Here are a few paragraphs from the opening of my essay on Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Cosmos. The essay was just published this morning at 3:AM Magazine. A great magazine, a pleasure to appear there.
Note my amazing coinage “onanomaniacal.” I was asked to explain what the word meant. I wrote:
Onanomaniacal is my coinage. It combines Onan (Genesis, Chapter 38) and “maniacal”. God smites Onan for “spilling his seed” on the ground. This is most often construed as masturbation (although some biblical critics are more precise and suggest it might just be coitus interruptus). In any case, Onan is the great masturbator of the Bible and hence Onanomaniacal means something like the adjective form of frenzied masturbator. So it’s a joke, of sorts. And there is quite a lot of talk of masturbation in Cosmos.
I used to drive by a warehouse in Guelph, Ontario, which bore the sign “Onan Generators” — this always seemed hilarious to me.
In Cosmos — the title makes it obvious — Gombrowicz is satirizing the phenomenology of world creation, the mental process by which we construct a frame of meaning for ourselves. Not the world (whatever that is), my world. Both inside and outside the novel (that is, in so-called real life), the modus operandi of consciousness is comically super-rational and simultaneously self-defeating (Husserl demonstrated that reason was never going to get where it said it was going). You (a subject, a consciousness) begin to notice hints of repetition and pattern; you look for other instances of the pattern in the chaotic flux of sensation; and eventually you decide the pattern is real. This is the procedure of reason and science. But, of course, in Cosmos what seems real to the narrator is in fact utterly contingent and often ridiculous or even murderous.
Form cannot enclose reality, but form always threatens to become reality. That is the antinomy of the novel: you can’t fit the world into a book, and yet form (read: custom, tradition, ideology, inter-personal expectation, etc.) is always threatening to derail the life of the individual, that is, there is always someone or some thing trying to fit you into his book. Cosmos is, in part, a horror story in which the monstrous evil is a form (in this case, a literary device) that haunts the narrator and eventually takes over his life. Instead of Godzilla or the mad slasher moving ineluctably toward its victim, the villain of Cosmos is an image pattern.
There are two other forces working on the human mind besides reason. One is the dark and unknowable current of desire; the narrator, whose name is Witold, can’t sleep with the girl he’s attracted to so he suddenly and incomprehensibly kills her cat (it’s a sick joke, right? He orgasmically strangles her pussy). The other force is the desire or gaze of the other. As soon as you enter a relationship (however trivial), you begin to bend yourself to fulfill, oppose or circumvent the desire (expectation, form) of the other. Even if you resist, the purity of selfhood has been corrupted. So you construct another self in secret, the masturbatory self, the self who doesn’t have to relate or unmask himself before the eyes of the other (but who is corrupt, seedy, infantile, trivial and evasive in any case).
Out of this triangle of forces, Gombrowicz creates a truly awe-ful, hilarious novel. The narrator discovers patterns and deduces meaning; his own sexual violence betrays reason; he discovers that the secret life of the adult male patriarch is one of chronic secret masturbation (the creation of private, obsessive cosmos).