Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lessons from Ferdydurke

Witold Gombrowicz's first novel Ferdydurke (1937) is hilarious and wonderful. It is full of strange incidents and funny words. Since I do not speak Polish well enough to read Gombrowicz in the original (bo to jest trudny język!), and since I saw a French copy in a used book store and bought it, my experience of Ferdydurke is through the French language. Gombrowicz lived in France at the end of his life, as you should already know, so perhaps he supervised the translation. In any case, it is excellent. The Polish word "pupa," which is usually left alone in English translations (I personally would render it as "tush"), is called in French "cucul," which is very silly and appropriate.

Ferdydurke, roughly, is a book about a writer who wakes up one day to find an established editor in his room, reading the manuscript of the novel he's been working on. The editor is not pleased with what he sees. "Your education has clearly been incomplete," the editor tells the writer, "and so we're sending you back to grade school." Thus the 30-year-old writer goes back to Grade 3, and quickly begins to live that life without incongruity. Because he is treated like a 10 year old, he begins to act like one, with hilarious consequences. (Much of Ferdydurke is clearly satirical of various schools and trends of Polish literature circa 1937; since I get none of the references, I am freer just to enjoy the silliness. Remove the apparatus! Hands off the tush!)

What I would like to present today is my original translation (from the French translation) of two passages from Chapter 4, "Philidor doublé d'enfant," or—as I would call it—"Philidor Pursued by his Infantile Double." This chapter is a very self-conscious semi-sequitir. It contains no plot content, but only about 20 pages of "literary criticism." The image it presents of a serious, ponderous WRITER being beaten by a pre-teen half-wit is one I often keep in my mind. It is also one I feel all writers, and particularly Canadian ones, should try to keep in theirs.

Here is the first passage. Gombrowicz is discussing the sorry state of pretentious "Semi-Shakespeares," and detailing their sad struggle to create serious art. A situation many of our Canadian genii no doubt recognize!
What does he want most, he who in our age has heard the call of the quill, or the paintbrush, or the clarinette? He wants above all else to be an artist. Create Art. He dreams of feeding on Truth, on Beauty, on the Good, of feeding the public, of becoming a priest or a prophet offering the treasures of his talents to famished humanity. Perhaps he also wants to offer up his talents to an idea or to the Nation. Noble goals! Magnificent intentions! Was this not the role of Shakespeare, or Chopin? But consider that there is still a small complication: you are not yet Chopins or Shakespeares, and you are not in fact yet fully artists or famous painters at all, and in the present phase of your evolution you are still only Semi-Shakespeares or Quarter-Chopins (oh, these horrid fractions!), and consequently your pretentious attitude reveals only your pathetic inferiority, and one could say that your want to force your way onto the monument’s plinth even to the peril of your most precious and most delicate organs.

Believe you me: there is a gaping void separating the fully-realized artist from the mass of semi-artists and quarter-prophets, who can only fantasize their accession. And what pleases a fully accomplished artist makes an entirely different impression on you. Instead of creating according to your own measure and by means of your own experience, you adorn yourselves with the plumes of peacocks, and so you remain apprentices, always awkward, always lagging behind, slaves and imitators, servants and admirers of Art, which leaves you tapping your fingers in the waiting room. It really is terrible to see how you press on without success, how each time you’re told that it’s not quite right, which only prompts you to try again with something else, how you try to push your meager efforts, how you hang on small successes, organize literary soirées, how you compliment one another, how you are always putting on new masks so as to disguise—from yourself as much as others—your pitiful mediocrity.
Here is Gombrowicz's solution to the dilemma:
Picture a venerable artist, mature and wise, who—perched above his blank page—is busily engaged in the act of creation, when all of a sudden who should climb on to his back but a pimply pre-teen or a half-wit, or a little girl, or any person at all with a foggy sensibility, worse than average, or any younger being, inferior or less intelligent. This being, this pimply pre-teen, this little girl or half-wit, or whatever other obscure product of a sad faux-culture, throws itself on his being, tussles with him, shrinks him, moulds him with the clutch of its massive paws, by squeezing him, by sniffing him, makes him younger with its own youth, contaminates him with its own immaturity and creates him after its own image, brings him down to its own level, takes him in its embrace! But the artist, instead of acknowledging the intruder, pretends not to have seen it and—strange thing!—believes he’ll best avoid its beatings by imagining he's not being beaten at all. You, you most esteemed of fourth-rate bards, is this not what happens to you? Do not all mature, superior, wizened beings depend in a thousand ways on others arrested at an inferior stage of their evolution? This dependence attains to the greatest depths, to the point where we could say “The wisest man is shot through with the stupidest youth.” When we write, must we not adapt ourselves to our audience? When we speak, do our words not depend on the person to whom they are directed? Are we not tragically smitten with youth? Must we not constantly court the favours of inferior people, accommodate ourselves to them, submit to their power or their charm—and this violence done us by inferior people, is it not utterly fruitful? But you, whatever your rhetoric, you have not really been able to keep your head buried in the sand—and your bookish, didactic intelligence, bloated with vanity, has not even come to this simple realization. So while in truth you are the victims of a continuous rape, you pretend that nothing of the sort is happening, yes, because, mature fellows, you fraternize only with mature fellows and your maturity will only fraternize with other maturities!

If you spent less time preoccupied with Art or the instruction or improvement of others—not to mention that of your own unprepossessing selves—you would never have remained indifferent before such a horrid rape, and for example a poet, instead of writing poetry for another poet, would feel himself penetrated and shaped from below by forces hitherto unapprehended. He would understand that it is only in recognizing them that he stands any chance of deliverance; he would do what he could to adapt his style and attitude, as much in art as in daily life, to the fact of his continual struggle with inferior forces. He would no longer feel himself a Father only, but at once Father and Son, he would write not only like an adult, a sage, a scholar, but more like a Sage constantly menaced by mindlessness, a Scholar ceaselessly brutalized, and an Adult caught in a perpetual process infantilization. And if in leaving his office he encountered a pre-teen or a half-wit, he would no longer slap their wrists with a defensive, pedagogical, didactic grimace, but would—overcome with saintly trembling—immediately begin to scream and groan, maybe even fall on his knees! Instead of fleeing from immaturity and quarantining himself in a refined milieu, he would understand that a truly universal style is one that can take in its loving embrace the most pitifully unevolved of creatures. This would end by leading you to a form of art so rich in inspiration that you would all become en masse the most powerful, most incomparable geniuses!
Generally the problem in our own culture is not a surplus but a lack of seriousness. What many producers of "culture" need to realize is that standing on their juvenile shoulders there is a serious, ambitious, rigorous old man trying to assert himself—and that ignoring him is not only profoundly unkind, but also detrimental to their art.

But for the serious literary youth of Canada—and even more so for the esteemed elders of "Can-Lit"—Gombrowicz's message requires no inversion. If there is one thing I could say to all Canadian writers (the young ones who write about smoking weed; the old ones who write about the tragedy of old age), it is that there is a stupid, pimply pre-teen on your back (he's wearing a beanie, holding a lollipop, and eating a hotdog!) and that you absolutely must recognize his existence, because as it stands he is beating you to death!

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