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 . . .


Today, years later, when I am a lot calmer, less at the mercy and the lack of mercy of judgements, I think about the basic assumptions of Ferdydurke regarding criticism and I can endorse them without reservation. There are enough innocent works that enter life looking as if they did not know that they would be raped by a thousand idiotic assessments! Enough authors who pretend that this rape, perpetrated on them with superficial judgements, any kind at all, is something that is not capable of affecting them and should not be noticed. A work, even if it is born of the purest contemplation, should be written in such a way as to assure the author an advantage in his game with people. A style that cannot defend itself before human judgement, that surrenders its creator to the ill will of any old imbecile, does not fulfill its most important assignment. Yet defense against these opinions is possible only when we manage a little humility and admit how important they really are to us, even if they do come from an idiot. That is why the defenselessness of art in the face of human judgement is the sad consequence of its pride: ah, I am higher than that, I take into account only the opinions of the wise! This fiction is absurd and the truth, the difficult tragic truth is that the idiot’s opinion is also significant. It also creates us, shapes us from inside out, and has far-reaching practical and vital consequences.

Criticism, however, has yet another aspect. It can be seen from the author’s side but it can also be seen from the side of the public and then it takes on even gaudier tones of scandal, mendacity, and deception. How do these things look? The public desires to be informed by the press about books that appear. This is the source of journalistic criticism, manned by people having contact with literature. Yet if these people really had something to do in the field of art, if they really were rooted in it, they certainly would not stop at these articles. So, no, these are practically always second- and third-rate literary figures, persons who always maintain merely a loose, rather social, relation with the world of the spirit, persons who are not on the level of the concerns that they write about. This then is the source of the greatest difficulty, which cannot be avoided and from which arises the entire scandal that compromises criticism and its immorality. The question is the following: How can an inferior man criticize a superior man, how can he assess his personality and arrive at the value of his work? How can this take place without becoming absurd?

Never have the critics, at least the Polish ones, ever devoted even a single minute of time to this delicate matter. Mr. X, however, in judging a man of Norwid’s class, for example, puts himself in suicidal, impossible position because in order to judge Norwid, he must be superior to Norwid but he is not. This basic falseness draws out an infinite chain of additional lies, and criticism becomes the living contradiction of all of its loftiest aspirations.

So they want to be judges of art? First they must attain it. They are in its antechamber and they lack access to the spiritual states from which art derives. They know nothing of its intensity.

So they want to be methodical, professional, objective, just? But they themselves are a triumph of dilettantism, expressing themselves on subjects that they are incapable of mastering. They are an example of the most unlawful usurpation.

Guardians of morality? Morality is based on hierarchy of values and they themselves sneer at hierarchy. The very fact of their existence is in its essence immoral: there is nothing that they have exhibited and they have no proof that they have a right to this role except that the editor allows them to write. Giving themselves up to immoral work, which consists of articulating cheap, easy, hurried judgements without basis, they want to judge the morality of people who put their life into art.

So they want to judge style? But they themselves are a parody of style, the personification of pretentiousness. They are bad stylists to the degree that they are not offended by the incurable dissonance of that accursed “higher” and “lower.” Even omitting the fact that they write quickly and sloppily, this is the dirt of the cheapest publicism. . . .

Teachers, educators, spiritual leaders? In reality, they taught the Polish reader this truth about literature: that it is something like a school essay, written in order that the teacher could give it a grade; that creativity is not a play of forces, which do not allow themselves to be completely controlled, not a burst of energy or the work of a spirit that is creating itself but merely an annual literary “production,” along with inseparable reviews, contests, awards, and feuilletons. These are masters of trivialization, artists who transform a keen life into a boring pulp, where everything is more or less equally mediocre and unimportant.

A surplus of parasites produces such fatal effects. To write about literature is easier than writing literature: that’s the whole point. If I were in their place, therefore, I would reflect very deeply on how to elude this disgrace whose name is: oversimplification. Their advantage are purely technical. Their voice resounds powerfully not because it is powerful but because they are allowed to speak through the megaphone of the press.

What is the way out of this?

Cast off in fury and pride all the artificial advantages that your situation assures you. Because literary criticism is not the judging of one man by another (who gave you this right?) but the meeting of two personalities on absolutely equal terms.

Therefore: do not judge. Simply describe your reactions. Never write about the author or the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author. You are allowed to write about yourself.

In writing about yourself, however, write so that your person takes on weight, meaning, and life, so that it becomes your decisive argument. Do not write as a pseudoscientist but as an artist. Criticism must be as tense and vibrant as that which it touches. Otherwise it becomes gas escaping from a balloon, a sloppy butchering with a dull knife, decay, an anatomy, a grave.

And if you don’t feel like doing this or cannot do this, leave it alone.

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

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