Obstructive Fictions #2: Cosmos

Witold Gombrowicz's theory of relativity.

In the paranoiac gospel of Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos (1967), every action, every ant, every thought, every smudge, every star is inextricably interrelated. Secret and profound communications exist between the animate and the inanimate alike. In the fictions of another writer, this correspondence might induce feelings of sublimity, or comprise a meditation on the complexities of techno-industrial society. But for Gombrowicz, association is something like original sin. Enmeshed in meaninglessness, his characters are compelled toward perverse entanglements of their own devising. These linkages cannot stabilize existence — nothing can — though they do have the power to energize life, to propel it forward. Cosmos is suffused with these momentums, the private, nervous, erotic dramas that approximate life’s meaning.

The novel’s narrator, Witold, having had some unexplained break with his family in Warsaw, looks for peace and quiet in a resort town in the Carpathian Mountains. Fuks, his “carroty” associate, has abandoned his job and tyrannical boss. While hiking deeper into the country together, they find a dead sparrow hung from a tree by a string. This macabre discovery colors their ensuing stay at a provincial inn. Enigmatic symbols continually manifest — a maid’s curved lip, an arrow marked on the wall, a pointing stick — though whether they possess any significance, or are merely the products of neurotic invention, remains unclear. A domestic stand off seems to loom as Witold and Fuks implicate themselves in the lives of the inn-keepers.

These are the Wojtys — the eccentric paterfamilias, Leon; his wife, Roly-Poly; their daughter, Lena, whom Witold desires; her husband, Ludwig; the maid, Katasia — who seem to arrive straight from the pages of a Russian novel. They are Chekhovian creatures, accumulations of eccentricity, indolence, sexual suggestiveness, and hidden pain. The success of Witold’s paranoid framing makes the lives of these otherwise average men and women seem to vibrate with feral meaning. The reader looks with suspicion upon the bourgeoise obviousness of their lives: their marriages, their foods, their possessions. Is it perhaps too obvious? What are they hiding? We search for connections no less eagerly than Witold and Fuks, snooping through lives and spontaneous details in a state of eagerness and shame.

The novel may remind readers of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur (1955) or Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964) in its claustrophobia, plotlessness, obsessive cataloguing of minutiae, and air of inscrutable menace. It is a work of late modernism that nonetheless attempts to demonstrate the exhaustion of modernist technique. The consciousness on display constantly runs up against the limits of its own articulation, or refutes the meanings ascribed to its feverish speculations. Witold’s tools of evasion — absurdities, deflations, manic states, sudden reversals — position consciousness as a solvent. His mind does not finally order reality, but rather promotes its dissolution.

While at the inn, the mounting significations conspire to create an atmosphere of dread. After climbing a tree in the hopes of catching Lena and Ludwig in the act, a sexually frustrated Witold ends up strangling and hanging the family cat. The senselessness of the act seems in some sense the point, a way of contributing to the trembling web of event and apprehension. The group then takes a Chaucerian outing into the mountains where Leon commemorates his lone infidelity with a maid, twenty-four years prior, with a spirited bout of “bemberging,” a nonsense word that can mean masturbation, defecation, the devouring of food, or projectile vomiting. A final, unforeseen hanging closes off the terminal journey, mirroring the dead sparrow that began it.

Despite its negation and malaise, the novel is very funny. The poet Charles Simic has aptly compared Gombrowicz to Flann O’Brien. Both writers possess a comic impulse that is often occluded by philosophical compulsions. Their deepest insights into human experience present as jokes, metaphysical pratfalls, and the situational comedies offered up by purgatorial spaces. Witold describes the life he and the Wojtyes are living as “clowning in the void,” which also put me in mind of Beckett’s eternal jesters, Vladimir and Estragon. (Witold and Fuks, Vladimir and Estragon, W follows V in the alphabet, just as F follows E — is this somehow relevant, or have I been sucked into the web of association?) Gombrowicz is the master of comic frustration, of expectations set up but not met. The novel’s climax fizzles, ending not in resolution but rather confusion and “bemberging.” Its conspiratorial fragments scatter and blow away. Laughter floats out of the darkness.

