Printer Friendly

"Nothing but face" - "To hell with philosophy"?: Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, and the scandal of human countenance.

Scene One: A Railway in Argentina

Sitting in an Argentine train compartment, seething at the press of others, the twentieth-century Polish emigre writer Witold Gombrowicz begins his Diary entry for the year 1962 this way:

That mug ten centimeters away. The teary, reddish pupils? Little hairs on this ear? I don't want this! Away! I will not go on about his chapped skin! By what right did this find itself so close that I practically have to breathe him in, yet at the same time feel his hot trickles on my ear and neck? We rest our unseeing gazes on each other from a very near distance [. . . E]ach person is curling up, rolling up, shutting, shrinking, limiting to a minimum his eyes, ears, lips, trying to be a little as possible. (3: 17)

While the entry makes it clear that its ressentiment is centered chiefly on the numbers of people compressed into the same car as Gombrowicz himself, "that mug ten centimeters away" does not exactly fade from readers' sight. It stays vivid (Gombrowicz has ensured as much), but partly because of the uncanny little scene that embeds it.

Literature, with criticism's help, has accustomed us by now to a whole scenic pallet, diminutive theaters of figural enactment: Mirror Scenes, Scenes of Writing, Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Instruction, Scenes of Eating, even Scenes of Fasting (in Kafka's case). Gombrowicz offers, in their place, a Scene of Facing. Indeed, it is fair to assume that Gombrowicz expects readers of his Diary who are already familiar with his work - the 1937 novel Ferdydurke, in particular - to recognize such a scene as a lately-added snapshot to a much larger portfolio of signature studies in the face-to-face.(1)

Thus, against the background of the author's abiding concern with the space between two persons(2), that mug ten centimeters away denotes not so much a countenance positioned opposite as an incitement to Opposition itself. The gauntlet-slap delivered to Gombrowicz's face is the fact that another faces him. The slap that answers it is his counter-face grimacing in return.

Przyprawienie geby ("fitting someone with a mug") describes the norm of human interaction in Gombrowicz, a relentless duel of face-making, face-wearing, face-imposing. One face creates the other; a grimace responds. Both faces remain in dependent relation, face and grimace, mug and countenance, tracing a double helix of mutual deformation on into the negative infinity.(3) There is no sublation or sublimation. Higher, theoretical operations merely repeat rather than resolve an almost chthonic drama.

Nothing but face, says a character in Ferdydurke who is looking for authentic countenance: the face that looks at me and the face it imposes on mine and the face I adopt in return and all the faces, mugs, grimaces, and permutations of phiz that pass between us. Just as that definitive paradox of Gombrowiczian space - "from a very near distance" - overrides any proprietary ideas about autonomous identity, so face is synecdochic shorthand for the face-to-face relation, for the scandal of one's own face forced into self-consciousness and counter-move by the face of another.(4) One wears a face; one doesn't own it.

The sufficiency of my own private physiognomy is always being interrupted or compromised by the intervening faces of others. Even more, that desire is ridiculed by the unruliness of the face to begin with, by its enslavement not only to the faces of others, but also to one's own body. Thus, sometimes in Ferdydurke face just signifies personhood; other times, it means "the agony of outward form." As above, in extended form, "Nothing but face, nothing sincere or natural, everything false, imitated, and artificial" (3: 199). Physiognomy - as counterintuitive but also deeply intuitive as it sounds - is anything but private property. That is the obvious point about the train compartment. Even if I seem finished to myself, a facing other will make me seem unfinished, de-shaped.

And I endure a ludicrous self-sabotage, too. Standing up to the top of my height, I am still mocked by the very backside that joins trunk to head.(5) The very fact of thighs calls consciousness down from its lofty perch. Digits and toes conduct their own duel of grimaces in repeating each other, hand to foot. Human forms aren't unified or consolidated; they're composite, an aggregate of parts. Faces are their own mugs because self-identity is self-parody. The face is a kind of double agent: the seat and sign of personal identity but also just another composite body part. Selfhood isn't realism, but rather innately surrealistic.

"How can one escape from what one is, where is the leverage to come from?" Gombrowicz writes. "Our shape penetrates and confines us, as much as from within as from without" (3: 49).(6) My face is also my mask, not just a saving and necessary heteroglossia in Bakhtin's sense, but a hetero-physiognomia, a blend of my features and the faces opposite mine. And if "it is impossible to detach from other people" (3: 77), it is no less impossible to free the face from its own mugs and grimaces. The socializing stick shaken by parents at children - "don't make such faces or they'll get stuck" - has the ring of deepest ontological truth, face as rictus. (Indeed, that's how parents and children make each other up, precisely needing each other to do so.)

But this isn't the whole story. There is more to Gombrowicz, in other words, than just face. There is even philosophy. The mini-opera above that ends with "curling up, rolling up, shutting, shrinking; and trying to be as little as possible," while it may tap the figural marrow of Gombrowicz's work,(7) connects him, quite self-consciously, to a whole matrix of continental thought - though Poland's exact place on that continent is merely another way of putting Gombrowicz's central question. Countries, as my coda on Bruno Schulz suggests, have faces too. The railway set-piece, nested within Diary as a whole, itself the culminating work of Gombrowicz's ouevre, can, without too much of a stretch, be understood to allegorize his own keen awareness of writing in the presence of reading others, the aggregate mugs, reddish pupils, and tiny hairs of writerly/readerly nearness.

