Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes

Witold Gombrowicz led an interesting, eventful life. He left Poland in 1939 and spent 24 years of self-imposed exile in Argentina. (Like the best prose stylist in the English language, Wyndham Lewis—who also left Europe in 1939—he was Self-Condemned.) He returned to Europe in the early 1960s, married a Canadian, and settled down on the French Riviera.

A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes is the last thing Gombrowicz did. The story is that, suffering from a heart condition (sick at heart!), he asked his friend Dominique de Roux (no relation to La Roux) to bring him a gun so that he could kill himself. She distracted him by asking for a course of philosophy, which is A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes. How very existentialist—philosophy instead of suicide!

Gombrowicz vs. Gaarder

Of course it is very silly to talk about Gombrowicz and Sophie’s World. Except for the fact that both books are about the exact same thing. And that Jostein Gaarder likes Gombrowicz and mentions him in his book, and is therefore (for we are what we read) a trustworthy fellow.

How are the two books different? Gaarder is a genius of gentle introductions—at passing the profound and simple insights of philosophy into our minds without any fuss. Gombrowicz is useless as an introducer. A quotation on the cover of the Yale edition of Six Hours says that it is “like the course in philosophy you wish you had taken.” Nonsense!

Gaarder’s genius is for setting his reader at her ease and gently initiating her into a neglected discipline. He is gentle and clear. Gombrowicz’s talent is for unsettling and amusing. Where Gaarder is always busy explaining something in a soothing, fatherly voice, Gombrowicz speaks in squeaky, compressed, disconnected bits. The opening words of the book, for example, are
Kant 1724-1804

Beginning of modern thought.
One could say that this is Descartes (beginning of 17th century).
Descartes: a single important idea: absolute doubt.
Here rationalism begins: subject everything to absolute doubt, until the moment when reason forces us to accept an idea.
(Basis for the phenomenology of Husserl)
—subject: thinking self
—object: opera glasses—table
—the idea of an object which forms in my consciousness.
The idea, I suppose, is that you should think for yourself—that you fill in the missing words and make the connections for yourself. Why are philosophers generally such awful writers? Perhaps because the idea of being “soothingly introduced to philosophy” is somewhat absurd. Philosophers believe you ought to work for their insights—or else you haven't really experienced them!

Gombrowicz, of course, can write exactly as well as he wants. He is a sublime prose stylist, at least in his excellent translations, of which I’m sure he could at least vouch for the French, which he spoke. No doubt he wrote Six Hours this way for the reason outlined above. Which is all very well. But I would still, acknowledging the contradiction, steer the curious novice toward Gaarder’s work.

What It’s Good For

Yes, Gombrowicz is a sublime writer! I will write again before the end of the week about Ferdydurke, and its hilarious and profoundly un-Canadian theory of art. But before doing that, the answer to the question, why read Gombrowicz’s introduction to philosophy when it is useless as an introduction to philosophy?

Because, prompted by his reflection on philosophers, Gombrowicz says a lot of interesting things—especially about art and artists.

On Schopenhauer (who is not mentioned—cannot be mentioned, perhaps!—in Sophie’s World):
Schopenhauer said much on the subject of genius, for example that the genius cannot live normally; the artist always has an obstacle which prevents him from living: illness, abnormality, infirmity, homosexuality, etc.

(Intelligent men are highly sensitive to noise). Me, personally, I interpret this by the fact that we sense better what we lack. Example: a cavalry officer does not even realize that he is healthy, whereas an invalid like Chopin has an acute notion of health.
For those incapable of life, like A. N. Swick, encouraging words!
Myself, I attach the highest importance to antinomy in art. An artist must be that and its opposite. Mad, disorganized but also disciplined, cold, rigorous. Art is never a single thing, but is always compensated by its opposite.
How very true! What fools “committed writers” are!

Gombrowicz is attracted by contradictions and irresolvable cruces (that’s 2+ crux-es). The “profound and simple” thought of which he is most fond is this: as objects, we have mass and exist objectively; but our subject-hood, our subjectivity, our selves, weigh nothing, do not correspond to the laws of material existence. (Wasn’t there a movie called 19 Grams or something, explaining the soul as having that weight?)

This is how Gombrowicz explains Existentialism, the subject in connection to which he is mentioned in Sophie’s World:
I do not agree with the superficial judgments for which existentialism is a trend. Existentialism is a consequence of a basic fact of the internal rupture of consciousness which is manifested not only in man’s inherent qualities, but—extremely curious fact—is evident in physics for example, where you have two ways of perceiving reality:


Example: theories of light.

Now, both theories are right, as experience demonstrates, but they are contradictory. You have the same phenomenon, but they are contradictory. You have the same phenomenon in the physics concept concerning electrons, where there are two different ways of seeing them, both of which are correct and contradictory. Now, in my view, man is divided between the subjective and the objective, irreparably and for all time. This is a kind of wound we have which is impossible to heal, and of which we are more and more conscious. In a number of years, it will be even “bloodier,” since it can only grow with the evolution of consciousness.
But has consciousness stopped evolving? Are we all feeling much better as a result?

Gombrowicz explains the unpopularity of Schopenhauer partly through his aristocratic aspect—“For Schopenhauer, there are mediocre men and superior men. He insulted the mediocre ones.” Gombrowicz also insults them! Discussing the future of Marxism:
If the upper class remains as stupid and blind as it is now, and if it relinquishes power to the masses, then we must prepare for a period of regression which will last until the production of a new, strong upper class. But if the right stands firm and does not allow that “guilty conscience,” which is actually typical of Marxists, to be imposed on it, then the matter can be resolved by huge galloping advancements in technology, which, according to my rough calculations, can radically change the world in twenty or thirty years. We shall have little wings to fly...
Attached with wax!

It is also to Gombrowicz’s credit (who was married to a Canadian) that he insults Canada. Discussing Nietzsche:
This opposition between Apollo and Dionysus still appears today. Example: Beethoven. Nietzsche considers pessimism to be a weakness, condemned by life and optimism, a superficial (Canadian!) thing.
Before the week is out, readers, let us consider what Gombrowicz can tell us about our superficial, Canadian selves!

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