I have been reading parts of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s diary. I read him and include him in Schlemiel-in-Theory because I think his comic novels (Ferdydurke being my favorite) and many of his comic reflections on himself have schlemiel-like resonances. He is an exceptional writer who has been recognized by Susan Sontag and others.
For now, I only want to note a few diary entries which caught my eye. The first is dated 1956. The place it was written in – Mar de Plata (a city in Argentina; since he left Poland for Argentina before WWII – is also noted.
In his “Thursday” entry, he reflects on Simone Weil’s La pesanteur et la grace. To preface his thoughts, he points out how his generation can’t stomach the metaphyics of Kant or the Theologians. The issue, here, being God:
We, the grandchildren of Kierkegaard, can no longer digest the reasoned God of Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant. My generation’s relationship with abstraction is completely in ruins, or, rather, has coarsened because we evidence a completely peasant distrust of it. (212)
After noting this, Gombrowicz reflects on himself. But this time he notes how he is pushed toward metaphysics although he is disheartened by it:
Life in its very monstrousness pushes me in the direction of metaphysics. Wind, noise, house, all of this has stopped being “natural” because I myself am no longer nature but something gradually cast beyond its limits. It is not I myself, but that which is coming to an end in me that clamors for God, this need or necessity is not in my, but my predicament.
Following this reflection, Gombrowicz brings up Simone Weil’s approach to God and shows how he cannot accept her conclusions about God:
I look at her with amazement and saw: how, by means of what magic, has this woman been able to arrange herself so internally so that she is able to cope with what devastates me?
He can’t turn to metaphysics even though he wants to, so where does he go with his religious desires? Gombrowicz takes a comic turn. He comically notes that he is “amazed” that people lives their lives based on principles that differ from his own. And then he launches into a meditation on how small he is. This meditation, it seems, suggests that for Gombrowicz the best response to monstrosity is not to take the religious leap suggested by Weil so much as a comic leap into humility and the accidental nature of arriving at this or that insight in his fiction:
I know no, absolutely no greatness. I am a petit bourgeois promenader, who has wandered into the Alps or Himalayas. My pen touches mighty and ultimate issues all the time, but if I have reached them, it was done while playing…As a boy I climbed up iont them and wandered around them frivolously.
Comparing himself to Weil, he points out that she is heroic while he is a coward: “whereas I constantly elude life, she takes it on fully, elle s’engage, she is the antithesis of my desertion. Simone Weil and I are the sharpest contrast that one can imagine, two mutually exclusive interpretations.” But, lest we not be fooled here, he is taking Weil and himself as comic targets of this and his following reflections.
The next day Gombrowicz takes an interesting detour which, to my mind, echoes this entry. The next day he is on the beach and starts off with a meditation on what he sees:
Bodies, bodies, bodies…Today on the beaches sheltered from the southern gale, where the sun warms and roasts, a multitude of bodies, the great sensuality of beaches, yet as always, undercut, defeated.
As you can see, the final note is that he sees himself as a schlemiel or sorts – the “odd one out.” He can’t fit into this beach scene. And he can’t assert himself heroically on the page, as Weil does, or at the beach with the multitude of bodies in the resplendent sun. Rather, sounding much like Portnoy at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint (but with a more tragic tone) he says, “Impotence overwhelms the beach, beauty, grace, charm. They are unimportant: they are not possessive, they neither wound nor engage….This impotence debilitated even me and I returned home without the least spark, powerless.”
He leaves the beach to go home and face the novel he is writing and he sarcastically notes that “I will have to exert myself to inject a little ‘brilliance’ into a scene that is like wet powder and wont’ ignite.”
The next day, the impotent artist turns to Simone Weil and says, quite frankly, that the words of religious passion sound “stupid” on his lips. He feels like a fool who is trying to be holy. But then he asks himself if Weil was really beyond the impotence of modernity and he notes, by way of Gustave Thibone’s criticism of Weil, that she wrote of religious passion because she was bored.
(This reading of Boredom and modernity, I’d like to note, sounds much like that of Charles Baudelaire’s which I have been blogging on.)
He also calls her a hermit who didn’t know how to deal with the monstrous world, and in this view he also sees himself or anyone who may turn to the holy out of desperation: “A hysterical woman, tormenting and boring, an egotist, whose swollen and aggressive personality is incapable of noticing others – a know of tensions, torments, hallucinations, and manias…”
Gombrowicz is attracted and repulsed by his own outburst about Weil. After pointing this out, he writes to himself “calm down.” The fact that he is excited and angry about Weil show us that he, in his own eyes, falls into a similar trap, a modern trap; but unlike Weil, he doesn’t believe in his profundities. Instead, he sees himself as a failure who happens to run across things like a child at play.
And in this gesture, which is based on comically targeting a belief that human beings can be heroic (religiously or artistically) he avoids metaphysics. This turn to childishness is fascinating as it can be found in several modern writers and thinkers – like Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Woody Allen, and Ernst Bloch (to name a few) – that schlemiel-in-theory addresses from time to time.