Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gombrowicz on Pornografia (from A Kind of Testament)

Witold Gombrowicz wrote A Kind of Testament, an autobiographical account of his life and work, in 1968, a year before he died. While anything that comes directly from Gombrowicz has to be taken with a grain of salt, the flow of information and insight that comes from the book feels as wonderful as his other writing. I’m going to provide a few excerpts from the chapter on Pronografia to give you a taste of the writing in this memoir as well as some of views on the topics in the novel. All quotes come from the Dalkey Archive Press paperback edition (2007), translated by Alastair Hamilton.

I won’t vouch for the quality of logic in the first excerpt, but it includes topics he addresses throughout the chapter:
As for the subsequent adventures I had with the two goddesses, Youth and Beauty, I could sum them up in four theses, which I consider most revealing:

The first: youth is inferiority

The second: youth is beauty

The third (and how thrilling!): so, beauty is inferiority

The fourth (dialectical): man is suspended between God and youth.

(page 135)

Gombrowicz goes into the last thesis in more detail. The last paragraph in the following excerpt touches on Pornografia’s inversion of Ferdydurke:

I then tended to see youth as a value in itself. But youth is beneath all value, the only value of youth is youth. And that is why, as I wrote a brief preface to the French edition of Pornografia, a phrase a little like this came to my mind: ‘Man is suspended between God and youth.’

This means that man has two ideals, divinity and youth. He wants to be perfect, immortal, omnipotent. He wants to be God. And he wants to be in full bloom, fresh and pink, always to remain in the ascendant phase of his life—he wants to be young.

He aspires to perfection, but he is afraid of it because he knows that it is death. He rejects imperfection, but it attracts him because it is life and beauty.

There’s nothing extraordinary about that—it’s an idea like any other…but what a beacon for me!

For, as I write, I have a tendency—a subterranean, illegal tendency—to complete the natural development of immaturity towards maturity with a radically opposite trend, leading downwards, from maturity to immaturity. In Ferdydurke, one can see the extent to which, despite my efforts to become mature, I remained attached to immaturity. That has always tormented me. Man pursues two goals, he is torn between two poles…. Yes, of course the adult is the professor, the master of youth. But does this adult not secretly frequent another school, where the youth dominates him? Would the furious dynamism of life, this compression (the source of its energy), be possible without it?

(pages 138-139, ellipsis in original)

Gombrowicz goes into detail about Pornografia. I’m only including a couple of paragraphs from this discussion, but they succinctly summarize what happens in the novel:

What happens in Pornografia? We, Frederick [Fryderyk ] and I, two middle-aged gentlemen, see a young couple, a girl and a boy, who seem to be made for each other, welded to each other with a striking and reciprocal sex appeal. But as far as they’re concerned they might not even have noticed it; it is drowned, we might say, in their youthful incapacity for fulfillment (the inexperience peculiar to their age). We, the older ones, are excited by it, we would like the charm to take shape. And, with due precautions, and keeping up appearances, we start to help them. But our efforts lead us nowhere; they founder in that sphere of pre-reality where they reside, and which characterizes them—in that antechamber of their existence.

And then? Let us glide over the cunning devices of the matchmaker-producer, who is also a voyeur, but a poet-voyeur. The smoke that rises from this magic enclosure intoxicates us more and more and, exasperated by the indifference of the two children, it occurs to us that, failing physical possession, sin, a common sin, can tie them together and—oh joy!—can tie us to them, like accomplices, despite the difference of age.

(pages 140-141)

Gombrowicz goes into more detail about the novel but he reveals even more than I did in my previous posts. At the end of this chapter Gombrowicz reflects on the student/youth riots occurring as he writes this memoir and how they tie in (“in a sense”) with many of the themes he has included in his works, especially with Pornografia. He doesn’t have much good to say about either side in these riots. He does take care to differentiate what is happening in the West with what he is seeing in Eastern Europe (this is 1968, so events like the Soviet invasion after the Prague Spring and the Polish March crisis). The end of the chapter highlights this difference and summarizes his disdain:

But I would like to add: the student revolts in Eastern Europe have nothing to do with those in the West. The former are the result of misery, the latter of satiety.

(page 146)

The next post will look at the 2003 Polish movie version of the movie (you knew that was coming at some point).

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