Witold Gombrowicz on Existentialism

Existentialism.

I don't know how existentialism would be able to become something more than a toy in my hands, and change into seriousness, death, doing oneself in. I write down my opinion of existentialism here not out of respect for my own dilettante's opinions, but out of respect for my own life. Describing, as best as I can, my spiritual adventures (as if I were describing my corporeal adventures), I cannot bypass two bankruptcies which have occurred in me: the existential and the Marxist. I confirmed the crash of existential theory in myself not long ago by discussing it during my little course in philosophy . . . contre coeur, as something already dead.

I wrote Ferdydurke in the years 1936-37, when no one knew anything about this philosophy. In spite of this, Ferdydurke is existential to the marrow. Critics, I will help you in determining why Ferdydurke is existential: because man is created by people and because people mutually form themselves. This is precisely existence and not essence. Ferdydurke is existence in a vacuum, that is, nothing except existence. That is why, in this book, practically all the basic themes of existentialism play fortissimo: becoming, creating oneself, freedom, fear, absurdity, nothingness . . . with the single difference that in addition to the typical existential "spheres" of human life, like Heidegger's banal and authentic life, Kierkegaard's aesthetic, ethical, and religious life, or Jaspers's "spheres," there is yet another sphere, namely, the "sphere of immaturity." This sphere or "category" is the contribution of my private existence to existentialism. Let us say it right off: this is what separates me the most from classical existentialism. For Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence. They measure honesty and the essence of experience by the degree of awareness. But is our humanity really built on awareness? Doesn't awareness—that forced, extreme awareness—arise among us, not from us, as something created by effort, the mutual perfecting of ourselves in it, the confirming of something that one philosopher forces onto another? Isn't man, therefore, in his private reality, something childish and always beneath his own awareness? And doesn't he feel awareness to be, at the same time, something alien, imposed and unimportant? If this is how it is, this furtive childhood, this concealed degradation are ready to explode your systems sooner or later.

It is not worth carrying on about Ferdydurke, which is a circus and not a philosophy. It remains a fact, however, that even before the war, I was like a cat walking my own paths through existentialism. Why, then, when I became familiar with the theory later on, was it of no use to me at all? And why, now, when my existence grows more monstrous with each year, so very mixed with dying, and beckons me, forces me to seriousness, why is their seriousness of no use to me at all?

I might forgive those professors the twisting intestines of their thinking which does not want to be thinking, their leaps from logic into alogic, from abstraction into the concrete and vice versa. Their thought, that retching thought, really is "that which is not and is not that which it is",—that is how deeply their splitting contradictions penetrate. A self-destructive thought, which creates the impression that we are using our hands to cut off our hands. Their works are one cry of desperate impotence, the most artful expression of failure, and it is here that beating one's head against the wall becomes the only remaining method. Yet I might forgive them this, this might even suit me. I might even be able to handle the purely professional reproaches put to them by their colleagues, concerning, for example, the relation subject-object or their being handicapped by classical idealism or their illicit ties to Husserl. Perhaps I have already become accustomed to the thought that philosophy has to be a failure and I know that we can only dispense thought that has been dashed to pieces, after all, we know that a rider who mounts this horse, has to fall off. No, I am not demanding. I am not asking for absolute answers to absolute questions. I would be happy in my poverty with even a dialectical scrap of truth, which would cheat this hunger for even a moment. Yes, if this could satisfy me even temporarily, I would not refuse even this regurgitated nourishment.

