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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Bogdan Czaykowski

Witold Gombrowicz and Czesław Miłosz: the two Polarities of Twentieth-Century Polish Literature?1

The title of my lecture suggests a two-fold purpose: one, which in itself is quite complex, but easier to fulfill, is the comparison between Gombrowicz and Miłosz as writers and thinkers; the other, more difficult to achieve, and perhaps even to justify, is the treatment of the differences between them as reflecting a fundamental dichotomy in twentieth-century Polish literature, perhaps of twentieth-century Polish culture in general. The complexity of the issues will at least be compensated by the simplicity of the sequencing of my argument. My lecture will fall into two distinct parts. I will first draw a contrastive parallel between the two writers, and then consider the extent to which they represent certain general polarities in twentieth-century Polish literature.

There is perhaps no better way of beginning this discussion of the differences between Czesław Miłosz and Witold Gombrowicz than to examine their attitudes to Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), in whose honour this lecture series has been established. Although one should not exaggerate the importance of Mickiewicz in contemporary Polish culture, there is no denying the historical centrality of his position as a shaper of consciousness and as a superb poet. Since roughly the mid-19th century Mickiewicz's position in Polish culture has been quite exceptional. It resembles that of Shakespeare in English, of Dante in Italian, and of Goethe in German cultures), and despite some critical reactions in the 1920s, it remained essentially unchanged even during the first decades of communist rule. More recently, radio readings by prominent actors of Pan Tadeusz (a narrative and metaphysical poem considered the national epic), their reproduction in the form of compact discs, and even more important, Andrzej Wajda's film based on the poem, have again showed the extent to which Mickiewicz continues to be a classic. Hence by examining the respective attitudes of Miłosz and Gombrowicz to the 19th c. poet, we will be considering a broader area of disagreement than just the two writers' attitude to a major literary figure.

In Gombrowicz's writings, Mickiewicz's name appears seldom and when it does, only in passing. Mickiewicz's writings, his life and actions, are never for Gombrowicz a source of thought, of inspiration, or of delight. On the contrary, Mickiewicz is for him a symbol of what he dislikes in Polish culture as well as a concrete target for his more general campaign to liberate the Poles from their Polishness, and especially from a certain manner of being Polish which, Gombrowicz argues, was the result of Mickiewicz's influence on the Polish mind and psyche.

Interestingly enough, Gombrowicz's strongest critique of Mickiewicz occurs in his essay on Henryk Sienkiewicz2 (who, in Gombrowicz's opinion, though an excellent and highly sexy, seductive writer, is intellectually suitable for adolescents). In a way typical of his general view that what higher culture tries to hide behind a veneer of exalted notions needs to be revealed in a dialectic of the high and the low if human beings are to be free of the shackles of form, Gombrowicz accuses Mickiewicz of having prevented Polish culture from exploring and developing to their logical extreme the ugliness and grotesqueness which characterized it during the Saxon period (that is, from roughly the end of the 17th to mid-18th century). “We might have, perhaps — he says — made significant discoveries, developed new, fertile ideas…”, but for Mickiewicz. “It was Mickiewicz who eased our pain, taught us a new beauty….and caused us to be self-satisfied again.” But, he continues, “true beauty is not achieved by the suppression of ugliness.” Full of pity for the martyrology of his nation, Mickiewicz gave the Poles a sense of their worth which depended not on their individuality and humanity, but on their nationality and its plight. (One may recall here Norwid's3 bitter comment that “the Pole is great as a member of his nation, but a dwarf as an individual human being”). “Because we had lost our independence — writes Gombrowicz — and because we were weak, he embellished our weakness with the featherband of Romanticism, he made Poland into the Christ of nations, pitted our Christian virtue against the iniquity of the partitioning powers, and sung the beauty of our landscapes.” Not only was he not a Goethe, a Balzac, a Baudelaire, or a Dostoyevsky, but by his towering presence as a national bard he prevented Polish culture from giving birth to a creative and intellectual personality comparable to those great revealers of new beauty and new understanding. Mickiewicz, in short, “did not belong among those artists who take the bull by the horns, who provoke, and who fan the fire of reality to a white glow…” The cognitive value of his literary achievement is minimal and of little use to modern Poles; called wieszcz (seer), he was not so much a seer (that is someone whose vision penetrates deeply into reality, and hence into the future), but a bard of national self-preservation. For Gombrowicz, then, Mickiewicz, though a central figure in Polish culture, has been, precisely through his centrality, an obstacle to the development of a bolder, radically modern thought and artistic vision, one that was not constrained and dwarfed by the burden of the Polish cause.

