29 January 2012


War and PeaceLife and Fate.  It takes a certain faith to give your novel a name echoing Tolstoy's hallowed cadences, but Vasily Grossman knew the importance of his subject.  His book is set in the Soviet Union during the Battle of Stalingrad, the pivotal battle of the war which took over the name first used for Napoleon's incursion: the Great Patriotic War.  In grandeur of conception and performance, this novel certainly belongs in the same company as War and Peace and the works of Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and if it had ever made it to a publisher's editor, it might have ended up even richer than it is.  Instead, when Grossman submitted the manuscript for publication in 1961, during the "Thaw" which followed the death of Stalin, it was seized by the KGB and all available copies and typewriter ribbons were confiscated.  Its laudatory references to Krushchev's important role at Stalingrad were not enough to rescue it.  Miraculously, a microfilmed copy was smuggled to the West, and was published here in 1985--just to show us what 1984 could have been like.

Life and Fate differs from War and Peace in many ways, but perhaps the most obvious is in the difference between their wars.  Natasha, Pierre, and Andrei are trying to live their lives in and around a war which unites them, their families, and their neighbors into one great national repudiation of the French invaders.  Grossman's characters are united against their invaders too, but while they think they face one enemy, they actually face Hitler and Stalin both.  The greatness of his book lies partly in his handling of these two different threats at once, and in the subtlety with which he delineates a broad range of accommodations to the fearsome ubiquity of the State, from opportunism, to the repression of memory, to faith silenced and deferred, to the illusion of protection by the strength of one's ideological belief or military accomplishments or lack of personal importance.

Like Chekhov, Grossman is a moralist by demonstration.  The episodes in Life and Fate are brilliant on the mechanisms of self-delusion, on the thousands of moments in which the fear of being mistaken for a traitor is felt without being noticed, moments in which freedom of thought is pre-empted by the slavery of belief.  He has the same warm understanding of human frailty and human courage as Tolstoy, which makes his condemnation of the system his people keep on trying to be human in even more powerful.  Fitzgerald once wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  For the ordinary Soviet citizen of conscience in 1940, as for the children of beloved but frightening parents, such opportunities for Doublethink were an ordinary condition of life.

The gulags were crammed full of believers, people innocent of the charges they were imprisoned for.  Grossman shows how innocent prisoners were convinced their fellow political prisoners had to be guilty, at least in thought, of betraying the Party and the people, and he also shows that those not in prison struggled to persuade themselves, sometimes successfully, that their imprisoned but beloved relatives, friends, teachers, must have been guilty as charged.  One of the zeks, a young student, bore the unique distinction of having actually done something worth being imprisoned for: he had written and posted leaflets critical of the government.  Even when his cellmates condemned him as an enemy of the Revolution, they gave him a strange sort of respect.  Some prisoners even came to believe that their individual innocence was irrelevant, and that their imprisonment or execution was necessary to the well-being of the cause they loved and believed in, as Arthur Koestler depicts so convincingly in Darkness at Noon.

In Life and Fate, Katsenelenbogen, a former interrogator--"a poet, the laureate of the State security organs"--who is now himself undergoing interrogation in the Lubyanka, spells out this creed to his cellmate Krymov, a commissar arrested upon returning from Stalingrad: "The concept of personal innocence is a hangover from the Middle Ages.  Pure superstition!  Tolstoy declared that no one in the world is guilty.  We Chekists have put forward a more advanced thesis: 'No one in the world is innocent.'  Everyone is subject to our jurisdiction.  If a warrant has been issued for your arrest, you are guilty--and a warrant can be issued for everyone.  Yes, everyone has the right to a warrant.  Even if he has spent his whole life issuing warrants for others.  The Moor has ta'en his pay and may depart."  This devil, in jail or out, is even more horrifying for being a collector of rare books, a man of culture and irony.