I would be satisfied all the more easily since, I have to admit, even though this philosophy is bankrupt in its very points of departure, nevertheless, it can become immensely fertile and enriching as an attempt to systematize our profoundest knowledge about man. After discarding this specific scholasticism that speculates in the abstract (this is what existentialism hates, but what it thrives on), something very important, something concretely, practically important remains: a certain construct of man, resulting from the profoundest, most authentic confrontation possible between consciousness and existence. The various theses of the existentialists will perhaps turn out to be a professorial ranting, but the existential man, such as they saw him, will remain the great acquisition of consciousness. This is certainly an abysmal model. Falling into this abyss, I know that I will not reach the bottom, but nevertheless it is not alien, it is the abyss of my nature. And perhaps this metaphysics of man and life will lead to nothing. It is, nevertheless, an unavoidable necessity in our development, something without which we could not reach a certain maximum of ours, that highest and most profound effort that must be attained. So many of the loose intuitions that are so abundant in the air we breathe that they visited me almost daily are here woven into a system, organized into a whole that is desperately lame and barely alive, but some sort of whole, nevertheless. Existentialism, whatever else it may be, is founded on our essential anxiety. It liberates our metaphysical dernier cri. It hones the ultimate half-truth about us to such a degree that Heidegger's or Jaspers's man must replace the other anachronistic models and it imposes itself on the imagination and delineates our frame of mind in the cosmos. Here, therefore, existentialism becomes a dread and proud power, along the lines of those great acts of self-delineation, which every so often model the face of humanity. The only question is: How long will this last model suffice? Our tempo is accelerated, resulting in lighter and more fleeting definitions.

My relationship with existentialism is tormentingly unclear and tense. It intrudes into my existence, but I don't want it. And it is not I who am in this predicament. Strange. Philosophy, exhorting to authenticity, leads us into gigantic falsehoods.

*   *   *   *   *

How should I explain why existentialism did not lead me astray?

Perhaps I was close to choosing an existence, which they call authentic—in contrast to a frivolous temporal life, which they call banal. That is how great the pressure of seriousness is from all sides. Today, in today's raw times, there is no thought or art which does not shout to you in a loud voice: don't escape, don't play, don't poke fun at yourself, don't run away! Fine. I, too, in spite of everything, would also prefer not to lie to my own being. I, therefore, tried this authentic life, full of loyalty to existence in myself. But what do you want? It can't be done. It can't be done because that authenticity turned out to be falser than all my previous deceptions, games, and leaps taken together. I, with my artistic temperament, don't understand much theory, but I do have a nose when it comes to style. When I applied maximum consciousness to life, in an attempt to found my existence on this, I noticed that something stupid was happening to me. Too bad, but no way. It can’t be done. It seems impossible to meet the demands of Dasein and simultaneously have coffee and croissants for an evening snack. To fear nothingness, but to fear the dentist more. To be consciousness, which walks around in pants and talks on the telephone. To be responsibility, which runs little shopping errands downtown. To bear the weight of significant being, to instill the world with meaning and then return the change from ten pesos. What do you want? I know how these contrasts come together in their theories. Slowly, gradually, from Descartes through German idealism, I grew accustomed to their structure, but laughter and shame toss me about at the sight of it with equal strength, as in the first days, when I was still completely naive. And even if you were to "convince" me a thousand times over, there would still always be some elementary, unbearable ridiculousness in this!

This is impossible to bear, especially in existentialism. As long as philosophy speculated in isolation from fife, as long as it was pure reason reeling off abstractions, it was not violence, affront, and ridiculousness to such a degree. Thought simply was, life simply was. I could tolerate Cartesian or Kantian speculations because they were only the work of the mind. I, on the other hand, sensed that beyond consciousness is being. I felt elusive in being. Basically I never treated these differently than as an exclusive creation of a certain power of mine, the power of reasoning, which, however, was only one of my functions, which was, in an ultimate sense, an expansion of my vitality. And so, because of this, I did not have to surrender. But now? Existentialism? Existentialism wants to get at all of me, it no longer appeals only to my cognitive powers, it wants to penetrate me in my deepest existence, it wants to be my existence. Here, therefore, my life bolts and begins to kick. Intellectual polemics with existentialists really amuse me. How can you polemicize with something that strikes at your being? This is no longer just a theory, but a rapacious act of their existence in relation to your existence and one does not answer this with arguments but with living differently than they would like you to and so categorically differently that your life becomes impenetrable to them.

