Since 1998, a journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays edited by Ricardo Nirenberg.
1958: we were clambering out of adolescence, when one of us brought Ferdydurke. It was Néstor Rivière, who immediately began imitating the mannerisms of the book; in short order the rest of us were converted. The first novel by Witold Gombrowicz had appeared in Poland twenty years before. UnPolished, we read the 1947 Argentine translation, a triumph which professionally and commercially was a failure, the work of a committee which met at assorted cafés: Castilian and Caribean idioms fight with Buenos Aires speech line to line, contributing to the oddity of the book. Unknown to us, in that same year of 1958, a coherent French translation was being published in Paris by Juilliard, which launched Ferdydurke and its author to world fame.
Now I am mature enough to wonder, what did we find so strange and attractive in that book? I reread it. Gombrowicz writes that he, the author, was, like Dante, nel mezzo del cammin, —when I know one ought to say "the narrative voice," —but I insist, here it is the author, and I can’t think of one whose life and works are so devilishly intermixed — when he is forcibly taken back to high school by Pimko, a Cracovian philologist. The thirty-year-old author, then, is sitting with the much younger students in a Latin class; the old, gentle, diminutive professor (not Pimko) is poring over the class list to decide whom to call to answer a question on grammar, the unready students are terrified, and the old man "hesitated, meditated and flirted with himself, till he finally uttered, with faith and trust: Mydlak." My friends and I were fresh out of high school, sympathetic to the plight of sitting in terror, like a circle of frogs aware that the snake will presently lash out and one of us, Mydlak perhaps, will be devoured. Hard to explain in the U.S., where teachers instill self-tenderness, but who among us didn’t dream, recurrently and well into our thirties, that, having missed some course or some exam, we had to go back to high school terror? Our sympathy, then, is easy to understand, but mark those words, "with faith and trust": they are incongrous, yet true. The old professor torments the students, but in spite of the repeated failures and resulting failing marks, he has great faith that the next one will answer correctly. The snake, convinced that the next frog will feel honored. True, incongruous details are a key element of Ferdydurkism.
The tiny old professor "flirted with himself": another such detail, and looking at the French translation I see it isn’t there. Alicia Giangrande, who is Polish and knew Gombrowicz well, tells me that in the original the tiny old professor "flirted with the enigma, the question." In any case, my friends and I felt attracted to the strange book by its incongruous, true details, but the strangeness of Ferdydurke resides mainly in its matter, which is Form, the acquisition and the tyranny of form. All works by Gombrowicz, and his whole life, are dominated by that obsessive theme. Philosophers typically have a single chief idea; this is the case with Gombrowicz, and in that sense he is a philosophic writer, and his are philosophic books. At the end of Ferdydurke, the author flees a country house which has been taken over by the servants, and finds himself in the fields, deprived of all form, "infantilized," as he says. His cousin Isabel appears from behind a tree, and out of desperation, to recover some semblance of form, the author grabs her and says, "Let’s flee." He declares his love for her; she believes him and loves him; form, the safe, traditional form "Two Young Lovers" and "Abduction" is achieved, until he can stand it no more: she wants a kiss...
Obsession with form was the nerve behind Gombrowicz’ eye for the incongruous, true detail, his sensitivity for faces, which are masks, the rigid sediment of form. That he was misogynistic and homosexual is obvious from a mildly attentive reading of any of his works; a difficulty in translating Ferdydurke is the many hypocoristic words signifying "ass": the ass is the foundation of the body, its most vulnerable part, a symbol for the absence of form and masks, the degree zero of the face. Prima materia, or in the alchemical lingo, menstruum universalis, caput mortuum. Although the penis is conspicuously absent, it is not far-fetched to supply it as the in-former, the imprinter of form by introjection. The battle for Form, for lordship, which obsessed our author and constitutes Ferdydurke, can be seen as the battle to decide who buggers whom.
Important as it may be, too much has been made of this sort of thing by Foucault and his acolytes; the original question was, what attracted us to this book? The incongruous, true details, but mainly, I now think, the fact that we were math students at the University. In hindsight, what amazing luck, to be fresh out of high school, barely out of the awkward groping for form, and be baptized into math, Form most Exalted, the general science of Form! Again, this is hard to explain in the U.S., where mistrust of theory is popular, consciousness of form is regarded as elitist, and Math is a profession like any other. In Argentina, to choose it as a career was rare, quixotic madness, and we felt like young gods of Universal Form who had defeated the Titans, for all of us found in math a refuge from the sticky chaos of home and the wider chaos of Argentine history. Ferdydurke, being about groping for form, about form gripping like a vise, about the dreaded abyss of formlessness, would naturally concern us.
