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3:AM Cult Hero: Witold Gombrowicz

“Our element is unending immaturity.”

Andrew Gallix on Witold Gombrowicz’s most famous character, as an embodiment of modernity as immaturity:

Joey Kowalski provides us with a thinly disguised portrait of the author as a young man. In the opening pages, we are even told that he has written an unsuccessful book bearing the very same title as Gombrowicz’s 1933 debut. Although he is clearly the (anti-) hero and first person narrator, one is reluctant to describe Kowalski as the protagonist because he is constantly acted upon. In the most famous passage, this amorphous 30-year-old is visited by an eminent old professor who treats him like a kid before marching him off to school where – curiouser and curiouser – he fits in as naturally as a pupil half his age. Ferdydurke (1937) could be defined as a deformation, rather than a formation, novel.

If Kowalski embodies the notion (later popularised by Sartre) that identity is in the eye of the beholder, his own sense of immaturity reflects Poland’s cultural inferiority complex which itself symbolises the growing infantilism of society. Gombrowicz’s first novel is not only an existentialist masterpiece, it also chronicles the emergence of the “new Hedonism” Lord Henry had called for in Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as the shifting human relations Virginia Woolf had observed in the early years of the twentieth century. Outwardly, we strive for completion, perfection and maturity; inwardly, we crave incompletion, imperfection and immaturity. The natural progression from immaturity to maturity (and death) is paralleled by a corresponding covert regression from maturity to immaturity. Mankind is suspended between divinity and puerility, torn between transcendence and pubescence. Through Joey Kowalski – as well as the schoolgirl and the farmhand – Gombrowicz was able to diagnose this tantalising tryst with trivia which charaterises the modern world.

Further: Piknik Gombrowiczowski / ‘Stream of Subconsciousness’, Eva Hoffman on Ferdydurke / ‘Witold Gombrowicz, and to Hell with Culture,’ Words Without Borders on why Gombrowicz is probably the most important twentieth-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of / Quarterly Conversation run an extract from Gombrowicz’s Pornografia / The Believer on Cosmos / Michael Pinker on reading Gombrowicz / ‘Art of Self-Defense’, Bookforum on Gombrowicz’s duel with ideas

First posted: Monday, July 26th, 2010.

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