Diary is where Gombrowicz achieves a Form possible only with readers' complicity. Unlike more "tactful" French diaries, he wants his own to be "more modern and more conscious, and let it be permeated by the idea that my talent can only arise in connection with you, that only you can excite me to talent, or what's more that only you can create it in me" (1: 35). But Diary is also where he relates anecdotes like the one above or first cousins to it like the following, set against the backdrop of Argentina's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes:

There were ten other people besides ourselves who walked up, looked, then walked away. The mechanical quality of their movements, their muteness, gave them the appearance of marionettes and their faces were nonexistent compared to the faces that peered out of the canvas. This is not the first time that the face of art has irritated me by extinguishing the faces of the living [. . .] Here in the museum, the paintings are crowded, the amount crowds the quality, masterpieces counted in the dozens stop being masterpieces. Who can look closely at a Murillo when the Tiepolo next to it demands attention and thirty other paintings shout: look at us! (1: 22)

This kind of nausea is, in its way, profounder than Existentialist dread, because it draws a continuous line between the Sartrean "L'enfer, c'est l'autres" and the "hell which is other paintings or other books or even this book or this painting directly in front of me." While the image is obviously more dramatic for portraiture, Gombrowicz projects a face onto literature and philosophy, too: I don't just look at books, they hector me, shouting "look at us."

"Ferdydurke was published in 1937," Gombrowicz writes, "before Sartre formulated his theory of the regard d'autrui. But it is owing to the popularization of Sartrean concepts that this aspect of my book has been better understood and assimilated" (3: 8).(8) In Diary volume 3, he lays claim to having similarly presaged French Structuralism. Ferdydurke predates Merleau Ponty (The Phenomenology of Perception), Elias Canetti (Crowds and Power), Georges Poulet ("Criticism and the Experience of Interiority"), and, most relevant of all perhaps, the philosophical thought of Emmanuel Levinas, in which the figure of the face occupies an absolutely central position, the place where ethics is manifested and where the Other cuts across the grain of Self.(9)

But form such a gallery around Gombrowicz, and the philosophers become so many Murillos and Tiepolos, shouting "look: at us! Look at out affinities, our tangencies! See the mugs we fit each other with!"(10) Along with the same character in Ferdydurke who exclaims, "Nothing but face!" one wants to say, "To hell with philosophy!" The ruthlessly consistent vector of Gombrowicz's thought is itself a kind of face that will not stop irrevocably facing, staring, grimacing. To read him is to become intensely self-conscious that he forms the accusative case of your reading, as you, reciprocally, play direct or indirect object to his authorship. In other words, the scandal of human countenance is also a face-to-face mediated by the Book: the face-to-book-to-face. Is such glowering as thaumaturgic as, say, the imprecation signaled by the title of a Manuel Puig novel, "Cursed be the Reader of These Pages," or as collusive as Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book"? It is certainly no less insistent about the gauntlets it flings down. For as; a dueling character in Ferdydurke exclaims, "There are faces! There are slaps!"

Take the case of Sartre, whom Gombrowicz mentions frequently in Diary. A Sartrean reading of the chapped skin, little hairs on the ear, hot trickles, contraction-of-the self, and nearness of the Other in the train compartment scene would have visage held hostage to regard, face at the mercy of gaze, the For-Itself haunted by an all-too-present staring Other. But perhaps the scene works the other way around, as a rejoinder to Sartre, a face to counter a look, an oblique way of acknowledging uneasily shared intellectual space.(11) That becomes a less figurative possibility when one comes upon another anecdote only pages later about the young Jean-Paul Sartre himself that bears for Gombrowicz a wholly Gombrowiczian stamp. (He even admits at the outset how much the anecdote resonates for him, for it is "not the first time that anecdotes add up like this" in his experience.)

Scene Two: A Street in Paris.

Strolling in heavy traffic on l'avenue de l'Opera one night, Sartre the pre-philosopher is caught up by a surging crowd of pedestrians who suddenly appear to him paradoxically as both nonentities and sources of dread.

It was especially hideous (as he confessed to friends later), when we experience a man a short distance away as an almost physical threat, yet if, at the same time, he is dehumanized by the mass, only the thousandth repetition of a man, a duplicate, an example, almost a monkey; when he is therefore, simultaneously, because of the numbers, very close and awfully far. Having found himself in this throng-crush, this people-nonpeople, our still young, nonauthor of Being and Nothingness takes to summoning loneliness withhis whole soul: O! To stand out! Be apart! Break away! Escape! But people were standing on his feet." (3: 40)

The experience becomes formative. Sartre decides to seek refuge in philosophy, mounting a defensive retreat into his consciousness and the concreteness of his personal existence - "a double wall with which he hermetically sealed himself from others, having slammed the doors of his 'I' after him" (Gombrowicz interrupts the flow of the story to tell us that evidently Sartre's existentialism began "in a crowd.")

Sartre reluctantly admits that after immuring himself in his selfhood, he grew less happy with the idea of isolation as being sustained, existentially, in isolation. He notices, "in his peripheral vision, that it would find a glad repose in the thousands of [other] souls threatened by numbers." This confusion between "philosophy and numbers," between one's own thought and the press of others, between a spot taken up in a museum and dozens of staring paintings, Sartre cannot seem to transcend: "Neither Consciousness nor the Concrete has the right to grow fat on such yeast."

Worse even than this resurfacing terror - "isolation fattened by numbers" - is the realization that this fear itself is not alone:"It immediately became magnified by the numbers of all those others whom he could identify himself with - and the burning of a tree became a conflagration of an entire forest in our philosopher." Sartre turns to himself one more time - "in being the Only One, I cannot be one of the many!" - and decides to resuscitate the Other whom he had previously annihilated philosophically - "rediscover, recognize, reinstitute, re-establish my bond with him!" He recognizes the Other's freedom, gives the Other the character of Subject, calls the Other into being. The horrifying consequence? "Our philosopher has found himself face-to-face with full numbers. He who took fright at the Parisian mob now saw himself facing all mobs, all individuals, everywhere and always."