Later on, the devil Katsenelenbogen speaks "not like a poet, not like a philosopher, but like a prophet.
      If one were to develop the system of camps boldly and systematically, eliminating all hindrances and shortcomings, the boundaries would finally be erased.  The camp would merge with the world outside.  And this fusion would signal the maturity and triumph of great principles.  For all its inadequacies, the system of camps had one decisive point in its favor: only there was the principle of personal freedom subordinated, clearly and absolutely, to the higher principle of reason.  This principle would raise the camp to such a degree of perfection that finally it would be able to do away with itself and merge with the life of the surrounding towns and villages...
      'When we can place an equals sign between life on either side of the wire, repression will become unnecessary and we shall cease to issue arrest warrants.  Prisons and solitary-confinement blocks will be razed to the ground.  Any anomalies will be handled by the Culture and Education Section...
      'The abolition of the camps will be a triumph of humanitarianism, but this will in no way mean the resurgence of the chaotic, primeval, cave-man principle of personal freedom.  On the contrary, that will have become completely redundant.' "  The English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived his idea of the Panopticon, a prison whose inmates would be under the constant threat of secret surveillance, while visiting his brother in Russia in the late 1780's.  Apparently this was not a mere coincidence of geography. And, as we remember, in the end Winston Smith truly loved Big Brother.

It's difficult to believe that Grossman really imagined Life and Fate acceptable for publication.  His description of the USSR during the war makes it seem obvious that Stalin's death would not change the new Soviet Union in any structural way.  The whole cadre of Old Bolshevik revolutionaries (the 'Old Believers' of Leninism) had been exterminated over the years through the purges of 1937, and was replaced with a new cadre of luxury-loving dictators, believers in the State rather than the people.  For Grossman, "the thousand year history of Russian slavery," which the Revolution was to have ended, was instead reaffirmed and exploited by the State.

Like most Russians, Grossman went through the war as a believer.  His 1941 novel The People Immortal (to my cursory glance) has all the melodramatic excesses of Socialist Realist propaganda, with a heroic cast full of exaggerated nobility, except for those craven opportunists who collaborate with the Nazi invaders.  His frontline reports, which vividly show Soviet soldiers as individuals rather than types, are nevertheless innocent of doubt about the State.  Indeed, a precursor to Life and Fate was published under the title In a Just Cause.  And then--everything changed.  Vasily Grossman--keeping faith with the Soviet people--lost his faith in the State Stalin had saved from Hitler; he developed instead into a great writer, never to be published again in his lifetime.  His novel Forever Flowing (also translated as Everything Flows), which he never even submitted for publication, is an appalling portrayal of the post-war USSR of the gulags as well as an examination of the specifically Leninist roots of Stalinism.  And Life and Fate demonstrates the tragic effects of the victory at Stalingrad.  Why tragic?  Because the popular strength reawakened by the German invasion and magnified by the successful defense of Stalingrad was co-opted by the State.  "Freedom engendered the Russian victory.  Freedom was the apparent aim of the war.  But the sly fingers of History changed this: freedom became simply a way of waging the war, a means to an end."

The prestige of Stalingrad gave Stalin the impetus for a new consolidation of State power.  As Grossman puts it in one of his Tolstoyan expository chapters:  "The war accelerated a previously unconscious process, allowing the birth of an overtly national consciousness.  The word 'Russian' once again had meaning... During the retreat, the connotations of this word were mostly negative:... Russian backwardness, Russian confusion, Russian fatalism... But a national self-consciousness had been born; it was waiting only for a military victory.
     "National consciousness is a powerful and splendid force at a time of disaster.  It is splendid not because it is nationalist, but because it is human.  It is a manifestation of human dignity, human love of freedom, human faith in what is good."  This is the nationalism of Russia against Napoleon, the nationalism Tolstoy lays out so movingly in War and Peace.  But Grossman's is a different and darker era, and in the end even the heroes of Stalingrad are not safe from the State's appetite and paranoia.

