Jul 302010

I just had to write a tiny piece on what I am currently reading to go with a new essay of mine coming out in The New Quarterly. No reason not to share it here.

I’m reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary Volume One (1953-1956). Before that I read his memoir A Kind of Testament. Gombrowicz lived in Argentina starting just as the Second World War broke out, then eventually, in the 1960s, moved to France and married a French-Canadian woman and died soon after of asthma. In the diary, which isn’t really a diary–it was more like a blog, written regularly for publication in a Polish magazine, he’s funny, confessional, awkward, arrogant and amazingly smart. He compulsively turns and returns to various motifs: Poland and expatriates, Polish writers, the realm of the interhuman, and the deformation of form. The Polish material resonates in my mind because, of course, for various reasons having not much to do with choice–mostly circumstance–I live outside my country. Gombrowicz thinks this is okay. Being outside your country puts you at a distance from which you can see more clearly. Also, in the end, you realize your country is in you–this is where your art comes from. He’s also very good on the communal construction of the self in the interhuman. For centuries and right up to the Existentialists, we have too blithely taken the existence of an integral self for granted. But Existentialism is a reductio. At the moment of decision, self-creation, the self disappears (this is very clearly described in Camus’ novel The Stranger). Better, as Gombrowicz says, to accept that much of what we call a self is created through the desires of others and through communal forms and expectations. Only if we accept this do we have a chance to forge a new and firmer sense of self not based on blindness and denial. And finally Gombrowicz is a kind of formalist who makes himself as an artist (and a person–he liked to chase boys in Buenos Aires parks) by rejecting form (often in parody).


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