Yes, but how? Was it because, as in Lucretius, it is pleasant to watch a shipwreck from the shore? Or because we felt the frisson of the danger just escaped? Or did we see in this book a possible escape from our escape, a refuge from our refuge, something beyond Universal Form? Hard to say. Mientus, the clownish Rousseau in Ferdydurke, seeks greenness and genuineness, beyond the city, past the suburbs, into the fields: in the unspoiled fields he hopes to find a groom. Néstor, our perfect Ferdydurkist, whose Mientus-inspired battle cry was, "To the park, to the park!," went on, O paradox, to become a first-rate mathematician, a specialist in partial differential equations, and died of cancer at forty. The University of Minnesota honors him with an annual math conference.
There seems to be something paradoxical here, even sinister. I mean, What is Form? Or rather, What is not Form? Good Lord! Lord of Plato Who always geometrizes, of Galileo, Who speaks to us mortals in the language of math, of Einstein, Who never, ever plays dice! The only thing proposed so far as not being form is matter, but while we easily handle matterless form (numbers, for example), no one has succeeded in picturing prima materia, formless matter. Gombrowicz, we have seen, linked it to the ass. Plotinus, last of the greatest Greek philosophers, when pressed for an example, could come up with only one: menstrual blood. And to remove any doubt as to the value philosophy places on such stuff, remember that about a century after Plotinus, wise and beautiful Hypatia threw her wet sanitary napkin at a male student who was love-sick for her, saying, "Here’s what you really want, and it’s no good." The ratio father/form equal (but infinitely superior) to mother/matter is basic to Western thought. Let us laugh with Molière (Les Femmes Scavantes, IV, 1. Philaminte:) "Je lui montrerai bien aux lois de qui des deux / Les droits de la Raison soumettent tous ses voeux; / Et qui doit gouverner ou sa Mère, ou son Père, / Ou l'esprit ou le corps; la forme, ou la matière." Now listen to Gombrowicz. After he returns from a trip to Goya (up the Paraná river from Buenos Aires), from the home of his friend Alejandro Rússovich, having discovered that Alejandro is very attached to his mother, Witold jots down in his Diary for 1954:
Gombrowicz was not out to shock Alejandro or other pious readers; he had a deep and troubling point. Great poetry based on misometry (how telling that the word does not exist) goes back at least to Aeschylus; Mother as formless chaos, as ápeiron, is just too easily available, but a poet must experience the difficulty, the terrors, of any approach to chaos and the absence of Form. That’s something a mathematician need not and, better, should not trouble with. But a poet, an artist... Listen to Auden, to his enigmatic Noon:
How still it is; the horses
Have moved into the shade, the mothers
Have followed their migrating gardens.
Curlews on kettle moraines
Foretell the end of time,
The doom of paradox.
But lovelorn sighs ascend
From wretched greedy regions
Which cannot include themselves.
And the freckled orphan flinging
Ducks and drakes at the pond
Stops looking for stones,
And wishes he were a steamboat,
Or Lugalzaggisi the loud
Tyrant of Erech and Umma.
Hegemony of Form, highest light, minimum shadow, not good for horses or for mothers. End of time (for Form is undecaying), doom of paradox (the only cancer of Form.) Noontime is Now! As any mature person knows, there is nothing but Form, and vaunted Matter (electrons, etc.) is only solutions of certain partial differential equations; Spinoza’s God, Schopenhauer’s Will and Nietzsche’s Forces— even Mother! — are nothing but mathematical entities. From MIT and NYU, curlews screech that, thanks to their progressive understanding of Form, we (or only they?) are about to be apotheosized. You say there are wretched, greedy regions which cannot include themselves? We must practice the politics of inclusion! Tax incentives, financial and educational help, laptops! In Ferdydurke, too, the students say they cannot, they can’t like poetry, can’t get excited about Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and the professors insist that yes, they can, they ought to, out of self-respect they simply must make the effort to get themselves included in the cosmos of Form. The professors are right, of course. But I digress. Notice that the freckled boy who escapes Noon and Now is an orphan; not having the easy escape of Mother he had to become a poet, an inspired liar, free to wish to be a steamboat or a Sumerian king.
But how about some of our most poetic and modern loving sons? How about Rimbaud, Giacometti, Lezama Lima, Borges? They had, it seems, abyssal mothers. In any case, Gombrowicz made himself motherless, hence poetic and modern. His approaches to chaos had little to do with Mother and a lot with the lower classes: servants in Poland, and, after he arrived in Buenos Aires in 1939, encounters in seedy, sailor-haunted Retiro Park; those latter so powerful that he never wrote about them except obliquely. I envy him. At fifteen I deliciously shuddered at the end of a novel by Hesse, when dying Goldmund, the artist, asks his ascetic friend Narziss, "How will you be able to die, you who never knew your mother?" At sixteen I roamed that same Retiro Park in search of a female who would dispose of my virginity, and when I spoke, as to my mother, of Love, of the Ideal, of Respect and Devotion, I noticed the girl was puzzled, and becoming more angry than puzzled she asked, "What the hell do you want?" I stuttered about us going to bed, and she smiled as only cynical females can: "You should’ve started with that." Yet, still today, I shudder at poems of Eichendorff set to music by Schumann. Nostalgic for Mom’s lap, I have never felt free nor modern. Had I met Gombrowicz, I wonder, would I had been able to profit from his advice? He lived in Argentina between 1939 and 1963, exactly the same period when I lived there, but it was hard to be his friend. Rússovich lived in a room next to his from 1948 to 1953, and seems to think that the Master gradually or suddenly dumped him (details are never clear) because some unbearable silences had settled between them. But Gombrowicz was allergic to what he saw as lack of spiritual tension in momma’s boys, which makes me think he and I wouldn’t have put up with each other.
Today, Rússovich lives in an apartment on calle Cucha-Cucha. The name of some battle, no doubt; but cucha, in Buenos Aires, means dog house, and "cucha, cucha!" is something you may say to a pooch if you want it to go home and lie down. Childish, silly, morally wrong, to twist a name for meaning. But the street names of Buenos Aires, perhaps because poets had little to do with them, are poetry at its most poetic. Gombrowicz was not deaf to their charm: as a title for a collection of his short stories written between 1928 and 1946, he chose Bacacay, the name of a battle and of a street in my neighborhood, Flores, where he had lived briefly. I love that sound, and was always aware that it could be scanned, "Bah, caca hay," "Bah, shit there is." Exotic sound, lined with the low: no wonder Gombrowicz liked it. Poetry, especially poetry at its most poetic — Auden’s Noon, or street names— must be silly and morally wrong. The hegemony of Form, the high noon of mathematics, the doom of paradox, require that the name be not part of the essence, that to the vulgar question, "What’s in a name?," we unhesitatingly reply, "Nothing." This is so on theoretical grounds: a good language is a system of differences. Also, practically speaking, peace and justice demand that your own name, whether Lomonaco or Wei Shu-Chen, be resolutely disconnected from your essence, to wit:
You may think that was a digression into what’s perfectly obvious. Obvious it may be, but it was not a digression: we are following the shortest path to our destination. Which is that Gombrowicz rejects part (a). For him, a person is determined and defined by others; he rejects Leibnizian optimism, and not merely the part Voltaire made fun of (that we and the other monads are so disposed as to optimize the world), but, more radically, that we are monads at all. As Sartre put it, "Our essence is our existence," and this is why Gombrowicz considered himself an Existentalist. Very well, but here’s the difference: for the Pole, who pretended to be a count, we are formed and defined not only by our parents, teachers, superiors and those who are in control, but equally, if not more so, by our inferiors, the imbeciles, the marginals. The theme is ubiquitous in his work; I choose The Banquet, first among the short stories collected in Bacacay. A miserly and disgusting king is getting married to an archduchess and starts acting disgustingly at the wedding banquet; to redeem the situation, the chancellor and the courtiers imitate every disgusting gesture of his, thereby making them normal. When the king, in despair of not being his sovereign if obnoxious self, proceeds to throttle the archduchess, the courtiers throttle a female each. When finally the king flees, the courtiers do the same, and their running after the king transforms the flight into a warlike charge. Through imitation the king is formed and defined by his subjects, and, mark it well, there is no way, not even for a king, to escape determination.
