Witold Gombrowicz on Jorge Luis Borges


From volume 1 (1955) of the Diary:

This supper, however, was also attended by Borges, probably the most talented Argentine writer, with an intelligence hewn on his own personal suffering. I, on the other hand, justly or unjustly, considered my intelligence to be my passport, something that assures my simplisms the right to exist in the civilized world. Bypassing technical difficulties, my unruly Spanish and Borges’s faulty pronunciation—he spoke quickly and incomprehensibly—bypassing my impatience, pride, and anger, which were the consequence of a painful egotism and restrictions in foreignness, what was the possibility of understanding between me and that intellectual, aesthetic, and philosophical Argentina? I was enthralled by the darkness of the Retiro, they, by the lights of Paris. For me, that unconfessed, silent youth of the country was a vibrating confirmation of my own emotional states and thanks to them the country swept me up like a melody or like the herald of a melody. They saw no beauty in this.

 For me, if there was something in Argentina that attained the fullness of its expression and could appeal as art, style, form, this something appeared only in the early phases of development, in the young people, never in the adults. What is it that is important in a young person? Not his reason, nor experience, knowledge, technique, which are always worse and weaker than in an established and consolidated man, but exactly and exclusively his youth.

This is his only trump card. Yet they saw nothing positive in this and that Argentine elite remained one rather of docile and diligent young people, whose ambition was to learn as quickly as possible from their elders. Ah yes, to equal France and England! Ah yes, to grow up, to grow up quickly! And how could they be young, if personally, of course, these were already people of a certain age and their personal status clashed with that general youth of their country, their belonging to a higher social class excluded a real fusing with the lower stratum.

Therefore, Borges, for example, was someone who took into consideration only his own age, tearing himself completely from his base, this was a mature man, an intellectual and artist, who was accidentally born in Argentina, though he could have just as easily been born in Montparnasse.

Yet the atmosphere of the country was such that in it this international, sophisticated Borges (for, if he was an Argentinean, it was in a European way) could not capture the undertone. He was something extraneous, pasted on, he was an ornament. It would have been almost nonsensical to demand that he, being older, should express youth directly, that he, being superior, should literally express inferiority.

Yet I held it against them that they could not work out their own relationship to culture, in harmony with their reality, with the reality of Argentina. Even if from a personal vantage point some of them were mature, they still lived in a country where maturity was weaker than immaturity and here, in Argentina, art, religion, and philosophy were not the same as in Europe. Instead of transplanting them here live onto this soil and then moaning that the tree is rachitic—would it not have been better to raise something more in harmony with the nature of their land?

 From vol. 2 (1959):

The artists of this country (and the entire continent) cannot take a single step without a crutch—be it Marxism or Paris, ancient Indian digs or Toynbee—dandyism as much as anarchism as much as monarchism (I have seen these types as well). They live on elaborate essays. And because the word inflates quickly in this easy, soft life, all of the -isms end in mere verbiage. The word! Their literature is pretty words. To be an artist it is enough to express oneself beautifully. The most original and independent writer of Argentina, Borges, writes a fine and elegant Spanish, is a stylist in the literary sense (not in the sense of spiritual solutions), and most gladly cultivates a literature about literature, a writing about books—and if sometimes he surrenders himself to pure imagination, it leads him far from life, into a sphere of convoluted metaphysics, the ordering of beautiful rebuses, a scholastics made up of metaphors.

From vol. 2 (1960):

They do not know that I am somewhat of a specialist in their main problem —immaturity—and that all of my literature is at home in it. It is paradoxical that in South America, Borges, abstract, exotic, not tied to their problems, is a luminary, but I have only a handful of readers. The paradox, which stops being a paradox when one reflects that they can show Borges off in Europe. Not me because I am a Pole. I am not valor nacional.

There is more in vol, 3. In vol. 3 (1962) Gombrowicz is scathing about Borges, beginning with an account of Borges travelling to Europe to drum up support to get the Nobel Prize. Here Gombrowicz seriously detests Borges, but he despises Borges’s disciples more. He goes on and on, but this is one comment that is telling:

What could arouse greater enthusiasm in pure-blooded writers than this kind of bloodless, literary, verbal, unseeing writer who sees nothing except his own mental combinations? [Boldface mine—RD]

In full:

Borges did not take part in the PEN Club congress but our tragic fate did not spare him other ridiculous games.

For he got on an airplane and together with his mother, dona Leonor, headed for Europe in search of the golden fleece known as the Nobel. No other purpose inclined this man, over sixty, almost completely blind, and that old woman, who had behind her no less than eighty springs, to soar over there in a jet plane. Madrid, Paris, Geneva, London—lectures, banquets, garden parties—so that the press would write about him and to set in motion all the mechanisms. The rest, I opine, is Victoria Ocampo’s doing (‘‘I put more millions into literature than Bernard Shaw was able to extract from it’’).

