from A Kind of Testament

Context N°20

by Witold Gombrowicz

All on my own, without any support, racked by doubts, I didn’t know what to do. What could I do? I was only sure of one thing: it was solely by cutting it that I could escape from this Gordian knot. This idea of total intransigence, which had occurred to me, had existed somewhere inside me ever since my childhood. It was even connected with a certain optimism, at least as far as literature is concerned. Because I—and I was sure of that, immature though I was—had a right to speak. I had the right to express myself, like everything that exists, like everything that is. You see, I had what everyone has: I knew what one might call the language of fact.

What could I do? To start with, I told myself, I must acknowledge this state of affairs. I must acknowledge reality and bring it to light.

If, as a man, as a Pole and an artist, I was doomed to imperfection, there was no point in my grinning and bearing it, in my pretending, to myself and to everybody else, that everything was getting better and better. To break, once and for all, with mystification, was a matter of honesty, dignity, lucidity and vitality.

Let us start with Poland. I had to break with Poland and turn against it. Like France for the French, Poland for the Poles is a treasure worthy of the greatest sacrifice. Well, it was absolutely necessary to state that Poland, that intermediary creature between the East and the West, was doomed, by its geographical position and by its historical development, to imperfection, to a minor role, and that Poland must be passed over because it could not guarantee any fully authentic value for the Poles. It is not right that a Pole should sacrifice all his individual development, all his humanity, to Poland. The Pole, formed by Poland, by the Polish environment and tradition, is necessarily a less sophisticated man than the westerner. One can understand how a Frenchman might dedicate himself to adoring France, an Englishman to adoring England. These countries have provided their natives with precious advantages. But to be a man is more significant than to be a Frenchman, and Europe is more significant than England and France. So, for men situated in minor, weaker countries, like Poland, the Argentine, Norway or Holland, and bound to them sentimentally, subjugated by them, formed by them, it was really a matter of life and death to break away, to keep one’s distance . . .

No, even ‘constructive’ criticism of one’s country’s faults—undertaken in a patriotic spirit, in order to improve it—was no longer sufficient. Such criticism was itself conditioned by the country. To break away! To keep one’s distance! The writer, the artist, or anyone who attaches importance to his spiritual development, must feel no more than a resident in Poland or the Argentine, and it is his duty to regard Poland or the Argentine as an obstacle, almost as an enemy. That is the only way to feel really free. And only those people for whom their country is an obstacle rather than an advantage will have a chance of becoming truly free spiritually, and, in the case of Europe, truly a European.

So, these were my views then, but I elaborated on them as time went by.

Well, I wanted to be like those young men one sees in the stations of small provincial towns, their packs in their hands. They are just about to leave, and when they see the train which is to take them away, they murmur: ‘Yes, I must leave my birthplace. It’s too small for me. Farewell! I may return, but not before the wide world has given birth to me again.’

‘After that I shall no longer be Polish! I shall be all on my own.’

‘On your own? But loneliness will deliver you up to your own misery!’

‘Give me a knife, then! I must perform a still more radical operation! I must amputate myself from myself!’

I suppose that Nietzsche might have formulated my dilemma in these terms. I proceeded to amputate. The following thought was the scalpel: accept, understand that you are not yourself, that no one is ever himself with anyone, in any situation, that to be a man is to be artificial.

Is that simple enough? Yes. There was only one difficulty. It was not sufficient to accept it and to understand it, I had to experience it.

History came to my assistance. In the pre-war days something odd was happening to people. I saw with amazement how, with the war, Europe, particularly central and eastern Europe, entered a demoniacal period of formal mobilization. The Nazis and the communists fashioned menacing, fanatical masks for themselves; the fabrication of faiths, enthusiasms and ideals resembled the fabrication of cannons and bombs. Blind obedience and blind faith had become essential, and not only in the barracks. People were artificially putting themselves into artificial states, and everything—even, and above all, reality—had to be sacrificed in order to obtain strength. What was all that? Glaring idiocies, cynical falsifications, the most obvious distortions of reality, a nightmarish atmosphere . . . Monstrous horror . . .

These pre-war years were possibly more damaging than the war itself. Suffocating under this pressure I leapt as energetically as I could towards a new understanding of man—this was the only hope. Where was I? I was in the darkest of nights, together with the whole of humanity. The old God was dying. The laws, the principles, the customs which had constituted the patrimony of humanity were suspended in space, despoiled of their authority. Man bereft of God, liberated and solitary, began to forge himself through other men . . . It was Form and nothing else which was at the basis of these convulsions. Modern man was characterized by a new attitude towards Form. How much more easily he created himself, created as he was by it!

I imagined the men of the future forming each other deliberately: a shy man will find people who make him bold; by skillfully manoeuvring others and himself, a roué will obtain a good dose of asceticism.

I added my private experience to this general view of humanity and I derived a measure of tranquility from it. I was not the only chameleon. Everybody was a chameleon. It was the new human condition, and one would have to face up to it.

I became ‘the poet of form.’

I amputated myself from myself.

I discovered man’s reality in this unreality to which he is condemned.

And Ferdydurke, instead of serving me, became a fantastic poem describing, as Schulz said, the tortures of man on a Procrustean bed, the bed of Form.

I may be oversimplifying, if only by presenting this mental process as something decreed in advance, previous to the composition of Ferdyduke.

To tell the truth the artist doesn’t think, if by ‘thinking’ we mean the elaboration of a chain of concepts. In him thought is born from contact with the matter which it forms, like something auxiliary, like the demands of matter itself, like the requirement of a form in the process of being born. Truth is less important to the artist than that his work should succeed, that it should come to life. My ‘thoughts’ were formed together with my work, they gnawed their way perversely and tenaciously into a world which gradually revealed itself.

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