In the first chapter of Moby Dick, Ishmael says, "For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors in the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first, but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it." Exactly so, and Gombrowicz would have agreed, even with the farting joke; because of their respect for the low, neither he nor Melville would have understood the academic category called marginality.
Exercise for the reader:
Having rejected the essence, naturally Gombrowicz rejected the theorem that the name must be kept separate from the essence; having rejected that theorem, he naturally rejected the corollary that you should be free to decide on your own name. He decided, and re-baptized each of his young Argentine friends:
(1) Alejandro Rússovich (1925- ) was Ruso.
(2) Juan Carlos Gómez (1934- ) was Goma, that is, rubber (and secondarily, eraser, and glue). Goma is an apocope of Gómez, but rubber is the receptive material ready to adopt the Master’s form.
(3) Mariano Betelú (1937-1997) was, among other nicknames, Flor de Quilombo (= terrible mess, from flor, flower, and quilombo, brothel; French and Italian, too, equate brothels and mess), and then, by ellipsis, just Flor.
The list is longer, but I limit myself to the names which appear in the letters, unpublished so far, between Gómez and Gombrowicz: they’ll be our pièce de résistance. As far as I know, no one nicknamed the Master: he was always either Gombrowicz or Witoldo.
After almost twenty-four years in Argentina, Gombrowicz left for Europe in 1963, with a grant from the Ford Foundation. His international reputation had been on the rise, and he was well received, even lionized, by literary circles in Berlin and Paris. To his brilliant Argentine Diaries he added new volumes, brimming with intelligent and shocking observations. His novels were translated and his plays performed to general acclaim. Europe and fame, however, weighed heavily on him. He felt out of his element, dépaysé. Form tormented him in two ways: recognition meant rigidity, he had been forced into Gombrowicz, his style, his obsessions and all that goes with authorship; also the circle, that most perfect and simplest epitome of Form, no less frightful than chaos, the circle had taken hold of him. Berlin is close to Poland, and he felt he had come full turn, which meant death. In fact, his health deteriorated; grippe, the old asthma and new heart ailments; he spent over a month in hospital, or in bed. For a while he planned a return to Argentina in September ‘64, he missed "la patria," and asked his friends down there, especially Gómez, to find a suitable place. His idea was to live in the outskirts of Buenos Aires with Goma, Flor, or both. Then something untoward happened, or rather, an incongruous but true detail. By May 1964 Gombrowicz was in Royaumont, a place for conferences and cultural activities near Paris; there he met a 23-year-old French-Canadian student, Rita Labrosse, and right away he proposed that they live together in Provence.
The next day, recovered from her surprise, Mlle. Labrosse approved the plan. A return to Argentina, a life together with Goma and/or Flor, all that was dropped for a life in Vence with Rita. It couldn’t have been lost on Gombrowicz that he was repeating Ferdydurke: like his 30-year-old hero, he, at 60, was in a fix— ill, alone, nostalgic— and to get out of it he grabs a female and tells her, "Let’s flee." They lived together in Vence; at the end of 1968 they were married; in July 1969 Gombrowicz died.
Let’s not anticipate. Recently, Juan Carlos Gómez gave me copies of his letters from Gombrowicz— some forty, in Spanish, written from Europe between 1963 and 1965— with no condition other than "do with them anything you wish." Thanks to such generosity, then, we are able to glimpse at the friendship between Master and Disciple and their struggle with Form, which had to be a struggle with each other. To dispel any misunderstanding: the friendship of these two men involved ideas and passions, but no touching, no closets.
On August 21 1964, Gombrowicz tells Goma that his return to Argentina is not certain; the summer heat might affect his heart; and anyway, "It’s better for you all that I not return. I’m weak, depressed, melancholic, and go to bed at 10." On the next letter, September 10, Gombrowicz breaks the news: "There, in the Alpes Maritimes, I’ll be with a young Canadian woman (23) of extraordinary efficiency, who loves me tenderly and will take care of me." He adds, cruelly, "Truly sad that this turned out differently from what we had planned, I suppose not much will happen, but, Goma, was it possible to prolong indefinitely this little game of ours in La Fragata?" This was a café where the two friends and others used to meet; the "little game" was their conversation, their friendship. "I am with Rita, the Canadian, she loves me tenderly," he writes on October 16, and on November 15 he adds, together with a plan of their new apartment, "Rita is a girl let’s say modern, for 5 years she has lived in Paris writing a dissertation on Colette (she’s still gathering material), a friend of Dali, etc. You’ll be charmed, Goma, she is very smart, not stupid at all, she chats, she laughs, she kids, she cooks, dresses (very well), she’s dernière vague and in the wind (dans le vent) [underlined in the original; être dans le vent, in French, means to be up to the latest fashions]. Freshness of soul. Demanding in love. Crazy for me. Maddening little face, bikini little body."
