me. Allow me, dear members, to return the compliment with a few remarks on the subject of the activity to which you devote yourselves, i.e., the art of discussion.

I wish to share my reflections on this matter with you because it is with great pain that I see that discussion belongs to those cultural phenomena that usually bring us nothing but humiliation and that I would call “disqualifying.” Let us think about the source of this venom of ignominy with which discussion plies us. We undertake it assuming that it will throw into relief who is right and what the truth is, in connection with which men primo, designate a topic; secundo, define notions; tertio, take care to articulate with precision; and quarto, take pains to maintain logical argumentation. All this is followed by a Tower of Babel, a muddle of concepts, a chaos of words and the truth is drowned in claptrap. How much longer can we maintain that professorial naïveté derived from the previous century whereby we can organize discussion. Are there certain things you still do not understand? Do you need more blather in a world sick with discussion to understand that gabbing is no bridge to the truth? Do you want to illuminate your darkness with this candle when not even a lighthouse can penetrate its walls?

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Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary


I just started reading through the 737-pages of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary. It’s a collection of all the entries that Gombrowicz published in weekly installments from 1953 to 1969 in the Polish expatriate journal Kultura. It was a project that started out of necessity when he was living, since the start of WWII, as an expatriate in Argentina, where he was unable to sustain himself through his writing alone, and prevented by his job as a bank clerk to be anything but a weekend writer. Thus the diary as a form became the perfect way for him to express himself.

I have only read through the first year (about 100 pages) but it is already clear to me what themes will preoccupy him throughout. I recognize many of them from Ferdydurke, which is recognized as his greatest work of fiction. These themes include: individual identity over group identity, the narrow-mindedness of ideological literature, the vapid nature of the literary establishment, and the struggles of unrecognized genius.

I prefer not to identify too much with the slogans of the present day, which change rapidly. I feel that art should maintain a distance from slogans and look for its own, more personal, paths. In works of art I like the mysterious deviation the best, the deviation that causes that a work, even while adhering to its epoch, nevertheless is the work of a separate individual who lives his own life.

It is easy to have ideals, but it is hard not to falsify minute details in the name of great ideals.

We are not the direct heirs of past greatness or insignificance, intelligence or stupidity, virtue or sin and each person is responsible only for himself. Each is himself.

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to settle accounts with the bad knighthood romances of his time, of which not a single tract has survived while Quixote has. From which humbler authors can derive the moral that one can write in a lasting way about things that are nonlasting.

Writers! We should save ourselves a great many disillusionment if we did not call everyone who can write, a writer. I knew those writers. They were usually persons of rather superficial intelligence and quite narrow horizons who, as far as I can remember, did not become anybody so that today they don’t really have much to give up. These cadavers were characterized in their lifetime by the following: it was easy for them to fabricate a moral and ideological face, thereby earning the approbation of the critics and the more serious part of the readership.

I attack Polish form because it is my form, because all of my works desire to be, in a certain sense, a revision of the modern man in relation to form, to form which is not a result of him but which is formed between people. I do not need to tell you that this thought, together with all of its ramifications, is a child of our times, when people have intentionally set out to remake man. It even seems to me that it is the key to understanding today’s consciousness.

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