Grossman continues:  "But this [national] consciousness can develop in a variety of ways.
     No one can deny that the head of a personnel department protecting his Institute from 'cosmopolitans' and 'bourgeois nationalists' is expressing his national consciousness in a different manner to a Red Army soldier defending Stalingrad...
     This awakening of national consciousness can be related to the tasks facing the State during the war and the years after the war: the struggle for national sovereignty and the affirmation of what is truly Russian, truly Soviet, in every area of life... the complete change in the ruling cadres marked the triumph of a social order defined by Stalin as 'Socialism in One Country.'
     The birthmarks of Russian social democracy were finally erased.
     And this process finally became manifest at a time when Stalingrad was the only beacon of freedom in the kingdom of darkness.
    A people's war reached its greatest pathos at the time of the defence of Stalingrad; the logic of events was such that Stalin chose this moment to proclaim openly his ideology of State nationalism."

The terms 'cosmopolitans' and 'bourgeois nationalists' in this passage are code-words for 'Jews.'  I had always wrongly thought 'rootless cosmopolitan' a Nazi epithet, but it was invented by Stalin's theologians.  Grossman's mother was one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews shot by the Einsatzgruppen in the territory of the Soviet Union, and his "Report on Treblinka"-- one of the earliest and most graphic journalistic reports on how the death camps actually functioned--was important to the prosecution's case at the Nuremberg Trials.  With Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman compiled what has come to be known as The Black Book [of Soviet Jewry], made up of eyewitness descriptions of the Nazi genocide, from which a selection was published in the U.S. in 1946.  Stalin's refusal to permit its publication in the USSR, and his suppression of the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler's massacre victims and of Ukrainian collaboration in the crime preceded a steadily broadening official effort to purge Jews from positions of importance in the USSR.  An important subplot of Life and Fate deals with this aspect of the era.

In 1953, the USSR was shaken by news of the so-called 'Doctors' Plot,' after several prominent Jewish physicians were tried and executed, confessing that they had plotted the assassination of Soviet leaders.  During that all-too-brief "Thaw" of the mid-1950's, the Soviet leadership declared the case against the doctors to be a fabrication, and acknowledged that their confessions had been extracted under torture.  It is widely if not universally understood that Stalin meant the doctors' trial to be followed by a purge of Jews from the Party and their forced resettlement in camps, on the same pattern as his treatment of 'class enemies' such as the kulaks, and indigenous minorities like the Cossacks, Chechens, Kalmyks, and Tatars.  Perhaps it's not completely bizarre that this kind of Russian chauvinism should have been promoted by Stalin, who imprisoned and probably executed Osip Mandelstam (the death sentence, as Grossman tells us, was called "ten years' imprisonment without the right of correspondence") for calling him a 'Georgian mountaineer.'  Only Stalin's death, it seems, averted a second Jewish Holocaust.   Grossman once said, in effect, that he had thought he was Russian until the State told him he was merely Jewish.  Since the Russian State refused to think of him as Russian, how could he go on believing in the Russian State?  He wrote his two great forbidden books after Stalin's death and the ideological revisions and revelations which followed.

As the Russian emigrĂ© poet Joseph Brodsky once suggested, living under a repressive regime adds a special refinement to the development of a writer, a formulation Grossman demonstrates better than most.  Let me end with this, from Forever Flowing: "Freedom is not, as Engels thought, 'the recognition of necessity.'  Freedom is the opposite of necessity.  Freedom is necessity overcome.  Progress is, in essence, the progress of human freedom."  There is Vasily Grossman's profession of faith in a nutshell.  And yet: Isn't it pretty to think so.