Behind the painful gaucherie we feel Gombrowicz’ shame. To be sure, he wasn’t up to writing, "I love her." I don’t know about Poland, but those words were just not said among Argentine men, it wasn’t good form (it still astounds me, the apparent American ease with that difficult verb). Gombrowicz was especially rigorous in that regard, he hated sentimentality between males. So it’s she who loves him, she who is crazy for him. What is shame, if not a cruel lash of Form? Our author was conscious of living his written work, and of the impossibility of escaping it. "I suppose not much will happen," "she loves me tenderly," "crazy for me." He’s caught, he knows it. So he writes, "Rita is a girl let’s say modern," "friend of Dali, etc.," "dernière vague," "dans le vent," and any Ferdydurkist, certainly Gómez, could not fail to catch the purport of those words. They evoke a character from the book, Zutka the Modern, the sixteen-year-old high school student, la colegiala, la lycéenne, the rude, narcissistic adolescent who peels off her sunburn skin, polishes her crêpe-soled shoes, and kicks the author in the ankle. Perhaps Gombrowicz wanted to make sure Goma knew that Rita was not cousin Isabel, the one he elopes with at the end and a rather silly girl; oh no, it was rather Zutka, the smart, fashionable girl whom the author wants to impress, with whom he "falls in love."
Alas, those quotation marks are stigmata of fossil form; "falling in love," in Ferdydurke, has only tenuous, distant relations to the Phaedrus, the Vita Nuova, Denis de Rougemont, or even Proust: it is a grotesque mask, optionally adorned with colored feathers and garish neon coups de foudre. I’m not speaking of Witold’s and Rita’s life together, of which I know nothing; the communication between Witold and Goma is the issue here, signed and sealed by Ferdydurke. The two men were spurred by the same style, which neither could renounce. Once Rita appears on the scene, the letters become acerbic, rancorous: how could Goma not resent Zutka’s intruding into their perfect male friendship, and worse, keeping the Master far from Buenos Aires?
On September 30, replying to the breaking of the news about Rita and the cruel phrase about the "little game," Goma sends a terribly bitter letter. "So our little game in La Fragata was not enough for you? Is it because of it that you see no reason to return to Argentina? How a little phrase bares the soul, my friend!" "You are an actor and your life is a small and grand creation, dark, artificial and painful." Goma accuses Gombrowicz of not believing in his own teachings, of being a hypocrite. And he ends with a sarcasm, "Your relationship with the 23-year-old Canadian has caused general excitement. Bravo, Master! Push, go ahead! Lion, go!" On October 16 Gombrowicz writes in carefully measured tones, his only reference to Goma’s cannonade being, "Your latest was a bit annoying (Su última resultó un tanto enervante). Funny that you can’t get into your heads I’m in poor health. I cannot return." But from then on, letters grow in rancor and rupture becomes unavoidable. The friendship is ruined— escoñada, one says in Buenos Aires, and though it is a vulgar, vulvar word (from coño, cunt), no other is so apt. To my mind, the most poignant detail is that Goma was hurt by Gombrowicz’ rhetorical question, "Was it possible to prolong indefinitely this little game of ours in La Fragata?," when in fact their rupture was caused precisely by their not being able to desist from playing, at a distance, that little game of theirs. In what follows I translate, with accompanying comments, four of the letters leading to the rupture. Let us peek into their little game.