In Miłosz's writings Mickiewicz is also a central figure, but in an entirely different, largely positive way. He is, to Miłosz, a model of poetic expression, his style is an example of “language in its equilibrium,” he is a poet of metaphysical affirmation, most notably in his epic poem Pan Tadeusz, and he is a religious mind whose ideas continue to deserve serious consideration. “Was Mickiewicz right in [his ballad “Romantycznosc”]?” — asks Miłosz in his book The Land of Ulro. “If he was, if we are to trust in 'faith and feeling' rather than in 'lenses and learning,' then why, after

lectures exhorting us to exalt this poem, we were herded into the natural-sciences lab for instruction in the use of the microscope?” What is further interesting about Miłosz' attitude to Mickiewicz is the fact that he is free of the “anxiety of influence” and of the feeling of rebellion against a powerful presence, displayed, for example, so forcefully in Stanislaw Wyspianski's4 dramas, and less forcefully, in a spirit of mockery rather than mutiny, in some of Slawomir Mrozek's plays. He feels no need to resist Mickiewicz's presence, but places himself unhesitatingly within Mickiewicz's tradition, as a continuator of his poetic style and religious quest. (An English analogy would be the relationship of Wordsworth to Milton). In his poetic writings Miłosz strives to achieve that quality of “language in its equilibrium,” which he finds so wonderfully exemplified by Mickiewicz's poetry; he continues the tradition of being a verbal painter of landscapes; and in his novel The Issa Valley combines the qualities of Pan Tadeusz (partly as transmuted through Orzeszkowa's5 Nad Niemnem, which Miłosz also admires) with an outlook in which religious imagination is given free play, rebellion against the apparently unfeeling God is central, and the battle between the forces of good and evil constitutes the real drama. (In The Issa Valley Miłosz is, in fact, a Manichaean.). One might say that Dolina Issy is to a large extent a blend of Pan Tadeusz and Dziady, Part III (Forefathers' Eve, Mickiewicz's powerful politico-religious drama). It would not occur to Miłosz to parody Mickiewicz, something that Gombrowicz does with considerable gusto in his Trans-Atlantyk, whose main parodic target is, of course, Pan Tadeusz.

The attitude to Mickiewicz, largely dismissive in the case of Gombrowicz, and disciple-like in the case of Miłosz, leads us directly into two crucial spheres of cultural philosophy regarding which Gombrowicz and Miłosz display sharply opposing views and attitudes. These spheres are: literature, and especially poetry, and the Past.

Until the last decades of the 19th century, Polish literary tradition was principally poetic: its works in prose (whether fictional or discursive) seldom reaching the excellence of its poetry and poetic drama. Moreover, well into the 20th century, its spirit was persistently civic, didactic, national, and ideological; it eschewed aestheticism, art for art's sake, poesie pure, the creation of verbal anti-worlds, or even psychological and metaphysical probing.

It is not until the 1890s that art for art's sake was temporarily exalted above national and social commitment, and not until the 1920s that literary experiment and form were placed higher than content and message. Moreover, the experimental interlude, which produced the poems of the poetic avant-garde (Julian Przybos, Tadeusz Peiper, Jozef Czechowicz), Witkiewicz's plays, Bruno Schulz's short stories, Maria Kuncewiczowa's novel Cudzoziemka (The Stranger), and Gombrowicz's short stories and Ferdydurke, found little continuation in the immediate postwar period, with the notable exception of Tadeusz Rozewicz and Miron Bialoszewski in Poland and Gombrowicz abroad.

This predominant character of Polish literature: to serve the needs of the national community and of society, or — as Miłosz put it, broadening the range of commitment — of the human family, is strongly reflected in Miłosz's own standpoint and literary practice. Literature, for Miłosz, is neither a matter of (however high or sophisticated) entertainment nor of formal experimentation. On the contrary, it has tasks to perform. In his The History of Polish Literature Miłosz treats literary works as historical documents; in his Norton lectures at Harvard, published under the title The Witness of Poetry (1983), he praises postwar Polish poetry because, as he puts it, “it is not alienated,” thanks to the fact that “a peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical” takes place in it, “which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner.” Furthermore, for Miłosz literature, and especially poetry, including his own writings, has value insofar as it is “a passionate pursuit of the Real,” an attempt to “penetrate to the very core of reality.” And reality, for Miłosz (and here he invokes the example of Dostoevsky) has more than one dimension: it is both historical, that is contained in time, and metaphysical. Only poetry (and, more broadly, literature) which is aware of the need to choose between two principles, between the “dictates of the poetic language,” or, as Miłosz calls it, “classicism,” and “fidelity to the real,” that is “realism,” is of value to the human family. A further tendency, reflected in Miłosz's idea of the role of literature, and embodied in his own writings, is to avoid, indeed to counterbalance naturalism, despair, madness and nihilism.

There was a time when only wise books were read,
Helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
As leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

* * *

If I were in the place of young poets
(quite a place, whatever the generation might think)
I would prefer not to say that the earth is a madman's dream,
a stupid tale full of sound and fury.
Or, in a poem To Robinson Jeffers:
And yet you did not know what I know. The earth teaches
More than does the nakedness of elements…
Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
As was done in my district. To birches and firs
Give feminine names. To implore protection
Against the mute and treacherous might
Than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.

