Witold Gombrowicz and the Masks of Finitude

Jeff Love, Clemson University

Modernism is a revolt against the hegemonic impulses of Romanticism and, as such, it is also an admission of the futility of those impulses. If the Romantics sought to recover the integrity of the whole, to smooth over the cracks in human cognition revealed by the increasingly fragile rationalism of the late Enlightenment, the various movements comprising Modernism all seem to admit or proclaim the defeat of Romanticism--they stress instead the dreadful impossibility which attends Romantic longing for an unmediated intuitive glimpse of the whole, a form of noetic communion, a visio dei. Even Symbolism, the decadent heir to high Romantic striving, could not seriously maintain its claims without resorting to faded mysticism or eccentric Nietzscheanism.

The most powerful thrust of modernism is its stark emphasis on human finitude. This emphasis, a rejection of the tyrannical spirit latent in both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, serves as the cornerstone of Witold Gombrowicz's polemic with the Romantic striving for the whole. For Gombrowicz, the "in between" character of human being, its daimonic nature (in the Greek and Goethean sense), is the source, the origin we can only know through masks that signal its existence while concealing its essence. These masks are all forms that seek to deny their fragility, the very tension that allows them to be donned and removed with such ease. This tension in turn reflects conflicting desires--at once to establish a final form and to undermine it, to build like a god and to transgress like a man, to be a Romantic and a Modern. Hence, the struggle between Romantic striving and modernist counterstriving becomes an emblem in Gombrowicz's works for an "underlying" metaphysical position that can never truly be one.

In my paper, I examine this emblematic struggle in Ferdydurke (1938), Gombrowicz's first novel. Specifically, I show how, from the very first lines of the novel, the so-called parody emerges by establishing and reiterating variants of this struggle in a profusion of forms, what teasingly seems to be a repetition of sorts. Gombrowicz's attitude toward Romantic striving thus becomes the key to grasping his parody, one that is not obviously nihilistic; rather, it is a continuous starting from the beginning. In Gombrowicz's own words: "The essence of man resides in his development, and this development is accomplished by a suicide continually begun anew."