Sartre presses on. Being and Nothingness is published. He throws himself into political causes, holds fast to the Sartrean pillars of responsibility and engagement, once again endeavors to "take humanity onto his shoulders."

And he might have made it, if not for this, if not for the fact that numbers had again mixed into the whole, including everyone, overflowing in a way that was really indecent [. . .] the number of copies of his work [. . .] the number of editions [. . .] the number of readers [. . .] the number of commentaries [. . .] the number of thoughts that hatched out of his thoughts and the number of thoughts hatching out of these thoughts [. . .] and the number of all the different variants of these variants.

(3: 42)

Far worse now than any "throng-crush" of "people-nonpeople" who approach or surround one on the street is the infinitely greater upsurge of readers, being besieged by whom (as Gombrowicz puts it in Ferdydurke) "is like being born in a thousand narrow minds (17)." To paraphrase Sartre's famous observation about Flaubert, on est lire - one is read.

The anecdote ends on a note of deflationary resignation. Sartre is distraught, wants to commit suicide, tries to commit suicide, but finally consoles himself with the thought that even though the swelling tide of readers is catastrophic because of the sheer numbers, at the end of the day it all comes to nothing "as a result of these same numbers," since dispersal actually hides a secret cushion: the more thought and language are disseminated, the less they're really understood: "people talk but no one knows about what, one about this, another about that, and somehow nothing comes of it" (3: 42).

The end result is not so very different from that of the railway compartment: "each person is curling up, rolling up, shutting, shrinking, limiting to a minimum his eyes, ears, lips, trying to be as little as possible." Where the one is a duel, the other is a skirmish. As Gombrowicz puts it in Diary, "I am tumbling into publicism along with you and the rest of the world" (1: 35). And it is face - textual and interpersonal - that drags me out of the amnion and clandestinity of "me," and pushes me into public view. Thus do faces not only "answer" backsides in Gombrowicz, they deliver kicks to them, and send their owners tumbling.

The train compartment and Sartre versus everybody, the face-to-face and the book-as-face: Gombrowicz makes human countenance a scandal in both. In the railway compartment it was the too-close Other, a foil or antagonist, a counter-face, a synechoche for the crowd. In the case of Sartre, it is a crowd that is finally only imagined but just as threatening - a virtual throng, the surplus of unseeable reading Others who lock eyes onto him through his book.(12) Medusa or the Maenads: stared at, or dispersed into pieces. A facial claustrophobia or its agoraphobic counterpart. Hairs, sweat, and pupils, or "those human opinions, the abyss of views and criticisms of your intelligence, your heart, every detail of your being, which opens up in front of you when you have incautiously clothed your thoughts in words, put them on paper and spread them among men!" (1: 16-17).

But instead of leaving the impression of a tidy opposition, I see these two scenes of otherness either squared off against me or catching me by surprise as converging upon a third, from a Diary entry that precedes the other two by only pages, that combines features of both.

Scene Three: Poland; or the Space of Literature


I have long known about this edition prepared with such pains;taking effort, yet when I finally saw the book [a recent French translation of Schulz's Cinnamon Shops] I winced [. . .] He first showed up at my place, on Sluzewska, after the publication of Cinnamon Shops. He was small, strange, chimerical, focused, intense, almost feverish and this is how our conversations got started, usually on walks. That we needed one another is indisputable. We found ourselves in a vacuum, our literary situations were permeated with a void, our admirers were spectral [. . .] After reading my first book, Bruno discovered a companion in me, for me to furnish him with the Outside without which an inner life is condemned to a monologue - and he wanted me to use him in the same way [. . .] And here is where the "miss" or "dislocation," to use the language of our works, came in; for his; extended hand did not meet my own. I did not return his regard, I gave him abysmally little, almost nothing, of myself, our relationship was a fiasco; but perhaps this secretly worked to our advantage? Perhaps he and I needed fiasco rather than happy symbiosis. Today I can speak of this openly because he has died. (3: 3)

The rest of this extended reflection on Gombrowicz's fellow writer and Pole, Bruno Schulz, is forthright, unsparing, and often brutal, almost as though Gombrowicz and Schulz are positioned opposite one another in a railway compartment (as indeed they often are, figuratively speaking, when critics speak about them in the same breath).(13) Put another way, it is almost as if Gombrowicz's reading of Schulz summons up a face for him which he must deflect apotropaically, not merely by "wincing" or turning away "Bruno's regard," but by fitting him with a mug. Put a third way, Bruno is made to suffer Sartre's fate, a writer at the mercy of a reader's grimacing.

Schulz himself, in the last work of fiction published before his death, provides a kind of inadvertent confirmation of Gombrowicz's insight (though an author's fiction should never serve as affidavit for the life):

You rub against somebody, attach your homelessness and nothingness to someone alive and warm. The other person walks away and does not feel your burden, does not notice that he is carrying you on his shoulders, that like a parasite you cling momentarily to his life.(14) (Complete Fiction 298)

Gombrowicz mounts a sustained diatribe against such symbiosis, the alternative to which - "fiasco" - etches into much sharper relief the rubbing, clinging, carrying, burdening of mutual need whose parasitism is also allergy.

The fiasco of the Other, of the self pressed against, subjected to, provoked by otherness is what I have termed a "scandal" - the ordeal of intersubjectivity as physiognomy, as exteriority, but also as reading, in both cases what will not leave off inexorably facing. Gombrowicz's stand is the one of most resistance, since the integrity of one's own face is at stake: one has to stare back, and dole out grimaces and mugs in the same measure that they are received. But the stand Gombrowicz takes against Schulz exceeds the stuff of private discomfiture, since it takes place as a "tumbling into publicism" on the plane of Diary itself. Schulz and Gombrowicz are not alone in this particular compartment, the dominant to his submissive,(15) for to witness the face-to-face is also to become a party to it. The real scandal of countenance is that it is a conjoint phenomenon; no one - not even readers - gets a free look.

