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Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos

By Douglas Glover.

Witold Gombrowicz leans toward Surrealism, but then he is also steeped in the history of philosophy. His brain is marinated in modernity, the 20th century critiques of the Enlightenment, Husserl’s Crisis in Philosophy, the loss of Being, and the turn toward Phenomenology and Existentialism. So there is a loony side to what he is doing that, at the same time, is very serious and sophisticated, profoundly conversant with tradition while attempting to stand outside tradition. He has that flickering quality I have described elsewhere; his text is continuously oscillating between assertion and ironic subversion.

In Cosmos — the title makes it obvious — Gombrowicz is satirizing the phenomenology of world creation, the mental process by which we construct a frame of meaning for ourselves. Not the world (whatever that is), my world. Both inside and outside the novel (that is, in so-called real life), the modus operandi of consciousness is comically super-rational and simultaneously self-defeating (Husserl demonstrated that reason was never going to get where it said it was going). You (a subject, a consciousness) begin to notice hints of repetition and pattern; you look for other instances of the pattern in the chaotic flux of sensation; and eventually you decide the pattern is real. This is the procedure of reason and science. But, of course, in Cosmos what seems real to the narrator is in fact utterly contingent and often ridiculous or even murderous.

Form cannot enclose reality, but form always threatens to become reality. That is the antinomy of the novel: you can’t fit the world into a book, and yet form (read: custom, tradition, ideology, inter-personal expectation, etc.) is always threatening to derail the life of the individual, that is, there is always someone or some thing trying to fit you into his book. Cosmos is, in part, a horror story in which the monstrous evil is a form (in this case, a literary device) that haunts the narrator and eventually takes over his life. Instead of Godzilla or the mad slasher moving ineluctably toward its victim, the villain of Cosmos is an image pattern.

There are two other forces working on the human mind besides reason. One is the dark and unknowable current of desire; the narrator, whose name is Witold, can’t sleep with the girl he’s attracted to so he suddenly and incomprehensibly kills her cat (it’s a sick joke, right? He orgasmically strangles her pussy). The other force is the desire or gaze of the other. As soon as you enter a relationship (however trivial), you begin to bend yourself to fulfil, oppose or circumvent the desire (expectation, form) of the other.  Even if you resist, the purity of selfhood has been corrupted. So you construct another self in secret, the masturbatory self, the self who doesn’t have to relate or unmask himself before the eyes of the other (but who is corrupt, seedy, infantile, trivial and evasive in any case).

Out of this triangle of forces, Gombrowicz creates a truly awe-ful, hilarious novel. The narrator discovers patterns and deduces meaning; his own sexual violence betrays reason; he discovers that the secret life of the adult male patriarch is one of chronic secret masturbation (the creation of private, obsessive cosmos).

Gombrowicz was born in Poland in 1904; his family had estates (as in land with peasants attached, income streams for which they didn’t have to work); like Vladimir Nabokov in St. Petersburg, Gombrowicz was a member of the wealthy, east European elite, multilingual, well educated, sophisticated, with antennae tuned to the major currents of the age. He was taught at home by foreign tutors in the style of an earlier era. But he was also bisexual and talks of jolly, disreputable, unspeakable adventures in suburban back lanes, which perhaps early set him apart from the conventions of the time. This is in his memoir A Kind of Testament and, more delicately – those Retiro Park adventures — in his diaries; Gombrowicz is the rare writer who made a literary subject of himself, creating, aside from his fiction and plays, a parallel opus of self-commentary. As a young man, he published a book of precocious short stories (Bacacay), a novel (Ferdydurke) and a play that was not produced, but he remained somewhat on the periphery of Polish cultural life, defiantly not seated at the literary high table (he had a I’ll-reject-them-before-they-reject-me attitude).

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War when he was 35, he signed on for a free promotional ocean voyage to Argentina as a journalist only to discover when he landed in Buenos Aires that his country no longer existed. Instead of returning to England with the ship, he chose to stay in Argentina where he lived mostly in poverty-stricken obscurity for the next twenty-three years.

Late in his short life his work began to be published again in Europe, in Polish emigré journals, then in Poland itself and in translation. He suddenly had enough money to return to the Old World, spent most of the rest of his time in France, had the good sense to marry a French-Canadian woman, his companion of the last few years, and died of asthma (the family disease) and heart failure just before his 65th birthday. He was lucky enough, before he died, to have seen his work celebrated, his plays produced to wild acclaim, and the money flowing in. And near the end he finished Cosmos, his fourth novel, the subject of this essay.

