Diary - by Witold Gombrowicz

Nothing that is really your own can impress you. If, therefore, our greatness or our past impresses us, it is proof that it has not yet entered our bloodstream.

Spirit is born of the imitation of spirit and a writer must pretend to be a writer in order finally to become a writer.

For a while (and, possibly, because of the monotony of my existence here), I have been overcome by a curiosity which I have never before experienced, a curiosity of such pure intensity, curiosity as to what will happen within the next moment. Right before me, a wall of darkness out of which springs the most direct immediacy, like a terrifying revelation. What will come around the corner? A man? A dog? If it’s a dog, then what shape will it have, what pedigree? I sit at the table and in a moment, my soup will arrive, but, what kind of soup? This very basic feeling has not been adequately treated in art. Man—as an instrument transforming the unknown into the known—does not figure in the pantheon of its heroes.

In this little diary I would like to set out to openly construct a talent for myself, as openly as Henry fabricates a marriage for himself in the third act. Why openly? Because I desire to reveal myself, to stop being too easy a riddle for you to solve. By taking you to the backstage of my being, I force myself to retreat to an even more remote depth.

The artist who realizes himself inside art will never be creative. He must remain on its peripheries where art meets life, where unpleasant questions such as the following arise: How much of the poetry that I write is conventional, and how much of it is truly real? How much are those who adore me lying and how much am I lying when I adore myself as a poet?

He, Miłosz, is just like the rest of them (literati of a certain school, raised on “social” problems), and experiences strife, torment, and doubts that were completely unknown to writers formerly. Rabelais had no idea whether he was “historical” or “ahistorical.” He had no intention of cultivating “absolute writing” or of paying homage to “pure art,” or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself. He struck at that which enraged him and fought that which stood in his way. He wrote for his and another’s delight and he wrote whatever came to mind. Nevertheless, Rabelais expressed his epoch and felt the impending times. He also created the purest and most enduring art and this happened because by expressing himself in complete freedom, he also expressed the external essence of his humanity and of himself, as a son of the times and the seedbed of the new epoch. Today, however, Miłosz (and he is not alone) puts his finger to his temple and ponders: How and what am I supposed to write about? Where is my place? What are my obligations? Am I to immerse myself in history? Or should I perhaps seek the “other shore”? Who am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do? The writer Żeromski, bless his soul, used to say at such times: Write what your heart dictates! And this is the advice that rings most true.

Am I allowed to publish such commentaries to my own works? Am I perhaps overdoing it? And doesn’t it bore people? Tell yourself that people dream about getting to know you. They desire you. They are curious about you. Lead them forcefully into your affairs, even into those that are of no interest to them. Force them to become interested in that which interests you. The more they know about you, the more they will need you. The “I” is not an obstacle in being with people. The “I” is that which they desire. Make sure, though, that the “I” is not smuggled in like contraband. If there’s anything the “I” can’t stand it’s half-heartedness, timidity, shyness.

Lately, we artists have allowed ourselves to be led around too sheepishly by philosophers and other scientists. We have proved incapable of being sufficiently different. An excessive respect for scientific truth has obscured our own truth. In our eagerness to understand reality, we forget that we are not here to understand reality, but only to express it. We, art, are reality. Art is a fact and not commentary attached to fact. It is not our job to explain, elucidate, systematize, prove. We are the word that claims: this hurts me, this intrigues me, I like this, I hate this, I desire this, I don’t want this.… Science will always remain an abstraction, but our voice is the voice of a man made of flesh and blood, this is the individual voice. Not an idea, but a personality is important to us. We do not become real in the realm of concepts, but in the realm of people. We are and we must remain persons, our role depends on the fact that the living, human word not stop sounding in a world that is becoming more and more abstract.

To be a concrete man. To be an individual. Not to strive to transform the whole world. To live in the world, changing it only as much as possible from within the reach of my nature. To become real in harmony with my needs, my individual needs. I do not want to say that collective and abstract thought, that Humanity as such, are not important. Yet a certain balance must be restored. The most modern direction of thought is one that will rediscover the individual man.

Beautiful but not possessing a sense of beauty. And the ease with which a woman’s taste and her intuition go wrong in her choice of men creates the impression of some sort of incomprehensible blindness and stupidity. She will fall in love with a man because he is so distinguished or so “subtle.” Second-rate social values will be more important than the Apollonian outlines of the body, soul, yes, she loves the sock not the calf, the mustache not the face, the jacket not the chest. She will be awestruck by the dirty lyricism of a graphomaniac; the cheap pathos of an idiot will overwhelm her; and the chic of an elegant fellow will lead her astray. She does not know how to unmask, she allows herself to be deceived because she herself deceives. And she will fall in love only with a man from her “sphere” for she does not feel the natural beauty of the human race, only the secondary one that is a creation of her milieu. Ah, those slaves of majors, servants of generals, worshipers of merchants, dukes, doctors. Woman! You embody antipoetry!