Inasmuch as the Self is created or deformed from the outside, it wears a face. Inasmuch as the Self can lay claim to a latency or capacity for estrangement within, it wears a face. Inasmuch as the Other always enters unannounced, it wears a face. And at Gombrowicz's most authorially self-conscious, inasmuch as face looks out onto the space of reading, the bearing and imposing of faces is also something texts, authors, and writers can be said to undergo.

In the introduction to the Spanish edition of Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz addresses his readers in closing,

I therefore beg you to keep silent [. . .] For the time being - if you wish to let me know that the book pleased you - when you see me simply touch your right ear. If you touch your left ear, I shall know that you didn't like it, and if you touch your nose it will mean that you are not sure [. . . T]hus we shall avoid uncomfortable and even ridiculous situations and understand each other in silence. My greetings to all. (9)

The Diary, his culminating and most personalized work in a flagrantly personalized oeuvre, transposes that virtual encounter onto the plane of reading itself. The figuration is less distinct - as in both the Schulz and the Sartre anecdotes, one has to "conjure" the face oneself - but the self-consciousness about being under the eyes of reading others is, if anything, even more profound. The Gombrowiczian face, one could say, is a kind of symptom (in Lacan's sense): summoned in the act of being warded off.(16)

What of the face in Schulz, the Schulzian face? It deserves more than a cameo appearance here, so I pivot to it by way of contrast, and conclude. His relative obscurity, the frustration of a provincial fate, the ambient pathos of his personality, his Jewishness in a Catholic and pre-war Poland - if anything, Schulz was even more conscious of the spell cast by the face, and his own need to conjure and ward it off. His fiction and his surviving correspondence show a writer in overdetermined relationship to readers - those whose faces he knew,(17) as well as prospective ones he could only invoke or imply.

Unlike its counterpart in Gombrowicz, however, the Schulzian face throws down no gauntlet. It does not believe in dueling. Nor does it proliferate, finding refuge in metonymy, safety in numbers. Instead, it lives a wholly metaphorical life. It is subject to the same forces that preside over everything else in Schulz's mythified fictional world: a fundamental principle of transmigrated form, objects turned into signs, persons collapsed into allegories of themselves, private space and time contracted into further depths of privacy or else dispersed into otherness. The face appears, only to recede again, much as Gombrowicz says of Schulz himself in Diary, "extraneous," "superfluous." But perhaps there lies its significance, a minor element in a minor modernism that nonetheless reads the larger-in-scale.

The very first story of Cinnamon Shops, "August," describes a "half-wit girl," Touya, whose face "works like the bellows of an accordion. Every now and then a sorrowful grimace folds it into a thousand vertical pleats, but astonishment soon straightens it out again" (Schulz 6). The simile that conveys this figure (or her face) promises a kind of plenitude, the opposite pole to which - hollowed out or contracted space - is emblematized by Touya's mother, "white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn" (7). The story ends with a face which is the empty glove to Touya's accordion:

[Emil's] pale flabby face, seemed from day to day to lose its outline, to become a white blank with a pale network of veins, like lines on an old map [. . .] He was sitting on a small, low sofa [and] it seemed as if it were only his clothes that had been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair. His face seemed like the breath of a face - a smudge which an unknown passer-by had left in the air. From the mist of his face, the protruding white of a pale eye emerged with difficulty, enticing me with a wink [. . .] but all fell away again and his face receded into indifference and became absent and finally faded away altogether." (10)

The pulse of Schulz's fiction oscillates between such fadings or diminishings, and corresponding pullulations of "immoderate fertility," as in the story "Pan":

It was the face of a tramp or a drunkard. A tuft of filthy hair bristled over his broad forehead rounded like a stone washed by a stream. That forehead was now creased into deep furrows. I did not know whether it was the pain. The burning heat of the sun, or that superhuman effort that had eaten into his face and stretched those features near to cracking. His dark eyes bored into me with a fixedness of supreme despair or suffering. He both looked at me and did not, he saw me and did not see. His eyes were like bursting shells, strained in a transport of pain or the wild delights of inspiration. (Complete Fiction 47)

The face in Schulz folds in on its own metaphoricity, producing exquisite similes that, in John Updike's trenchant description from his introduction to the Penguin edition of Schulz's Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, evince both the prose's strenuous artifice and its harrowing effect (Updike xiii-xiv). The faces are their metaphors, wholly figural productions of language. There, are, thus (as there must be in Gombrowicz), neither counterfaces nor mugs. "It is part of my existence," says a character in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, "to be the parasite of metaphors, so easily am I carried away by the first simile that comes along" (Complete Fiction 309),(18) a fate shared by the Schulzian face as well. The counterpart in Schulz to Gombrowicz's train compartment scene might therefore be this:

For a time I had the company of a man in a ragged railwayman's uniform - silent, engrossed in his thoughts. He pressed a handkerchief to his swollen, aching face. Later even he disappeared, having slipped out unobserved at some stop. He left behind him the mark of his body in the straw that lay on the floor, and a shabby black suitcase he had forgotten. (Complete Fiction 242)

Only in the story "Tailor's Dummies" from Cinnamon Shops, where Schulz lays claim to his most extravagant of pathetic fallacies, does he approximate Gombrowicz's notion of face as something imposed rather than simply possessed, faces or expressions that "imprison" or coerce the simulacra (waxwork figures, dummies) that wear them, but the seeming cruelty here is merely the special case of a general principle: "a certain monism of the life substance" for which "specific objects are nothing more than mask. The life of the substance consists in the assuming and consuming of numberless masks. The migration of forms is the essence of life" (Letters 113).