Although Miłosz never aims at just “uplifting the hearts” of his readers (a goal central to Sienkiewicz) and while he certainly cannot be accused of dulling the sense of pain and creating a facile beauty, of which Gombrowicz has accused Mickiewicz, Miłosz's poetry does tend toward affirmation, and entrusting itself momentarily to an incantatory mood celebrates the body of the world and exalts the beauty of nature and of human creations, as well as of human reason:

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barb wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas of language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Miłosz's high view of the nature and role of poetry can be further illustrated by two quotations which he places strategically in The Witness of Poetry. One is from Plato; the other, from Oscar de Miłosz, Miłosz's Lithuanian uncle and a French mystical poet. From the latter he quotes the sentence which asserts that poetry “appears to us to be bound, more rigorously than any other mode of expression, to the spiritual and physical Movement, of which it is a generator and guide.” As such, Miłosz argues, “hope, conscious or unconscious, is what sustains the poet” and such hope can save “man from images of a totally 'objective,' cold, indifferent world, from which the Divine Imagination has been alienated.” The quotation from Plato deserves to be given in full. The poet, being a servant of Eros, is someone who

interprets between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm that divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all prophecy and incantation, find their way.

Hence, in a poem entitled “Consciousness,” Miłosz says:

I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don't know.
As if I were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.

Gombrowicz's view of literature and its role is diametrically opposed to the beliefs and goals of Miłosz. In the first place, in the tradition of Polish positivists, and especially of Boleslaw Prus6, who once asked in exasperation: “What is one to think of a society in which poetry obscures all other spheres of life?,” Gombrowicz launched himself as a writer after the interruption of the war years not only with Trans-Atlantyk, but with a diatribe “Against the Poets,” which he published in the Polish emigre journal Kultura. In this essay (to which Miłosz published a rejoinder), which was clearly meant as an intellectual and cultural provocation, Gombrowicz assailed poetry and the poets with more heat than light, but also with considerable panache and sarcasm.

Ah, ah, Shelley, Ah, ah Slowacki! Ah, the word of the Poet, the mission of the Poet, and the soul of the Poet… I have to attack these prayers and spoil this ritual as much as I can simply in the name of elementary anger, which all flaws of style, all distortion, all flights from reality arouse in us….

The thesis of the… essay, that almost no one likes poems and that the world of verse is a fiction and a falsehood, will seem, I assume, as bold as it is frivolous. Yet here I stand before you and declare that I don't like poems at all and that they even bore me. Maybe you will say that I am a poor ignoramus. Yet I have laboured in art for a long time and its language is not completely alien to me….

Why then does this pharmaceutical extract called “pure poetry” bore and weary me, especially when it appears in rhymed form? Why can't I stand this monotonous, endlessly lofty singing? Why do rhythm and rhyme put me to sleep? Why does the language of poets seem to me to be the least interesting language conceivable…

Sugar is good for sweetening coffee, but not for eating by the spoonful like gruel. In pure, rhymed poetry, it's the excess that wearies; the excess of condensation and purification of all antipoetic elements, which results in poems similar to chemical products.

Let us note that one of the criticisms Gombrowicz levels against poetry is the fact that it is, as he asserts, liked and valued not for what it is, but because that is one of the ways of being a cultured person, that is as a result of inter-human pressure. But, and here is my second point, Gombrowicz wants literature to be truly liked, to have sex-appeal, to excite and entertain, and at the same time to be a moral, intellectual and ideological provocation. Thus literature for Gombrowicz is certainly “serious business,” but it should be at the same time playful and liberating; it can even be, as in the case of his Operetka (Operetta) — “idiotic,” as long as the fooling is brilliantly achieved and is intellectually engaging. While taking considerable care to provide interpretations of his works and a philosophical commentary to them, he at the same time invites the reader to dance with his work, to delight in his mastery of form and style, to laugh and to feel that the author cares not only about his understanding of what he is after, but also about his pleasure. Even in his most pessimistic, least appetizing work, Cosmos, he provides moments of comic relief which are extremely funny.

While Miłosz tends to be hieratic, at times ponderous, classically balanced, metonymic, reflexive and discursive (though he can be also lyrical, dithyrambic and metaphoric), Gombrowicz is dynamic, brilliant, parodic and incredibly versatile as a stylist; and, with the exception of Ferdydurke, highly accomplished as a maker of actions and designer of their structures (and let us recall that in the Aristotelian tradition, “a poet is a poet more on account of the composition of the action [that is plot, narrative structure] than on account of the composition of his verses.” Gombrowicz's postwar novels, such as Trans-Atlantyk and Pornografia have the quality of prose poems in that every element in them is functional and contributes to the effect and meaning of the whole. As far as his plays are concerned, in Operetka, the poetic quality is achieved through a dynamic patterning of dialogue, song, sound, gesture, movement and scene, and in Slub (The Marriage) it results from the atmosphere of dream and the excellent use of rhetorical speech (resembling in some respects Shakespeare). Let me note en passant, that regrettably none of the translations of Gombrowicz's works into English does full justice to his artistic virtuosity.

