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From Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz

From chapter eight, the longest in the novel, concerning a pivotal conversation between Witold, the narrator, and Leon Wojtys, the patriarch of the family in whose home he has stayed, and with whom he is now travelling in the mountains around Zakopane.

This meeting of ours was so unpleasant, sideways, without looking, as if sightless – more and more blossoms in the grass, blue and yellow, clusters of spruce, pines, the terrain was descending, and I had moved quite far, an incomprehensible matter of otherness and distance, in the silence of butterflies fluttering, a breeze blowing gently, earth and grass, forests turning into peaks, a bald patch under a tree, pince-nez – Leon.

He sat on the stump of a tree smoking a cigarette.

“What are you doing here?”

“Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,” he replied and smiled blissfully.

“What’s so amusing?”

“What? Nothing! Exactly that: nothing! Ha! that’s a language game, if you please, hm . . . I’m amused by ‘nothing,’ mark you, Your Reverence, my venerable companion and merry-maker and horse-drawn carriage, because ‘nothing’ is exactly what we do all our lives. A fellow stands, sits, talks, writes, and . . . nothing. A fellow buys, sells, marries, doesn’t marry and – nothing. A fellow sitzum on a stumpium and – nothing. Soda pop.”

He was drawling these words, with nonchanlance, condescendingly.

I said: “You talk as if you’ve never worked.”

“Never worked? But I have! Yes indeed! Definitely! At the bankie! The little bankie! From the dumb bankie-dear straight into the stomach! A whale. Hm. Thirty-two years! And what? Nothing!”

He pondered and blew on his hands.

“It’s run through my fingers!”

“What has?”

He replied nasally, monotonously:

“Years disintegrate into months, months into days, days into hours, minutes into seconds, seconds run past. You won’t catch them. Everything runs past. Flies away. Who am I? I am a certain number of seconds – that have run past. The result: nothing. Nothing.”

He flared up and exclaimed: “It’s thievery!” He took off his pince-nez and began to tremble, like a little old man, like one of those indignant little old men one sees at times standing on street corners, or in a trolley, or in front of a cinema, vociferating. Should I talk to him? Say something? But what? I was still lost, not knowing which way to go, to the right, to the left, so many threads, connections, insinuations, if I wanted to enumerate all of them from the very beginning I would be lost, cork, saucer, the trembling of a hand, the chimney, a cloud of objects and matters undeciphered, first one detail then another would link up, dovetail, but then other connections would immediately evolve, other connections – this is what I lived by as if I were not living, chaos, a pile of garbage, a slurry – I was putting my hand inside a sack of garbage, pulling out whatever turned up, looking to see if it would be suitable for the construction of . . . my little home . . . that was acquiring, poor thing, fantastic shapes . . . and so on without end . . . But what about this Leon? I’ve been wondering for some time why he seems to be circling in my vicinity, even seconding me, there was some similarity, take the fact that he was losing himself in seconds as I was in trifles, well, well, there were also other leads providing food for thought, those bread pellets during supper and other trifles, the ti-ri-ri, and again, more recently, I don’t know why, I fantasized that the disgusting “selfness” (“gratify yourself with yourself . . .”), creeping toward me from the Toleks’ and from the priest’s direction was also somehow making its way toward Leon. What harm would it do to hint at the sparrow and all the other wonders back home? Put it to him and see what I can see, I was, after all, like a soothsayer, looking into a crystal ball, into smoke.

One way of looking at the novel philosophically, I think, is to see Leon as a character living out, as purely as possible, a kind of chronological axis, while Witold is obsessed with a spatial axis. In this way they form the boundaries of the space-time continuum that is the ‘form’ of the novel, or perhaps they are the characters that come closest to approaching the form in which they and all the other characters must necessarilay live and move. Witold is only able to do this with a great deal of frustration and anxiety, which perhaps culminates in his perpetration of a grisley event that forms a link in a chain of events that he had hithertofore only been a witness. Leon, further along in life, is obviously having some difficulty coming to terms with the manner in which he has lived out his years, months, days, hours and seconds.

They are both on to each other, but that doesn’t mean that together they will be able to puzzle through the mysterious reality in which they are captured. Perhaps this is because they live along different axes, perhaps it is because as characters they are socially somewhat ‘opposed’ to one another, but whatever the reason, it is utterly bewildering and fascinating to see them end up by communicating through the repetition of a nonsensical word invented by Leon to explain his manner of occupying time. What the hell does it mean? If you read on, you ask this question more and more. Perhaps, as Leon says, it all comes to nothing. Perhaps, as Witold intimates several times in the later chapters, it all goes towards the construction of ‘his little home,’ whatever and wherever that may be. Gombrowicz doesn’t give us much in the way of clues, and even at the end of the novel the narrator has been delivered back to the home he inhabited before the beginning of the story.

If all this sounds a little abstract . . . well, at times it is, but not all the time, and much of the time it really is exhilerating. There are details repeated over and over again, some of the best portraits of mundane reality outside of Beckett. But they’re better than Beckett, in my opinion, or Gombrowicz has lifted Beckett-style observations to a more mysterious and even contemplative level.

On top of all this, it must be added that Gombrowicz seems to be onto something with the Church, and specifically the one holy, catholic and apostolic. It isn’t direct, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the most important thing in the novel, but the character of the priest and the cossack he wears is important, and the freakish, violent absolution (okay, if not absolution, what is it?) that he tries to steal towards the end must surely signify something. Okay, I’m giving the game away, but the scene is begging to be quoted:

We sometimes see this in the movies, in a comedy, a hunter moving slowly with his weapon ready to fire, and on his heels treads a terrible beast, a huge bear, a gigantic gorilla. It was the priest. He walked right behind me, a little to one side, he seemed to trail at the very end, not knowing why or what for, perhaps he was afraid to stay by himself in the house – at first I didn’t notice him, he came straggling up to me – with those peasant fingers of his, fumbling. With his cassock. Heaven and hell. Sin. The Holy Catholic Church, Our Mother. The chill of the confessional. Sin. In saecula saeculorum. Church. The chill of the confessional. Church and Pope. Sin. Damnation. Cassock. Heaven and hell. Ite missa est. Sin. Virtue. Sin. The chill of the confessional. Sequentia sancti . . . Church. Hell. Cassock. Sin . . . The chill of the confessional.

I pushed him hard and he reeled.

The moment I pushed him I became scared – what am I doing?! A quirk, a prank! He’ll raise Cain!

But no. My hand encountered such a miserable passivity that I calmed down right away. he stopped but did not look at me. We stood. I saw his face clearly. And his mouth. I raised my hand, I wanted to stick my finger into his mouth. But his teeth were clenched. I raised his chin with my left hand, opened his mouth, stuck my finger in.

I pulled out my finger and was wiping it on my handkerchief.

Now I had to walk faster to catch up with the procession. Sticking my finger into the priest’s mouth did me good, although it’s one thing (I thought) to stick a finger into a corpse and another to do it to someone living, it was like introducing my phantoms into the real world. I felt invigorated. I realized that with all this happening I had forgotten for the moment about the sparrow, etc., but now I was again thinking that about fifteen miles back, the sparrow was there – and the stick was there – and the cat. And also Katasia.

I should note that several times in the course of the novel, Witold says “I’m sick,” and if only to judge from his actions, the reader has no real reason to doubt him. But if he is an ‘unreliable narrator’, he is at least reliably forthright about his unreliability in the manner of madmen who at least know they are mad. Which is why I say that in spite of the insanity, and in spite of the asininity so carefully compiled, he is on to something. Or up to something. Something great.

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