How Schulz might have extended or complicated such mythopoesis is a question that remains fixed in the grimace imposed upon it by a Gestapo officer's bullet in 1942.(19) Schulz's death, as Gombrowicz coldly notes, licenses a different kind of facing - something Gombrowicz had already prefigured during Schulz's lifetime, when he drew him out in an exchange of open letters, exposing his face in public.(20)

Gombrowicz, it seems, required foils and counter-faces to articulate the features of his own. To this degree, his criticism and his demeanor as public intellectual were of a piece with his art. Intersubjective space becomes an infinite regress of metonymy, the face that begets other faces as well as the face of human encounter that transposes into the face of reading. Schulz also sustains a consistency between life and art, but it is the more vulnerable, because fixed, consistency of metaphor. Faces don't transpose, but transubstantiate instead. Moreover, there is no face-to-face. The face is an object, a kind of pure passivity, held out by the fiction to be stared at (as to read Schulz's fiction, analogously, is typically the experience of languor and torpid assent, an almost post-coital feeling of abeyance)(21)

Even away from his fiction, when Schulz wrote correspondence to others, or answered Gombrowicz's open letter with one of his own, or produced critical essays on the subconscious or the mythologizing of reality or a Republic of Dreams, the face - as simply one metaphoric emblem among multiple others - is asked to do a different kind of work than in Gombrowicz. "A consecration by the ceremony of the spectacle" (Sartre, What is Literature 57): that is Sartre's description of the face-to-face instituted by reading, and it accurately conveys the religiosity of Schulz's prose, its air of nunc stans that put Gombrowicz so ill at ease.(22) If, thus, a parallel Sartrean exemplification to the one in Gombrowicz can be found for Schulz, it would be the aesthetic first principle spelled out in Sartre's essay "Why Write?": "Kant believes that the work of art first exists as fact and that it is then seen. Whereas it exists only if one looks at it and if it is first appeal, pure exigence to exist [. . .] The work of art is a value because it is an appeal" (57). Consider this last scene.

Scene Four: Europe; or the Space of Myth and History

During his lifetime [Napoleon's] face may have been the face of an individual. Certainly, those near him knew that smile, that clouding brow, the flashes the moment lit up on his face. To us, from a distance, individual traits increasingly dim and blur, they seem to give out a radiance from within, as of larger, more massive features carrying in themselves hundreds of lost and irrecoverable faces. In the act of dying, merging with eternity, that face flickers with memories, roams through a series of faces, ever paler, more condensed, until out of the heaping of those faces there settles on it at last, and hardens into its final mask, the countenance of Poland - forever. (Letters 62)

That is the conclusion of a critical essay, "The Formation of Legends," that Schulz wrote to commemorate the death of Jozef Pitsudski, Marshal of Poland. It treats greatness in an abstract sense, but also as the lasting effect personified by Napoleon Western Europe has had over its Central and Eastern European Other. The receding of individual features that permits a heightening of more massive ones, the merging, condensation, and heaping of Faces into Mask, the expense of Others that silhouettes a Self: the scandal of countenance here is the scandal of metaphor generally in Schulz, an equipoise of line and shadow.

The face, one could say, is the condition of chiarascuro, and spatializes a similar notion from Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass about time:

What it is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided, and allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air; homeless, and errant? Could it be that time is too narrow for all events? Could it be that all the seats within time might have been sold? (Complete Fiction 131)

An axis of substitution shunts branch lines of time or supernumerary faces into a zone of irrecoverability, where they are nevertheless preserved metaphorically. Perhaps this exorbitancy of metaphor, the transporting of contraband that cannot otherwise be registered (as Schulz puts it in Sanatorium), is what Gombrowicz meant when he charged Schulz of approaching art "as if it were a lake he intended to drown in" (3: 6). Without endorsing Gombrowicz's manichean distinctions between himself and Schulz as laid out in his Diary - "Bruno was a man denying himself. I was seeking myself. He wanted annihilation. I wanted realization. He was born to be a slave. I was born to be a master. He was of the Jewish race. I was from a family of Polish gentry" (3: 6) - the Schulzian face does what the Gombrowiczian face cannot. It doesn't flinch or recompose itself. Not staring - or grimacing or wincing or mugging - back is how it stares back.

His face matured early, and strange to say while experience and the trials of living spared the empty inviolability, the strange marginality of his life, his features reflected experiences that had passed him by, elements in a biography never to be fulfilled; these experiences, although completely illusory, molded and sculpted his face into the mask of a great tragedian, which expressed the wisdom and sadness of his existence.

(Complete Fiction 275)

Witold Gombrowicz was born on an estate at Maloszyce in southeast Poland, lived in Warsaw as a child, became stranded in Argentina on the eve of World War II, and returned to Europe in 1963 an internationally recognized writer, four years before his death. Bruno Schulz lived, wrote, and died in the southeastern provincial town of Drohobycz. Even in life, they seem to personify different rhetorical figures. Between them is suspended the countenance of Poland in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Janus-faced and self-estranged, itself haunted by the death's head of National Socialism at one end and the grimace of Communism at the Other. But in tracking the scandal of face on a lesser scale in both writers, one descries the outline of that same national countenance, as reading makes one stumble ineluctably from ethics to politics to history, from one publicism into another. From that vantage, metonymy and metaphor are merely different ways of filling in its features.