My third point is that whereas Miłosz strives to affirm values, Gombrowicz's aim is to deconstruct that which human beings impose upon themselves within what he calls “the inter-human church.” Gombrowicz's method as a deconstructionist is to juxtapose the high and the low, to bring into multileveled confrontation polarities and opposites in such a way that the high reveals its constructed, interactively imposed character. One of the best examples of Gombrowicz's deconstructive technique is found in Trans-Atlantyk, where the value of patriotism (that is, the love of one's Fatherland and the obligation to serve it, even to the point of sacrificing one's life for it) is deconstructed by means of the creation of the opposing ideology of Sonland. The author contrasts the attitude of a venerable Polish father who, in accordance with his patriotic beliefs, wants his son, Ignac, to go to war for Poland, with that of an Argentinian Puto, that is a homosexual, who, having fallen in love with the boy, wants him to live.

One of the most striking illustrations of the devices Gombrowicz uses to deconstruct myths, conventions, rituals and beliefs is the description of a Sunday Mass in Pornografia. The passage is well worth quoting at some length as a contrast to the excerpts from Miłosz which I read earlier.

At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to a character called Frederick, “a middle-aged man…dark and thin, with a hooked nose.” The sparse description is suggestive, but the real peculiarity of the character is his strange behaviour whose peculiar kind of power becomes diabolically destructive when he attends Mass in a village church somewhere in wartime Poland:

What serenity, at last, what a relief: here, in this stone sanctuary, the peasant became the peasant, the master the master, the Mass the Mass, the stone the stone and everything returned to itself.

And yet Frederick….knelt down….and this troubled me a little for it seemed perhaps slightly exaggerated….and I could not help thinking that he had knelt down to avoid doing anything other than kneeling down….but the bell rang, the priest came in carrying a chalice and, after placing it on the altar, bowed down before it. The bell rang again. And suddenly I felt so moved, so deeply moved that I dropped to my knees and, in my wild emotion, I almost prayed… But Frederick! It seemed to me, and I suspected, that Frederick, on his knees, was 'praying' too — I was even sure, yes, knowing his lack of integrity I was certain that he was not pretending but was really “praying” for the benefit of others and for his own benefit, but his prayer was no more than a screen to conceal the enormity of his “non-prayer”… it was an act of expulsion, of “eccentricity,” which cast us out of this church into the infinite space of absolute disbelief, a negative act, the very act of negation. And what was going on?... I had never seen anything like it and I had never believed that that could happen… Strictly speaking: nothing, strictly speaking it was as though a hand had withdrawn the substance and content from the Mass — and the priest continued to move, to kneel, to go from one end of the altar to the other, and the acolytes rang the bells and the smoke from the censers rose in spirals, but the whole content was evaporating like gas out of a balloon, and the Mass collapsed in its appalling impotence — limp and sagging — unable to procreate!...

The process taking place before my eyes was revealing itself in crudo….It began by destroying salvation and in this way nothing could hope to save these repulsive faces, stripped of any style and displayed raw, like scraps of meat on a butcher's stall. They were no longer the “people,” they were no longer “peasants,” or even “human beings,” they were simple creatures, for what they were worth and their natural filth was suddenly cut off from grace. But the wild anarchy of this multihead, tawny crowd corresponded to no less arrogant shamelessness of our own faces which ceased being “intelligent” or “cultivated” or “delicate,” and became like caricatures without a model, caricatures which had ceased to represent anything and which were as bare as behinds! And these two explosions of monstrosity, the lordly and the boorish, blended in the gesture of the priest who was celebrating… what? Nothing… And yet this is not all.

The church no longer was a church. Space had broken in, but it was a cosmic, black space and it was no longer happening on earth, or rather the earth was turning into a planet suspended in the void of the universe, the cosmos was present, we were in the centre of it…. We were no longer in church, nor in this village, nor on earth, but, in accordance with reality — somewhere suspended in the cosmos with our candles and light and it was there, in infinity, that we were playing our curious games with each other, like monkeys grimacing into space.

The emptying of the Mass of its content in the above passage can only be described as Nietzschean in its passion and negativity.

It follows logically from what we have already noted that the attitude of the two writers to the past must be radically different. And, indeed, it is. For Miłosz the past is neither dead nor irrelevant. Nor is it something that has to be overcome, superseded, discarded and left behind. On the contrary: while it is true that we find in Miłosz at one point the bold statement, that “everything has to be thought through anew,” which, at least at first glance, would place him in the tradition of Nietzsche's “transvaluation of values,” a tradition to which Gombrowicz certainly, and by his own choice, belongs; nonetheless, Miłosz's more sustained belief is that we need to remember, understand, respect and, yes, love the past. It is the contemporary world that is for Miłosz a source of strong dissatisfaction, and requires renewal. In the Witness of Poetry Miłosz quotes with approval Simone Weil's view that it is from the past that renewal can come, “if we only love it.” Miłosz's writings are a rich anthology of quotations from long dead authors, writers, religious thinkers, philosophers. His prose essays often make their points by reviewing the ideas of past writers, and he ranges far and wide in his re-examination and reformulation of past beliefs and points of view, from the Gnostics to Blake, Swedenborg, Mickiewicz, Dostoevsky or Zdziechowski. At the age of around sixty Miłosz undertook to learn Hebrew and Greek to be able to translate the Bible anew, and roughly at that time wrote his memorable poem “Readings,” which begins with the following justification of his reverence for past insight and wisdom:

