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Cosmos Witold Gombrowicz


Witold Gombrowicz

Published 1995
155 pages
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 About the Book 

‘How many sentences can one create out of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet? How many meanings can one gleam from hundreds of weeds, colds of dirt, and other trifles?’Polish author Wiltold Gombrowicz explores the notions of order in a seemingly random, chaotic world in his 1967 novel Cosmos. Winner of the ‘International Prize for Literature’, which, as translator Danuta Borchardt asserts in her introduction, was ‘second in importance only to the Nobel Prize’, this psychological novel bombards, and occasionally exhausts the reader with Gombrowicz’s characteristic subtly and mastery of paranoid over-analysis. While this novel functions on it’s own apart from the rest of his work, Cosmos is best understood as a commentary and culmination of the themes teased and expressed in his earlier novels Pornografia: A Novel, and his masterpiece Ferdydurke. Gombrowicz exposes the human desire to create order from the randomness that beleaguers their existence in order to view the world as a safe, functionary society in which they are mature and essential cogs instead of a chaotic void in which we are merely immature and irrelevant.The plot of this novel is highly secondary, and consists of the narrator, a college youth on holiday named Witold, accompanying a classmate to an out of the way pension in order to study in peace. In the darkness of the forest, they discover a hung sparrow, which sets off a seemingly connected (or are they?) chain of events. Vague connections are drawn and Gombrowicz directs his psychological investigations in a stylized detective fashion, having the boys find ‘clues’ that are so small and inconsequential, such as what may or may not be an arrow that may or may not have been recently scratched amongst the cracks in the ceiling (‘If it’s an arrow, it must be pointing to something…and if it’s not an arrow, it’s not pointing.’). Through this sleuthing, the reader is invited into the feverish mind of Wiltold the narrator to question the nature of signs and deciphering symbols from randomness. Do they really stumble onto covert codes, or is it the human desire to construct meaning? ‘No sooner do we look than order…and form…are born under our very eyes.’The style of this novel is initially bewildering. The sentences are long and rambling, meandering through a convoluted psyche that is troubled by a growing paranoia. It takes a good portion of this short novel for the reader to get a firm footing, and unlike the powerful imagery and poetry of Pornografia, or the absurd Monty Python-esk comedy and literary investigations of Ferdydurke, Cosmos is intentionally bland. This blandness, this insistence on illustrating an ordinary, lethargic existence, further highlights the slight aberrations encountered, placing simple morbid pleasures such as Katasia’s gash that extends one side of her mouth into a slightly ‘lizard-like’ smile into the forefront of the narrators mind. These tidbits of the bizarre are constantly reexamined in his mind, ordered and picked up one by one to turn over, caress, and put back as if they were treasured items in a collection, done so an overwhelming multitude of times that the repetition is very likely to chafe on the reader. For being short in length, the novel slogs forward through the muck of mangled reality and by the time the reader reaches the incredible and exciting conclusion, the book may have worn thin on their patience. It is important to remember that this book is more an exploration of philosophy and psychological insight than a ‘story’.Despite the few cumbersome aspects of this novel, Gombrowicz shines with his acute sense of subtly and paranoia. The narrator is constantly on the lookout for associations, often staggering when another character mentions something offhanded that can vaguely associate with the thoughts in his head. ‘Wasn’t it like putting my own anxieties into words,’ he often thinks as he dives headlong into conspiracy theories of order. Gombrowicz demonstrates how everything we encounter is ‘connected’ through ‘associations with’ each other event or object, and how the human mind draws these conclusions as if instinctually. The characters in the novel crave order, desire some map composed of meaning and method to abate our fear of randomness and chaos. They make order in their lives with marriage, religions, and divine a clear explanation for any of their actions. Even the strangulation of the cat, is questioned for the motive as it cannot be accepted as having been on a whim, ‘born out of chaos’ and a reaction to his world view of order being shattered by a seemingly pointless object entering into his scheme of meaning. When the party is faced with the powerful panoramic view of the mountains, a dance of chaos with nature thrusting into the sky at beautiful random angles, the married couple that clings to each other in overly obnoxious ‘cutesy’ ways is immediately terrified, crying out in fear and holding one another. The chaos of nature threatens their worldview. Here is where we also find the priest, lost in the wilderness as Gombrowicz takes his standard jabs at religions method of proclaiming meaning in a meaningless world. Here is where the true nature of the title, Cosmos, a word never used in the novel is exposed. To Gombrowicz, the cosmos, the universe, is a chaotic void deplete of meaning. This notion, expressed best in Pornografia: A Novel when narrator Witold observes an atheist praying in church and drops into a vision of the church floating aimlessly in a void, seems to have finally grown into a full-fledged theme in Cosmos, pointed and poked at but never overtly mentioned. The major theme from Ferdydurke, that of immaturity, has also blossomed in this novel. The adults, those who are looked at as pillars of society and the family, most notably the bank manager, is a mere buffoon who uses childish wordplay and singsongy phrases.If we are faced with a world of chaos, a world without order, than, as in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, we must create out own order and meaning for ourselves. Gombrowicz examines this through a rather humorous onanistic metaphor, ‘go to your own for whatever turns you on’, and self-gratification and actions preformed ‘for oneself for the pleasure of oneself alone’ are shown as the opposing method to combat the chaotic darkness of reality than the obnoxious mapping of order and meaning.All these onanstic and detective themes of the novel come together for a startling conclusion that really makes all the pieces fit together and hum. Or do they only fit together because the narrator looks for the connections and have we ‘exaggerated it’s importance because it turned up at the end point of our search’? These questions and more come crashing down to a surprising ‘non-ending’ that is both frustrating and brilliant considering the essence of this novel. Cosmos is a wonderful read, difficult and annoying at times, but full of thoughts to ponder and reflect over. It would be very much advisable to have read his earlier novels first to fully appreciate the ideas at play here and to draw many of the connections left open for the reader, plus I cannot recommend many novels more highly than I do Ferdydurke. The examination of such small trifles, as they are often called, to complete a larger picture reminded me much of Susan Glaspell and her one act play Trifles, which also consists of characters playing detective and illuminating a larger truth from a dead sparrow and other trifles, however, I cannot ascertain any actual connection between the two beyond simple coincidence (which, considering this novel, is rather ironic to me at present). Also, It should be noted as well that despite the strangeness of the text, this is the only translation direct from the original Polish instead of having passed through several languages before reaching an English reader, and is as faithful to Gombrowicz’s stylistic intentions as you can find in print. Explore the madness and chaos of reality with Gombrowicz, just don’t expect to find your way back from this dark forest of atheistic pleasures.3.5/5I could never know to what degree I was the perpetrator, configuring the configurations around me!