Cosmosis a little novel, about 157 pages in my edition (the old Grove Press 1970 version, translated by Eric Mosbacher from the French; there is a more recent Yale University Press translation from the Polish, which is no doubt more correct, but one falls in love with the books one falls in love with, and the Mosbacher paperback was already strewn with my notes when the new translation came out). The novel’s ten chapters comprise not so much a continuous plot structure but a diptych: the first four chapters follow one action, the middle two are transitional, though nonetheless crucial, and the last four follow another action with additional characters.

In the first four chapters, two student acquaintances, Witold, the first-person (retrospective) narrator, and Fuchs, both with reasons of their own for wanting to get out of Warsaw for a few days, wander on foot, looking for lodging in the countryside near Zakopane, a town in southern Poland at the base of the Tatra Mountains. In the woods next to the road they spot a strange sight, a dead sparrow hung from a branch with a bit of wire. Shortly after, they find a room in a nearby boarding house operated by the Wojtys family: Leo, a retired bank employee, his wife Kulka, a niece Katasia (with a scarred mouth) who works as a maid, their daughter Lena, and Lena’s husband Louis (they are newlyweds) who works as an architect.

Witold instantly develops an illicit passion for Lena whom he associates with the corruption embodied in Katasia’s misshapen lips (though, in fact, she doesn’t seem corrupt to the reader). At the same time, Fuchs and Witold together begin to track a series of faint if suggestive signs and repetitions (beginning with hanged sparrow) that include enigmatic shapes and stains in the ceiling, a piece of wood dangling from some string in the garden and so on. They break into Katasia’s room looking for clues (bringing a frog in a box, which they intend to use as an alibi if they are caught; part of a frog image pattern that originates because Witold thinks Katasia’s lips look reptilian – they move from side to side instead of up and down); then Witold climbs a tree outside Lena’s room and spies on her getting ready for bed (he watches her husband hand her a teapot, a hilarious, surreal/Freudian displacement of conjugal desire that unmans him); and, finally, in a fit of violent, motiveless passion, he strangles her cat and hangs its body from a hook in the garden.

The fifth chapter is aftermath. Fuchs plays detective; the entire cast of characters stands around the cat discussing possible scenarios and perpetrators, then everyone adjourns to the dining room while Louis buries the cat. In the sixth chapter, Leo breaks the dead cat tension by suggesting an excursion to the mountains to visit a panoramic view he remembers fondly from the days of his youth. They travel in two open carriages and, along the way, pick up a wandering priest and two more newlywed couples, Lola and Lolo and Tolo and Jadeczka, friends of Lena.

The last four chapters follow various intertwined plots in a version of the forest/wilderness convention borrowed from Shakespeare (or any number of writers, e.g. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). Being out in the hills and woods lets loose all sorts of erotic and subversive hanky-panky. Wandering alone, Witold encounters Lena also alone; it is possible but unclear that she shares his passion; they stand next to each other not talking because Witold can’t bring himself to act on his own erotic impulse, which has somehow turned insidiously corrupt inside him, like a ingrown nail; he can’t love because he is disgusted with himself (after all, it kind of inhibits you if you’ve strangled the girl’s cat and haven’t told her).

He wanders on and finds Leo alone; they have a long, loopy conversation about the secret little (masturbatory) habits one develops in defiance of a world where everyone is watching everyone else (in Leo’s case, his bank manager and his wife, Kulka). Leo confesses that he brought everyone to this place, not for the view (night is falling anyway) but to celebrate the anniversary of the one supreme sexual encounter of his life, with a cook in the woods nearby when he was a young man. (In other words, he got a blow job at the foot of a rock thirty years ago, he’s dreamed about it all his life, and now he’s brought his entire family with their friends to relive the moment. This becomes the climactic scene of the novel.)

Elsewhere, Lola and Lolo dislike Jadesczka; they flirt with her cavalry officer husband Tolo; Fuchs spies Jadesczka pressing herself against Lolo in the dark; the priest fiddles suggestively with his fingers; at dinner, everyone gets lit and Witold witnesses the priest and Jadesczka vomiting off the balcony. Night has fallen. Witold staggers into the woods again and comes upon Louis’s corpse hanging from a branch, an apparent suicide. In an act of hyper-erotic, if not to say homoerotic symbol-making, he sticks his finger in the corpse’s mouth and decides to hang Lena. But first he comes upon the priest, pushes him roughly and sticks his finger in the priest’s mouth. He catches up with Lena, Fuchs and the newlyweds as they meander after Leo in the dark. At the supreme moment, everyone stands around, unable to see in the murk, while Leo apparently masturbates beneath a rock that may or may not be the spot where the cook gave him pleasure all those years before. Then it starts to rain, and we jump ahead to a paragraph of aftermath: Lena catches a cold, Witold goes home to his parents. The last line reads: “Today we had chicken and rice for lunch.”

This is all dark, funny and very strange, an absurd horror story and frustrated romance, something like A Midsummer’s Night Wet Dream Meets The Tell-Tale Heart; Gombrowicz is ever the playwright and parodist; there are theatrical groups, multiple off-stage sounds, set-piece scenes, dramatic monologues, and seven, I think, ensemble dinner table conversations; in his memoir A Kind of Testament, Gombrowicz calls it his darkest work. Behind the cockamamie love plot, something dreadful and ill-understood pursues the narrator with ineluctable logic; and the thing that pursues him is a form. The novel’s fantastically elaborated structure of repetition, leitmotif, cross-reference, thematic meditation, and memory rehearsal gradually assumes the character of fate and drives the story willy-nilly towards its conclusion. Pattern becomes reality. “Hanging and I were one,” thinks Witold at the chilling moment when he accepts his role as Lena’s hangman. (160) The two halves of the novel are thus symmetrical; at the end of the first half, Witold hangs Lena metonymically in the form of her cat; at the end of the second half, he sets out to hang her.

In a conventionally constructed novel, motive drives plot. In Cosmos, there is a conventional plot of sorts, or a parody of plot. This is what an author does when, like Gombrowicz, he is a formalist committed to escaping and evading the confines of form. The so-called conventional plot turns on Witold’s illicit and covert desire for Lena, the married daughter of the household. This Witold-Lena plot begins in the opening pages of the novel as the two students are being shown the room they will live in.

 A ray of sunlight coming in through the blind illuminated a patch of floor, and a smell of ivy and the buzzing of an insect also came in from the outside. All the same there was a surprise, for one of the beds was occupied. A woman was lying on it, and I had the feeling there was something abnormal about the way she was doing so, though I had no idea what it was, whether it was because there was nothing on the bed but the mattress, or because one of her legs was lying on the metal springs, as the mattress had slipped a bit. At all events the combination of leg and metal springs struck me on that hot, buzzing day. [My emphasis.] (13)

I give you the long passage because it bears the DNA or hallmark of the entire novel beginning with the use of epanaleptic buzzing/buzzing to frame Witold’s vision of erotic femininity, the woman he cannot have (Quixote’s Dulcinea). The word “buzzing,” repeated throughout the novel, is a tag for chaos, for  the riot of raw sensory impression the world supplies.

Inside the chaos frame, Witold discovers the sign of eros in the form of a rumpled girl, out of place, “abnormal,” possibly asleep, or lost in revery, or, yes, masturbating (a major motif as the text presses forward) on an unmade bed. The juxtaposition of the comically disembodied leg and the metal springs adds a kinky, sadomasochistic element to the tableau, which strikes Witold though, of course, he cannot understand why – it has touched him below the level of consciousness at the centre of desire.

Or: Out of this rhetorical frame of chaotic sense data, the object emerges; that is, the discovery of Lena is also the epistemic moment, a moment of recognition (Plato, Kant). Cosmos is full of such iconic tableaus, scenes dense with metaphor and analogy; Gombrowicz understands that all objects are objects of desire, infused with eros at the moment of their awakening; the epistemic moment parallels the moment of sexual recognition; thus the dual desire structure of the novel: Witold yearns for the impossible Lena at the same time as he obsessively yearns to discern pattern and order in the buzzing chaos, both ventures sharing the eroticized nature of all desire. And, of course, the violent, sadomasochistic aspects reflect the intuition that all knowledge — read Foucault — is corrupt with power relations.