You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive, we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of Caesars
On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread are the same…

By learning to be attentive, by striving to follow in the footsteps of those worthy of emulation, by respecting what the past can offer from an experience so unlike and yet so like ours, a community is built which transcends time, and strengthens the persistence of those who, by the very nature of their singularly defined effort, must experience loneliness among their contemporaries:

Yes, you were expected.
You don't have to say who you are. Everyone here knows and loves you.
Eyes meeting eyes, hands touching hands. What communion.
What timeless music of saved generations.

Gombrowicz's attitude to the past is irreverent and iconoclastic, and the reason is, at least partly, his desire to assert superiority over every authority and rival that seems suitable for that purpose. There is no better example of this than his irreverent, and highly provocative essay on Dante, which scandalized Italian intellectuals to the extent that some of them broke their personal relations with him (and in fact may have cost him the Nobel Prize). This is, of course, not to say that Gombrowicz is either ignorant of the past achievements of mankind, or entirely dismissive of them. Although infrequently, he does acknowledge his filiation to past masters, and especially to three of them, Montaigne, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. As can also be gathered from the outlines of his lectures on philosophy, Gombrowicz was well read in modern Western philosophers, at least from Descartes onwards. Nevertheless, for Gombrowicz the past is not a treasure house of values, truths, examples and models. Since his general purpose is to liberate himself, and others, from whatever traditionally has been worshipped, revered or acknowledged as superior, his attitude to the past is devoid of all reverence.

One of the most important differences between Miłosz and Gombrowicz may perhaps be defined as the opposition between Form and Substance (some critics, for example Tadeusz Drewnowski, see this opposition as one between existentialism and essentialism). This basic dichotomy reflects the fundamental differences in their philosophical outlooks, informs the way in which they treat a large spectrum of themes, topics, ideas and values, and reflects the split that has been growing in Western culture since the seventeenth century. As often stressed in his writings, Form is a truly obsessive concept in Gombrowicz's thinking. “I broke it so much,” he wrote, “that I became the writer whose subject is form.” He also said: “Created by form man is created from outside, in other words, unauthentic and deformed.” Man “is a constant producer of form: he secrets form tirelessly, just as the bee secrets honey. But man is also at odds with his own form.”

Gombrowicz understands by form, in his own words, “toutes nos facons de nous manifester; comme la parole, les idees, les gestes, les decisions, actes, etc.” In a lucid formulation of Tamara Trojanowska's: “Gombrowicz defines his notion of form as 'all modes of our self-expression such as language, ideas, gestures, decisions, deeds, and so on.' In other words, he regards form as an aggregation of stereotypes and roles, both social and psychological — a set of conventions of human behaviour which embody our attitudes toward the world and toward other people. He contends that since the core of our being remains largely chaotic, unexpressed and incomprehensible, form is our only means of perceiving and communicating. Therefore all our manifestations of individuality — relationships, language, or culture — must be inauthentic because they are fabricated in human interaction. Since our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour are manufactured for others, the subjective worlds of individuals can be expressed only through form.”

Though well read in philosophy, Gombrowicz was not a philosopher strictly speaking, but a writer, and one of the privileges that writers have been traditionally granted, is that they are allowed to speak by way of paradox and even contradiction. Miłosz, who says of himself that his philosophising is “analogous to the situation of Mr. Jordain, who did not know that he spoke prose,” has used this privilege to the full. Gombrowicz may actually appear to be less vulnerable to critical scrutiny in that respect considering that his non-fictional and non-dramatic writings have principally the form of a Diary, which allows a great deal of discursive latitude, whereas Miłosz is the author of a number of essays, a form which seems to place greater responsibility on the writer as far as logic and consistency of argument are concerned. Nevertheless, when Gombrowicz says: “I have no idea who I am, but I suffer when I become deformed,” we have no choice but either to dismiss his statement as badly formulated, or to try to interpret it so that the apparent contradiction is satisfactorily resolved. For what Gombrowicz seems to be saying here is that there is some kind of a core to him, a sort of self-identity, and a consciousness of that self-identity, which “suffers when it becomes deformed”. And the implication clearly is that this core or self-identity is not merely a product of interaction within the inter-human church, though it is constantly involved in interaction with others in the context of personal, social, cultural and intellectual relations. If we continue to ponder the paradox in light of Gombrowicz's other writings, especially in light of his Diary and his most philosophical novel Cosmos, we may perhaps arrive at an explanation which is neither absurd nor contradictory. It is that human beings have the capacity for self-creation, and that in the great welter of selves, products of interactive relationships, there are some which have consciously self-created themselves. Man, “while a constant producer of form… is also at odds with his form”. To be at odds with one's form presumably means that thanks to their capacity for reflexivity, individuals can stand outside of themselves in their consciousness and choose to trans-form, to secrete a new form, which, however, and this is clear from Gombrowicz's statements, immediately becomes involved in interaction, comes under pressure from and modifies itself in relation to others, so that the only escape from form is into another form (“There is no escape from face except into another face”). Consciousness is thus a crucial aspect of being human, of being oneself in the dynamics of continuous self-creation. This is, incidentally, precisely the method Gombrowicz uses as a writer, especially in his Diary, to constantly confront the Other (ideas, morals, behaviour, etc.) so as to define himself, in a process of unceasing re-definition, against the confronted forms. For Gombrowicz, the imperative to form occurs, however, in a universe where humanity is like Nietzsche's rope strung over the abyss. Everything that human beings are, do, think, value or disdain, is a totally human auto-creation, a product of the inter-human church, around which pulsates the black space of the universe.

