At Houston's Menil Collection, a beautiful cream-and-gray building designed by Renzo Piano, there is a large room devoted to the Surrealists, who were greatly admired by the founder of the collection. Here there are almost all the sacred painters of European Surrealism, and the canvases depict their fantasiesómountains, mirrors, umbrellas, apples, and hats. A viewer such as myself, no great fan of Surrealism, is struck by one thing: Among all these sophisticated fantasies there is no trace of the true nightmares of the twentieth century, either in anticipatory foreboding or in subsequent recapitulation. Could the widely extolled imagination of the Surrealists have fallen short of expectations? Defenders of this school will naturally say that this is not so, that only a simpleton could expect Surrealism to portray real historical upheavals, and that the artists' concerns were with inner reality. Yet my doubts remainóto me those hats, apples, umbrellas, and mirrors seem almost comical when juxtaposed with the horror dreamed up not by artists but by the executioners of the twentieth century.

Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish novelist who died in 1969, at one time attempted to understand and comment on this horror. He was not a Surrealist, though certain features of his sensibilities and style could have placed him on the fringes of that movement. But there exists a paradox, one more of his biography and his fate than of his writing. For Gombrowiczówith his brilliant sense of what he himself called the "interpersonal church," which he defined as the ongoing psychological shaping of people in interactions and in their behavior toward one anotherócould potentially have been an invaluable witness to, and commentator on, the historical catastrophe of the last century. Yet fate wished otherwise, and this potential witness found himself transported, irony of ironies, to ahistorical Argentina, right at the last moment before the outbreak of war, by chance in the form of an ocean cruise on the Boleslaw Chrobry. In his Diary (1953­66), Gombrowicz himself mounted a vigorous defense against recurring accusations that he had not seen history in action and therefore did not know what that grim history was like; he argued that those who had witnessed the horror were mostly unable to understand it and even less able to express it. He defended himself wisely and well, and after all, he did not lose his immense talent in Argentina, but on the contrary, nurtured it. So I am not taking up this matter in some critical fervor, and I absolutely do not hold this against Gombrowiczóas did some hot-blooded Polish patriots, who attacked him for not returning to Europe in September 1939 to fight against Hitler's army in uniform and with rifle in hand (Gombrowicz with rifle in hand!).

I mention this matter for a different reason, one that is in a sense more abstract, precisely in the spirit of reflections on Surrealism, as well as the fact that the great imaginations of the twentieth century so rarely encountered the great monsters of that time. In his long poems Rilke did not record what was new and horrifying in World War I, and Claudel believed that even Proust failed to register what was truly essential in recent French history, reporting instead on "le papotage dans le salon de Mme Verdurin." Whereas, if we consider a case where there was in fact an encounter between imagination and history, namely, the poetry of Czeslaw Miloszóand Milosz is surely an appropriate partner, friend, commentator, near-contemporary, polemicist, and, one is tempted to say, counterpoint of the author of Ferdydurkeóone can hardly imagine art without his magnificent war poems: without "Campo dei Fiori," without "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto," without the cycle titled "The World."

Enough on this subject, though. We will never know what Gombrowicz might have written had the Boleslaw Chrobry not borne him to the flat land of Argentina, had he remained in occupied Warsaw (and survived). And the fact, the intellectual fact, that in that flat land the writer did not fall silent, did not let his talents go to waste, when it comes down to it, is a greater miracle than the miracles our speculations can show us in the conditional mood alone.

Let's return for a moment to Milosz. It is always instructive to consider Gombrowicz's work against the backdrop of Milosz's commentaries and accomplishments. Plainly, Milosz is fascinated by Gombrowiczóattracted, irritated, and intrigued by him. It would take another essay to provide a detailed description of this long-lastingóand mutualófascination; here let us say only that Milosz admires much of Gombrowicz's analysis of the present-day state of the human soul, while at the same time firmly rejecting his general philosophical line. In The Land of Ulro, for example, Milosz says critically that, for Gombrowicz, a person is like an onion. One can remove layer after layer and still not reach the metaphysical center. This is probably soóGombrowicz did not believe in the metaphysical center of a person, at least in theory, as seen in the sharp light of his intellectual argumentation. But he may have believed in it as he wrote certain fragments of his Diary, as he meditated on death, on pain, on sickness. . . .