Thomas Mann, an experienced connoisseur in these matters, said that an art that grows in the light of recognition from the very beginning will undoubtedly be different from an art that must win a place for itself with difficulty, and at the price of much humiliation. How would my work have looked if from its very inception it had been crowned with a laurel wreath; if even today, so many years later, I did not have to devote myself to it as to something forbidden, shameful, and inappropriate?

It is important for a man speaking publicly—a man of letters—to lead his reader beyond the facade of form, into the boiling cauldron of his private history. Is it ridiculous, even humiliating? Only children or kindhearted aunts (whose spin-sterish innocence is, unfortunately, an important factor in public opinion) can imagine that a writer is a calmly sublime being, a lofty spirit instructing about his “talent,” about what is Good and Beautiful from on high. No, a writer does not sit on peaks, but climbs to them from the bottom. Who would dare to demand seriously that we untie all the Gordian knots of existence on paper? Man is weak and limited. Man cannot be stronger than he is. An increase in man’s strength can follow only when another man lends him strength. The task before a man of letters, therefore, is not to solve problems, but only to pose them so that they attract general attention and find their way to people. There they will be ordered and somehow civilized.

Either a person is someone or not—one cannot fabricate oneself artificially. In independent Poland, the artificial fabrication of existence became an ever more frequent substitute for a genuine existence: these intellectuals and artists tried to be someone with this arrière-pensée in order to simply be. To believe in God not because it is a necessity of the soul, but because faith strengthens. To be a nationalist not from nature and conviction but because it is necessary to a good life. To have ideals not because one carries them in one’s blood but because they “organize things.” All of them searched feverishly for some sort of form so they wouldn’t disintegrate… and I would have had nothing against this, if they had had the courage to admit what they were doing and if they had not deceived themselves.

Nothing in art, even the most inspired mysteries of music, can equal dreams. The artistic perfection of dreams! How many lessons this nocturnal archmaster gives to us, the daily fabricators of dreams, the artists! In a dream everything is pregnant with a dreadful and unfinished meaning, nothing is indifferent, everything reaches us more deeply, more intimately than the most heated passion of the day. This is the lesson: an artist cannot be restricted to day, he has to reach the night life of humanity and seek its myths and symbols. Also: the dream upsets the reality of the experienced day and extracts certain fragments from it, strange fragments, and arranges them illogically in an arbitrary pattern. It is exactly this lack of sense that has the profoundest meaning for us: we ask why, in the name of what, is our ordinary sense destroyed. Gazing at the absurd as at a hieroglyph, we try to decipher its reason for being, of which we know only that it is, that it exists.… Art, therefore, also can and should upset reality, take it apart into elements, build illogical new worlds of it and in this arbitrariness is hidden a law, which in disturbing sense has it, so that the madness that destroys our external sense leads us into our internal meaning. The dream reveals the abysmal idiocy of the task set for art by those classical minds that prescribe that art ought to be “clear.” Clarity? Its clarity is the clarity of night, not day. Its brightness is exactly like that of a flashlight that extracts just one object out of the darkness, immersing the rest in an even more bottomless night. It should be, beyond the boundaries of its light, dark like the pronouncements of the Pythia, veiled, not spelled out, shimmering with a multiplicity of meanings and broader than precision. A classical clarity? The clarity of the Greeks? If this seems clear to you then it is because you are blind. Go at high noon to take a good look at the most classical Venus, and you will see the darkest night.

I changed my daily routine. I get up around eleven, but I put off shaving until later because it is very tiresome. After breakfast, I get down to work and I write until the desire to stop working overcomes my reluctance to shave. When this breakthrough occurs, I shave with pleasure. Shaving inclines one to go downtown, therefore, I go to the Café Querandi, on the corner of Moreno and Peru, for coffee and croissants and reading La Razon. I return home to work some more, but these hours I devote to earning money by working for the local press or to sitting down to my Remington and taking care of my correspondence. While at this, I puff on my Dunhill or on my BBB Ultonia and I smoke Hermes para pipa tobacco.

I thought about Poland and about those fellow writers of mine. Sometimes it seems to me that I should think about them with greater humility. However, the certainty that I am more than they are… allows me to make no concessions. Not talent, reason, or moral values determine hierarchy, but this most of all: a stronger, more real existence. I am alone. That is why I exist more.

