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?

If I said that discussion belongs to “disqualifying” phenomena then obviously I am thinking only of discussion of lofty and isolated issues because no one will expose himself to shame and foolishness when carrying on about the ways of preparing vegetable soup. 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 fight 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 a round, 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.

Does Discussion therefore serve the Truth? Or does Truth serve Discussion? Most likely it is both one and the other and in this split hides something elusive, something that is the secret of life and culture. Yet a talking man should know why he is speaking and it is enough to conceal this less serious side of the discussion and immediately our style gets mendacious, breaks down, and leads us to defeat. Persons who forget about other people and concentrate exclusively on the striving for Truth speak heavily and falsely, their speech is devoid of life, it becomes not a ball but a saw. But those who know how to liberate pleasure, who treat discussion as both work and play, play for work and work for play, they will not allow themselves to be crushed and then the exchange of opinion will sprout wings, flash grace, passion poetry, and, most important, regardless of the result, will become a triumph. Even absolute idiocy or lies will not be able to knock you flat on your back if you are able to play with them.

It seems to me that here, accidentally, I have betrayed the greatest and ultimate secret of style: we have to know how to delight in the word. If literature generally dares to speak, it is not at all because it is certain of its truth, but only because it is certain in its delight. If, however, dear members, I desire to draw your attention to this property of discussion, it is because the world has become mortally and stupidly serious and our truths, which are denied play, bore themselves and through their vengeance begin to bore us. 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. Being condemned to read a fair amount of books filled only with arguments, I know what truth severed from the person is: a laborious truth. And that is why I turn to you with the plea: Do not allow an idea to grow in you at the price of your personality.

You write that I was the subject of your talk. So I would like to ask: Did you respect my person? Did your words ring with vibrancy, did you speak about me with the flight and passion appropriate to art or did you merely extract some sort of “views” out of me and gnaw on them like a dry bone from my skeleton? You should know that I forbid you to speak about me in a boring, everyday, ordinary way. I staunchly forbid this. I demand a holiday word for myself. I punish those who allow themselves to speak about me boringly and wisely. I punish them cruelly: I die on their lips and they end up with an oral cavity full of my dead body.

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