Historically speaking, the plunge of the human spirit into this existential scandal, into its specific helpless rapacity and wise stupidity, was probably inevitable. The history of culture indicates that stupidity is the twin sister of reason, it grows most luxuriously not on the soil of virgin ignorance, but on soil cultivated by the sweat of doctors and professors. Great absurdities are not thought up by those whose reason hovers over daily affairs. It is not strange, therefore, that the most intense thinkers were the producers of the greatest idiocies. Reason is a machine that purifies itself dialectically, but this means that dirt is appropriate to it. Our rescue from this dirty imperfection of reason was that no one has ever taken reason too seriously—beginning with the philosophers themselves. As for me, I can't believe that Socrates, Spinoza, or Kant were real people and completely serious ones at that. I claim that an excess of seriousness is conditioned by an excess of frivolity. Of what were these majestic conceptions born? Curiosity? Accident? Ambition? Gain? For pleasure? We will never know the dirt of their genesis, their hidden, intimate immaturity, their childhood or shame because even the artists themselves are not allowed to know about this. . . . We will not know the roads by which Kant-the-child and Kant-the-adolescent changed into Kant-the-Philosopher, but it would be to remember that culture or knowledge is something much lighter than one would imagine. Lighter and more ambivalent. Nevertheless, the imperialism of reason is horrible. Whenever reason notices that some part of reality eludes it, it immediately lunges at it to devour it. From Aristotle to Descartes, reason behaved calmly for the most part because it judged that everything could be understood. Beginning with the Critique of Pure Reason, however, and then Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and others, it began to delineate terrain inaccessible to thinking and to discover that life ridicules reason. This, reason could not bear and from then on, its torments, which reach tragicomic heights in existentialism, begin.

It is here that reason meets, face-to-face, the greatest and most elusive of sneerers, life. Reason discovered and made that enemy concrete, one could say that they thought long and hard until they thought up something about which they could no longer think. That is why one is overwhelmed with shame in the face of the creations of this freak reasoning: here, as if by the strength of some sort of maliciousness, repulsive perversion, and greatness in a demonic twist, reason becomes a great ridiculousness, profundity leads to the dregs of impotence, accuracy strikes at stupidity and the absurd. Horrified, we see that the more seriousness, the less serious! This did not happen to us to this extent with other philosophers. They grew closer to ridiculousness in proportion to their penetration into the terrain of life and, in this way, Nietzsche is more comical than Kant. Yet laughter was not yet a necessity when regarding them, for this thought was isolated, at least to a point, and it did not engage us. It was only when the theoretical problem became a "mystery" of Gabriel Marcel that the mystery turned out to be ridiculous to the bursting point!

Let us attempt to delineate the nature of this ridiculousness. It is not just a matter of this desperate contrast between an "ordinary reality" and their ultimate reality, a contrast so massive and devastating that no analyses can patch it up. Our laughter in this is not only laughter planted with both feet in "common sense," no, it is worse because it is more spasmodic, it is independent of us. When you, existentialists, speak to me of consciousness, fear, and nothingness, I burst with laughter not because I don't agree with you, but because I must agree with you. I agreed and, lo and behold, nothing happened. I agreed but nothing changed in me, even by an iota. The consciousness that you injected into my fife entered my bloodstream and instantly became the life that now shakes me in spasms of giggles, the ancient triumph of the element. Why am I forced to laugh? Simply because I also revel in consciousness. I laugh because I delight in fear, play with nothingness, and toy with responsibility. Death does not exist.


SOURCE: Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary. Volume I: 1953-56; translated by Lillian Vallee, general editor Jan Kott, introduction by Wojciech Karpinski, afterword by Jan Kott (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), pp. 181-183, 183-185.


Existentialism” by Georg Lukács

Biographical and Psychological Dimensions of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Witold Gombrowicz
@ Studies in a Dying Culture blog

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Diary by Witold Gombrowicz
(Yale University Press, 2012 edition,
 entire diary in 1 vol. with 10 censored pages from 1969)


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