If we are to define further Gombrowicz's philosophical vision, then we must look briefly at Cosmos. In this novel two students on vacation discover a hanged bird in a bush. This gives them pause for thought. Who hanged the bird? But, more important, what kind of universe is it in which one finds hanging birds? Despite its ring of a problem typical of a detective mystery, a whodunit, the question is painfully metaphysical. To solve the mystery (of the hanged bird and of the universe), Gombrowicz makes the students begin an investigation, which proceeds by way of the interpretation of signs: a hanging bird, the sinuous lips of a servant, an arrow-like crack on the ceiling of their room, some other details of possible signification. But there comes a point when the students reach a dead end in their detective quest. One of them, unable to accept the incomprehensibility of what confronts him, takes matters into his own hands, and hangs a cat. The series of hangings is completed when a character in the novel hangs himself. These two latter hangings are arbitrary interventions of human beings into a universe that confronts them with what is, from the point of view of intelligibility, chaos. What the characters in the novel are doing, and what humanity has been doing for millennia, is an attempt to find order in a universe that, ultimately, seems to be alien, insensitive, and chaotic. But (Gombrowicz asserts through his fictional parable), order cannot be found, it can only be imposed by the human mind, which is so constructed, that it cannot have truck with chaos. Hence the order that is found in Cosmos, the attempt at the creation of a cosmos against the looming abyss of Chaos, is no more than an imposition, a construct that has nothing to support it outside of the human world. The argument of Cosmos is thus thoroughly agnostic. The epistemological question posed in a grotesquely presented but none the less dramatic ontological pursuit remains suspended in infinite space. At the end of the novel torrent
ial rain symbolically drowns the world in chaos.

Miłosz is, of course, acutely aware of the well-nigh insuperable problems facing those who would try to find order. If there is a work in Miłosz's poetic opus to match Gombrowicz's Cosmos, then it is the poem “Wiesci” (“Tidings”), one of his best.

Of earthly civilization what shall we say?
That it was a system of colored spheres cast in smoked glass,
Where a luminescent liquid thread kept winding and unwinding.
Or that it was an array of sunburnt palaces
Shooting up from a dome with massive gates
Behind which walked a monstrosity without a face.
That every day lots were cast, and that whoever drew low
Was marched there as sacrifice: old men, children, young boys and
young girls.
Or we may say otherwise: that we lived in a golden fleece,
In a rainbow net, in a cloud cocoon
Suspended from the branch of a galactic tree,
And our net was woven from the stuff of signs,
Hieroglyphs for the eye and ear, amorous rings.
A sound reverberated inward, sculpturing our time,
The flicker, flutter, twitter of our language.
For from what could we weave the boundary
Between within and without, light and abyss,
If not from ourselves, our own warm breath,
And lipstick and gauze and muslin,
From the heartbeat whose silence makes the world die?
Or perhaps we'll say nothing of earthly civilization.
For nobody really knows what it was.

Let us note, nevertheless, that even in a poem that momentarily admits the solipsism of the human mind, and sees nothing more than a monstrosity without a face behind the massive gates leading into cosmos, Miłosz is constitutionally incapable, as it were, of abandoning hope. In the poem the image of the inhuman, and presumably godless, cosmos retains a trace of the organic as opposed to dead matter, as the earth is said to be suspended “from the branch of a galactic tree.”

Despite his moments of acute scepticism, Miłosz has never abandoned the hope that it all somehow coheres and makes sense. And this constitutional inability to accept, as he puts it in The Land of Ulro a propos of Gombrowicz, that “the world is in our minds” only, may be viewed as either confirming or disproving Gombrowicz's philosophy of form. I have already quoted Miłosz's statement that for him poetry is a passionate pursuit of the Real. I need now to add that, as such, it is a search for what he calls “the Real behind the Real,” that is a religious quest.

The ontological aspect of the disagreement between the two writers may be restated in terms of psychology. For Gombrowicz, as for Miłosz (and there is an agreement in the views of the two on that particular point), depth psychology, psychoanalysis, is to a large extent beside the point; their insights and claims enter in an only minor way into the two writers' concept of the “I.” Both have exhibited, in life and their literary careers, as in their writings, an extremely strong “I,” a “royal” and “non-Freudian 'I'” in the case of Miłosz and, in the case of Gombrowicz, an aggressive, assertive, provocative and scandalizing, subversive “I.” Both writers view the “I” as constituted more importantly by social contexts than by psychological factors sensu stricto. This does not, of course, mean that Gombrowicz and Miłosz are somehow less human than human beings generally are, and that they are above or beyond the pale of psychological analysis. For that matter, Gombrowicz's homosexuality, to which he confessed in some agonizing passages of his Diary, and Miłosz's quite strong heterosexual erotic libido, are too well known to be dismissed. However, both view the “I” as constituted in its truly important aspects (and that importance is, naturally, debatable) not by psychological factors but by the social, cultural and historical context. We have already seen Gombrowicz's insistence that individuals are constructs of interactive relationships. As regards Miłosz's view of the matter (as has been observed by an American critic) the North American concept of “identity” — “the self seeking to uncover its hidden psychology, to 'get in touch with the unconscious' — must seem thin gruel indeed.” Which is as it may very well be. What is of interest is the fact that whereas for Gombrowicz the “self” is constituted exclusively within and by the forces of the interhuman church, for Miłosz this is hardly the whole story. Revealing in this respect, no less than Miłosz's overt statements, is the way in which he has treated him
self in his autobiographical poems and prose. Indeed, like Gombrowicz, Miłosz defines himself by confronting questions and problems, but unlike Gombrowicz he displays the sense of being someone who is “uknown not only to others but even to himself.” In other words, Miłosz views his identity as both preceding his self-consciousness as well as, perhaps, transcending it. In an essay on Dostoevsky he makes the distinction between what he calls the soul and the pneuma, the spirit. For him the self is more than a self-created or interactive construct; it has spiritual substance.

The contrastive parallel between the two writers could be continued at some length. But I think I have said enough in support of the argument that there is a vast difference between them, which places them at the extreme ends of the philosophical spectrum of twentieth-century Polish literature. And there is a similarly sharp difference in the way in which they define their functions and goals as writers.

Let me now imagine for a moment a hall in heaven which combines the character of Miłosz's meeting place of “the saved generations” and that of a literary cafe, something like the famous Ziemianska cafe in prewar Warsaw. And let me further imagine that at one of the tables sits Miłosz, while at another table sits Gombrowicz. Which of the twentieth-century Polish writers would we find sitting around Miłosz's, and which around Gombrowicz's table?

Taking a closer look, we note that the group around Gombrowicz's table is rather small, that his pole of the dichotomy of twentieth-century Polish literature does not comprise many writers. Seated there with him are, if my eyes do not deceive me, Karol Irzykowski, the author of Paluba, and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, the precursor of the theatre of the absurd, and pursuer of Pure Form; somewhat to the side, as always taciturn and looking intently at Lebenstein's pornographic sketches, is Slawomir Mrozek, and approaching the table from a Westerly direction is Adam Czerniawski, whose collection of short stories Gombrowicz prefaced years ago with just one sentence. Czerniawski is carrying a cup in his hand, and from my distance it is difficult to say whether the cup contains an aphrodisiac or hemlock. In front of Gombrowicz lies on the table a letter from Stanislawa Przybyszewska, which Gombrowicz has not yet opened. Close by, holding a notebook and a pencil stands Miron Bialoszewski, who has just scribbled down in his notebook the sentence: Nie kazcie mi juz nikim wiecej byc. (Do not make me be somebody again.) Pulled by the forces of local patriotism on the one hand (Miłosz is, after all, his krajan, that is his regional compatriot), and the lures of postmodernism, stands Tadeusz Konwicki, almost equidistant from each table. A little behind Konwicki, flanked by Zofia Nalkowska and Maria Kuncewicz, stands Bruno Schulz. I can also discern the puny figure of Boleslaw Lesmian, who seems still to be waiting for God to visit his fantasmagoric garden. And there is also not far from Gombrowicz's table Tadeusz Borowski, deeply ashamed in profile for having allowed himself to be so tragically duped by Stalinist rhetoric, yet pensive at the same time and as if trying to measure the proximity (or the distance) between his Auschwitz stories and Gombrowicz's ideas about human kind. Walking in circles in Borowski's dark shadow is Waclaw Iwaniuk, whom I can hear saying to all and sundry: “Don't touch me, I am full of snakes.” Who else is there? Perhaps some have not yet arrived (for instance, Andrzej Busza, who, I suspect, is getting a shot of espresso in some anglophone cafe), and others sleep sweetly in the peacefulness of their oblivion.