* * *

There are at least two roads that lead to literature. The first finds a trustworthy point of entry into existing literary genres and forms: In this way, beginning poets often see in the sonnet, the elegy, or the villanelle ready-made rooms for their own creative work (it's not for nothing that the Italian word stanza in fact means "room"), houses built by their illustrious predecessors and waiting for the young blood of a new generation, for new tenants. An example of the kind of writer who trusts literature is Joseph Brodsky, who believed in the unbroken continuity of poetry, from Ovid to Auden, from Catullus to Akhmatovaóand to himself.

The second road is one of mistrust: It finds expression in a perpetual suspicious questioning of the full range of inherited literary genres. Indeed, Gombrowiczóthat member of the Sandomierz gentry on whom the spirit of the age descended like a hawk, as Constantin Jelenski aptly put it in one of his essaysólent no credence to tradition: He had no faith in either the sonnet or the elegy; he did not believe in the novel; he did not really believe at all in literature as something given.

Gombrowicz didn't believe in painting either, especially not abstract painting; nor did he believe in, as he called it, "versified poetry." He had no truck with public concerts, or with the flashy displays of musical virtuosos (indeed he wrote some hilarious descriptions of such events, portraying them as musical horse races). He put no trust in exaltations over works of art (all of which, in his view, was affectation). In his first novel, he created the character of the "cultured aunt," whoópredictablyóalways goes into raptures over art. He had no confidence in the sincerity of either Marxists or Catholics. He did not believe in maturity; in his writing, as we recall, he promoted immaturity and youth.

This is strange: Why would a novelist have so many opinions? Wouldn't this multiplicity of views and convictions be more fitting for a philosopher of culture? And yet Gombrowicz's novelsóFerdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Cosmos, Pornografiaóare they really novels? Each was written using a different kind of language; each presents a different "problem"; none opens trustingly into the river of life, the ocean of reality. In them Gombrowicz acts rather like Fernando Pessoa, the outstanding Portuguese modernist, who sought to speak in different languages and created the theory (and practice) of "heteronyms," those invented poets designed to give voice to the various facets of the author's personality. This too was strangeóas if it were not enough to speak in one language (which after all is actually the most difficult thing). Surely, everything can be expressed through the medium of a single diction alone.

Gombrowicz's Diary, howeveróand here I must confess that I am one of those who regard this work as his masterpieceóbegins with a widely cited passage:


The reader thinks, Very well, this is probably going to be an endless analysis of subtle mental states, as with philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel, the Genevan chatterbox of the inner life, and his Journal intime. But this isn't the caseóand besides, for the moment, we learn nothing about this "me." Friday already brings a sudden change of tone: The "me" of the first half of the week disappears and we find an analysis of the aberrations of the (Polish of course) émigré press.

But where did it come from, this distrust of Gombrowicz's, his skepticism of tradition and literary genres? Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, in his autobiographical essay, that World War I created in the younger generation a sense that the existing forms of European culture were not to be trustedóthis, he said, was how one should understand the beginnings of Heidegger's philosophical journey. We find something of the same in the figure of Gombrowicz, who also displays an aversion to the insistent patriotism of nineteenth-century Polish literatureóbut something more as well. I believe that he was not driven by historical motivations alone; one is tempted to risk the thesisówhich of course cannot be provenóthat Gombrowicz's artistic talent found its most perfect fulfillment in the constant questioning of various forms and substances. For it was not only literary forms or cultural behaviors that provoked his dissent; his fundamental contrariness and his analytic curiosity also manifested themselves in his contacts with religion and with God, with Poland and Polishness, and with the Polish émigré community.

In a sense, Gombrowicz was the perfect modernist. Modernism's tendency to distrust and reject nineteenth-century rhetoric and unreasoning pathosóit was not accidental that T.S. Eliot thought so highly of the poems of Jules Laforgueófound in Gombrowicz an exceptionally powerful voice.

* * *

In Gombrowicz, too, was the cunningóor perhaps the clear-headednessóof a writer from a minor country, a country with a minor language not represented in the mythical parliament of world literature. In his nonchalant way, Gombrowicz anticipated the famous debate concerning Central Europe that was initiated by Kundera in the 1980s and taken up by Milosz and other writers from the region, as well as the discussions about the Western literary canon that took place on American university campuses.