I’ve been begging you, Goma, ever since I left the South American shores, not to send me certified letters. Well, your last, besides being certified express, is the most stupid I’ve received so far. 1° Don’t you know that Ferdy was published in Italy 4 years ago? 2° You dumbly imagine that I haven’t received your next-to-last one with the Yugoslav letter, and it so happens I did! 3° Don’t go about creating problems with Arnesto, whose preface seems to me full of glimmer and charm, besides being very talented, like everything he writes. You’ll see, Goma, you’ll end up by sowing suspicion and distrust between us, you’ll see, people repeat everything they hear, don’t be silly. 4° As if that were not enough, instead of sending me news, you endeavor, it seems, in 5 pages, to teach me Sartre’s philosophy. Ha, ha, ha! That pain and pleasure acquire value only within the existent’s perspective, within his world, his situation, his finality, his future, his project, that any child knows. What some recently initiated adults do not know is that in Sartre (as in every Cartesianism) being is based on consciousness, which means that if you are conscious of this glass, the glass is (even though it didn’t cause you either pleasure or pain). This is what I’m attacking, you moron, for I know it deeply that existence is not a quiet, loose relation, but a convulsed one— and not a freedom (in what sense, anyway) but a tension. All of Sartre’s stupidities come from the fact that he related to pain with a doctoral tranquillity which is typical of Cartesians. He understood neither the body nor pain. Therefore I amicably suggest to you, Goma, that you tell all our friends that I consider you quite a moron. Greetings. W.G.
"Arnesto’s preface": Ernesto (deformed into Arnesto by Gombrowicz) Sabato wrote a preface for the 1964 Argentine edition of Ferdydurke. Not surprisingly, the author of On Heroes and Tombs managed to stuff those few pages with an indigestible paste of heavy philosophical reference— Heraclitus’ enantiodromia (the process by which something becomes its opposite), Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Unamuno, and the early Nietzsche of Apollo vs. Dionysos (Gombrowicz being the latter). Gómez didn’t like this, and one can’t blame him. However, there was some kind of agreement between Gombrowicz and Sabato to advertise each other’s work, and they remained on friendly terms until the end. "The Yugoslav letter": Gómez has no idea what it was about.
Letter from Gómez to Gombrowicz, December 6, 1964
I received your very kind and dionysiac of November 25. Yes, my friend, yes, the monster’s preface is an enchanting jewel, full of charms and, besides, with swaying hips, smooth thighs and a bewitching little face. Ah! What a talented little body! Baby, tee, tee, my little hen— smooch!
So that you get an idea of my change regarding the pterodactyl’s tender and warm little piece of work— underpants, panties, pettipants— I let you know that whenever I talk of it I recite, textually, those same words.
Our friends tell me you’re not so much in love with the preface as it seems, but that you are afraid of telling the truth: Verba volant, scripta manent. Unreasonable little fools! What do they know about the softened little heart? Foxy little preface, candied little hands of mine, little enantiodromic arms, nosity-nose, choo, choo, choo!
Of course, master: being is based on the little consciousness, Cartesius’ fault— ugly, yucky, stupid! and the glass is, though it may give me neither a little pain nor a little relish. Now look: I’m giving Ada philosophy lessons and she points out to me that being is not based on consciousness. Well said, if you are referring to the for-itself, being is consciousness. If instead you mention the in-itself, it’s even worse, because consciousness introduces Nothingness into the in-itself, as if air were introduced into a full egg, but consciousness does not found being. The existent is the being which nihilates the plenitude of being-in-itself and, in fact, the project of attaining the dignity of the in-itself-for-itself.
The Princess suggested that to gain some precision in the mystery of the in-itself, for-itself and in-itself-for-itself, one should be led by an equivalent mystery: the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in that order.
Naughty Ada! Naughty, proud, foppish little Ada! It isn’t true, little princess! Any child knows how it’s founded and where it must be founded. One must found from one’s situation and with the warmish perspective of the worldikin.
On the other hand, if I am conscious of this glass, then, as for-itself, I establish a relation in-itself-for-itself which is impossible without passion, since Sartrian consciousness is not Cartesius’, for whom feelings were obscure and indistinct ideas, nor yet the Kantian form of sensibility and knowledge. The nihilating activity of the for-itself in the ecstatic plenitude of the in-itself is the basis of existential ontology. The being and the phenomenon of a glass, when they have fallen, by virtue of the presence of the for-itself, into the indissoluble totality of the in-itself-for-itself, cannot occur without pain or pleasure. Such a thing is only possible in the kingdom of the in-itself, but being-in-itself, isolated and separated form the relation man-world, doesn’t interest anyone, and Sartre least of all. Petty whims, little Ada! Pedantic, mannered little princess! We, newly born little adults, we know that existence is a convulsed piglet, hully-gully, come hit me. Cartesius, you swine!
