Monday, June 25, 2012

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz: do you know what it feels like to be diminished within someone else?

I provided Czeslaw Milosz’s overview of Ferdydurke in the opening post on this book. I’ll probably have one post on the action he summarizes because it is the most straightforward part of the book. Well, as straightforward as Gombrowicz can be. I want to spend more time on a few sections that people might tend to skim in order to get to the action or funny parts—these chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the novel. In a separate post I’ll cover the “digressions” in the novel, stories Gombrowicz published after his collection of stories in Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity: “The Child Runs Deep in Filidor” and “The Child Runs Deep in Filibert”. Gombrowicz adds prefaces to each story, the first one providing the philosophical core of the novel. This post will take a stroll through the opening chapter since it introduces many of the themes seen in the rest of the novel.
Tuesday morning I awoke at that pale and lifeless hour when night is almost gone but dawn has not yet come into its own. Awakened suddenly, I wanted to take a taxi and dash to the railroad station, thinking I was due to leave, when, in the next minute, I realized to my chagrin that no train was waiting for me at the station, that no hour had struck. I lay in the murky light while my body, unbearably frightened, crushed my spirit with fear, and my spirit crushed my body, whose tiniest fibers cringed in apprehension that nothing would ever happen, nothing ever change, that nothing would ever come to pass, and whatever I undertook, nothing, but nothing, would ever come of it. It was the dread of nonexistence, the terror extinction, it was the angst of nonlife, the fear of unreality, a biological scream of all my cells in the face of an inner disintegration when all would be blown to pieces and scattered to the winds. It was the fear of unseemly pettiness and mediocrity, the fright of distraction, panic at fragmentation, the dread of rape from within and or rape that was threatening me from without—but most important, there was something on my heels at all times, something that I would call a sense of inner, intermolecular mockery and derision, an inbred superlaugh of my bodily parts and the analogous parts of my spirit, all running wild.
(pages 1 – 2)

So the narrator, Joey Kowalski, begins his tale. The theme of his body not being unified or homogeneous runs throughout the novel. Sometimes it rebels at the molecular level as described above. Other times he feels parts of his body were that of a boy while other parts remain adult-size. Joey also was frightened from an earlier dream that took him back to when he was fifteen or sixteen. While Kafka’s The Trial echoes in the novel, Gombrowicz adds Dante for good measure to expound on his current age of thirty: “I was halfway down the path of my life when I found myself in a dark forest. But this forest, worse luck, was green.” (page 2) Green as in immature, non-developed: “I myself did not know whether I was a mature man or a green youth; at this turning point of my life I was neither this nor that—I was nothing…”. (page 3)

Joey uses violent terms to explain the metamorphosis that should have happened during his growth: “When I cut my last teeth, my wisdom teeth, my development was supposed to be complete, and it was time for the inevitable kill, for the man to kill the inconsolable little boy, to emerge like a butterfly and leave behind the remains of the chrysalis that had spent itself.” (page 3) To explain why he was unsuccessful and try to make himself presentable to the world, Joey explains he wrote a book titled Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity, not coincidentally the title of Gombrowicz’s first book [now titled Bacacay]. His friends and family reprove him for the title, telling him he should think of himself as mature in order to be mature. “Yet it just didn’t seem appropriate to dismiss, easily and glibly, the sniveling brat within me.” (page 4) Joey later has good things to say about immaturity.

Joey regrets (to some extent) having penned the memoirs of his earlier age, noting “man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul, be it even the soul of an idiot.” (page 5) Earlier, Joey described his aunts as “quarter-mothers, tacked-on, patched-on” ladies who didn’t know what to make of him. Joey now describes with scorn

“the cultural aunts, those female semi-writers and tacked-on semi-critics who make pronouncements in literary magazines. … Unless you have ever found yourself in the laboratory of a cultural aunt and been dissected, mute and without a groan, by her trivializing mentality that turns all life lifeless, unless you have ever seen an auntie’s critique of yourself in a newspaper, you have no concept of triviality, and auntie-triviality in particular.
(page 6)

Update: Artur Rosman at the University of Washington informs me that "aunt" is used as a term of abuse, with connotations of homosexuality. This despite Gombrowicz uncertain sexuality. Like the rest of the novel, we're a long way from political correctness.

For these and other reasons Joey believes that a writer sharing his thoughts is a daredevil to set them to paper. Subtlety is lost on dullards while the rabble only respond to a work’s outer trappings. His inability to move to full maturity tears him apart, making him feel less than human and inadequate. At times Joey pre-emptively acts immature, knowing others expect him to act that way. Once again we see the circular logic of defining ourselves through the reflection of others. Joey muses on why being immature appeals to him and comes up with some rather stinging critiques:

[I]s it because I come from a country rife with uncouth, mediocre, transitory individuals who feel awkward in a starched collar, where it is not Melancholy and Destiny but rather Duffer and Fumbler who moon about the fields in lamentation? Or is it because I’ve lived in an era that, every five minutes, emits new fads and slogans, and at the slightest opportunity, grimaces convulsively—a transitory era?
(page 10-11)

Keep in mind Poland has been an independent country for less than two decades while Gombrowicz is writing this. After musing on all these things in bed, Joey’s fear returns as he sees a double of himself standing in the room. Which is the real Joey? The one in bed isn’t quite sure anymore. The double in the room panics at having been identified and runs away. We keep getting this sense of Joey’s incompleteness, whether in having inconsistent or rebelling body parts or not defining himself, his two outer selves reflecting his inner fragmentation. The uncertainty on being also dovetails nicely with the theme of immaturity—what has to happen in order to be mature? Is maturity such a good thing—are there good things about being immature? What does it take to define ourselves?

“I was left alone but actually not alone—how could I be alone when I wasn’t even there, I had no sense of being there, and not a single thought, gesture, action, or word, in fact nothing seemed to be mine, but rather it was as if it had all be settled somewhere outside myself, decided for me—because in reality I was quite different! And this upset me terribly. Oh, to create my own form! To turn outward! To express myself! Let me conceive my own shape, let no one do it for me!
(pages 13-14)

Joey’s agitation leads him to begin writing his “own oeuvre, which will be just like me, identical with me, the sum total of me.” (page 14) Given Joey’s thoughts on people judging him from his first book, it can’t be coincidental that he is writing when T. Pimko, professor and schoolteacher, appears at the door. Pimko spouts banalities, mentions Joey’s long-dead aunt (and gives her a C+ as she was “not a bad book”), and begins to evaluate Joey’s writing (while “sitting squarely on his wisdom”). (page 15) While Pimko judges Joey’s writing, Joey begins to grow younger as a reflection of how the professor views him.

I became small, my leg became a little leg, my hand a little hand, my persona a little persona, my being a little being, my oeuvre a little oeuvre, my body a little body, while he grew larger and larger, sitting and glancing at me, and reading my manuscript forever and ever amen—he sat.

Do you know what it feels like to be diminished within someone else? Oh, to be diminished within an aunt is unseemly enough, but to be diminished within a huge, commonplace prof is the peak of unseemly diminishment. And I noticed that the prof was like a cow grazing on my greenness.
(page 16)

Joey tries to complain but Pimko silences him, not allowing Joey to express himself as he is but requires him to do so through the spirit of others or of his country. This denial of self-expression lays the groundwork for the schoolroom chapters that follow, or at least what the teachers try to impart. Pimko drags Joey’s “infantile form, so callow and green” (page 19) to Principal Piórkowski’s school and places him in the sixth grade. As you can guess, hilarity (loaded with irony) ensues.

Note: all quotes and page references are to the 2000 Yale University Press edition of the novel, translation by Danuta Borchardt.

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