THE SERVING CLASS
by Douglas Messerli
Witold Gombrowicz Ferdydurke (Warsaw: Towarzystwo Wydawnicze Rój, 1937).
Witold Gombrowicz Ferdydurke, translated by Eric Mosbacher (New York: Harcourt, Brace
and World, 1961).
Witold Gombrowicz Kosmos (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986)
Witold Gombrowicz Ferdydurke, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (New Haven,
Connecticut:Yale University Press, 2000).
Witold Gombrowicz Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania (Poland, 1933).
Witold Gombrowicz Bakakaj (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1957).
Witold Gombrowicz Bacacay, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (New York:
Archipelago Books, 2002).
Witold Gombrowicaz Cosmos, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (New Haven,
Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005).
Gombrowicz’s great masterwork of Polish literature, Ferdydurke, was published in Warsaw in 1937, and over the years has been twice translated into English. The current edition, published by Yale University Press, seems destined to become the authoritative edition—although some critics have argued that the changes put forward by the new translator Danuta Borchardt are not that central to the reading; and for some readers the favorite edition remains Eric Mosbacher’s translation of the early 1960s. Since I don’t read Polish, and have forgotten my experience of first reading the book, I’ll offer no opinion on this issue.
No one seems to know the exact source or meaning of the novel’s title—which has no particular meaning or obvious association in Polish culture; some argue it was appropriated from Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt character, Freddy Durkee. It hardly matters, for Gombrowicz’s tale is centered on three interconnected stories of institutional domination and the infantilization of the individual that follows. In the first section, Joey, an adult in his 30s is suddenly abducted by his former schoolteacher, T. Plimko, “a doctor of philosophy and a professor, in reality just a schoolteacher, a cultural philologue from Kraków, short and light, skinny, bald, wearing spectacles, pin-striped trousers, a jacket, yellow buckskin shoes, his fingernails large and yellow.” Joey is taken away and returned to sixth grade, where—in Lewis Carroll-like absurdity—he towers among his fellow students without anyone seeming to notice his age or stature. Through a series of verbal abuses, ritualistic mutterings (which includes the conjugation of Latin adverbs and statements like “…We teachers love you little chickies, chirp, chirp, chirp, you know: ‘suffer the little ones to come unto me.’”) Joey is imprisoned and belittled into submission at his new institution.
Gombrowicz hilariously mocks not only the teaching in this absurd world, but the students who through their language have grotesquely twisted their thinking to the empty logic of the system: “And what perfidious whims and airs have perchance caused the person of my dear Sir to present himself so tardily at this dump of a school?” chirps one of the students. Another laughs idiotically, saying, “Could it be that amours for a damsel have delayed our colegus venerabilis? Is this perchance why our presumptuous colegus so languidus est?” Given such meaningless jargon, the linguistic battles between students Syphon and Kneadus become a world of hyper-speech that is a good match to our cyber-talk and advertising jargon of today.
Just when it appears that Joey could not be further humiliated, he is sent to live in the home of a bourgeois family, the Youngbloods, where he falls ridiculously in love with the daughter, who as a “modern schoolgirl,” creates a pattern of perpetual seduction and punishment of her would-be suitor. To get back at the girl and family, Joey plots to entrap his professor in the girl’s room, which ends in an absurd free-for-all on the floor of the room where she has been discovered by her parents with a young student and Plimko both. Humiliation and denigration has again won the day, and Joey is left with no alternative but to escape.
His escape with fellow student Kneadus to the country, however, bodes no better for the future. For Kneadus has suddenly transformed his love of young serving girls to a homoerotic search for young farmhands. Joey and Kneadus retreat to the farm of Joey’s uncle and aunt, where indeed Kneadus finds the object of his desire, much to the consternation of the elderly couple, Joey, and the young valet,Valek. Joey’s attempt to take Kneadus from the house in a final escape ends in perhaps the funniest scene in the book, as the master of the house, hearing Joey, Kneadus and Valek on the escape, enters the room—gun in hand. Lights out, they remain frozen in position as the farmer searches for them, soon joined by Joey’s cousins—who, in turn, all freeze in panic as the butler enters with a paraffin lamp. Each individual, terrified of discovery, pretends a kind of nonexistence until the room is filled, Gombrowicz hints, with a world of inexplicable ghosts.
Before one can have a world of absurd bureaucracy, one must have a world of individuals willing to submit.
