Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz: a disastrous adventure

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemiańska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers…picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art… . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

- the opening paragraph to Pornografia, translation by Danuta Borchardt (ellipsis in original)

The dark and lean gentleman (Fryderyk) and the narrator (Witold) leave Warsaw for the countryside to visit Hipolit, a business acquaintance. At Hipolit’s estate, Fryderyk and Witold become obsessed with pairing Hipolit’s daughter Henia with the estate administrator’s son, Karol. Both youth, however, resist attempts at pushing the relationship beyond their friendship from childhood. Violent elements, not all of which are associated with the war, intrude on their plans. On a visit to the family house of Vaclav, Henia’s fiancé, Vaclav’s mother Amelia is killed. Upon return to Hipolit’s estate, an Underground Army officer, Siemian, stays with the family. Siemian, having second thoughts about fighting, has been marked for murder by the resistance for security purposes. Members of the resistance fail to appear but assign the murder to Hipolit.

I’m leaving a lot of this brief overview of the novel, some of which I’ll develop here or in additional posts while other areas I’d rather avoid so as not to give away the “twists.” A few notes on the novel…

A natural comparison for Pornografia is Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke since several of the theme are comparable, although several premises become inverted. Ferdydurke explored, among many things, the power of maturity over youth and its corrosive effects. Here we have an attempt at something similar as the adults try to manufacture a loss of innocence, first through sex and then through murder. Along the way, though, the power of youth exerts itself over maturity, refusing to be tarnished by its actions. It becomes a question of who is manipulating whom. The adults, failing at their attempts to control the actions of the youth, become obsessed with and, in turn, controlled by the young. It turns out that the youth aren’t completely innocent. The raptures that Witold goes into over their youth and beauty is an ideal he imposes on them regardless of the reality, their pliable behavior helping prolong his vision.

The discussions over “God, art, nation, proletariat” sound like they should have taken place in pre-World War II Poland, before Gombrowicz ended up in exile (he readily admits it is an imaginary Poland in his “Information” introduction). Completely missing from the brief Warsaw section is any real mention of the war and what was happening in the city at the time. In the countryside the talk of war is initially limited but it increasingly intrudes on their lives. In addition to the impositions from various armies, language and actions include progressively more violent features. The following excerpt can be read several ways—the intention of the two adults on the youth, the impact of the war on all of them, or the influence the youth have had on the adults with some implication of things to come:

A bird flew by.

Fryderyk: “What kind of bird was that?”

Karol: “An oriole.”

Fryderyk: “Are there a lot of them here?”

She [Henia]: “Look what a big earthworm.

Karol kept rocking, his legs spread apart, she raised her leg to scratch her calf—but his shoe, resting just on the heel, rose, made a half-turn, and squashed the earthworm…just at one end, just as much as the reach of his foot allowed, because he didn’t feel like lifting his heel from the ground, the rest of the worm’s thorax began to stiffen and squirm, which he watched with interest. This would not have been any more important than a fly’s throes of death on a flytrap or a moth’s within the glass of a lamp—if Fryderyk’s gaze, glassy, had not sucked itself onto that earthworm, extracting its suffering to the full. One could imagine that he would be indignant, but in truth there was nothing within him but penetration into torture, draining the chalice to the last drop. He hunted it, sucked it, caught it, took it in and—numb and mute, caught in the claws of pain—he was unable to move. Karol looked at him out of the corner of his eye but did not finish the earthworm, he saw Fryderyk’s horror as sheer hysterics… .

Henia’s shoe moved forward and she crushed the worm.

But only from the opposite end, with great precision, saving the central part so that it could continue to squirm and twist.

All of it—was insignificant…as far as the crushing of a worm can be trivial and insignificant.

Karol: “Near Lvov there are more birds than here.”

Henia: “I have to peel the potatoes.”

Fryderyk: “I don’t envy you… . It’s a boring job.”

As we were returning home we talked for a while, then Fryderyk disappeared somewhere, and I didn’t know where he was—but I knew what he was into. He was thinking about what had just happened, about the thoughtless legs that had joined in the cruelty they committed jointly to the twitching body. Cruelty? Was it Cruelty? More like something trivial, the trivial killing of a worm, just so, nonchalantly, because it had crawled under a shoe—oh, we kill so many worms! No, not cruelty, thoughtlessness rather, which, with children’s eyes, watches the droll throes of death without feeling pain. It was a trifle. But for Fryderyk? To a discerning consciousness? To a sensibility that is cable [? supposed to be capable?] of empathy? Wasn’t this, for him, a bloodcurdling deed in its enormity—surely pain, suffering are as terrible in a worm’s body as in the body of a giant, pain is “one” just as space is one, indivisible, wherever it appears, it is the same total horror. Thus for him this deed must have been, one could say, terrible, they had called forth torture, created pain, with the soles of their shoes they had changed the earth’s peaceful existence into an existence that was hellish—one cannot imagine a more powerful crime, a greater sin. Sin…Sin…Yes, this was a sin—but, if a sin, it was a sin committed jointly—and their legs had united on the worm’s twitching body… .

(ellipsis in original)

So who is this Fryderyk that becomes hysterical (or maybe rapturous) during this scene? One key aspect of Fryderyk lies in his scripted behavior. His movements with his tea during the opening meeting demonstrate his need to justify each action. This behavior continues through to his “directing” Karol and Henia, putting them in situations for an alleged screenplay he’s writing in order to bring them closer together, and then again to another end. His control of a situation carries over to his power of negation. He acts to avoid “not acting.” He kneels at mass to keep from “not kneeling.” (This negation leads to a pivotal moment in the church, which will be mentioned in the next post.) Fryderyk and Witold are in synch with their plans to contaminate the youth, part of the real pornography of the title. Trying to pair Henia and Karol as lovers proves laughable but the adults’ desire progresses to involving them in the murder of Siemian. Fryderyk and Witold avoid performing the murder because they understand, from experience and maturity, the act’s implications and cost. Yet they are willing to have the adolescents do it by trivializing the act, making it easy for Karol and Henia to perform it.

There is a religious component to the novel but I’m only going to lightly touch on it. Fryderyk’s atheism stands in marked contrast to Ameila’s fervent beliefs, yet he quickly becomes her favorite companion. She (and later her son) commit acts that can be viewed as sacrificial in nature—a topic that could be a post by itself but I’m going to avoid it for now since it would ruin the perfect perverse ending.

The next post will include a couple of entries from his Diary that include some of his thoughts on Pornografia.

No comments: