Ferdydurkeby Witold Gombrowicz, Danuta Borchardt (Translator), Susan Sontag (Foreword by)
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In this bitterly funny novel by the renowned Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, a writer finds himself tossed into a chaotic world of schoolboys by a diabolical professor who wishes to reduce him to childishness. Originally published in Poland in 1937, Ferdydurke became an instant literary sensation and catapulted the young author to fame. Deemed scandalous and subversive by Nazis, Stalinists, and the Polish Communist regime in turn, the novel (as well as all of Gombrowicz's other works) was officially banned in Poland for decades. It has nonetheless remained one of the most influential works of twentieth-century European literature.
Ferdydurke is translated here directly from the Polish for the first time. Danuta Borchardt deftly captures Gombrowicz's playful and idiosyncratic style, and she allows English speakers to experience fully the masterpiece of a writer whom Milan Kundera describes as "one of the great novelists of our century."
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Tuesday morning I awoke at that pale and lifeless hour when night is almost gone but dawn has not yet come into its own. Awakened suddenly, I wanted to take a taxi and dash to the railroad station, thinking I was due to leave, when, in the next minute, I realized to my chagrin that no train was waiting for me at the station, that no hour had struck. I lay in the murky light while my body, unbearably frightened, crushed my spirit with fear, and my spirit crushed my body, whose tiniest fibers cringed in apprehension that nothing would ever happen, nothing ever change, that nothing would ever come to pass, and whatever I undertook, nothing, but nothing, would ever come of it. It was the dread of nonexistence, the terror of extinction, it was the angst of nonlife, the fear of unreality, a biological scream of all my cells in the face of an inner disintegration when all would be blown to pieces and scattered to the winds. It was the fear of unseemly pettiness and mediocrity, the fright of distraction, panic at fragmentation, the dread of rape from within and of rape that was threatening me from withoutbut most important, there was something on my heels at all times, something that I would call a sense of inner, intermolecular mockery and derision, an inbred superlaugh of my bodily parts and the analogous parts of my spirit, all running wild.
The fear had been generated by a dream that plagued me through the night, and finally woke me. The dream took me back to my youth, a reversal in time that should be forbidden to nature, and I saw myself as I was atfifteen or sixteen, standing on a rock near a mill by a river, my face to the wind, and I heard myself saying something, I heard my long-buried, roosterlike squeaky little voice, I saw my features that were not yet fully formed, my nose that was too small, my hands that were too largeI felt the unpleasant texture of that intermediate, passing phase of development. I woke up laughing and terrified both, because I thought that the thirty-year-old man I am today was aping and ridiculing the callow juvenile I once was, while he in turn was aping me and, by the same token, each of us was aping himself. Oh, wretched memory that compels us to remember the paths we took to arrive at the present state of affairs! Further: as I lay awake but still half dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogeneous, that some parts were still those of a boy; and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my noseand all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery. Nor did my fear lessen one iota when I reached full consciousness and began reflecting on my life. On the contrary, it intensified even as it was interrupted (or accentuated) by a giggle my mouth could not hold back. I was halfway down the path of my life when I found myself in a dark forest. But this forest, worse luck, was green.
For in my waking life I was just as unsettled and torn apartas in the dream. I had recently crossed the unavoidable Rubicon of thirty, I had passed that milestone and, according to my birth certificate and to all appearances, I was a mature human being, and yet I wasn'twhat was I then? A thirty-year-old bridge player? Someone who happened to be working, attending to life's trivia, meeting deadlines? What was my status? I frequented bars and cafés where I exchanged a few words, occasionally even ideas, with people I ran into, but my status was not at all clear, and I myself did not know whether I was a mature man or a green youth; at this turning point of my life I was neither this nor thatI was nothingand my contemporaries, already married and established, if not in their views on life, at least at various government agencies, treated me with understandable mistrust. My aunts, those numerous quarter-mothers, tacked-on, patched-on, though they loved me dearly, had long been urging me to settle down and be somebody, a lawyer, or a civil servantthey seemed exceedingly irked by my vagueness, and, not knowing what to make of me, they didn't know how to talk to me, so they just babbled.
"Joey," they would say between one babble and another, "it's high time, dear child. What will people say? If you don't want to be a doctor, at least be a womanizer, or a fancier of horses, be something ... be something definite ..."
And I heard them whispering to one another that I was socially awkward, inexperienced, and, as they wearied of the blank that I was creating in their heads, they would resume their babbling. True, this state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. The hands on nature's clock move relentlessly, inexorably. When I cut my last teeth, my wisdom teeth, my development was supposed to be complete, and it was time for the inevitable kill, for the man to kill the inconsolable little boy, to emerge like a butterfly and leave behind the remains of the chrysalis that had spent itself. I was supposed to lift myself out of mists and chaos, out of murky swamps, out of swirls and roars, out of reeds and rushes, out of the croaking of frogs, and emerge among clear and crystallized forms: run a comb through my hair, tidy up my affairs, enter the social life of adults and deliberate with them.
Oh, sure! But I had already given it a try, I had already made that effort, yet I could only shake with laughter at the results. And therefore, to make myself presentable, my hair neatly combed, and to explain myself as best I could, I set out to write a bookstrange that I should think my entrance into the world needed an explanation, even though no one has yet seen an explanation that was anything but obfuscation. I wished, first of all, to buy my way into people's good graces with my book so that, in subsequent personal contact, I would find the ground already prepared, and, I reasoned, if I succeeded in implanting in their souls a favorable image of me, this image would in turn shape me; and so, willy-nilly, I would become mature. So why did my pen betray me? Why did holy shame forbid me to write a notoriously trivial novel? Instead of spinning lofty themes from the heart, from the soul, I spun my themes from more lowly quarters and filled my narrative with legs, frogs, with material that was immature and fermenting, and, having set it all apart on the page by style, by voice, by a tone that was cold and self-possessed, I indicated that I wished, herewith, to part ways with those ferments. Why did I, as if thwarting my own purpose, entitle my book Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity? In vain my friends advised me against using such a title, saying that I should avoid even the slightest allusion to immaturity. "Don't do it," they said, "the concept of immaturity is too drastic, if you think of yourself as immature, who will think of you as mature? Don't you understand that first and foremost you must think of yourself as mature, otherwisenothing doing?" Yet it just didn't seem appropriate to dismiss, easily and glibly, the sniveling brat within me, I thought that the truly Adult were sufficiently sharp and clear-sighted to see through this, and that anyone incessantly pursued by the brat within had no business appearing in public without the brat. But perhaps I took the serious-minded too seriously and overestimated the maturity of the mature.
Memories, memories! My head tucked under my pillow, my legs under the covers, tossing about between fear and laughter, I took stock of my entrance into the adult world. There is too much silence about the personal, inner hurts and injuries inflicted by that entrance, the grave consequences of which remain with us forever. Men of letters, those men who have a God-given talent to write on the subject of such remote and indifferent matters as, for example, the grief in the soul of Emperor Charles II caused by Brunhilde's marriage, shudder at the thought of mentioning the most important issuetheir metamorphosis into a public and social being. They prefer, it seems, to have everyone think of them as writers inspired by the grace of God, not man, and to imagine that they have dropped from the sky, talent and all; they are too embarrassed to shed any light on the concessions they had to make as individuals, on the personal defeats they had to endure in order to acquire the right to expound on Brunhilde or, for that matter, on the lives of beekeepers. No, not a word about their own livesonly about the lives of beekeepers. Indeed, having produced twenty books on the lives of beekeepers, one can be immortalizedbut what is the connection, where is the bond between the king of beekeepers and the inner man, between the man and the youth, between the youth and the boy, the boy and the child that, after all, he once was, what comfort is the king to the little brat in you? A life unmindful of these bonds, a life that does not evolve in unbroken continuity from one phase to another is like a house that is being built from the top down, and must inevitably end in a schizophrenic split of the inner self.
Memories! Mankind is accursed because our existence on this earth does not tolerate any well-defined and stable hierarchy, everything continually flows, spills over, moves on, everyone must be aware of and be judged by everyone else, and the opinions that the ignorant, dull, and slow-witted hold about us are no less important than the opinions of the bright, the enlightened, the refined. This is because man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man's soul, be it even the soul of an idiot. I absolutely disagree with my fellow writers who treat the opinions of the dull-witted with an aristocratic haughtiness and declare, odi profanum vulgus. What a cheap and simplistic way of avoiding reality, what a shoddy escape into specious loftiness! I maintain, on the contrary, that the more dull and narrow-minded they are, the more urgent and compelling are their opinions, just as an ill-fitting shoe hurts us more than a well-fitting one. Oh, those judgments, the bottomless pit of people's judgments and opinions about your wisdom, feelings, and character, about all the details of your personalityit's a pit that opens up before the daredevil who drapes his thoughts in print and lets them loose on paper, oh, printed paper, paper, paper! And I'm not even talking about the heartfelt opinions so fondly held by our aunts, no, I mean the opinions of those other auntsthe cultural aunts, those female semi-writers and tacked-on semi-critics who make pronouncements in literary magazines. Indeed, world culture has been beset by a flock of superfluous hens patched-on, pinned-on, to literature, who have become finely tuned to spiritual values and well versed in aesthetics, frequently entertaining views and opinions of their own, who have even caught on to the notions that Oscar Wilde is passé and that Bernard Shaw is a master of paradox. Oh, they are on to the fact that they must be independent, profound, unobtrusively assertive, and filled with auntie kindliness. Auntie, auntie, auntie! Unless you have ever found yourself in the laboratory of a cultural aunt and been dissected, mute and without a groan, by her trivializing mentality that turns all life lifeless, unless you have ever seen an auntie's critique of yourself in a newspaper, you have no concept of triviality, and auntie-triviality in particular.
Further, let us consider the opinions of men and women of the landed gentry, the opinions of schoolgirls, the narrow-minded opinions of minor office clerks, the bureaucratic opinions of high officials, the opinions of lawyers in the provinces, the hyperbolic opinions of students, the arrogant opinions of little old men, and the opinions of journalists, the opinions of social activists as well as the opinions of doctors' wives, and, finally, the opinions of children listening to their parents' opinions, the opinions of underling chambermaids and of cooks, the opinions of our female cousins, the opinions of schoolgirlsa whole ocean of opinions, each one defining you within someone else, and creating you in another man's soul. It's as if you were being born inside a thousand souls that are too tight-fitting for comfort! But my situation was even more thorny and complex, just as my book was more thorny and complex than the conventionally mature reading matter. It brought me, to be sure, an array of fine friends, and, if only those cultural aunts and other members of the populace could hear how splendidly I was feted in a small circle that was closed to them and not accessible even to their aspirations, a circle of the Esteemed and the Splendiferous, and how, at those lofty heights, I carried on intellectual conversations, they would fall prostrate before me and lick my boots. Yet there must have been something immature in my book, something that encouraged undue intimacy and attracted those transitory individuals who were neither fish nor fowl, that most awful stratum of semi-intelligentsiaas if the time of immaturity had lured the demimonde of culture. It is conceivable that my book, too subtle for dullards, was at the same time not sufficiently lofty or puffed up for the rabble who respond solely to the outer trappings of what is important. And, as so often happened, I would leave one of those hallowed and esteemed places where I had just been pleasantly and reverently celebrated, to be faced, in the street, by some engineer's wife or a schoolgirl who would unceremoniously treat me like one of her own, like an immature kinsman or fellow traveler, slap me on the back and exclaim: "Hello, Joey, you silly, you're, you'reimmature!" And so I seemed wise to some, silly to others, notable to some, hardly noticed by others, commonplace to some, aristocratic to others. Spread-eagled between loftiness and lowliness and chummy with both, respected and disparaged, admired and disdained, as chance or circumstances would have it! My life was torn apart as it had never been in the quiet days I spent in the shelter of my home. And I no longer knew whether I belonged to those who valued me, or to those who did not.
But, worse stillhating the semi-educated rabble, hating it with a vengeance, perhaps as no one has ever hated it beforeI played into their hands; I shunned the elite and the aristocracy, and flew from their friendly and open arms into the boorish paws of those who considered me a juvenile. How one organizes oneself and toward what one directs oneself is actually of primary importance and crucial to one's developmentin actions, for example, in speech and twaddle, in one's writingwhether one directs oneself solely toward those who are mature and fully evolved, toward a world of crystal-clear ideas, or whether one lets oneself be constantly plagued by the specter of the rabble, of immaturity, of schoolboys and schoolgirls, of gentry and peasantry, of cultural aunts, of journalists and columnists, by the specter of the shady, murky demimonde that lies in wait to slowly entwine you in the green of its creepers, lianas, and other African plants. Not for one moment could I forget the little not-quite world of the not-quite-human, and yet, terrified and disgusted as I was and shuddering at the very thought of that swampy green, I could not tear myself away from it, mesmerized by it like a little birdie by a snake. As if some demon were tempting me with immaturity! As if I were favoring, against my very nature, the lower class and loving itbecause it held me captive as a juvenile. Even if I strained all my faculties I would not have been able to speak with intelligence, not even for a moment, because I knew that somewhere in the provinces a doctor would think that I was silly anyway, and would expect nothing of me but silliness; and I could not be on my best behavior, nor comport myself decently in social situations, because I knew that schoolgirls, someplace, expected nothing of me but indecencies. Truly, in the world of the spirit, rape is the order of the day, we are forced to be as others see us, and to manifest ourselves through them, we are not autonomous, and what's moremy personal calamity came from an unhealthy delight in actually making myself dependent on green youths, juveniles, teenage girls, and cultural aunts. To have that cultural aunt forever on your backto be naive because someone who is naive thinks you are naiveto be silly because some silly person thinks you are sillyto be green because someone who is immature dunks and bathes you in greenness of his ownindeed, that could drive you crazy, were it not for the little word "indeed," which somehow lets you go on living! To brush against a higher and more mature realm and yet be unable to penetrate it, to be but a step from refinement, elegance, wisdom, dignity, from mature judgments and mutual respect, from hierarchy and acknowledged values, and yet to merely lick those sweetmeats through the shop window, and have no access to these matters, to be superfluous? To associate with adults and still imagine, as at sixteen, that you are merely pretending to be an adult? To pretend you're a writer, a man of letters, to parody literary style and mature, fanciful phrases? To join publicly, as an artist, the merciless fray for the survival of your true "self," while at the same time covertly siding with your enemies?
Ah yes, at the outset of my public life I did receive a less-than-glorious consecration, and I was duly anointed by the lower class. Yet what complicated matters even more was the fact that my social demeanor left much to be desired, I was fumbling along, inadequate and helpless in relation to those semi-brilliant men of the world. My awkwardness, stemming from contrariness, or perhaps from anxiety, would not let me identify myself with any aspect of maturity, and, out of sheer panic, I would quite often pinch the very person whose spirit reached out to my spirit with approval. I envied those literary men, exalted and predestined to higher things from the cradle, whose Soulits backside prodded with an awlstrove continually upward; those writers who in their Soul took themselves seriously, and who, with inborn ease and in great creative torment, dealt with matters so high and mighty and forever hallowed that God himself would have seemed to them commonplace and less than noble. Why isn't everyone called to write yet another novel about love or to tear apart, in pain and suffering, some social ill or other, and become the Champion of the oppressed? Or to write poems, and become the Poet who believes in the "glorious future of poetry"? To be talented, and with one's spirit to lift and nourish the wide masses of untalented spirits? Yet what pleasure is there in agonizing and tormenting oneself, in burning on the altar of self-sacrifice, be it in the realm of the high and the sublime andthe mature? To live vicariously through thousand-year-old cultural institutions as securely as if one were setting aside a little sum in a savings accountthis could be one's own, as well as other people's, fulfillment. But I was, alas, a juvenile, and juvenility was my only cultural institution. Caught and held back twicefirst by my childish past, which I could not forget, and the second time by the childishness of other people's notions of me, a caricature that had sunk into their soulsI was the melancholy prisoner of all that is green, why, an insect in a deep, dense thicket.