Witold Gombrowicz, Polish classist exile, facing Argentine train passenger, or, East European Other facing South American counterpart. Witold Gombrowicz, author, facing Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, or, hyper-kynical modernist(23) facing modern intellectual Napoleon. Witold Gombrowicz, diarist and novelist, facing a multiplicity of readers, or, writing subject facing lecteurs et semblables infini. Witold Gombrowicz facing Bruno Schulz, or, Polish emigre dead of heart failure in 1969 facing Polish Jew murdered in 1942, or, wholly original writer who sustained an aesthetic politics of facing to the end facing wholly original writer whose "spiritual genealogy" Fate chose to preserve in amber. Witold Gombrowicz facing this article's own author and this author's readers, or, W. G. facing A. Z. N. and. . .

To read Gombrowicz, thus, is to become subject to what another face-obsessed writer, Thomas De Quincey, called "the Piranesi effect," the multiplication of face as in a hall of mirrors, from which (as Sartre might say), there is no exit, no about-face. If I have seemed to compress those many planes or images here, it is owing in no small part to the experience of reading Gombrowicz, whose uncanniness resembles nothing so much as the twinning of forced otherness and extreme self-consciousness in a staring contest. From that vantage, the scandal of facing is also its reason for being. One takes up the gauntlet and reads.


1 Gombrowicz and Erving Goffman converge at more than just a shared place in the alphabet. See especially Interaction Ritual: Essay in Face-to-Face Behavior, where Goffman describes the sociology of encounter in terms of "facework," and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

2 "Face" joins "Part," "Immaturity," and especially "Form" in Gombrowicz's specialized vocabulary for expressing the primacy of the inter-human. The following crucial explanation of the role played by Form in all of Gombrowicz's work comes from Diary, volume 1: "The most important, most extreme, and most incurable dispute is that waged in us by two of our most basic strivings: the one that desires form, shape, definition, and the other which protests against shape, and does not want form [. . .] That entire philosophical and ethical dialectic of ours takes place against an immensity, which is called shapelessness, which is neither darkness nor light, but exactly a mixture of everything: ferment, disorder, purity, and accident" (93). See also the extended remarks on Form in Diary, volume 2, 3-5 and 184-85; chapter 5 of A Kind of Testament, a short autobiographical work published shortly before Gombrowicz's death, 69-82; and of course the fictive exploration of this construct in the novels Ferdydurke, Cosmos, and Pornografia. Ewa M. Thompson's Witold Gombrowicz and Tomislav Z. Longinovi's Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels offer helpful secondary treatments, as does the recently published essay collection, Gombrowicz's Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality.

3 Compare, for example, Ferdydurke: "Oh, if I could have seen just one undistorted face to enable me to feel the distortion of my own! But alas! Around me were nothing but battered, laundered and ironed faces which reflected my own as in a distorting mirror - and I was held captive by this facial mirage" (49-50).

4 Later on in Diary, volume 3, Gombrowicz will indulge in a "close scrutiny of bodies": "I drew physical defects out of the crowds, oh look, flat chest, anemia of the neck, hunchback, twisted trunk, the tragedy of those limbs [. . .] I was persistent about seeking out a certain defect, a kind of very French inelegance dancing about their very lips, noses, not of all Frenchman but quite a few" (87).

5 For the face is also made scandalous by the "backside" or "thigh," as Gombrowicz parcels out the body into various parts in Ferdydurke. An otherness infiltrates the root of a person's metaphysical integrity quite independently of any human Other, a species of alienation Gombrowicz calls "the rump" to suggest than any Self Project is already undermined by the innate surrealism of the body. "I even imagined that my body was not entirely homogeneous [. . .] that my head was laughing at and mocking my thigh, that my thigh was making merry at my head, that my finger was ridiculing my heart and my heart my brain, while my eye made sport of my nose and my nose of my eye [. . .] my limbs and the various parts of my body violently ridiculing each other in a general atmosphere of caustic and wounding raillery" (13-14).

6 In the introduction to Pornografia, Gombrowicz writes, "Man, tortured by his mask, fabricates secretly [. . .] a secondary domain of compensation" (8).

7 A parallel moment, for instance, occurs in Diary, volume 2: "I was walking along a eucalyptus-lined avenue when a cow sauntered out from behind a tree. I stopped and we looked each other in the eye. Her cowness shocked my humanness to such a degree - the moment our eyes met was so tense - I stopped dead in my tracks and lost my bearings as a man, that is, as a member of the human species. The strange feeling that I was apparently discovering for the first time was the shame of a man come face-to-face with an animal. I allowed here to look and see me - this made us equal - and resulted in my also becoming an animal but a strange even forbidden one, I would say. I continued my walk, but I felt uncomfortable [. . .] in nature, surrounding me on all sides, as if it were [. . .] watching me" (24). The volume closes with an extended episode (231-239) that contains the following: "Face to face. Alone. Hand to Hand. Foot to foot. Knee to knee. Face to face. Until this stupid identity begins to irritate me in the room, and I think, how is it that he repeats me, that I repeat him, face to face" (231).

8 See also Diary 1, 181-187. In A Kind of Testament, Gombrowicz makes similar claims about structuralism: "Yes I am a structuralist just as I am an existentialist. I am bound to structuralism by my approach to Form. Of course the human personality, which I believe is created 'between men,' in the human context which defines a system of dependencies by no means dissimilar to a 'structure.' In what I wrote before the war you will find expressions which have now been incorporated by the structuralists" (152). In Diary, volume 3, he says irascibly, "and please replace the word form with structuralism and you will see me at the center of today's French intellectual issues" (182).

