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Articles

Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows


 

New York Times

 

Gombrowicz
and Chairman Mao

 
In the late sixties, when tension between Soviet Union and China was at its height, Chinese troops lining the banks of the river Amour, would pull down their pants and flash their behinds at the Russian side. The Russian response was fresh. They decorated their side of river with portraits of the Chairman Mao. Unable to flash their behinds in the face of their Chairman, the Chinese retaliated by closing all Russian departments at their universities. I heard this story from a Chinese translator, who disallowed to continue to translate Dostoyevsky. consequently translated Pickwick’s Papers into Chinese. Charles Dickens benefited.

The second part of this story is closer in spirit to Kundera, whereas the first part is a modern application of the Gombrowiczian duel of faces, grimaces and masks. Gombrowicz always thought of himself as a realist.

It was in the mid—fifties that a copy of Ferdydurke, published before the War, fell into my hands. I was fourteen then and being a student at a showcase Warsaw school of the Association of Children's Friends. I was thoroughly prepared for life. I knew about a dozen novels began with the lines: The commandant and the commissar stared at each other in silence. They understood each other without having to utter a word.” And another dozen which ended with the same two lines, As far as Polish literature, I. knew by heart the first two hooks of Adam Mickiewicz s “Pan Tadeusz” and from world literature the last two parts of the poem “Gypsies’ by Pushkin, who was friends with Mickiewicz, which was evidence for the long-standing tradition of Polish—Soviet friendship. I did not know Dostoyevsky, who had no Polish friends and believed in God. The non—existence of God was later, thanks to direct observation, confirmed by Soviet cosmonauts.

On a history exam I said that instead of studying history, one should create it. My teacher got scared and I passed. Still there were times when something didn‘t seem to me to fit, but when I would ask my father; “Daddy, why do people say one thing and do another?’ He would tell me; “ Wait, you’11 understand when you grow up.” So my personality continued to harmoniously develop, until a neighbor who ran a private library out of his apartment was arrested for industrial espionage on behalf of Japan, and his wife began to tearfully give away his books. I took 10 of them on a trial basis. Ferdydurke was squeezed between Musil’s Young Torless and Notes from the Underground which suggested that the industrial spy knew a lot about literature. In such a spiritual state I immersed myself in the elements of the Gombrowiczian absurd. The set did not fit.

The Poland of manors and gentry no longer existed. But in the landscape after the battle, the Gombrowiczian face and behind, that is deformation and degradation, shone in their splendor. Raised until now on - a literature whose eroticism of consisted of an unrequited love for the motherland, I now fell into a world of highly illegal eroticism. Here a young master out of progressive masochism attempts to break down class barriers and to fraternize with a stable boy. He first lectures the peasant about egalitarianism and then in order to give the stable boy courage, asks and finally begs to be slapped. The stable boy firmly refuses. It is not until the master wildly screams: “Hit me, you bastard,” -that the stable boy finally slugs him. The slogans of the French Revolution triumph and the master sees stars in his eyes.

I read this took in a Poland where the division of lower and higher had been replaced by the division between equal and more equal. And the stable boy enthusiastically punches the master in face out of his own personal initiative.

Gombrowicz’s language is the language of elemental parody, a playful mixture of styles and epochs and conventions, a language in mockery of life as well of itself. But as parody and the grotesque give no voice to emotions, Gombrowicz’s programmatically spontaneous writing, resembles a masterfully played chess game.

In chess the black pieces are at a disadvantage. The white pieces start the game, the blacks are always a move behind. They respond, counter and try to regain the initiative. Ferdydurke is a pastiche of a Voltairian philosophical allegory Transatlantic counters Mickiewicz’ s Pan Tadeusz.. “The Marriage" and "Iwona” parodistically recall Shakespeare. Gombrowicz always plays or shall I say writes, on the black- side.

Gombrowicz wrote several fine plays, but he was never a theatre-goer. Perhaps the role of spectator5 even at his own plays, was not appealing enough. He preferred to perform and to direct himself. He performed every day, yet he was a fastidious, actor. He viewed with disdain the roles life offered him, inverting and revising them, multiplying the variants. Only afterwards would he invite the audience. The rehearsals took place in the cafe, the premieres on the pages of his books. Reviews appeared in his Diaries.

He played, therefore he was. Because playing and being are synonymous for Gombrowicz; he was at once Gombrowicz—the— aristocrat and Gombrowicz—the— pauper, the genius and complete zero, the snob and the anti—snob, the Pole and the anti—Pole. He was the recluse in pursuit of company, the intellectual allergic to culture. The high priest of the avant—garde, who neither knew nor respected the avant—garde. A mature man who was desperately in love with immaturity. A man who was sincere, because he was artificial. “Only the superficial,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his Portrait of Dorian Grey, “do not judge by appearances.” For Gombrowicz appearance becomes an absolute, is raised to the rank of a religion. Under the empty sky, people create their masks, painstakingly or pointlessly, grimacing to exalt or to pooh-pooh each other. -

Another mask specialist, Alfred Jarry, identified so thoroughly, with his clownish hero, Ubu Roi. that as he was dying, to the horror of those present, he kept making faces, determined not to put on the annoyingly majestic mask of the end. He died, without surrendering to the gravity of death, a toothpick dangling from his mouth.

Let me conclude with a few words about the motherland, exile, a sense of humor and a sense of the tragic. Shopenhauer wrote in his Aphorism that national pride is the least valuable
kind of pride. Any pitiful fool who has nothing else to be proud about clutches on to it, as if it were his life belt.

Out of gratitude, he’s willing sacrifice an arm and a leg to defend any idiocy his Country happens to represent. In his Diaries, Gombrowicz investigates and saddeningly documents the Polish achievements in this field. Shopenhauer observes that there is a lack of foreigners willing to pretend they’re German. In general everybody pretends either to be English or French. I am afraid that finding a fake Pole would prove even more difficult. Gombrowicz knew this perfectly well. He writes in his Diaries that screaming out names of famous Poles will not help us. “ In the auction for the greatest number of geniuses, with our half French Chopin, and not quite native Copernicus, we cannot compete with the Italians, French, Germans, English or Russians." Witkacy, Gombrowicz’s contemporary, a writer, a painter and a philosopher, also ahead of his time and also not exactly over-indulged by his co-patriots, wrote that there is only one thing worse than being born a hunchback, that is to he born a hunchback artist in Poland. Of course to be an émigré Polish writer is at least as much of a nightmare. Wilhelm Kostrowicki, for example, was born in Italy, but considered himself a Pole. Still he wrote in French published under the pen name Guillamue Appolinaire and all his life tried desperately to become a certified Frenchman. To this end he even voluntarily joined the French Army during the War, suffering from a syndrome of patriotic exaltation, his French friends ridiculed.

 
Gombrowicz, as we know, did the opposite. He was born in Poland. He made out of his Polishness and provincialism a bastion of self—defense: shielded within it, instead of imitating Europe. He declared a War against it. In revealing the shameful secret of the mediocrity of Polish culture, he was saving it from mediocrity.

 
Patriotic slogans elicited from him only a mocking grimace. ‘No nation has needed laughter more than we do today. And never has a nation understood laughter’s liberating role less,” he writes in his Diary. With few exceptions, Poles both at home and abroad responded to the Gombrowiczian laughter therapy with grim disapproval. Today he is published everywhere in the world showered with international honors… Since his death, even Poles have become proud of him. We Poles are also very proud of John Paul II. But I’ll tell you something in confidence: had the Poles been the ones to elect the Pope, they would have surely chosen a Frenchman.

 


Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows

 

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