A rather unpleasant and, what's more, a dangerous situation. For there is nothing that the Mature hate more, there is nothing that disgusts them more, than immaturity. They will tolerate the most rabid destructiveness as long as it happens within the confines of maturity, they are not threatened by the revolutionary who fights one mature ideal with another mature ideal and abolishes Monarchy in favor of the Republic, nor by one who nibbles at the Republic and then devours it with Monarchy. Indeed, it gives them pleasure to watch the thriving business of maturity and of all that is sublime. However, let them as much as sniff immaturity, let them sniff a juvenile or a sniveling brat in someone and they will pounce on him and, like swans that peck a duck to death, they will kill him with sarcasm, derision, and mockery, they will not allow a foundling from the world that they have renounced long ago to befoul their nest. And how will it all end? Where will this road take me? How did I become imprisoned in my own underdevelopment, I wondered, where did my infatuation with all the greenness have its originsis it because I come from a country rife with uncouth, mediocre, transitory individuals who feel awkward in a starched collar, where it is not Melancholy and Destiny but rather Duffer and Fumbler who moon about the fields in lamentation? Or is it because I've lived in an era that, every five minutes, emits new fads and slogans, and, at the slightest opportunity, grimaces convulsivelya transitory era? ... A pale dawn was seeping in below the half-open window shade and, as I was thus taking stock of my life, I blushed and shook with an obscene little laugh between my bed sheetsand I began to explode with an impotent, bestial, mechanical, knee-jerk kind of laughter, as if someone were tickling my foot, as if it were not my face but my leg that was giggling. It was high time to put an end to it, cut the ties with my childhood, make a decision and start anewdo something! Forget at last, forget the schoolgirls! Dismiss the fondness of cultural aunts and peasant girls, forget the minor and pretentious office clerks, forget about the leg and my heinous past, snub the sniveling brat and the juvenilesettle myself squarely on mature turf, and yes, finally assume that extremely aristocratic stance and despise, despise! No longer stimulate, titillate, and attract the immaturity of others with immaturity, as I have done thus far, but, on the contrary, elicit my own maturity and with it evoke their maturity, speak from my soul to their soul! The soul? And forget the leg? The soul? How about the leg? How can one forget the legs of cultural aunts? And what if, no matter how hard I try, I do not succeed in conquering the green that is budding, pulsating, growing all around (and I'm almost sure not to succeed), what if I treat people maturely and they persist in treating me immaturely, what if I address them with wisdom and they respond with stupidity? No, no, I'd rather be the first to act immaturely, I don't want to expose my wisdom to their stupidity, I'd rather direct my stupidity against them! And yet no, no, that's not what I want, I'd rather be at one with them because I love them, I love the little buds and sprouts, the little sprigs of green, oh!and all at once I felt them grabbing me again, catching me in their love embrace, and again I roared with that mechanical, knee-jerk laughter and sang a frivolous little ditty:
In the town of Little Zanich
In the bedroom of Miss Bozek
Hid two bandits in a closet
... when suddenly the taste in my mouth turned bitter, my throat went dryI realized that I was not alone. There was someone else in the room, in the corner by the stove where it was still darkanother person was there.
But the door was locked. Not a person then, but an apparition. An apparition? The devil? A ghost? A dead person? I suddenly sensed that it was not someone dead but someone alive, and all at once my hair stood on endI sensed another human, like a dog smells another dog. My mouth dry, my heart pounding, I was hardly able to catch my breathwhen I realized that it was I standing by the stove. And this time it was not a dreamit really was my double standing by the stove. I noticed however, that he was more scared than I was; he stood with his head lowered, his eyes downcast, his hands hanging by his sideand his fear gave me courage. I peeked from under my covers at a face that was mine and yet it wasn't mine. It loomed from a deep and dark greenness, itself a brighter greenit was my own countenance as it had always been. Here were my lips ... my ears ... my nose, they were my home. Hail familiar nooks and crannies! And how familiar! How well I knew the twist of those lips hiding tension and fear. The corners of my mouth, my chin, my ear partially torn off by Ziggy long agoall the signs and symptoms of a twofold impact, a face that two forces, an outer and an inner, had ground between them. It was all mineor maybe I was itor maybe it was all someone else'sand yet it was I.