9 The provenance of the face trope in Levinas is probably dual, appearing conspicuously at the end of Franz Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption, a work that influenced Levinas deeply, but also saturating the Biblical and Rabbinic texts that undergird much of Levinas's philosophy. In Hebrew, the word for face also means presence or selfhood, and it appears in numerous scenes of encounter in the Pentateuch. As Moses "hides his face" from God on Sinai in Exodus 10, for example, so God's answering threat of absence from the plane of human events is called hister panim - the hiding of face - in Deuteronomy. Though not particularly Levinasian, perhaps most relevant in the light of Gombrowicz's fiction may be the verses in Genesis 31:2, "And Jacob saw that Laban's face was not with him, as it had been in the best," and 31:5, "Laban's face is not to me as it was previously." As Avivah Zornberg brilliantly reads them in her The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, "Laban's face is part of Jacob's world; he carries its impress, its changing looks around with him." She adduces a homiletic gloss on a related Talmudic passage (Berakhot 6b) that centers on the self-consciousness induced by the gaze of others: "one who is too much affected by other's faces finds his own face turning all colors, blushing and paling in response to their changing expressions." (206)

10 The credible parallels Ewa M. Thompson draws between Gombrowicz and the work of Jacques Lacan and Rene Girard in Witold Gombrowicz (139-56) make the Levinasian resemblance, through French phenomenology, by comparison, unsurprising. The most uncannily Levinasian moment in Diary - as though it came from Totality and Infinity itself - occurs in volume 3: "The point is (and I have noticed it for quite a while) that some sort of theory [. . .] imposes itself upon me in my relation to people: I know that essence powerfully [. . .] and I try to rouse the right reflex in myself. I know, I feel, the "how" and "whence" and "why" of this other's "approaching" or "emerging" and what our "disposition" is toward one another should not be a matter of indifference; I know that it should be more fundamental than one can express in words; and that it should be "introductory," or "preceding" my other sensation constituting something like a background" (23). But perhaps the closest family ties, fittingly enough, can be tracked to the novel La Carne de Rene (Rene's Flesh), by the Cuban writer Virgilio Pinero (whom Gombrowicz knew in Argentina, and to whom he delegated the responsibility of translating Ferdydurke into Spanish). Pinero's novel features a relentless body-consciousness, the sado-masochism of pedagogy, and various scenes of grimacing and distorted face that all undoubtedly echo Ferdydurke.

11 Speaking of Sartre again, for instance, at the end of the entry for 1962, Gombrowicz chides him for his "cacophony of levels, tones, concepts," his "sudden tumbling from the peaks onto the flat plain," the switch from one voice expressive of "the spirit," to a second voice one associates with "a schoolmaster and moralist." He tells the following anecdote. "After going to bed with an elevator boy, the heroine of one of Thomas Mann's novels cries out in exaltation, 'What, I, Madame so-and-so, a poet, lady of society, in bed with a naked elevator boy!' I think this anecdote is right for Sartre not so much because of the dialectics of the 'base' which it contains as for the 'superstructure,' the elevator. For even in our time, one occasionally comes upon one of those scrupulous people who, panic-stricken that not his own substance but a mechanism is raising him aloft presses the button of the same machine to ride down as quickly as possible" (2: 60-61). And in the entry for 1963, he opines, "Half of his deductions from Being and Nothingness are unacceptable to me, they do not correspond to my truest experiences in life" (3: 93). Later in the same volume, he tells us, perversely, that he only writes about Sartre anyway in order to distract himself from visiting Berlin on a Ford Foundation grant: "It is obvious - never write 'about Berlin, 'Paris, ' only about oneself [. . .] in Berlin and Paris" (110).

12 Or in other words, a regard de l'autrui completely unimaginable within the pages of Being and Nothingness. In happier days - at least as recounted by an adult Sartre looking back on his childhood - a very different relationship to being read is imagined in a passage which describes with immense pleasure the prospect of becoming a "precipitate of language" disseminated through writing. "My bones are made of leather and cardboard, my parchment-skinned flesh smells of glue and mushrooms, I sit in state through a hundred thirty pounds of paper, thoroughly at ease. I am reborn, I at last become a whole man. [. . .] Hands take me down, open me, spread me flat on the table, smooth me, and sometimes make me creak. [. . .] My mind is in bits and pieces. All the better. People read me, I leap to the eye; they talk to me. I'm in everyone's mouth, a universal and individual language: I become a prospective curiosity in millions of gazes; to him who can love me, I step aside and disappear: I exist nowhere, at last I am, I'm everywhere. I'm a parasite on mankind, my blessings eat into it and force it to keep reviving my absence" (The Words 194-195).

13 Unfortunately, most of this discussion is carried on in languages other than English. See, however, Russell E. Brown's Myths and Relatives: Seven Essays on Bruno Schulz, Diana Kuprel's "Errant Events on the Branch Tracks of Time: Bruno Schulz and Mythical Consciousness," and David Jarrett's "Bruno Schulz and the Map of Poland."

14 The passage comes from perhaps Schulz's most Gombrowicz-like story, "The Old Age Pensioner," which parallels Ferdydurke in its description of an adult's juvenilization.

15 The entry on Schulz is laced with the vocabulary of perversion and pyscho-pathology, and the lineaments of Gombrowicz's own personality, not least his homosexuality, can be discerned between its lines - which is only fitting, since the face-to-face in Gombrowicz is, in this sense, always interlinear - a stretto or stichomythia.

16 In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek explains the dual meaning of the symptom in Lacan, an index to human personality as well as a semiotic choice:

The Lacanian answer to the question: From where does the repressed return? is [. . .] paradoxically: From the future. Symptoms are meaningless traces, their meaning is not discovered, excavated from the hidden depth of the past, but constructed retroactively - the analysis produces the truth; that is, the signifying frame which gives the symptoms their symbolic place and meaning [. . .] What we must bear in mind here is the radical ontological status of symptom: symptom, conceived as sinthome, [Lacan's coinage, meaning (among other things), a synthesis between symptom and fantasy] is literally our only substance, the positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject. (55, 75)

The way in which it takes shape between analyst and analysand is analogous to the double bind of literary interpretation, chaining writer and reader in a complex exchange of cathexes. See in this context Hanjo Berressem's The "Evil Eye" of Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold Gombrowicz of the Gaze.