Gombrowicz did so not for political motives but out of his own quasi-aristocratic and exceptionally individual reflections on artistic creativity. How very different he was from writers and poets of a Parnassian bent, whose gaze is fixed firmly upward, on the heavens, on the Greeks, and who scorn all that is trivial, incidental, untutored. Gombrowicz, though far indeed from naturalism or from a fascination with the language of the street, was captivated by what he described as secondary, inferior; nothing bored him more than the deliberations of some worthy literary academic. On the other hand, he adored endless disputes with eighteen-year-olds andóespecially in Argentina, which was his homeland; the second perhaps chronologically, but so intensely experiencedóhe was surrounded by youngsters with whom he was friends, with whom he bantered and argued, whom he sought to impress, with whom he fell in love. Of course this had to do with his homosexuality, which is only discreetly mentioned in the Diary. But I'm convinced that there was more to it, that it was also the result of an undying amazement that the life of the mind is so ephemeral, fragile, and susceptible to "alienation," fossilization, even distortion. And in that case, there is significance in the conditions and topography of creationóthat famous inferiority, or immaturity, in Gombrowicz's private philosophical vocabulary. According to him, it should accompany youth and spontaneityóa clear echo of Nietzsche.

This too, in Gombrowicz's view, is why provincial literatures, which do not yet have their Tolstoy, their Shakespeare or Goethe, have a special opportunity, an opportunity for sincerity or honesty, provided they acknowledge their provinciality aloud and even come to regard it with affection. Only then will they be victorious. Here it would be interesting to juxtapose Gombrowicz with someone like S?ndor Márai, a Hungarian writer who was also the author of an extraordinary diaryóand also a representative of a minor language. How very different these two authors are! And in what interesting ways! First, in a formal sense: In Márai's journal, many of the entries take the form of crafted aphorisms or mini essays ending with a memorable punch line. Gombrowicz, on the other hand, liked to record the entire thought process, along with its hesitations and its dialectic, not just the result.

But the principal difference lies elsewhere. Márai was aware of one obvious thingóthat Hungarian literature, which he loved and to which he belonged body and soul, was virtually unknown in Europe. Often in his diary he expressed regret at this fact, yet he never attempted to seduce anyone with his provincialityóquite the opposite, he had a strong and well-grounded sense of belonging to Europe, conceived as a great cultural tradition. Márai was a confirmed, unquestioned European, and his sorrow was primarily linked to his perception of the decline of this small and once so accomplished continentóas well as the collapse of the Western world in general, and ultimately the victory of modern barbarism. Gombrowicz, on the other hand, was also a European, but in a completely different wayóone who presented a willful gesture of challenge: rebellious; ironic; derisive, even. Yet, at the same time, without apocalyptic presentiments, and with an expectation, perhaps a little theatrical, that his extensive analyses of his own second-rateness would be noticed by the right peopleónamely, by first-rate critics.

A writer in a minor language has to create diversions. He has to say that a sonnet may not be a sonnet at all, that "Parisian beauty is curiously artificial," and Proust is a hothouse product; he has to demand frankness; he cannot accept the phraseology of "European culture." He has to be like a strict tax inspector who obliges us to present detailed receipts. Márai would not have understood Gombrowicz.

* * *

In a certain sense, Gombrowicz was more than a writer. With his books he influenced to some degree the shape of Polishnessótoo little, it's true, as any observer of political life in the new Poland can see. A strange adventure befell him. For in essence Gombrowicz belongedóor rather, was in danger of belongingóto the family of those exquisite avant-garde prose writers and playwrights who are praised and esteemed yet whom hardly anyone actually reads, aside from conscientious critics and juries of literary prizes, and a handful of loyal fans.

Of course, it was his Diary that stepped boldly beyond these narrow confines to turn him into a writer of a different rank, an author who spoke to a wide public. Thanks principally to the inspired diatribes scattered throughout its pages, Gombrowicz became almost a legislator, a prophet of the Poles (or at least some of them). Expressions such as "fixing a mug on someone" became part of the spoken language. In Polish now, things can be spoken "in Gombrowiczian," and there are "Gombrowiczian situations." Furthermore, he left a mark on at least two generations of Polish intelligentsia, instilling in them his own distrust, his own skepticism, his own vision of Polishnessóless provincial, more self-critical, more rational, and capable of laughing at itself.