From this ur-moment, the plot develops with a certain whacky inevitability. Witold discovers Lena is married. He associates her beautiful lips with Katasia’s deformed lips, can’t get the whiff of corruption out of his head. He tries to flirt with her (he thinks she might be flirting with him) in the most hilarious and adolescent way (minute hand movements). He climbs a tree and spies on her getting ready for bed. He kills her cat. Then he continues the so-called flirtation (resting his hand on the dining table near hers and touching his spoon – she touches her spoon, setting him afire). Alone in the forest, finally, they stand speechless next to one another while Witold mutely thinks about why he can’t say a word to her.

This is the climax of the love plot in Cosmos, the moment when Witold’s festering obsession turns inward and annihilates itself; or at least annihilates its direct connection with an object (Lena). Witold’s absolute inability to get outside his own mind condemns him to denial, displacement and violence (or masturbation). Instead of screwing Lena, he strangles her cat. Shortly after the scene with Lena in the forest, Witold finds Lena’s husband hanging from a tree and performs a symbolic sex act on him (sticking his finger in the corpse’s mouth – believe me we have enough textual links throughout the novel to know that a finger is a penis for Gombrowicz in this book).

The plot is thus a classic love story with jokes, a parody of the Eros the Bittersweet motif of the ancients, a love that is never satisfied, a love sickness, as it were, and the jokes are sick (in the best sense), puerile, seedy, erotic, surreal (oblique) and Freudian (displacement and denial). Withal there is ever the shadow of Gombrowicz’s indefinite sexuality hovering: Witold’s self-disgust, which has no motive in the text, and his ultimate act of sex with the dead man, sex with Death.

At the same time, it is an allegorical reconstruction of the act of knowing (simultaneously, the impossibility of truly knowing anything), the human relation between consciousness and its object, the other, the truth, as it were, which relation is presented here as corrupt with all the complications of romantic love. Knowledge in this sense is a confection. Gombrowicz uses the  word “constellation” throughout to represent this sort of knowledge; constellation as in a group of stars like the Great Bear. There is no Great Bear in the sky, simply a picked-out pattern of stars we have come to identify as the Great Bear. All knowledge partakes of the idea of constellation. It is artificial, our projection of form onto the random. “Constellation” and “buzzing” thus form a structural pair of contraries; order and chaos, in the abstract; Witold and Fuchs are always trying to discover order in the buzzing chaos, that is, establish facts, become conscious of things.

Gombrowicz hates form but loves form; he can’t escape form because that would look mad (schizophrenic), and, besides, he also loves to play with form. So he parodies form,  exaggerates it and turns it upside down (formal inversion is a key structure of the avant garde novel). He writes a horror story in which pattern (form) becomes the terrible enemy of the human hero.

In a conventional novel, plot is the foreground, the spine of the text; and the tapestry-like arrangements of imagery, theme, repetition, and cross-reference form the textural density of the background. In Cosmos, Gombrowicz inverts structure, places imagery, repetition and cross-reference in the foreground and diminishes the plot; in fact, the plot is a bit nonsensical in conventional terms, truncated, frustrated, and parodic. Gombrowicz deploys these common narrative structures in a style of hyperbolic excess. He multiplies techniques that are often thought of as ornamental — structures of elaboration such as image and word patterning, repetition, thematic forcing, analogy — then he turns the novel upside down (from its conventional orientation) and allows the ornaments to determine the characters’ actions; the image pattern hijacks the plot.

In the sixth chapter, the travel chapter, the beginning of the excursion segment, Witold, at loose ends after killing the cat, wants the safety and predictability of form. What he actually says is that he wants a literary technique to which to submit himself, one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ moments, if there ever was one.

 What was looking for? What was I looking for? A basic theme, a Leitmotiv, an axis, something of which I could take firm hold and use as a basis for reconstructing my personality here? (87)

In fact, the “Leitmotiv” plot, as we might call it, the hanging plot, or the horror plot, is already in progress when Witold announces his desire. It actually begins prior to the conventional love plot on the second page of the novel when Witold and Fuchs spot the dead sparrow in the woods beside the road. Again, the object emerges out of chaos, out of a phantasmagoria of woodsy impressions just as Lena appeared on the unmade bed.

Yes, it was a sparrow. A sparrow hanging from a bit of wire. It had been hanged. Its little head was bent and its mouth wide open. It was hanging by a bit of wire attached to a branch of a tree.