In Bacacay, made up of sections from Ferdydurke and seven earlier short stories, we see the roots of Gombrowicz’s thinking and perceive the grotesque humor which already characterized his writing before the great novel. “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer” begins very similarly to Arthur Schnitzler’s short novel, Lieutenant Gustl: a man at a concert is insulted by another. But while Schnitzler’s Lieutenant suffers such indignation that he imagines murder and suicide, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s story follows his tormentor, observing his patterns of life and ultimately becoming so infatuated with the figure that he loses his mind; encountering the lawyer in the park he goes into a kind of wild, bacchic dance that reminds one a bit of Martha Graham’s mad dance of Medea. Revenge may be his, but he has lost life in the process, and, accordingly, ends up worse than Schnitzler’s insufferable soldier.
A judge on a business visit to a landed gentry’s manor, finds his client dead, and is convinced, although there are no outward signs, that it was a murder. “A Premediated Crime” is Grombrowicz’s version of a murder mystery—with his usual inversion of reality: there is no true evidence of murder. Convinced the man did not die of a normal heart attack but was asphyxiated, the hero stays on with the family, suspecting each of them and uncovering some rather bizarre behavior and lies. Ultimately, it is determined that all the family members expected, perhaps even sought out, his death, but had locked themselves in their rooms at night. Under the pressure of suspicion, however, the son suddenly admits the murder. The judge has no alternative but to admit, however, that there is no evidence, no marks upon the deceased man’s neck. In an absurd reversal to childhood, the judge retreats to the wardrobe of the dead man’s room, as the son or, perhaps, another family member, enters to place the evidence of his finger marks upon the dead man’s neck. In a world of such absurd suspicion, Gombrowicz indicates, one cannot but become a criminal. Like Kafka’s K., in a society of suspicion even the guiltless are necessarily guilty.
“Dinner at Countess Pavhoke’s” reiterates many of the themes of Ferdydurke, as a young commoner is taken into the world of high Society. Here too there is an absurd twisting of language, as the new guest attempts to match the poeticized sentiments of the other guests. Attending one of the countess’s “meatless evenings,” he quips, “This soup’s deliciously filling—/And made, what’s more, without corpses or killing.” But the other highly cultured guests gradually begin to reveal their coarseness and malice. As they eat their way through the supposedly delectable vegetarian dishes, the outsider and reader gradually began to comprehend that the cook has served them up various courses of human flesh. Indeed, everything is “a matter of taste” if one understands that such acculturated “tastes” depend upon the destruction of the serving class.
Los Angeles, November 15, 2005
Readers and critics generally agree that Gombrowicz’s masterpiece is Ferdydurke, while his other works are less interesting experimentations. My favorite of his fictions, however, is his last, Cosmos, a work I find to be far more troubling and yet deeply comic than his satiric portrait of an infantilized society. As Gombrowicz himself commented on this work: “Cosmos for me, is black, first and foremost black, something like a black churning current full of whirls, stoppages, flood waters, a black water carrying lots of refuse, and there is man gazing at it—gazing at it and swept by it—trying to decipher, to understand and to bind it into some kind of a whole….”
The author aptly summarizes his fiction, but in typical Gombrowicz style he has, one recognizes, expressed truths with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. For, although it is most certainly the darkest of the writings under consideration in this essay, it is also the most grandly comic, a comedy that transpires without eliciting much outright laughter.
If the characters of Ferdydurke and Bacacay predicate their actions upon a society devoted to servitude, so too does the “hero” of Cosmos—a young Polish student seeking a place of peace to study for his university exams—serve what he might express as a “higher cause.” This student does not intend to obey “others”—he has just had a terrible fight with his father and family, presumably over the direction of his career—but is determined to serve “the truth.” What he does not recognize, however, is that his university-learned “truths”—truths built upon rational connections of the human mind, associatively-constructed realities predicated on the sensate signifiers of the surrounding world—may reveal nothing and lead one down a labyrinth of inane relationships that result, in the end, in madness. If as a child I laughed at my grandmother when she proclaimed, “If you think too much, you may go mad,” Gombrowicz helps us to perceive that indeed it is possible if one too carefully follows the modernist principles of psychologically realist literature and art.
“Only connect,” proclaimed E. M. Foster (in the epigraph to his novel Howards End), one of modernist fictions most adamant proscribers. Witold takes that command at face value as he attempts to comprehend the world around him, leading to a despairing impasse that only a post-modernist-before-the-fact-writer such as Gombrowicz could have forseen.
As the young student begins his search for housing in the small town Zakopane, he suddenly runs into an old acquaintance, Fuks, who suggests they share a place on the outskirts of town, where rooms are cheaper. Off they trudge into the countryside, resting momentarily in a thicket where, as they turn to leave, they discover a terrible “crime,” a dead sparrow hanging from a wire hooked onto a branch high in a tree, “its head to one side, its beak wide open.” The sparrow has clearly been killed and hung there for all to see. Who could have done such a deed? And why?
The troubled students find a house advertising rooms nearby, and knocking at the door are greeted by a housekeeper with a strangely deformed mouth. They take a room, noticing in another empty room a young woman lying upon a mattress, her leg dangling across the metal mesh of the bed. Everything in this Zakophone farmhouse seems slightly awry and out of place to these young would-be intellects, who yet perceive that there is nothing outwardly strange about any of it.
Joining the Wojty family for dinner, the young student and his companion experience what might be perceived as a normal evening meal as a series of strange events. As with Gombrowicz’s detective in his “A Premeditated Crime,” for these would-be detectives the more things appear as normal, the stranger they become. There is a troubling connection between the “slithering” lips of the housekeeper Katasia and the “slippery” lips of the Wojty’s daughter, Lena. For the young student, in turn, these have some relationship he cannot explain to the nearby executed sparrow. Exhausted from his travels, he still cannot sleep, and discovers that Fuks has disappeared into the night. Has he snuck into Lena’s room, returned to observe the sparrow in the moonlight?
The following day, the young man observes what appears to be an arrow upon the wall of the room adjoining their dining space; Fuks points out a similar arrow-like stain on the ceiling of their bedroom. Is someone trying to tell them something, point out a path to follow in their search for the “murderer” of the innocent beast?
Late at night, with comically inventive tools, they “scientifically” attempt to follow the path of the arrow into the backyard, where they are led to an old building where, nearby, a stick is hanging? Is the hanging stick related to the hanging bird? A nearby whiffletree seems to be pointing in the same direction; is someone observing them from the windows of the house?
These ridiculously tenuous connections lead the students on a maddening search for meaning which ultimately involves the entire family—the mother (dubbed Roly-Poly by the boys); the distracted and logorrheic husband, Leon; Lena and her husband Ludvik; as well as the mysterious Katasia—in an internal investigation which occasionally reveals each as lonely and somewhat desperate, but just as often leads to blind alleys which the narrator’s mind refuses to accept. He himself becomes engulfed in the strange events as he inexplicably strangles Lena’s pet cat and hangs it, connecting himself with the neverending trail of “evidence.”
Ultimately, as Leon leads them on a day trip into the nearby mountains, the rational world is replaced by more and more startlingly insane interconnections as the seemingly innocent family members and friends are caught up in their own webs of symbols and associations, ultimately leading to a strange nighttime celebration of Leon’s only extra-martial affair—culminating in an incomprehensible private language and public masturbation—and the apparent suicide of Ludvick, discovered hanging from a tree. By this time the narrator has become as mad as any of his imaginary perpetrators, forcing his fingers into the mouth of the dead man—a mouth somehow connected in his psychologically tangled “plot” with Lena and Katshsia—and, later, stuffing them into the mouth of a priest the travelers have picked up on their voyage into these wilds.
By fiction’s end the narrator has experienced a kind of mental overload of information, has attempted so desperately to connect the pieces of the sensate world that he can no longer function—a flood of information paralleling a sudden deluge in the natural world:
Loose, dense drops, we lift our heads, it suddenly poured buckets,
water came down in sheets, a sudden wind rose, panic, everyone
running for the nearest tree, but the pines are leaking, dripping,
dribbling, water, water, water, wet hair, backs, thighs, and just
ahead of us in the dark darkness a vertical fall of falling water
interrupted solely by despairing flashlights, then, in the light of
the flashlights, one could see it pour, fall, also streams, waterfalls,
lakes, it drips, spurts, splashes, lakes, seas, currents of gurgling
water and a bit of straw, stick, carried by water, disappearing….
Our young hero returns to Warsaw, to war with his father, problems, complications, difficulties…: in other words, he is forced to once more to deal with the “real” world of human interchange—a world often without answers, without the strained connections of a pretending art.
Los Angeles, June 12, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 5 (November 2006).
Copyright (c)2005 and 2006 by Douglas Messerli