Against Poets

The thesis of the following essay, that almost no one likes poems and that the world of verse is a fiction and falsehood, will seem, I assume, as bold as it is frivolous. Yet here I stand before you and declare that I don’t like poems at all and that they even bore me. Maybe you will say that I am an impoverished ignoramus. Yet I have labored in art for a long time and its language is not completely alien to me. Nor can you use your favorite argument against me, claiming that I do not possess a poetic sensibility, because I do possess it and to a great degree. When poetry appears to me not in poems but mixed with other, more prosaic, elements, for example, in Shakespeare’s dramas, in the prose of Pascal and Dostoyevski, or simply as a very ordinary sunset, I tremble as do other mortals. Why then does this pharmaceutical extract called “pure poetry” bore and weary me, especially when it appears in rhymed form? Why can’t I stand this monotonous, endlessly lofty singing? Why does rhythm and rhyme put me to sleep, why does the language of poets seem to me to be the least interesting language conceivable, why is this Beauty so unattractive to me and why is it that I don’t know anything worse as style, anything more ridiculous than the manner in which poets speak about themselves and their poetry?

Why didn’t I like the taste of pure poetry? Why? Wasn’t it for the very same reasons that I didn’t like sugar in a pure state? Sugar is good for sweetening coffee, but not for eating by the spoonful like gruel. In pure, rhymed poetry, the excess wearies; the excess of poetry, poetic words, metaphors, sublimations, finally, the excess of condensation and purification of all antipoetic elements, which results in poems similar to chemical products.

There exist two contrary types of humanism: one, which we could call the religious, tries to send man to his knees before a work of human culture—it forces us to adore and respect Music or Poetry, for example, or the State or Divinity; and the other, a more difficult current of our spirit which strives to restore man’s sovereignty and independence in relation to the Gods and Muses, which are ultimately man’s creation. In this second instance, the word “art” is written with a small letter. And it is beyond doubt that a style that is capable of encompassing both of these tendencies is fuller, more authentic, and more closely reflects the antinomies of our nature than a style that expresses only one of these two poles of our emotions. Of all artists, poets are people who fall to their knees most persistently—they pray most fervently—they are priests par excellence and ex professio, and Poetry in this understanding simply becomes celebration. It is exactly this exclusivity that causes the style and position of poets to be so drastically unsatisfactory, so incomplete.

If, casting aside the works, we concern ourselves with the persons of the poets and the little world that these persons create along with their followers and acolytes, then we begin to lack even more air and space. Poets not only write for poets, but they also praise each other and honor each other. This world, or rather microworld, does not differ much from other hermetic and specialized micro-worlds: chess players consider chess the height of human creativity, they have their hierarchies, they speak of Capablanca with a reverence equal to that used by poets when speaking of Mallarmé, and one confirms the other in the feeling of his own importance. Yet chess players have no pretensions to a universal role and that which can be forgiven in chess players becomes unforgivable in poets. As a consequence of this isolation, everything becomes inflated, and even mediocre poets puff themselves up to apocalyptic dimensions and trivial problems assume outrageous proportions. Let us recall at least the terrible polemics on the subject of assonances, the tone in which this issue was discussed. It seemed to them that the fate of humanity depended on whether or not “could” could be rhymed with “wood.” This is what happens when the mob corporate spirit gains an upper hand over the universal spirit.

How unsettling is that opening phase, when one has to extract the first shape of a work, so awkward and unenriched by all the small inspirations that the pen encounters only much later. Only obstinance allows one to tear through that repulsive fog-ridden beginning. But naturally—and as always—the commenced work began to slip away from me and began writing itself.

My growing sensitivity to the calendar. Dates. Anniversaries. Periods. With what diligence I now surrender myself to this tallying of dates. Yes, yes… why didn’t I write down something every single day from the moment I learned to write? Today I would have many volumes filled with notes, and I would know what I did twenty-seven years ago at this exact hour. What for? Life escapes through dates, just as water runs through one’s fingers. But at least something would have remained… some trace.…

Life that is limited. Local life. One lives with whatever the new day brings. No one looks around, everyone looks at his feet, at his own path. Work. Family. Activity. To survive, somehow.… A concrete existence. This exhausts and attracts at the same time… oh, so these are the limitations I have craved! I am tired of the cosmos. I confirm a crisis of “universalism” in myself. I assume that many other people today also suffer from it. The diagnosis is as follows: century after century we expanded our horizons; our vision finally encompassed the entire planet; we demand morality “for all,” rights “for all,” everything “for everybody”—and then it turns out that we are unequal to the task! Catastrophe! Disillusion! Bankruptcy! Why I have already made insects equal to people in my desire for universal justice, the only one possible! But the blow dealt my soul by the first unrescued insect casts me into impotence… and now panequality, universal justice, universal love, all that is universal, are liquidating themselves in me—not because I want this to happen—but because I cannot help it—after all, I am not Atlas lifting the whole world onto his shoulders!