Apparently some deputy in the Argentine Parliament wanted to propose that the Senate, in a special session, appeal to the Swedish Academy of Literature to give Borges the award (they have such an appetite for this Nobel, which they have yet to snag). Luckily they were able to talk the deputy out of it at the last minute.

Nonetheless Borges got on the plane. So now we have one more traveling representative. One more fortifying the national soccer team in the great international match. . . . Oh, that he not feel more like the ball than the goalie!

The sight of this pathetic hermit blind man, with his almost ninety-year-old mother, harnessed to these airplane efforts . . . the worse thing is that it fits him somehow. . . . And I don’t doubt that he will get the Nobel. Unfortunately, yes unfortunately . . . it is as if he had come into existence expressly for this purpose. If anyone, then Borges! This is a literature for literati, something like a special kind of writing for members of the jury, this is exactly the kind of candidate that is needed: an abstract artist, scholastic, metaphysical, unoriginal enough to find a road already paved, original enough in this unoriginality of his to become a new and even creative variant of something known and recognized. An excellent head cook! A gourmet cuisine!

I do not have the least doubt that Borges’s lectures on the ‘‘essence of metaphor’’ and the others by this same authority will be appropriately feted. And this will be exactly as it should be: sparklers, the fireworks of an intelligentsia intelligently deprived of intelligence, the pirouettes of rhetorical and unliving thought incapable of taking on a single living idea, of thought completely uninterested in ‘‘real’’ thinking, consciously fictional, arranging its arabesques, glosses, and exegeses on the sidelines consistently ornamental. Bah, but the metier! Literarily flawless! What a head cook! What could arouse greater enthusiasm in pure-blooded writers than this kind of bloodless, literary, verbal, unseeing writer who sees nothing except his own mental combinations?

But he is just right, exactly like the cards we insert into machines so that everything begins to turn and jump in rhythm. . . . If the measure of great literature is its unliterariness, its capacity to overcome itself and get at reality, then one must admit, this type of greatness does not interfere with Borges’s diligent efforts. Oh, but it is not Borges who irritates me, I could come to an understanding with him somehow, face-to-face. . . . I am angered by the Borges-ists, that army of aesthetes, meticulous people, connoisseurs, initiates, watchmakers, metaphysicians, know-it-alls, gourmets. . . . This clean artist has a disturbing capacity for stirring up around himself whatever is cheapest and most eunuchlike.

When Gombrowicz reaches Paris in 1963, he discovers that the French have only the most superficial acquaintance with Sartre’s work, which Gombrowicz admired from a distance in Argentina.  vol. 3 (1963):

But Sartre is probably the only outstanding artist who is personally hated. Who, in comparison with Sartre, the mountain of revelation, is this Argentine Borges? A tasty soup of writers? Yet they coddle Borges and pound Sartre . . . is it only a result of politics? This would be unforgivable pettiness! Pettiness? So is it not politics but pettiness that is behind this animosity? Is Sartre hated because he is too big?

16.x.1966

I have noticed for quite a while now that the books I am reading run together somehow. For example:

Dante: The Divine Comedy
Michel Foucault: The Order of Things
Roland Barthes: Critical Essays
And earlier, a little Borges.

Last reference: vol. 3: 7 August 1967:

Let us jot down what happened with the Prix International de Littérature, twenty thousand dollars.

I have been nominated for this award for the last five years. While its first laureates, Beckett and Borges, both excellent, seemed to deserve it 100 percent, the names honored in the years that followed smelled of calculations that did not have much to do with pure art.


SOURCE: Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary, translated by Lillian Vallee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 3 vols. in one, with new preface by Rita Gombrowicz & 10 previously unpublished pages from 1969.


On this site:

Witold Gombrowicz on Existentialism (1956)

Witold Gombrowicz confronts (Polish) provincialism (2)

ars combinatoria @ Studies in a Dying Culture

"‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’: Relationships of Genres and the Frontiers of Thought" by Ralph Dumain

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

On other sites:

ars combinatoria @ Ĝirafo

Mauricio Kagel on Borges and Gombrowicz
Selections from interviews by Werner Klüppelholz,
translated from the German by W. C. Bamberger

Gombrowicz in Argentina” (excerpt) by Rita Gombrowicz
Words without Borders, October 2010

“The human in search of the human”: from interview with Gombrowicz by Dominique de Roux, 1967 (excerpt translated, 16/04/2014)

Witold Gombrowicz and Jorge Luis Borges” by Juan Carlos Gomez
Witold Gombrowicz 1st International Congress (14/02/2014)

Life itself (whatever that is)” by Pawel Majewski
Eurozine, 16 August 2013

«Gombrowicz reads Borges», Or: Writing vs. Walking” by Hanjo Berressem

Literature of Exhaustion. Borges, Kabbalah and the Art of Divine Forgetting” by Piotr Mróz & Łukasz W. Śliwa
The Polish Journal of the Arts and Culture, Nr 13 (1/2015)

Witold Gombrowicz (official site, in French & Polish)

Witold Gombrowicz - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Witold Gombrowicz - Vikipedio [in Esperanto]


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