17 One of his letters begins, "Dear Classmate, of course I remember you, and your face springs vividly before my eyes" (Letters 89).

18 Compare also the story, "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," for the description of a man-dog: "How great is the power of prejudice! How powerful the hold of fear! How blind I had been! It was not a dog, it was a man. A chained man, whom by a simplifying metaphoric error, I had taken for a dog." (Complete Fiction 269)

19 In a letter to a publisher dated October 10, 1935, Schulz says that The Messiah (since lost) will be "the continuation of Cinnamon Shops" (Letters 103).

20 In his "Open Letter to Bruno Schulz" from two years earlier, Gombrowicz accuses his compatriot of a mandarin facade that remains opaque to the common reader ("the doctor's wife"), exhorting him at the end to "show us this expression on your face, give us one look at it, how gentle Bruno shakes off the opinion of the doctor's wife from Line 18" (Schulz, Letters 119). Schulz's riposte was witty and unafraid, and certainly places Gombrowicz's assessment of him there and in his Diary in a different light. Two years after this exchange, Schulz published a review of Ferdydurke in the journal Skamander in 1938, which, to use Gombrowicz's terms, reflects almost undistilled "symbiosis." One of its organizing metaphors, however, is telling: "Both the troubles, the misfortunes, and the puns of form, and the torture of man on form's Procrustean bed, excite and move him passionately. But how meager and dry, how poor is the skeleton of those problems lifted out of the living organism of the novel Ferdydurke. It is scarcely one cross-section of the living, whirling bulk of its body, hardly one of the thousand aspects of this thousand-faceted creature. Here we finally encounter a natural, first-hand mind that has not been stuffed full of ready-made ideas. Whenever we lay our hands on the flesh of this work, we feel a powerful musculature of thought, muscles, and sinews of an athletic anatomy that needs no artificial padding. This book bursts from an abundance of ideas, overflows with creative and destructive energy." The same somatic conceit concludes the piece, reproving criticism in its clinical impropriety: "Yet how much must the work, through this sort of stripping and medical prepping of the bare skeleton suffer damage to its unlimited perspective [. . .] that bestows on Gombrowicz's ideas the value of a microcosmos, the value of a universal model of the world and life!" (Letters 163-64).

21 Which is to say of the prose's sexual energies, that, unlike Gombrowicz's, there is no friction. It is worth pursuing the question of eros as a differentiating category for these two writers, say, along lines suggested by Barthes's distinction between texts of plaisir and those of jouissance in The Pleasure of the Text. If texts of pleasure can be linked to a "comfortable practice of reading," and texts of bliss to "a state of loss" or discomfort (14), Gombrowicz and Schulz might be thought of, likewise, in terms of the text that chafes or abrades on the one hand, and the text that slides and slips away on the other.

22 "He was a fanatic of art, its slave. He entered this cloister and submitted to its rigors, carrying out its strictest injunctions with great humility in order to attain perfection. [. . .] Falling to his knees before the Spirit, he experienced sensual pleasure. He wanted to be a servant, nothing more. He craved nonexistence" (7).

23 See Peter Sloterdijk's highly Gombrowiczian Critique of Cynical Reason, especially the section "Pyschosomatics of the Zeitgeist" and its first chapter, "Physiognomic Main Text." I thank Felicia Steele for discussions about Gombrowicz in this regard.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Berressem, Hanjo. The "Evil Eye" of Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold Gombrowicz of the Gaze. Albany: State U of New York P, 1995.

Brown, Russell E. Myths and Relatives: Seven Essays on Bruno Schulz. Munchen: Verlag Otto Sagner, 1991.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essay in Face-to-Face Behavior. Chicago: Adline, 1967.

-----. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary. 3 vols. Trans. Lillian Vallee. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988-93.

-----. Ferdydurke. Trans. Eric Mosbacher. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1961.

-----. A Kind of Testament. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder and Boyars, 1973.

-----. Pornografia. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder and Boyars, 1966.

Jarrett, David. "Bruno Schulz and the Map of Poland." Chicago Review 40. 1 (1994): 73-84.

Kuprel, Diana. "Errant Events on the Branch Tracks of Time: Bruno Schulz and Mythical Consciousness." Slavic & East European Journal 40.1(Spring 1996): 100-17.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomfield: Indiana UP, 1996.

-----. Collected Philosophical Papers. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

-----. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alfonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Longinovi, Tomislav Z. Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1993.

Newton, Adam Zachary. Facing Black and Jew: Literature as Public Space in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

-----. The Fence and the Neighbor: Emmanuel Levinas, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Israel Among the Nations. Forthcoming.

-----. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Pinero, Virgilio. Rene's Flesh. Trans. Mark Schafer. New York: Marsilio, 1989.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Words. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller, 1964.

-----. "What is Literature?" and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Schulz, Bruno. The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz. Trans. Celia Wieniewska. New York: Walker, 1989.

-----. Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Trans. Michael Elred. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Thompson, Ewa M. Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Updike, John. Introduction. Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. By Bruno Schulz. Trans. Celia Wieniewska. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Ziarek, Ewa Ponoswka, ed. Gombrowicz's Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

Zornberg, Avivah. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Newton, Adam Zachary
Date:Jun 22, 1998
Previous Article:The ethics of reading Elie Wiesel's 'Night.'.
Next Article:Who has the right to feel?: the ethics of literary empathy.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters