Witold Gombrowicz’s Affirmation of “Difficult Childhood”

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Following the passages of Witold Gombrowicz’s diary entries on Simone Weil, which I commented on the other day, there is a fascinating entry labeled “Friday.” It’s first two words – at the top of the entry – are “Polish Catholicism.” In this passage, Gombrowicz expresses his past and present ambivalent attitude toward “childishness” by way of his reading of Polish Catholicism.   His reading has strange resonances with the man-childish-ness we find in many instances of the schlemiel.

The first childishness, for Gombrowicz, has to do with Catholicism “such as the one that historically developed in Poland.”  As he understood it, the Polish people became like children in relation to God.  They gave up their “burdens” to God and, like a child, “sought God’s protection.”  By “listening..respecting…loving…and abiding” by God’s commandments, man gained “a green world, green because it was immature.”  Although Gombrowicz looks down on this, he notes that it was also a “green world” because it was not the “black world” of metaphysics: “To live in the lap of nature, in a limited world, leaving the black universe to God.”

But this isn’t enough.  To be sure, Gombrowicz is more interested in criticizing the Polish Green of “immaturity” than in its embrace of nature. And this is because, he wants to be critical of Poland and its Catholicism.  He notes that this childish religiosity was responsible for a “historical lack of dynamism” and for Poland’s “cultural impotence.”

Gombrowicz precedes to tell us why he thinks of Poland has culturally impotent.  Strangely enough, his reading echoes a view that Sander Gilman uncovers in his book Jewish Self-Hatred.  But, here, it is not the view of an Enlightened Western Jew criticizing his “backwards” Eastern European brethren (the Ostjuden), but the view of a Pole towards the Polish people:

The nation without a philosophy, without a conscious history, intellectually soft and spiritually timid, a nation that produced only “kindly” and “noble-minded” art, a languid people of lyrical scribblers of poetry, folklorists, pianists, actors…

In other words, the Poles are not autonomous.  They are childish and even
“effeminate.”   And Gombrowicz notes that his work, in the present tense, “is guided by the desire to extricate the Pole from all secondary realities and to put him in direct confrontation with the universe.”  His utmost “desire” is to “ruin his (Poland’s) childhood.”  And by ruining it, Gombrowicz would compel him to become a man.

However, in the following paragraph, Gombrowicz takes a radical turn and suggests he has just contradicted himself.  He cannot and doesn’t want to ruin childhood; rather, he wants to find a way to affirm (albeit with a difference):

But now in the pursuant din, in the face of my own helplessness, in this inability to straighten things out, it occurs to me that I have just contradicted myself.  Ruin a childhood? In the name of what?  IN the name of a maturity that I myself can neither bear nor accept?

Gombrowicz, at this point, realizes that he cannot “ruin” the childishness of the Polish people because he himself wants to be a child! “How can I desire that they (the Polish) not be children if I myself, per fas et nefas, want to be a child?”

But then he explains the difference, and this is crucial.  He wants to be a man-child; in short, a schlemiel (albeit of a Polish variety): “A child, yes, but one that has come to know and has exhausted all the possibilities of adult seriousness.  This is the big difference.”

What he means by this is still in need of explanation. To this end, Gombrowicz suggests a process that brings out to this “other” kind of childishness: “First, push away all the things that make everything easier, find yourself in a cosmos that is as bottomless as you can stand…where you are left to your own loneliness and your own strength.”  This first part of the process sounds no different from what he had claimed, originally, was his task; namely, autonomy.  However, this leads one to the next step which is, more or less, failure and retreat to childhood: “Then, when the abyss which you have not managed to tame throws you from the saddle, sit down on the earth and discover the sand and grass anew.”  This process, for Gombrowicz, is – in-itself – a justification of childhood:

For childhood to be allowed, one must have driven maturity to bankruptcy.

While Gombrowicz, as we saw in the last blog entry, thinks that on his lips Simone Weil’s religious passion sounds “stupid,” he, in contrast, thinks the word “childhood” sounds much more earnest:

When I pronounce the word “childishness,” I have the feeling that I am expressing the deepest but not yet roused contents of the people who gave me birth.

In other words, the desire for “childishness” – true childishness as opposed to the Catholic variety – is hidden within the Polish people.  And this is “not the childhood of a child, but the difficult childhood of an adult.”

When I first read these words, I couldn’t help but think of Emmanuel Levinas’s expression: “difficult freedom.”  But this seems to be the opposite.  In fact, Levinas speaks a lot about maturity in his essay – in the book Difficult Freedom – entitled “A Religion for Adults.”  Like Gombrowicz, Levinas also uses “childhood” to express a kind of lack.  For him it is the lack of responsibility.  The “religion for adults” that Levinas speaks of is not a religion that is based on the passion of ecstasy and losing one’s freedom.  To be sure, the religion for adults insists that one’s freedom stay in tact but not, as Gombrowicz would seem to insist, in relation to the world, but in relation to the other.

Gombrowicz’s “difficult childhood,” however, does retain a kind of freedom.  It seems that this freedom is, on the one hand, the freedom of retreat from a ridiculous world of maturity that one “must,” on the other hand, “drive” to “bankruptcy.”

In future posts, I hope to look more into what Gombrowicz calls “difficult childhood.”  It resurfaces throughout this work and provides us an innovative way of thinking the schlemiel.  In light of this research, we will be in a better position to ask several relevant questions: Does the schlemiel also have a “difficult childhood?”  Or is the schlemiel’s difficult childhood entirely different? What, after all, is difficult about the man-childhood of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, or Philip Roth’s Portnoy?   Or is the “difficult childhood” that of the author?  If it is the author’s, does this imply that the author and not the character is the real schlemiel?

 

 

 

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