It is bruited about that you used to aggrandize Sartre so as to hit Proust and, through him, all French literature -- Paris Diary-- as long as you didn’t feel that the philosopher, much too aggrandized, had outgrown you. Then the differences appeared -- Berlin Diary. It is also reported that the Frog’s stupidities do not originate in his quiet, doctoral relation to pain, but rather in yourself.
Little donkeys, with longish, flabby ears! They know nothing of the yummy bodikin, which hurts, ah! smooch! bikini, mokini, bini, ni...
Our friends are informed that you consider me quite a moron. However, as they are also convinced of my philosophical superiority, they are getting worried about the deplorable opinion you must have of yourself.
To raise the level of our polemics I suggest you transcribe, literally, paragraphs from Being and Nothingness, unless you want to become a perfect target.
The best part of your letter is the large stamp on the envelop -- fetching. I’m very sorry that the offer from Titante de Montegiardino has thrown such a dubious light on my memory. I swear to you that I didn’t remember a thing regarding the Italian translation of Ferdy.
ha...ha...ha... Greetings, Gombrowicz, Greetings.
December 6 1964
P.S.: According to your pleasant little letter, you have decided to replace existential freedom by the idea of tension. Ada advises you to make sure, before going ahead, whether it’s continuous or alternating; otherwise the new concept might explode. Silly little Ada, naughty and ugly!
Making sense of this letter requires not so much a familiarity with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness as some clues about idiom, a mixture of childspeak, Ferdydurkese and Tía Vicenta. The latter was a humor magazine, popular in Argentina at the time; one of its main features was a character called "el reblandecido," meaning "the gaga, dirty old man." I interpret Gómez’ repulsive ragout of in-itselfs and for-itselfs to mean that after his arrangement with Rita and the abandonment of his plans to return, Witold had become reblandecido. Being and Nothingness is a pretext: behind Gómez’ fury is Rita, the intruder. "The pterodactyl" is another name for Sabato, based on a bat in On Heroes and Tombs. "The Princess" is Ada Lubomirski, friend of Gombrowicz, who now lives in New York. The alternating or continuous tension refers to a record player Gombrowicz had ruined by plugging it into the wrong electric outlet (Spanish tensión is voltage.)
From a letter from Gombrowicz to Gómez, 12/6/1964
... Did you know, Goma, that you’re an ass? Know it, then. I’m referring, of course, to your asininity about Sartre.
Goma, I want to send you a present, a shirt or something of that sort, but not now, since Flor has devoured everything I have.
Here it’s not so cheap. But we eat well. Today, for example:
Shrimps with white wine
Rabbit à la provençale
Cheeses (several kinds)
Pears in syrup
Greetings Goma. W.G.
Detailed account of menus will be familiar to readers of Gombrowicz’ Diaries; a valuing of the quotidian that goes with his high valuation of the low. As the relations between the two friends deteriorate, literary quirks take over, not least the flagrant, provocative contradiction, a wish to give Goma a present, except that Flor (another triangle!) has left Gombrowicz penniless, which doesn’t prevent him from dining on delicacies.
Letter from Gombrowicz to Gómez, 1/8/65
My poor Goma, I held this letter up because your last was, still again, EXPRESS CERT. If you send me another such I’ll answer it after 3 months.
Abundance is your epistolary sin; Goma, instead of replying with two or three sarcasms, you send me a bagful... I understand, on the other hand, your beginner’s enthusiasm, that drunkenness with formulas, theories and assorted wordiness... Happily Arnesto, in his brilliant preface, has underlined the difference between an existentialism such as mine, authentically existential, and that of theories... Ah, yours is a happy age!... On the other hand, Goma, even within the theory you don’t really catch what it’s about and you let yourself be charmed by words.
Don’t you know that in his latest book, Les Mots, that ass has acknowledged that all his existentialism is asinine?
As you can see, Goma, your situation is ruined, your intellectual prestige destroyed, everyone laughs: "what gomities poor Goma says!"
Nothing special— or rather, there’s something, but this "something" does not yet appear clearly.
I hope that in the future you’ll be more courteous with the ladies who send you their photos.
Rita had sent a photo of herself (or of a sister of hers, so Gómez thinks) with the inscription, "Rita hully-gully les manda besos (sends you kisses) Monokini auto-stop," clearly a humorous allusion to Goma’s letter of 12-6-64 transcribed above. But Gómez never found it in himself to reply.