I suddenly thought that it was not I. I felt like someone who unexpectedly looks into a mirror and for a split second does not recognize himself, so did the startling concreteness of the form surprise me and cut me to the quick. The quaint short hairstyle, the eyelids, pants just like mine, organs of sight, hearing, and breathingwere these my organs, was it really me? The minute details, the clarity and precision of the outline ... all too clear. He must have noticed that I saw those details, and, embarrassed, he smiled uneasily and waved his hand with a hesitant motion that seemed to recede into the darkness.
And yet, as the light from the window grew brighter, his form became more and more vividhis fingers and fingernails now came into viewand I saw ... but the ghost, realizing that I saw him, crouched slightly and, not looking at me, began to signal me with his hand not to look. Yet I could not refrain from looking. Because that's the way I am. Strange indeed, like Mme Pompadour. And unpredictable. But why? An ephemeron. His faults and blemishes creeping into the light of day, he crouched like one of those nocturnal animals made easy prey by the lightlike a rat caught by surprise in the middle of the room. The details emerged more and more clearly, more and more horribly, body parts creeping out of him everywhere, one by one, clearly defined and real ... to the limits of their disgraceful clarity ... to the limits of disgrace ... I saw his finger, his fingernails, his nose, his eye, his thigh, and his foot, everything was now out in the open, and, as if hypnotized by all the details, I stood up and took a step toward him. He shuddered and waved his hand as if in apology, and he seemed to say "that's not it, never mindlet me be, forgive me, leave me alone" ... but my movement, initiated as just a warning, ended despicablyI continued to move toward him, and, unable to stop the sweep of my outstretched hand, I struck him in the face. Off with you! Off! No, this is not me at all! This is something randomly thrust upon me, something alien, an intrusion, a compromise between the inner and outer world, it's not my body at all! He groaned andwith a leaphe vanished. I was left alone but actually not alonehow could I be alone when I wasn't even there, I had no sense of being there, and not a single thought, gesture, action, or word, in fact nothing seemed to be mine, but rather it was as if it had all been settled somewhere outside myself, decided for mebecause in reality I was quite different! And this upset me terribly. Oh, to create my own form! To turn outward! To express myself! Let me conceive my own shape, let no one do it for me! My agitation pushes me toward writing paper. I pull out a few sheets from the drawer, it is morning now, sunlight pours into my room, the maid brings my morning coffee and bread roils while I begin, amid shimmering and finely chiseled forms, to write the first pages of my very own oeuvre, which will be just like me, identical with me, the sum total of me, an oeuvre in which I will be free to expound my own views against everything and everyone, when suddenly the bell rings, the maid opens the door, and T. Pimko appearsa doctor of philosophy and a professor, in reality just a schoolteacher, a cultural philologue from Kraków, short and slight, skinny, bald, wearing spectacles, pinstriped trousers, a jacket, yellow buckskin shoes, his fingernails large and yellow.
Do you know the Professor?
Have you met the Professor?
Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop! At the sight of this horribly banal and utterly commonplace Form I threw myself on my texts, covering them with my whole body, but he sat down, so I too had to sit down, and having sat down he proceeded to offer me his condolences on the death of my aunt, who died long ago and whom I had totally forgotten.
"The memory of the dead," said Pimko, "is the ark of the covenant between the new times and the old, just like the songs of the people (Mickiewicz). We live the life of the dead (A. Comte). Your aunt is dead, and this is a good reason, even a compelling reason, to extol her contribution to cultural thought. The deceased had her faults (he enumerated them), but she also had her good points (he enumerated them) which benefited everyone, all in all not a bad book, that is, I meant to say a `C plus'well then, to make a long story short, the deceased was a positive force, my overall assessment of her is rather favorable, which I consider it my pleasurable duty to tell you, since I, Pimko, stand guard of the cultural values your aunt undoubtedly still personifies, especially since she's dead. And besides," he added indulgently, "de mortuis nihil nisi bene, and although one could criticize this or that, why discourage a young authorI beg your pardon, a nephew ... But what is this?" he exclaimed when he saw my notes lying on the table. "Not only a nephew, but also an author! I see we're trying our wings, are we? Chirp, chirp, chirp, author! Let me look it over, and encourage you ..."
And, still seated, he reached across the table for my papers, put on his spectacles, all the while remaining seated.