Around Miłosz's table, there certainly is, despite his vociferous quarrels with Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, one of whose primary aims as a poet was “the reconstruction of values.” Covering her face with a fan decorated with witty collages, there is Wislawa Szymborska, who seems to be excusing herself for being so close to another winner of the Nobel Prize by repeating the lines from one of her early poems:

No one is at his best at four in the morning.
If white ants feel fine at four in the morning
 — let's congratulate the ants. And let's have five o'clock
if we are to go on living,

There is, of course, Maria Dabrowska at Miłosz's table, but she has turned her back on him, having been only recently informed by one of the trouble-making angels (there are, apparently, such angels, too), about Miłosz's statement that although he had for her “a proper respect, it never even occurred to him that one could look at her as on a woman.” Dabrowska is flanked by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz and Tadeusz Sulkowski, who have joined Miłosz's table partly because she is there. Sitting close to Miłosz is Jozef Czechowicz, who is holding in his hand a volume of poems entitled “the human clef.” And Stanislaw Brzozowski is also there, though had he lived longer, he might have joined Gombrowicz's table. Close to Miłosz's table, but with his back turned toward Miłosz, stands Kazimierz Wierzynski. There is also a whole throng of postwar poets, including Adam Zagajewski, Bronislaw Maj and Janusz Szuber, and you might say that their postures are those of true disciples. Jerzy Andrzejewski is also at Miłosz's table, though one can see that he would have liked to have a table of his own. And there are many others at Miłosz's table, including most of the Catholic writers, but the peculiarity of it is, that most of them stand rather than sit, as if unsure of the reception the Nobel-Prize winner would offer them, should they come closer. And I can just see Stanislaw Vincenz entering the hall, and Miłosz getting up from his seat with a clear show of reverence to invite him to join him at his table.

However, most of the writers stand apart from both tables. It is a highly mixed group, and many of them do not feel comfortable in being together with some of those standing in their group, or with the two smaller circles. Here there is Stefan Zeromski and Waclaw Berent, Wladyslaw Reymont and Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski, Julian Przybos and Tadeusz Peiper, Julian Tuwim and Mieczyslaw Jastrun, Leopold Staff and Jerzy Szaniawski, Aleksander Wat and Anna Swirszczynska and many others.

There is also a peculiar group sitting under a table in the far corner of the hall. These are the socialist realists, huddling together as if in shame, and looking towards Wladyslaw Broniewski, the “revolutionary” poet of the interwar years (who is in the middle group), as if in the hope that he might rescue them.

But where is Tadeusz Rozewicz? He is somewhat apart, and he is just telling Kazimierz Braun something which is worth quoting before we reach our conclusion:

Yes, I treat Witkiewicz's death as a symbolic moment. After the first World War the remnants of old aesthetic which were still functioning in the endeavours of the avant-garde were — as Witkiewicz had aptly put it — a decay and an agony of forms, it was an agony of art, which was abandoning the sacred or found itself left without it. It seemed to me that after the Second World War attempts to continue in the wake of the old avant-gardes, and there were such attempts, especially in poetry, made little sense. People took me quite the wrong way. It was said that I am an enemy of beauty, art, Mediterranean culture….Nothing of the sort. I believed that the epoch of beauty without the sacred was coming to an end. Poetry without the sacrum was becoming a plaything and a caricature. That is why I described Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz as “mockers of beauty”… The language …in their literary works was a mocking, parodic language…This could not lead to new…dignified beauty…The essential question was this: could a new sacrum be expressed in this mocking, parodying, jeering language in which Gombrowicz's novels and plays are written… The colloquial, schoolboyish idiom of the two writers had its origin in [Alfred Jarry's] Ubu Roi. The language was too weak to create a new sacrum. A certain phase had come to an end. The critics…have failed to take note of this. They did not notice at what point the endeavours of Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz had reached their end…and had become sterile.

And having said this, Rozewicz walks hesitatingly towards Miłosz's table, whispering to himself:

zycie bez boga jest mozliwe
zycie bez boga jest niemozliwe
it is possible to live without god
it is impossible to live without god

If my vision of the heavenly hall-cafe is more or less correct, we can conclude that the pole represented by Gombrowicz, while not a lonely one, is not too crowded. Most of twentieth-century Polish literature coalesces in the vicinity of Miłosz or falls in-between the two polarities. Miłosz is thus more centrally within Polish literary tradition in general, and twentieth-century Polish literature in particular, than Gombrowicz. What places them in the same category is their unquestionable literary achievement. Both are major writers who have pursued their literary goals and philosophical visions with utmost single-mindedness and persistence. Polish, and one need not hesitate to say, world literature, is the richer for it. Human civilization is in need of both philosophical attitudes: it needs its hedgehogs as much as it needs its foxes; those, who can justify our sense, or at least our yearning for what Rozewicz (perhaps for lack of a better word) calls the sacrum, as well as those who put it to the test by reminding us of the human limitations of our understanding of the mystery which appears, Janus-like, now as Chaos and now as Cosmos.


  1. Read in February 2000 as the annual Adam Mickiewicz Lecture at the University of Toronto.
  2. Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), an extremely popular author of historical novels, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905.
  3. Cyprian Kamil Norwid, a 19th-century post-Romantic poet and playwright, remarkable for his original poetics and unconventional outlook.
  4. Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907), a major Neo-Romantic playwright and modernist painter.
  5. Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841-1910), a major representative of the novel of social commitment.
  6. Boleslaw Prus (1845-1912), a major novelist, author of perhaps the best 19th century Polish novel Lalka (The Doll).
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