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.


  1. Interesting to partner up with a book that seems to work as a bit of a screed on the act of interpretation itself!

    I haven't read the novel, but all of the quotes provided-- both from the book, and from the author-- seem to hint at a distaste for the inclination to form patterns of meaning from the chaos and simultaneity of our source material. Whether it is the stars, a random sequence of events, a person standing near another-- everything is fodder for the human compulsion to create order and story. Every object and person takes on the aura of a clue in a mystery that must be pieced together: here is death, and where is the meaning? (And perhaps, too, here is desire, and where is its object?)

    But this intellectual effort further separates one from a genuine experience of the world, and the novel appears to present it as an oppressive urge; there is no moment when one can be free from the impulse to see connection where there is none, and since these connections are self-generated, they must always be exercises in pattern building rather than pattern recognition. As such, the author seems to see a natural and universal perversity in such meaning making. Drawing sense from disparate events, as an act of imposing the self on the world, will always lead one farther from the world and deeper into oneself. And the patterns we make, as part of this solipsistic vision, will always contain a distasteful tinge of paranoia and narcissism?

    Again, speaking as someone who hasn't read the novel, this seems to be a somewhat nihilistic vision. What of the meaning that is created *between* people, or between text and reader, or between author and text? Is the creative or interpretive act always an occasion of compulsively forming patterns against the liberative-- and indescribable-- space of chaos? And do the connections we draw merely originate in the self, or can they be inspired by a space that lies partly outside the self?

    I'm curious as to how this would relate to writing. Similarly, is the act of telling a story (as putting together narrative pieces into patterns of meaning) or the act of interpretation (as deciphering patterns in the narrative pieces) also a slightly perverse enterprise? And the joy is in trying to engage with the chaos that remains uninscribed? Or, are writing and reading--as attempts to find and create meaning-- acts of faith, empathy, and collaboration, which both embrace chaos, and also lead us someplace other?


    (as a side note-- have you read Clarice Lispector's Hour of the Star? Strikes me as a book that also engages with the question of how to describe that which simply, wordlessly exists, and how this process can walk a line between love and violence.)

  2. Dear Sarah, it's a real gift to have provoked such a wide-ranging set of meditations. As I hoped to convey at the end of my essay, "Cosmos" has the paradoxical effect of inviting rather than repelling readers, a fact I attribute to Gombrowicz's genius for portraying a certain kind of perversity without himself falling victim to the delusion of complete understanding. As a friend recently taught me, Wallace Stevens once said "a poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully," a lovely formula that applies here too.

    As to narcissism, I'm fond of saying that a narcissist is a solipsist who's old enough to know better. Do we ever fully learn to engage the world other than as a reflection of our inner worlds? What breaks us out of our narcissism? Becoming capable of recognizing and taking in the unexpected--of enacting a fruitful interpersonal engagement with the accidental (to rephrase what you've already so beautifully said here)--is a developmental achievement in the strictest possible psychological sense: a platform not all of us reach, and probably none of us always, with the possible exception of enlightened Zen masters. I suppose one function of this blog, as I look back over it, has been to explore the various ways in which we are prone to revert to narcissism (qua 'virtuality') and paranoia (a loss of what psychiatry used to call 'consensual validation'); prone, that is, to lose our grip on that radical and transformative capacity to recognize, take account of, and welcome the otherness of the Other.

    I hope my essay will inspire you to read Gombrowicz, whose work I find liberating--now that I've spent some time thinking about it--in the way you speak of the 'space of chaos.' I'd love to talk together afterwards. And yes, Lispector is on my list of writers I look forward to reading...