The correspondence did not go on for much longer. In January 24, and February 14 and 28, the master reports that he is not having a good time. He lists bouts with illness and losses of weight, finds that "Existence, you know, is Nothingness filled, or rather stuffed... not always with candy," and protests that even though Rita is madly in love, what binds him is not love, but need for care. The unpleasant, repetitious turning of Rita into a thing-at-hand rings with echoes from Sartre; as for Gómez, he speaks of little else: Being and Nothingness has become a competitive game, a pretext for both men to disregard their own being and their own nothingness, to smother their friendship. Gómez’ letter of 27th March, their final one, ends sententiously: "Man is a useless passion and he has no right to count on anything forever. I’ve paid 6,000 pesos to Flor corresponding to the monthly installments of January, February and March. Ciao, Gombrowicz." That was all.
Failures of communication are sad, and exemplary when an artist is involved, since communicating is the artist’s vocation. Some type of form, of course, is the artist’s business, and Gombrowicz had made Form in General his own. His failure in friendship reminds us that form and information are not simply the same as communication and communion: this non-identity will ever be a profoundly interesting question. To my knowledge, no one has been more mindful than Gombrowicz of the dangers of Form, its cancers, its stiffening and mummifying effects; to keep himself alive and his blood running, he had to dip into the refreshing Unformed: he has said so everywhere and at every turn.
But while we listen to Gombrowicz, isn’t there a dissonance to be resolved? I mean, if dips into the refreshing Unformed is what a man looks for, a rejection of Mother seems hard to explain, since her lap is ever a softer refuge from Form than the traditional suburbs of the ápeiron— the brothel, or, in Gombrowicz’ case and mine, Retiro Park. Mother may be too easy, I said, but there is something else that didn’t suit the "count": in all his dips into the Unformed he insisted on descending there as a creative artist, a potential demiurge. However puny the world he, the artist, would create out of however miserable elements, he was its author and therein lay his dignity. Cosmos, Gombrowicz’s last novel, is about such miserable creation, a modernized myth of Egyptian Atum, where a masturbating god creates a puny world. But from Mother’s point of view, the artist is not a demiurge but her son, he is her creation. For Witold, that was a problem.
"Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio," St. Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin, in the last canto of the Commedia: what crowning, cosmic fantasy, the mother who is the daughter of her son, the mother who is both superior and inferior, humble and lofty, "Umile e alta più che creatura"! Gombrowicz once wrote a denunciation, which outraged Ungaretti, of the lines upon the gate of Dante’s Hell, of the sadistic rhyme dolore - amore; I suspect he found the Bernardine prayer as perverted. No, his mother could not be his daughter, and if he was the son, he could not be the demiurge. I think this resolves the apparent dissonance, for the Master of Form would dip into the Unformed only as the count, the boss, only to imprint and inform. The Unformed, however, is not, or not just, a distant, circumflowing sea: whenever two come together, a blank space arises in between, a vacant plot as it were, a lot not cast. Its geometry is the unpredictable product of two freedoms. To dip into that space while posing as the one on top does not further human communication.
Boss, artist, demiurge, count: yet Gombrowicz, like Melville, acknowledged the power of the inferior, the immature and unformed. Contradiction? No more than in Pascal’s most celebrated Thought: "Man is but a reed ... Yet, even though the universe crushed him, man would still be nobler than his killer, for he knows he dies, and he knows that the universe is more powerful than he; the universe knows nothing."
Goma, offended, decided to dump the master, but note his own masterful tactic, bombarding him with Sartre. Precisely with Sartre and with Being and Nothingness, where only my consciousness and my freedom are obvious but the other’s are problematic. In that violent softening of Gombrowicz’ positions, Goma pretended that he too, or only he, was superior, the boss, the thinker, the philosopher, the interpreter, the noble one, the demiurge. "Man’s dignity is wholly in his thought," says Pascal, and Goma, who from the master’s point of view was the young, immature if brilliant contact with the Unformed, attempts to steal that sacred dignity! That was too much for Witold, who repeatedly tried to remove Goma from the thinker’s seat and return him to "greenness" and naiveté. "Yours is a happy age," "I wish I were your age again," he wrote, and announced his wish to give some gift to his young friend. It was in vain. The best gift Gombrowicz could have given Gómez was not "a shirt or something of that sort," but a merciful truce to their game and to its iron grip. Perhaps that was impossible.
Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.