Extraordinary. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow. This shrieking eccentricity indicated that a human hand had penetrated this fastness. Who on earth could have done such a thing, and why? I wondered, standing in the midst of the chaos, this proliferating vegetation with its endless complications, my head full of the rattle and clatter of the night-long train journey, insufficient sleep, the air and the sun and the tramp through the heat with this man Fuchs, and Jesia and my mother, the row about the letter and my rudeness to the old man, and Julius, and also Fuch’s troubles with his chief at the office (about which he had told me), and the bad road, and the rust and the lumps of earth and heels, trouser-legs, stones, and all this vegetation, all culminating like a crowd genuflecting before this hanged sparrow–reigning triumphant and eccentric over this outlandish spot. (10)



 I give you the complete passage because again the DNA of the entire novel is represented, the object appearing out of a screen of chaos. Lena was abnormal, the sparrow is eccentric – something unusual draws the attention of the conscious subject. But in this case we don’t have a conventional object of desire; we have a bizarre image that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere but is unsettling, curious and iconic. It draws the mind but is baffling. When Fuchs and Witold discover that bit of wood against the garden wall, hanging by a string, Witold’s obsessive mind goes into overdrive. He kills and hangs the cat. Then he returns to the woods and finds the sparrow again, considerably the worse for wear.

 …I strolled in the direction of the sparrow, I was plagued by the disproportionate role it played in my mind. It remained perpetually on the sidelines and kept obtruding itself, though it was impossible to connect it with anything…What mattered was that something was advancing steadily in the foreground, assuming greater and greater importance and more insistently obtruding itself. It derived from the fact of the cat that I had not just strangled but hanged…I had of course hanged it for lack of anything else to do with it…Yes, yes, but the fact remained that I had done it and, though the deed was my own, it associated itself with the hangings of the sparrow and the bit of wood. Now, three hangings were different from two, they amounted to something. (88)

It behooves the reader to notice especially here the repetition of the word “something” because the something is the pattern, inchoate and vague but also somehow crystallizing along the edges of the narrative, accreting force by number, repetition and rhyme.

 …I saw this must lead straight back to the cat. Yes, there it was, it came creeping up, it came quite close, I could feel it. I could feel the buried, strangled cat, hanged between the sparrow and the bit of wood, all three motionless where we had left them and made significant by their very immobility. Oh, the persistent horror of it. The farther away you were the closer they came. The more insignificant and meaningless they were, the greater their power and oppressiveness. What a diabolical noose I had put around my neck. (112)

The repetition of hanged objects is the inscrutable horror that haunts (I love this passage for its Poe-ish overtones) Witold and ultimately drives him to pursue Lena with the intention of hanging her. Three repetitions are something; four are definitive; when Louis hangs himself, the repetition becomes compulsion, it becomes real in the motives and actions of the narrator.

 This made four. The sparrow, the bit of wood, the cat, and now Louis. What consistency, what logic… (155)

Not only is Witold mesmerized by the logic (of aesthetic form, the insidious insistence of rhyme) but he is equally driven to reconnect the hanging and the mouth patterns that started together in the first sparrow passage (“ It had been hanged. Its little head was bent and its mouth wide open.” (10)). Witold’s penultimate actions (finger in the mouth of the dead man and the priest) are at best obscurely motivated through the plot line (by the psychological mechanism of displacement) but are explicitly motivated by the aesthetic (structural) need to connect two image patterns.

 At the same time I felt a deep satisfaction that at last a link had been established between ‘mouth’ and ‘hanging’. It was I who had done it. At last. I felt as if I had fulfilled my mission. (160)

 As soon as Witold expresses the thought, he follows with a decision to extend the image pattern, the series of hangings.

 The sparrow. The bit of wood. The cat.Louis. And now I should have to hang Lena. (160)

This is the moment when the image pattern takes over the plot, a delicious and knowing moment, a metafictional sleight-of-hand that exposes the underpinning (or underwear) of all novels, which, yes, are just patterns of words on the page, not real people with real emotions and histories. Or as Roland Barthes, in his famous essay on Balzac, wrote, “…in narrative, however, the discourse, rather than the characters, determines the actions.”