"It's nothing ... it's just ..." I mumbled, still in my seat. My whole world suddenly collapsed, his talk of the aunt and the author upset me no end.
"Well, well, well," he said, "chirp, chirp, little chickie." He wiped one eye as he said this, he then took out a cigarette and, holding it between two fingers of his left hand, proceeded to squeeze it with two fingers of his right hand; at the same time he sneezed because the tobacco irritated his nose, and, still seated, he began to read. And sitting squarely on his wisdom, he went on reading. I felt sick at the sight of him reading. My world collapsed and promptly reset itself according to the rules of a conventional prof. I could not pounce on him because I was seated, and I was seated because he was seated. For no apparent reason, sitting itself assumed prime importance and became an obstacle to everything else. Not knowing what to do or how to behave I fidgeted in my seat, moved my leg, looked around at the walls and bit my nails, while he went on sitting, logically and consistently, his seat fairly and squarely filled with that of a prof, reading. This went on for a terribly long time. Minutes weighed on me like hours, seconds stretched and stretched making me feel like someone trying to drink the ocean through a straw. I groaned:
"For God's sake, not your prof stuff! You're killing me with it!"
The rigid, angular prof was indeed killing me. But he continued to read in the manner of a true prof, and, like a typical prof, he went on absorbing my rambunctious texts, holding the paper close to his eyes, while outside the window a brownstone building stood, twelve windows wide and twelve windows deep. A dream?! An apparition? Why had he come here? Why was he sitting? Why was I sitting? How on earth was everything that preceded thisdreams, memories, aunts, torments, ghosts, my oeuvre only just begunepitomized now by this commonplace prof sitting here? My whole world shrank into this trite prof. How unbearable! It made sense for him to keep sitting (because he was reading), but it made no sense for me to be sitting. I strained to get up, but just at that moment he looked at me indulgently from under his spectacles, and suddenlyI became small, my leg became a little leg, my hand a little hand, my persona a little persona, my being a little being, my oeuvre a little oeuvre, my body a little body, while he grew larger and larger, sitting and glancing at me, and reading my manuscript forever and ever amenhe sat.
Do you know what it feels like to be diminished within someone else? Oh, to be diminished within an aunt is unseemly enough, but to be diminished within a huge, commonplace prof is the peak of unseemly diminishment. And I noticed that the prof was like a cow grazing on my greenness. It's a strange feelingto see a prof nibbling at the green of your meadow, which is actually your apartment, to see him sitting in your chair and readingyet actually nibbling and grazing. Something terrible was happening to me, and, at the same time, I was surrounded by something stupid and brazenly unreal. "A spirit!" I exclaimed, "That's me, a spirit! Not a little author! A spirit! A living spirit! That's me!" But he just went on sitting, sitting, and sitting, stuck to his seatan act of sheer stupidityyet incredibly powerful. He took his spectacles off his nose, wiped them with his handkerchief, and placed them back on his nose, the nose that had now become indomitable. It was a truly nasal nose, trite and inane, consisting of two parallel, finite tubes. And he said:
"What do you mean, a spirit?"
"My spirit!" I exclaimed. He then asked:
"You mean the spirit of your home, your country?"
"No, not of my country, my own spirit!"
"Your own?" he asked amiably, "we're talking about your spirit then? But are we at least familiar with the spirit of King Ladislas?"
What, King Ladislas? I felt like a train suddenly shunted to the siding of King Ladislas. Stopped in my tracks, my mouth open, I realized that I was not familiar with the spirit of King Ladislas.
"And are we familiar with the spirit of the times? How about the spirit of Hellenic civilization? And the Gallic, and the spirit of moderation and good taste? And the spirit of the sixteenth century bucolic writer, known only to myself, who was the first to use the word `umbilicus'? And the spirit of language? Should one say `use' or `utilize'?"