10 January 2012


It's hard to picture Nick and Nora Charles--or at least William Powell and Myrna Loy--without a martini shaker ready at hand.  Isabel Bolton's Do I Wake or Sleep reminds us that in that New York of the 1939 World's Fair and the cocktail party, drinking of such proportions was not just a comic exaggeration.  In this passage, Millicent Munroe, having downed three fast Martinis (sic), is starting on her fourth (remember, these are essentially glasses of gin, with the merest sublime ghost of Vermouth wafted over them):

"This..should be her last--and she would sip it very slowly, very slowly indeed; for certainly the rarest, the most multiple perceptions dawned upon one--all the minute subtle behavior and gymnastic of the heart set so actively in motion by these beneficent beverages, duplicating, extending your speculative faculties, your thoughts flowing one into the other and each flashing such penetrating light on the one that followed it, and being so observant and watching everybody with so much attention--chimes ringing, lights flashing, vistas extending, widening, opening up, and associations linking this with that--accumulating what a wealth of remarkable ideas, bringing you what an excess of initiation--insight."

Absinthe, yes; the nectar of the gods, maybe; but a martini?!

07 January 2012


I found myself compelled to read Witold Gombrowicz's novel Cosmos twice, once in its first English translation by Eric Mosbacher, and the next day, hoping for enlightenment, in Danuta Borchardt's newer one.  Beautifully written, this sardonic little gem both fascinated and maddened me--it seduced me onward while keeping just below the verge of my understanding, and has been lodged under my skin for a couple of months now.  At some point I recognized that the book was teasing me in much the same way that the world seems to tease its narrator.  "Something was trying to break through towards meaning, as in charades, when letters begin to make their way toward forming a word.  What word?  Indeed it seemed that everything wanted to act in the name of an idea... What idea?"  Last week, I learned that Gombrowicz had once said he was bored with questions about what his first novel Ferdydurke meant. "Come, come," he wrote, "be more sensuous, less cerebral, start dancing with the book instead of asking for meanings."  Here I am, trying to dance with Cosmos.  I'm afraid it may be a long dance.

At one level, Cosmos is a canto in the long lament of our cerebral exile from the sensuous world:  "How can we avoid telling a story ex post facto?  Can nothing ever be described as it really was, reconstituted in its anonymous actuality?  Will no one ever be able to reproduce the incoherence of the living moment at its moment of birth?  Born as we are out of chaos, why can we never establish contact with it?  No sooner do we look at it than order, pattern, shape is born under our eyes."

Mr. Witold, a student, has fled his family in Warsaw, who are outraged for some reason we may suspect but never quite learn.  He wanders aimlessly through the countryside with an acquaintance named Fuchs, calling it a vacation.  In a thicket they come upon the corpse of a sparrow which has been hanged by the neck from a branch--"Its little head was bent and its mouth wide open."  (That's the first 'mouth' we shall encounter).  A nearby house offers room and board: overheated and weary, the two of them knock to inquire.  The door is opened by Katasia, the housekeeper, who has a "deformity...her mouth seemed to be excessively prolonged to one side, though only to an infinitesimal extent, perhaps about a millimetre, but when she spoke this imparted a darting or gliding, almost reptilian, motion to her upper lip.  There was a repellent coldness... about those lateral movements of her mouth, but in spite of that the woman warmed and excited me, for there was a kind of obscure transition leading straight to her bed, to gliding, creeping sin."  Katasia, of course, is quite innocent of sin: her voice is "that of the ordinary, stoutish, middle-aged, domestic servant that she was."