I clearly remember my own early readings of Gombrowicz. Even then I had the impression that I was dealing with two separate authorsóone, a subtle avant-garde writer and the narrator of strange enchanting stories; the other, a seasoned pedagogue, a teacher of levelheadedness and self-irony, speaking directly to his readers without the use of allegories or puzzles. I remember too that I was not the only one with such a reading of Gombrowicz's booksówhich were not entirely legal in Communist Poland, and had been brought there hidden in overcoats or at the bottom of suitcases, making them all the more sensational in their iconoclasm. And also all the more effective in their pedagogy.

* * *

Some might ask, This Gombrowicz of yours, who was he? And why should we pay attention to him? Because you seem to have so many doubts concerning his work, so many questions. You disagree with his views, or at any rate you look upon him skeptically. So why Gombrowicz?

It's true that I have more and more questions for him, and that I sometimes lose patience with his theories. His concept of form is interesting, but his praise of immaturity is hard to maintain, if one discounts the element of provocation and anti-academic recalcitrance. With every year I become more distinctly convinced that Shakespeare was rightó"ripeness is all." Maturity is so very much richer than immaturity; it is also capable of containing within itself the exhilarating energy of immaturity, while immaturity is never any more than what it is.

In Ferdydurke, a youthful Gombrowicz mocked the grammar-school teacher of his creation, Professor Pimko, who could say no more about the Polish Romantic bard Juliusz Slowacki than that he was a great poet. But perhaps we shouldn't laugh at this helpless pseudo-definition; perhaps it's true that we can say little more about truly exceptional writers, overwhelmed as we are by their strength, the power of their presence, a presence that no critical categoriesóespecially not the categories of fashionable literary theoryóare capable of capturing. And so Gombrowicz was a great writer; he was great even in his ramblings, his ideas, his theories. He was great; he was able to intrigue us; he was able to write magnificent sentences and enthralling pages.

And yet, despite all his theories, polemics, and quasi-philosophical and anthropological lectures, it is not in the sphere of ideas that we should seek his greatness, but deeper, in a more elementary realm. Through all of his disputes and debates, Gombrowicz, a restless spirit provoked by time, by modernism and recent history, expresses himself, and speaksónot straightforwardly, which is precisely what is so engagingóabout himself, his adventures, his sufferings; about pain and about joy. He is like an Everyman for our time; he is our fellow, tormented not only by sickness, emigration, poverty, and loneliness, but also by ideas.

Gombrowicz's lifelong duel with ideas can be interpreted variouslyófor instance, as the intellectual ambition of a writer who sought a clear orientation in the landscape of modern thought. After all, in the modern world, theories have also become torture devices. They can make us suffer, entirely literally, in totalitarian states; less painfully and more comically in rising and failing democracies. And there is perhaps no one who has better showed the tragicomedy and anguish of this new state of affairsóa philosophy that has taken over on the street, on television, and in the police barracksóthan Gombrowicz.

This usually dry, sophisticated, derisive mind exposes itself to us in the Diaryóin the helplessness of aging and pain, in the troubles of an émigré and the adventures of an involuntary traveler who leaves Poland for Argentina and then, many years later, returns to Europe, to Paris, lives in Berlin and in Provence, is sick, and is never, can never manage to be, at home. Gombrowicz exposes to us his life in fragments, with a profound, moving lyricism. And it is precisely in these numerous fragments that he forgets completely about his theories and obsessions, making use of a language of the purest poetry, and becoming a great poet of existence.

Witold Gombrowicz was, especially toward the end of his life, like a modern-day King Lear, a Lear in exile in Argentina and in France; a Lear abandoned by the Elizabethan dramatist, left to the mercy of international literary scholarships, and writing, in accordance with the dictates of our time, his ironic, painful autobiography.


Adam Zagajewski's collection of essays A Defense of Ardor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was published last fall.
(Translation copyright by Bill Johnston, 2004.)