Narrow myself! Limit myself! To live only with what is mine! I want to be concrete and private! I am sick of ideas that tell me to concern myself with China—I have not seen China, I don’t know China, I haven’t been there! Enough appeals to see my brother in a man who is not my brother! I want to lock myself within my circle of vision and not reach further than I can see. I want to topple the accursed “universality” that shackles me more than the most confining prison and escape into the freedom of the limited!

Our greatest holiness is contained in our most ordinary commonness. The only time I am not ashamed of this word is when I use it in regard to something trivial, something that is its opposite.

I pour my crisis regarding democratic thinking and universal feeling onto paper because not I alone—know this—not I alone, if not today, then in ten years, will be assailed by the desire to have a clearly delineated world and a clearly delineated God. Prophecy: democracy, universality, equality, will not be capable of satisfying you. Your desire for duality will grow stronger and stronger—a desire for a dual world—dual thinking—dual mythology—in the future we will be paying homage to two different systems simultaneously and a magic world will find a place for itself next to a rational one.

I wish to note that elections do not cease to amaze me. The day on which the vote of the illiterate means as much as the vote of the professor, the vote of the idiot as much as the vote of the wise man, the vote of the lackey as much as the vote of the potentate, the vote of the cutthroat as much as the vote of a virtuous man is for me the most confused of days. I do not understand how this fantastic act can determine, for the next few years, something as important as the government of the country. On what sort of fairy tale does authority base itself? How can this five-adjective fallacy constitute the basis of social being?

The blackmail contained in artificially impeding death is a dirty trick, an impingement on the most valuable human freedom. For my greatest freedom is contained in my capacity to pose Hamlet’s “to be or not to be?” and to answer it freely. The life to which I have been sentenced can trample and disgrace me with the cruelty of a wild beast, but there is in me one splendid and sovereign arrangement—that I can take my own life. If I choose, I do not have to live. I did not ask to be brought into the world, but at least my right to leave remains… and this is the basis of my freedom. And also of my dignity (because to live in dignity means to live voluntarily). But the fundamental human right to death, which ought to be included in the constitution, has succumbed to a gradual and imperceptible confiscation—you have arranged things so that it would be as difficult as possible… and as horrifying as possible… so that it would be more difficult and more horrifying than things should be at our current level of technology. Not only does this express your blind affirmation of life, which is quite animal—but also your unusually thick hide when it comes to pain you yourself are not yet feeling, and agony that is not yet yours—that stupid nonchalance with which one tolerates dying as long as it is someone else’s. All these different little considerations—dogmatic, nationalist, everyday-practical—all this theory, practice, spreads itself like a peacock’s tail—as far as possible from death.

It is easier to hate someone for picking his nose than to love him for composing a symphony. For the trifle is characteristic and describes the person in his everyday dimension.

For the time being, he resigned from a frontal attack on these difficult issues in the Diary, and from finding his own new genre of greatness. He decided to wait… to take a closer look at this greatness of his and to determine which kind would ultimately be awarded to him: a difficult aristocratic greatness, incomprehensible to the throng, destined for a narrow group of initiates, or a more popular variety?… The only thing he could manage for the time being was the introduction of a “second voice” into the Diary —the voice of a commentator and biographer—which allowed him to speak of himself as “Gombrowicz,” through someone else’s lips. This was, in his opinion, an important discovery, intensifying the immeasurably cold artificiality of his admissions, which also allowed for greater honesty and passion. And this was something new, which he had never encountered in any of the diaries he had read. An interesting innovation, of course. And perhaps more important than it might seem. Gombrowicz had been noticing for some time that great style is not just great, it pokes you in the ribs endlessly, whispering: “watch out, don’t miss me, I’m great.” A great style possesses its own master of ceremonies, lecturer and commentator. In addition, this division into voices was justified by the very structure of style and firmly grounded in reality. But beyond this—what wealth to be able to speak about oneself in the first and third persons simultaneously! For he who speaks of himself with “I” must, of necessity, lie a lot and leave much unsaid—while he who speaks of himself with “he” and tries to describe himself from the outside will also be wielding only a partial truth. This switching from the “I” to “Gombrowicz” could gradually (in proportion to the perfecting and deepening of this device) lead to interesting results. And it permitted him to praise and unmask himself in one stroke!