Witold lives in a perverse world.  His eye is captured by eccentric details to which he imports the significance of fetishes; those erotic signifiers then infect other visual details with imaginary corruption.  The room to which he and Fuchs are shown holds a tableau: the family's married daughter Lena is napping on one of the unsheeted beds, and "one of her legs was lying on the metal springs, as the mattress had slipped a bit... the combination of leg and metal springs struck me..."  That evening, while the two travelers are seated at dinner with the family, "Katasia came in again and planted on the table next to Lena an ashtray covered with a criss-cross wire mesh which acted as a reminder, a pale reminder, of that other mesh (that of the springs of the bed) on which Lena had been lying when I went into the bedroom and saw her foot and a short length of her calf, etc., etc.  Katasia's gliding lip moved quite close to Lena's mouth.
     "I was hooked.  I had fled from Warsaw to get away from things, and here I was, starting all over again, getting mixed up in things here."  What does he mean by getting mixed up in things?  Perhaps this.  When greeted by Katasia, he was excited by her mouth, but the image of Lena's leg did not consciously excite him.  In this passage, the excitement which he was able to feel about Katasia entrains the potentially erotic image of Lena lying on a bed: not directly--etc., etc.--but only through contiguity.  That is, the ashtray's mesh is analogous to the bed's wire mesh, which by having been next to Lena's leg serves as a fetish, a sort of 'capacitor' for the sensuous charge Lena's image carries.  And then Katasia's mouth, again by its contiguity to Lena's, evades his guard and leads him to think about Lena and her mouth directly: and then, he's hooked.  Why can't he tolerate his interest in Lena to begin with?  Because he doesn't want to be hooked?  Because, unlike Katasia, she hasn't really acknowledged him?  Perhaps.  At this point we may remember that perversion is both a disguise and a substitute for love, a defensive way of locating desire within the self.  "For a brief moment I was hooked.  But Katasia went away again... Lena kept her mouth either closed or half open, she was very timid and reserved."  Although Witold is conscious only of anxiety about being hooked, he also yearns for Lena's recognition--especially as a representative of the outer world (beyond the painfully closed circle of his mental image of it).  But she doesn't notice.  "And that was all."

No, not quite all.  Late that night Witold wakes up, finds Fuchs gone from their room, and wanders through the house looking for him: "Here I was in the middle of the night in the corridor of a strange house, wearing only shirt and trousers.  This suggested sensuality, a creeping and gliding like that of Katasia's lip, perhaps creeping towards her room.  Where was her room?  Was she asleep?  Asking myself this question promptly turned me into a sensualist... and that gliding, darting, reptilian, lip disfigurement, reinforced to some extent by my setback in Warsaw, where my family had coldly and disagreeably rejected me, impelled me coldly in that sleeping house towards her indecency... Where was her room?"  Brilliantly, Gombrowicz conveys several layers of desire and denial in a few sentences.  Witold's urge, first manifested as a disavowed impulse to spy on Katasia, ricochets from association to association into awareness, and then blossoms into an intention, complete with rationale.  His family's coldness lets him see himself as compelled rather than choosing--the usual alibi for perverse acts.  Observe, too, how Witold and his image of Katasia demonstrate a kind of symmetry: his cold (and creepy) creeping towards her room is echoed by the reptilian creeping of her indecent lip.  Witold evokes the same queasy transgressive fascination as Nabokov's Humbert Humbert.  There's one important difference, though: Humbert knows he's after Lolita, while Witold only appears to know who and what he's after.

 Creeping onward in search of Katasia's room, he comes to a window and peers into the garden: "I was quickly exhausted by the profusion of things, such as the chimney, a pipe, the bends in the gutter, or a young tree, and the moulding on the wall, as well as more difficult because more complicated things such as the bending and disappearance of the path or the rhythm of the shadows.  But in spite of myself I started working out shapes and relationships, I felt tired, impatient, and irritated, until I realized that what attracted, or perhaps captivated me about these things was one thing's being behind another; the pipe was behind the chimney, for instance, and the wall behind the angle formed by the kitchen... just as Katasia's mouth had been behind Lena's when she put the ashtray with the mesh lid on the table and bent over her and put that darting, gliding lip near hers... Their mouths together? I said to myself, and... in retrospect and imagination the two women's mouths seemed to be in closer relationship now than they had at dinner... In reality there was no link whatever between those two mouths, I had merely seen one in relation to the other, it had been an accident of distance, angle, and position, and there was no more to it than that.  But the fact remained that I, considering that Katasia's mouth must certainly be somewhere in the neighborhood of the kitchen (where she slept), kept asking myself where, in which direction and at what distance from that spot Lena's little mouth might be; and the cold sensuality that drove me down the corridor towards Katasia was deflected by Lena's accidental intrusion."  I have abridged this passage considerably.  It begins with Witold's trying to trace the constellations in the night sky--to connect the dots into a recognizable picture.  That picture--that is to say, his true aim--remains occult, even to himself.  To him, its form seems to change, as when Katasia is accidentally replaced by Lena; but in fact, as this passage declares, that aim was hidden behind substitutes.  Lena, his covert interest, was hidden behind Katasia; voyeurism was hidden behind a sort of polymorphous visual fetishism; is there some other urge hidden behind voyeurism?  

