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.

Nothing that is really your own can impress you. If, therefore, our greatness or our past impresses us, it is proof that it has not yet entered our bloodstream.

The discussion was of the type that is incapable of disturbing anyone, because it has become their daily fare.

Yet instead of remaining in their territory, in their aristocratic-social world, they wanted to take art seriously, they felt obliged to pay it timid homage and so, jolted out of their count and countessness, they bumbled into sophomorism! I would have gladly agreed to purely formal platitudes, expressed with the cynicism of people who know the weight of compliments, but they tried to be honest–poor things!

The difficulty consists in the fact that I write about myself not at night, not in isolation, but right in a newspaper in front of people. In these circumstances, I cannot treat myself with appropriate gravity, I have to be modest and then again, I am tormented by that which has tormented me throughout my entire life and which has so greatly influenced my way of being with other people. The necessity of slighting myself in order to be in tune with those who slight me, or who don’t know the least about me. I will not submit myself to that modesty at any price and I consider it my mortal enemy.

I know and I have said this on many occasions, that every artist has to be pompous because he aspires to be on a pedestal. Yet I have also said that concealing these pretensions is a stylistic flaw, and a sign of a faulty inner resolution Openness. One must play with uncovered cards. Writing is nothing more than a battle that the artist wages with others for his own prominence.

One must repeat to them: you are not as you are. You have really outgrown what you are saying. You act in this way because you are attuning yourself to others. You celebrate because everyone else is celebrating. You lie because everyone is lying. Yet you and I are better than the farce in which we are acting. This is what must be said to them until this thought becomes a life jacket.

If I oppose schemas which threaten a too topical literature, it is not at all in order to impose another schema. I am not speaking for an eternal art or a pure art, I am only telling Milosz that one must be careful that life beneath our pen not become transformed into politics, philosophy, or aesthetics. I do not demand applied or true art, I clamor for freedom. I demand a natural creativity, the kind that is the unpremeditated realization of man.

No history will replace your own personal consciousness, maturity, depth. Nothing will absolve you of yourself. If you personally are important, then even if you live in the most conservative place on the face of the globe, your testimony about life will be important. No historical steamroller will squeeze important words out of an immature people.

So all this becomes difficult, doubtful, dark, and muddled under the invasion of the complex sophistry of our times, but it can regain its crystalline purity when we understand that today we do not speak or write in a new and specific way but that this is how it has been since the beginning of the world. No concepts will replace examples of the great masters and no philosophy will replace literature’s genealogical tree, so abundant in names that instill pride. There is no way around it: one can deny only write like Rabelais, Poe, Heine, Racine, or Gogol–or not at all. The legacy of this great race, which was passed down to us, is only law that governs me.

Will I be able to die like others and then what will my fate be? Among a people fleeing from themselves, I remain fixed on myself. I magnify myself to what extent? Is this unhealthy? To what extent and in what way is it unhealthy? Sometimes I suspect that the act of self-aggrandizement, to which I submit, is not an indifferent matter to nature and that it is a provocation. Haven’t I touched on something basic in my very relationship to supernatural forces and will not my be different later as a result of the fact that I did not treat myself as others?

Foolishness is a consequence not only of the fact that discussion cannot do its job, it arises primarily because we ourselves allow for a certain mystification that intensifies in proportion to the profundity of the subject. In other words, we pretend before ourselves and others that we are after the truth, whereas in reality, the truth is merely a pretext for our personal flight in discussion, for our, succinctly speaking, pleasure.

When you play tennis, you don’t try to convince others that you are interested in anything else but the game. Yet when you toss arguments around, you do not want to admit that truth, belief, worldview, ideal, humanity, or art have become a ball and that the important thing is who beats whom, who shines, or who will distinguish himself in the scuffle that so nicely fills out the afternoon.

If literature generally dares to speak, it is not at all because it is certain of its truth, but only because it is certain of its delight.

We forget that man does not exist only to convince another man. He exists in order to win, to win to his side, to seduce, charm, possess. Truth is not a matter of arguments. It is only a matter of attraction, that is, a pulling toward. Truth does not make itself real in an abstract contest of ideas, but in a collision of persons.

The first reproach [against writers who focus on one single problem like communism] is: they exaggerate. Not in the sense that they magnify the danger, but in the sense that they impute certain demonic traits to that world, some type of extraordinariness, something new and shocking. This approach is not reconcilable with maturity, which, in knowing the essence of life, does not allow itself to be surprised by its events. Revolutions, wars, cataclysms–what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? You say there has been nothing like it before? You forget that in the nearest hospital no lesser atrocities take place. You say that millions are dying? You forget that millions have been dying, incessantly, without a moment’s respite, since the beginning of time. You are horrified and dumbfounded by that horror because your imagination has fallen asleep and you forget that we rub up against hell with our every step.

And the second reproach: by reducing everything to that one antimony between East and West, you must inevitably conform to patterns that you yourself create. And even more so because there is no way to make the distinction between what is the quest for truth in you and what a desire for psychological mobilization in the battle. I don’t mean to say that you cultivate propaganda. I want to say that deep collective instincts, that today dictate to humanity that it should concentrate on just one struggle, are speaking through you. You swim in the current of the mass imagination, which has already created its own languages, ideas, images, and myths, and the current is carrying you farther than you would like to go. How much Orwell is there in Milosz? How much Koestler is there in Orwell? How much of both them is in the thousands upon thousands of words uttered in that one subject and produced by printing presses day after day, which is not due to the American dollar but is the result of our very nature, which desires a sharply defined world for itself? In you, the boundlessness and richness of life are reduced to a few issues, and you use an oversimplified concept of the world, a concept you well know is provisional…The value of pure art is in the breaking up of these set patterns.

All this must remain stifled within me. How does one lend this thought the right weight, how does one build it up and organize it into a more elaborate work, if my time is that of a minor clerk and not respected by anyone. Should I speak out of the side of my mouth? Should I allude to a truth that is impossible to elicit in its entirety? I had to remain unconfessed, fragmentary, and helpless in the face of an absurdity that distorted me.

Rimbaud? Norwid? Kafka? Stowacki? (There are a variety of exiles.) I believe that none of them woild have been too horrified at this category of hell. It is very painful not to have readers and very unpleasant not to be able to publish one’s work. It certainly is not sweet being unknown, highly unpleasant to see oneself deprived of the aid of that mechanism that pushes one to the top, that creates publicity and organizes fame, but art is loaded with elements of loneliness and self-sufficiency, it finds its satisfactions and sense of purpose in itself. The homeland? Why, every eminent person because of that eminence was a foreigner even at home. Readers? Why, they never wrote “for” readers anyways, always against them. Honors, success, renown, fame: why, they became famous exactly because they valued themselves more than their success.

The strongest thing was that they, who personally were a great deal inferior to [the artist], treated her from on high, from the heights of that collective wisdom that made them superior. They felt that they were in the possession of Truth. If Socrates himself had shown up at this session they would have treated him like a freshman, because he hadn’t been initiated. They know it all much better. It is exactly this mechanism–which allows the inferior man to avoid a personal confrontation with the superior man–that seemed immoral to me.

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