His questions caught me by surprise. Ten thousand spirits suddenly smothered my spirit, I mumbled that I didn't know, he then pressed on: what did I know about the spirit of the poet Kasprowicz and his attitude toward the peasantry, he then asked about the historian Lelewel's first love. I cleared my throat and quickly glanced at my nailsthey were blank, no crib notes there. I turned my head as if expecting someone to prompt me. But of course there was no one there. What a nightmare, for God's sake! What was happening? O God! I quickly turned my head back to its usual position and looked at him, but with a gaze that was no longer mine, it was the gaze of a schoolboy scowling childishly and filled with hatred. I was suddenly seized with an inappropriate and rather old-fashioned itchto hit the prof with a spitball right on the nose. Realizing that I was losing it, I made a supreme effort to ask Pimko in a genial tone about recent events in town, but then, instead of my normal voice a broken, squeaky sound came out, as if my voice were changing back, so I fell silent; and Pimko asked about adverbs, told me to decline mensa, mensae, mensae, to conjugate amo, amas, amat, he then winced and said: "Well, yes, we'll have to work on it." He took out his notebook and gave me a bad grade, all the while sitting, and his sitting was absolute and final.
What? What's this? I wanted to scream "I'm not a schoolboy, it's all a mistake!" I tried to run for it, but something caught me in its claws from behind and riveted me to the spotit was my puerile, infantile pupa. I was unable to move because of my pupa while the prof, still seated, and while sitting, projected such perfect prof-authority that instead of screaming I raised my hand to speak, like boys do in school
"Sit down, Kowalski. Not to the bathroom again?"
And so I sat through this surreal nonsense, gagged and steam-rolled by the prof, I sat on my childish little pupa while he, seated as if on the Acropolis, wrote something in his notebook. Finally he said:
"Well, let's go to school, Joey."
"To what school?"
"To Principal Piórkowski's school. A first-rate educational institution. There are still vacancies in the sixth grade. Your education has been sorely neglected, and first of all we must make up what is lacking."
"But to what school?!"
"To Mr. Piórkowski's school. Don't be scared, we teachers love you little chickies, chirp, chirp, chirp, you know: `suffer the little ones to come unto me.'"
"But to what school?!!!"
"To Mr. Piórkowski's school. He asked me the other day to fill all the vacancies. The school must stay open. There would be no school without pupils, and no teachers without schools. To school! To school! They'll make a student out of you yet."
"But to what school?!!!"
"Oh, stop fussing! To school! To school!"
He called the maid and told her to bring my coat, but the girl could not understand why this strange gentleman was about to take me away, and she broke into wails, so Pimko pinched herthere was no way for a pinched servant girl to continue her wailing, so she bared her teeth and burst out laughing like a pinched servant wouldhe then took me by the hand and led me out of the house, and in the street houses stood as usual and people walked about!
Help! Police! This was ridiculous! Too ridiculous to be real! Incredible because it was so ridiculous! Too ridiculous even to fight back ... I couldn't anywayagainst this inane prof, this trivial prof. Just as you can't when someone asks you an inane and trivial questionso I couldn't either. My idiotic, infantile pupa had paralyzed me, taking away all my ability to resist; trotting by the side of this colossus who was bounding ahead with huge steps, I could hardly keep up because of my pupa. Farewell, O Spirit, farewell my oeuvre only just begun, farewell genuine form, my very own, and hail, hail, oh terrible and infantile form, so callow and green! Tritely proffed by him, I ran in mincing steps by the side of the giant prof who muttered on: "Chirp, chirp, little chickie ... The sniffling little nose ... I love, ee, ee ... Little fellow, little, little man, ee, ee, ee, chirp, chirp, chickadee, Joey, Joey, little Joey, tiny Joey, tinier and tinier, chirp, chirp, tiny, tiny little, little pupa ..." Ahead of us a refined lady was walking her little pinscher on a leash, the dog growled, pounced on Pimko, ripped his trouser leg, Pimko yelled, expressed a unfavorable opinion of the dog and its owner, pinned his trouser leg with a safety pin, and we walked on.
What People are Saying About This
(Stanislaw Baranczak, Harvard University)
(Susan Sontag, from the foreword)
Meet the Author
Witold Gombrowicz is the author of A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, Trans-Atlantyk, Cosmos, and Pornografia, the first three available from Yale University Press. These, along with his plays and his Diary, have been translated into more than thirty languages. Danuta Borchardt has translated several works by Witold Gombrowicz. She is also a writer of short stories, which are regularly published on the website Exquisite Corpse.
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