Art is aristocratic to the marrow, like a prince of royal blood. It is the refutation of equality and the adoration of the superior. It is a matter of talent, even genius, or superiority, prominence, uniqueness; it is also the harsh creation of a hierarchy of values, cruelty in relation to that which is common, the selection and perfection of that which is rare, indispensable; it is, finally, a nurturing of personality, originality, individuality. No wonder, then, that the magnanimously endowed art of the People’s Democracies is a mountain that gives birth to a mouse. This costs cool millions and all this “production” boils down to nothing but gab.

The hideous strangeness of knowledge… it is like an alien body introduced into the mind, it always obstructs. One bears this kind of thinking like a weight, in the sweat of one’s brow; science often acts like poison; the weaker the mind, the fewer antidotes it finds and the more easily it succumbs. Take a look at the majority of students. Where, for instance, does their lack of joy come from? Is their fatigue merely a consequence of excessive work? Weren’t their reactions poisoned by the habit of false precision, an exaggerated objectivity, did this not cast their judgments into uncertainty, fear? Let us see how the cult of logic kills understanding of the personality, how principles replace an inborn self-assurance and the certainty of one’s own convictions, how theories extirpate grace and beauty… this is where the new type of student comes from (“Hey, pal, are you passing?”), a decent, upright, useful, but wan being… with a lunar pallor drained of all brilliance and heat, reflecting only that awful, incomprehensible light. Perhaps still alive but only as a weakened, twisted form of life. Is this the introduction to a race of pigmies with swollen heads and white lab coats?

Degeneration awaits us so we should brace ourselves for it today. I do not deny that someday science may lead us to paradise. Until that day, however, we are threatened by a series of operations, deforming, almost surgical interventions (which is what happens to patients who are subjected to only three introductory operations in a series of twelve that are supposed to improve their faces). The transformation of the conditions of our lives, as well as of our psychophysical structure, with the help of technology, will knock us out of our groove and unsettle us.

It is certainly strange that we cannot exhaust our species, that I will never be able to get to know all the people there are (nor am I anywhere close), that I will not be able to say: this is it, I have seen them all, there are no more. To constantly meet a new variety of man, with a different humanity in each, and to know that there is no end to these variations—and that we are loaded with the infinity of other possible combinations—and that there is no man who is impossible in the near or distant future… what an inner abyss! This leads to a lawlessness of the imagination! This destroys all psychological, moral and other norms, one has the feeling that we are being exploded, not in the least by the spirit but by the connivance of copulating bodies creating variants.

Oh, what a brilliant and generous feature of literature: this freedom to make up stories, exactly as if we were choosing different paths in a forest, never knowing where they might lead—or what awaits us.…

I have often experienced a blinding fog that invades life’s most important moments. Births prefer night but if deep stirrings of fate auguring Momentous Change cannot take place at night, then there is created around them, as if on purpose, a strange confusion and blurring that distracts.…

Critics of painting or sculpture must write about them as about something basically alien and external, because painting values cannot be grasped by means of the word, the word and the brush are two separate disciplines. Criticism of literature, on the other hand, is words about words, literature about literature. What is the result? That a literary critic must be an artist of the word and a cocreator; there can be no talk of “describing” literature the way one—unfortunately—describes paintings. One must participate in this criticism; it cannot be external; it cannot be a criticism of things.

To me all of Europe seems like a horse that steps into a horse collar voluntarily.… Obedient, submissive, full of good will toward theory, constructive, positive, methodical, cerebral.… Oh what a desert!

It is very interesting indeed that while our entire spiritual effort in the course of centuries goes into separating ourselves from stupidity and triumphing over it, in the very womb of humanity stupidity seems to cohabit with intelligence. The personal makeup of humanity assures stupidity an important role. Humanity is made up of men, women, young people, and children—this alone condemns us to eternal oscillation between development and underdevelopment, stupidity revives in each generation. And is it not necessary to life, would a woman want to give birth without it, would orders be possible, obedience, mechanical work, would the railroads, mines, offices, and factories be able to work without this oil in their gears? Would death be bearable without lightness, frivolity? The human condition? The effort of the episteme to cleanse itself of stupidity finds no confirmation in the internal organization of the human species, where it would be more appropriate to speak of a division of roles: some are supposed to express a superior, others an inferior, consciousness.

The most profound division in a man, his bleeding wound, is precisely this: subjectivism—objectivism. Basic. Hopeless. The relation of subject-object that is consciousness and the object of consciousness is the starting point of philosophical thought. Let us imagine the world reduced to just one object. If there were no one then to register the existence of that object, it would not exist. Consciousness is beyond everything, is definitive. I am aware of my thoughts, my body, my impressions, my sensations, and that is why all this exists.