Mapping the “West” in Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (1953–1966)

This paper investigates the concept of the “West” according to Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969). The West became mythologized in post-war Polish consciousness at least in two ways: as a Utopian mine of material goods and/or a site of democracy. Gombrowicz examines this curious reification of the “West” in aesthetic categories, rather than geographical or political ones. He polemicizes with Polish intellectuals and artists who view themselves as members of a “marginal” nation who cannot measure up to the “West,” perceived as the embodiment and source of high culture. In his Diary, Gombrowicz discredits the idea of such a dominant and aesthetically colonizing “West” and ultimately proves the superior position of those in the margins. Such strategy is in accord with Gombrowicz’s theory of Form, which permeates all of his oeuvre; in very general terms, he claims that anything amorphous and “young” shows greater promise and value than that which is defined and stable. Therefore, for Gombrowicz, artists and intellectuals in Eastern Europe need not attempt to emulate European trends, but should rather embrace their distance from centers of high culture as a liberating experience.

The aim of this paper is to offer a critique of Gombrowicz’s idea of the “West” as a conceptual prop for the purpose of initiating a debate on the national and cultural identity of Poles in the post-Stalinist period. He is not interested in the constructedness of the concept of the “West” per se, but uses it as a reflecting surface for generating a discussion on what it means to be an East European nation creating its own literature and culture while coming to terms with the legacy of a shared West European heritage.