Witold is an enigma, but not the only one.  Lena's mother has a habit of pounding a hammer on a handy tree stump from time to time, and Lena hammers back on walls in response, supposedly in order to calm her.  And compared to Lena's father Leo, Witold is a rank amateur of perversion.  Leo is a genuine voluptuary, one who takes secret erotic pleasure from rolling and arranging pills of bread, or shaking salt over a buttered radish, all while dining en famille.  As for the other characters, someone among them must have hanged the sparrow?  Witold and Fuchs have been looking for clues.  In a discolored region of the dining-room ceiling, among "a lot of dots that I could not explain," Witold seems to trace the outline of an arrow; later, Fuchs seems to make out another arrow on the ceiling of their bedroom.  Has Witold imagined the first arrow?  Is his paradigm contagious, has it infected Fuchs?  Taking great pains to seem casual and unconsidered, they follow its apparent direction to the same garden wall Witold had been looking towards the night before.  "It was a hard task... There was an oppressive profusion of possible links and clues. How many sentences can be composed with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet?  How many meanings could be deduced from these hundreds of weeds, clumps of earth, and other details?"  Finally they find a tiny bit of wood hanging by a noose from the garden wall.  Apparently, the events in the novel are not entirely innocent or imaginary--something may actually be happening.  But what, and by whom, and to what purpose? 

Cosmos is a considerably more ambitious novel than Lolita.  It's not just about one man's perverse exploitation of the world as he finds it, but about how perversity serves him as the only tolerable expression of a disavowed wish to be welcomed by the world, which is experienced as at best inhospitable, and more likely hostile.  How does such a wish go about trying to evoke a response in the face of such barriers, and what nature of response could it tolerate?  It's also about the ways in which other unique perverse sensibilities intersect and entrain and co-opt one another in a great cosmic minuet, without ever quite connecting.  Witold's sensibility is doubly 'virtual:' unlike Lena's father Leo, he is not stably perverse, but prone to tip over into paranoia.  His fetishism invests accidental things with erotic charge by contiguity and analogy; his paranoia (like everyone's) interprets accident as meaningful persecution.  While perversion demands enactment, paranoia recoils from and reacts against impingement.  Witold's perversity won't let him remain an investigator or an observer--not even as a voyeur.  He is driven to do bizarre and outrageous things he can't explain.  Mystified by the hanged sparrow, swept up in the incomprehensible actions of Lena, her husband Louis, and her mother, frustrated by the anticlimax of spying on Lena with Louis, he finds himself strangling Lena's cat and hanging it from a hook, adding another 'rhyme' to the mysterious sequence of hangings.  Like Lena trying to engage her mother by echoing her hammer blows, he tries to engage the indifferent and narcissistic world--that is, Lena--with a perverse echo, but one which also expresses his wish to repudiate it, and her.  

The tale picks up speed when Leo launches a family expedition to a mountain resort, planning once there to give up decades of secrecy in a public autoerotic re-enactment of his only happy sexual memory.  New characters, two honeymooning couples and a priest, join the expedition, and we begin to suspect that they all have something secretly crazy about them too.  Witold's perversity gives way to paranoia, which "drips and gathers," as Dylan Thomas said of love.   Among the mountains, he is oppressed and persecuted by a superfetation of unreadable signs: "Giddiness, confusion, excess.  Too much, too much, too much.  Weight, mass, piles rising into the sky, piles collapsed, general chaos, huge, swelling mastodons that appeared and a moment later vanished in unruly confusion into a thousand details... a mighty storm of matter," etc., etc.  "And I had become such a decipherer of still life that I could not help scrutinizing and examining as if there were something to be deciphered here..."  Amid the extravagant forms of Nature, the other people look to him like "a phantasmagoria of mastodons and hippopotami."  