In many great fictions, clowns are indistinguishable from detectives, and vice versa. Such is the case in Cosmos, where a noirish darkness blackens the proceedings, even at their most ludicrous. Witold refers to himself and Fuks as “two detectives,” and their investigation, for all its foolishness, nonetheless delineates a seemingly earnest effort to wrest clues from resistant witnesses and scenes. “I gladly call this work a novel about a reality that is creating itself,” Gombrowicz himself said. “And because a detective novel is precisely this — an attempt at organizing chaos — Cosmos has a little of the form of a detective romance.” Their ineptitude notwithstanding, the neurotic appraisals of Witold and Fuks are absorbing, and at times even convincing. They seem to grow out of some unnamed, devouring center. (Ennui? Dissatisfaction? Horniness? Despair?) The men are forever comparing mental notes and second-guessing one another’s motivations while struggling to keep tabs on the ballooning evidence of some malignant force.

There is a thickness to the prose (translated by Danuta Borchardt) reminiscent of Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality (1932), Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Old Rendering Plant (1973), or John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig (1968). It is slithering, fetid, sticky. Nouns amass into descriptive pile ups : “Sweat, Fuks is walking, I’m behind him, pant legs, heels, sand, we’re plodding on, plodding on, ruts, clods of dirt, glassy pebbles flashing, the glare, the heat humming, quivering, everything is black in the sunlight, cottages fences, fields, woods, the road, this march, from where, what for…” It is as if the totality of matter must be marshalled as obscure evidence for some unnamable crime. Sentences crowd one another, sweating out their anxieties as we read them. The claustrophobia of infinite relation constantly threatens to overwhelm:

Agglomeration, whirl and welter…too much, too much, too much, crowding, movement, heaping, crashing, pushing, a general hurly-burly, huge mastodons filling space that, in the blinking of an eye, would break up into thousands of details, combinations, masses of rock, brawls, in a clumsy chaos, and suddenly all those details would again collect into an overpowering shape! Just like the other time, in the bushes, that time in front of the wall, in relation to the ceiling, like in front of the pile of rubble with the whiffletree, like in Katasia’s little room, like in relation to the walls, cupboards, shelves, curtains, where forms also took shape — but while those were trifles, this was a roaring storm of matter.

The frequency and variety of these “roaring storms” is remarkable. Cosmos is surely one of the great novels of thingness in world literature, a near-constant barrage of object and substance. Material reality is described as “an overwhelming abundance of connections, associations”; “a myriad of undifferentiated facts”; “fantastic volatility”; “swarming with signs”; “an excess of reality”; “one gear engaging another”; “the labyrinth”; “billions of trifles”; “cascade, vortex, swarm, cloud”; “the seething cauldron of a waterfall”; “a luxury of disorder”; “a splendor of chaos.” This is by no means a complete list. Witold’s inner chaos is reflected in these constantly shifting configurations. He searches fruitlessly for some form of congruity, however hellish.

But just as quickly, he will flatten what he’s accumulated, abandon, evacuate, give up or give in: “Some kind of depletion was circling me, a weakening of everything. I didn’t feel a thing.” Or elsewhere: “All this made no sense anymore, it slowly fell apart like a parcel after the string is cut, objects grew indifferent.” Or simply: “I got bored.” Witold is forever approaching significance, only to lose heart at the final moment. His preoccupation with meaning is eclipsed only by his fear and revulsion of its realization. This terror has something to do with language. Can words, writing, conversation carry a meaning commensurate with the great incomprehensibility we harbor? This clunky tool, this purveyor of convention, banality, and cliché? He isn’t certain. Better to castigate, blaspheme, attack, mock, crack wise, and invent whole cloth. Better to chase mystery with no hope of transcendence. Better to dramatize the death of a sparrow. Best of all — to “bemberg.”