At this point, it is important to acknowledge the complexity of the representation that is Cosmos, a book, a world, a universe; Gombrowicz has created a mad, glistening structure that spins, levitates, and oscillates (flickers). On one level, and in discussing all great works it is necessary to specify levels, he is having fun, punning, telling jokes, and writing parodies of other forms (detective novels, thrillers, horror novels and love stories) while at the same time orchestrating a riot of conventional techniques (word patterns, set pieces, memory rehearsal, rhetorical flourishes); he writes, yes, a formally knowing novel turned inside out. On another level, he is describing the phenomenology of cognition. On another level, he is describing the creation and deformation of the self in the inter-human, the zone of social interaction, self and other, the realm of social-psychology. And on yet another level he is talking about the creation of a work of art. In effect, Cosmos contains a heirarchy or system of thematic story-lines that function like subplots in a more conventional novel; their structures are parallel: the creation of a world, the creation of a self, and the creation of a novel are analogous activities. This is why the author can dance from one meaning field to another with such speed.

In his memoir A Kind of Testament Gombrowicz says two crucial things about Cosmos. First of all he talks about the contrary human desires to escape form and embrace form. On the one hand we all suffer the social “deformation” of others, the continual corruption of self by forms imposed from the outside. The gaze of the other, so to speak, degrades the form of the self (whatever that is) and renders us infantile and secretive. Leo, under the watchful eye of his bank manager and his wife, retreats into a set of tiny, rebellious rituals and masturbation.

On the other hand, like Witold in the novel, we are subject to what Gombrowicz calls the Formal Imperative, “our innate need to complete incomplete form.”

 …man, in his deepest essence, possesses something which I would call ‘the Formal Imperative’. Something which is, it seems to me, indispensable to any organic creation. For instance, take our innate need to complete incomplete Form; every Form that has been started requires a complement. When I say A, something compels me to say B, and so on. This need to develop and complete, because of a certain logic inherent in Form, plays an important part in my work. In Cosmos the story is made up of certain Forms which start off as embryos, insinuate themselves into the book, and gradually become increasingly distinct…like the idea of hanging… (KT69)

This antinomy, this paradox, is the essence of Gombrowicz’s thought. Everything he does flows from the fact that we humans are not one thing or another but an uneasy (rhythmic) oscillation between two contradictory desires – for form and against form. It also explains why it is impossible for him to write a more or less traditional, naturalistic novel and why he cleaves to irony with its peculiar strobe-like, flickering quality. In composing this novel called Cosmos, he escapes the novel.

Second, Gombrowicz writes: “Cosmos is a novel which creates itself as it is written.” (KT156-157) Which is another way of acknowledging that in a novel like Cosmosform creates the content, that is, the image pattern (hanging1, hanging2, hanging3) creates a demand for more hangings (hanging4 and the intended hanging5, Lena’s hanging). What are at first random, disconnected signs become connected in the Witold’s mind and then take over his mind, eventuating in action that is mostly inexplicable in psychological terms – metonymy becomes reality.

The Tree of Philosophy by Witold Gombrowicz


Conventional novels are written out of the assumptions of our ordinary lives: people are individual selves who more or less know who they are and can form thoughts and plans and motivate themselves to act to accomplish some desire. If 20th century philosophy has put these every day assumptions into doubt, if in philosophical terms reality is other than it seems, what sort of novel might eventuate? In Cosmos, Gombrowicz’s alter ego Witold juxtaposes the two sorts of reality, two sorts of logic, the aesthetic logic of form and the more mundane and (now we know) equally doubtful logic of motive and reason.

This made four. The sparrow, the bit of wood, the cat, and now Louis. What consistency, what logic…But it was a clumsy sort of logic, a rather too personal and private logic of my own…There was another possibility, this one on the lines of ordinary logic. He might have been the victim of blackmail, someone might have been persecuting him… (155-156)

For the every day human construction of experience, Gombrowicz substitutes the mysterious and inhuman energy of form (which is why he calls it his darkest novel). Structural (aesthetic) repetition, in the course of the novel, takes on the attributes of Fate for the ancients; for what else is the curse upon the House of Atreus than a form passed ineluctably from one generation to the next?

Witold discovers himself trapped in a form (a series of images), tangled in the perverse logic of repetition, and develops a horror of repetition. Cosmos, as I have said, is a horror novel. Upon discovering the dead man hanging, Witold thinks: “My horror–for it was horror–derived from the repetition, for the sparrow had been hanging just like this among the trees.” (157) In this sense, all beautiful texts, insofar as they practice this kind of elaborated structure of repetition, are uncanny, horrifying; rhyme is mechanical and inhuman, structure destroys reason.


Douglas Glover is an itinerant Canadian, author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in Canada and was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He edits the online magazine Numéro Cinq.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 1st, 2014.