Once at their destination, he is tormented by his ever more conscious attraction to Lena: "Oh, why had I contaminated her with Katasia's lip on that first night in the corridor, and why, instead of forgetting it next day, had I returned to it and made the contamination permanent?...And why should I have deliberately made her repulsive to me, since without her my life henceforth be meaningless and grey, spoiled and disfigured?... There she stood, looking so attractive that I looked the other way... The situation was not that that filthy association with Katasia prevented me from loving her, it was far worse than that.  I did not want to love her, I simply did not want to, and the reason was that if my body had been covered all over with spots and in that state I had set eyes on Venus herself, I should not have wanted her either."  In acknowledging that the filth is his own, he has allowed the word love finally to appear in his thoughts, albeit disguised as a refusal.

At the resort, Witold and Leo acknowledge one another as fellow perverts, but Leo mistakes him for a simple fetishist like himself, someone who is content with autoerotic satisfaction by means of substitutes.  But Witold is not predictable--something mad has developed inside him.  The conflict between desire and terror, between his longing to be enveloped in the world and his dread of its invasive power, has possessed him.  By the end he seems almost an automaton, carrying out a program he cannot recognize as his own.   On his way to the scene of Leo's climactic re-enactment, Witold bumps into a shoe suspended in midair, attached to the body of Lena's husband Louis hanging from a tree.  Enthralled and overborne, he finds himself putting his finger into the corpse's mouth:  "I felt a deep satisfaction that at last a link had been established between 'mouth' and 'hanging.'  It was I who had done it.  At last.  I felt as if I had fulfilled my mission.
     And now I must go and hang Lena.
    I was astonished at this, genuinely astonished, for hitherto the idea of hanging had been purely gratuitous and hypothetical, and after putting my finger in his mouth its nature, so far from changing in any way, had been as eccentric, extravagant and rhetorical as ever.  But the force with which that corpse had entered me and I had entered it had broken down all the barriers.  The sparrow had been hanged, and so had the bit of wood and the cat (before it was buried), and so had Louis.  Hanged.  Hanging and I were one..."

And here the paranoid and the perverse associative lines converge:
     "The sparrow.
     The bit of wood.
     The cat.
     And now I should have to hang Lena.
     Her mouth.
     Katasia's mouth...
     Louis's mouth.
     And now I should have to hang Lena.
                             ...Too bad.  It was inevitable.
     I walked on with my hands in my pockets."

Just as Humbert Humbert believes he's in love with young Dolores Haze, and she with him, so Witold reflects, "we were in love, she was just as much in love with me as I was with her, there could be no doubt about that, because if I wanted to kill her it followed that she must be in love with me."  This beautifully nasty little story scuds along at a terrific rate, as supercharged as an anvil-shaped thunderhead, pointing to a murderous resolution.  How else could it possibly end? 

Why, with a thunderclap: "and then the heavens opened... [and] a vertical wall of water," beggaring human imagination, washes away all details, meaningful and not, all the "leaves and bits of straw and wood."  Plans are dropped, shelter run for, and "it all ended up in shivers and colds and fever.  Lena had tonsillitis"--that mouth again!--"and a taxi had to be sent for from Zakopane.  Illness, doctors, in short everything changed.
     I went back to Warsaw and my parents... Today we had chicken and rice for lunch."

Why is Cosmos so seductively engaging rather than repellent?  Perhaps because in the end, in spite of its brilliant nastiness, it's really about love, trying to thread its perverse way through the defiles of reason and dread.

This has been the world's longest tango, folks.  The orchestra will take a short break before the next dance.