When Witold Gombrowicz began writing his Diary in 1953, he was forty-nine years old. He had been living in Buenos Aires since 1939, when the war had caught him by surprise. As a promising young writer, he had been officially invited to the inaugural voyage of a new maritime route between Poland and Argentina, departing from the port of Gdynia the 29th of July 1939 on the dazzling transatlantic liner Chrobry (The Brave). … [W]hile reading The Journals of André Gide, he had the idea of writing his own diary. On August 6 of that same year, he wrote to Jerzy Giedroye, the director of Kultura [a Polish émigré journal]: “I must become my own commentator, even better, my own theatrical director. I have to create Gombrowicz the thinker, Gombrowicz the genius, Gombrowicz the cultural demonologist, and many other necessary Gombrowiczes.” The Diary was the realization of this mad ambition. But Gide had written his diary when he was already famous, whereas Gombrowicz wrote his to become so.
In other words, take everything you read with a grain of salt. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true, just that Gombrowicz is framing things how he wanted them to be seen. Even so, I think these two entries are helpful in understanding the novel. Here’s the first entry I’ll quote, from 1958:
On 4 February of this year (’58), I finished Pornografia. This is what I have called it for the time being. I am not promising that the title will stay. I am in no hurry to publish it. Too many of my books have appeared in print lately.
One of my most persistent needs, during the writing of this quite pornographic—in some places—Pornografia was: to pass the world through youth; to translate it into the language of youth…To spice it with your—so it allows itself to be violated.
The intuition that dictated this to me is probably based on the conviction that a Man is helpless against the world…by being only power, not beauty…and, furthermore, in order for him to be able to possess reality, it must first be put through a being that can be attractive…that is, that can surrender itself…a lower, weaker being. Here there is a choice—woman or youth. The woman I dismiss because of the child, that is, because her function is too specific. Youth is what is left. And here one comes upon extreme formulas: maturity for youth, youth for maturity.
What is this? What have I written? Whether or not the accent I put on the Spirit of Youth and its Doings is worth anything…and how much will be hard to tell for a while.
(pages 372-3; ellipsis in original)
The second entry is from 1960, (supposedly) in reply to a letter asking for the metaphysical content of Pornografia:
Let us try to express it another way: man, as we know, strives for the Absolute, for Completeness. For absolute truth, God, complete maturity, etc. To embrace everything, to fully realize the process of his development—such is the imperative.
Thus, in Pornografia (in keeping with my old habit, because Ferdydurke is also saturated with this) another, probably more hidden and less legitimate, aim of man is revealed, his need for the Incomplete…Imperfection…Inferiority…Youth….
One of the key scenes of the work is the one in the church where under the pressure of Frederick’s [Fryderyk's] consciousness the Mass, together with God-the-Absolute, collapses. Then out of the darkness and emptiness of the cosmos comes a new divinity, earthly, sensual, underage, made up of two underdeveloped beings creating a closed world—because they attract one another.
Another key scene is the deliberations preceding Siemian’s murder—the Adults are not in a state to commit murder because they know all too well what it is, what weight it has, and they must do it with the hands of the minors. This murder must, therefore, be cast into a sphere of lightness, irresponsibility—only there does it become possible.
… [Gombrowicz goes into several other ideas permeating this book, but I’ll close with these two sentences.]
A lack of seriousness is just as important to man as seriousness. If a philosopher says that ‘Man wants to be God,’ then I would add: ‘Man wants to be young.’
(pages 485-6; ellipsis in original except for noted excision)
I briefly touched on a few of the religious aspects to the novel in the opening post on the novel, choosing to note and then skip them. One facet of the religious undertones fits in nicely with Gomborwicz’s first key scene—the epiphany the narrator has on seeing the two adolescents in church. To say the country estate becomes a garden of Eden with these two perfect beings is a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. The raptures Witold (the narrator) experiences when describing the perfect nature of the youths proves to be funny, then darkly ironic as he and Fryderyk try to corrupt them. Since the adults cannot get them to combine in a physical act, the set-up for a shared sin ("cast into a sphere of lightness") is attempted. (I'm not going to comment on possible political aspects of the novel in these religious aspects, such as the corruption/sacrifice of Poland during World War II, but I think they are there.)
The next post, delivery gods willing, will have Gombrowicz's comments on Pornografia in his memoir A Kind of Testament.