This essay was originally published in Gorse Magazine no. 7.
The World & the Woman: Meaning-Making in Gombrowicz’s Cosmos
‘There is a sort of excess about reality, and after a certain point it can become intolerable.’
My edition of Cosmos, published in English in 1967, is a translation of a translation; no direct contact has been made between the original Polish and the English text before me. What I am reading is a strange composite creature, crafted by Eric Mosbacher from the material of two other translations in French and German. If translation is always a kind of rewriting, to traverse three languages and pass under three interpretive eyes must be something of a transformative journey. Resonances will be lost, significances exaggerated – oddly appropriate for a book about the obsessive pursuit of significance, about the imposition of meaning and shape onto formless things, and about the impossible project of translating the world into narrative without losing the plenitude of its reality. If a translation can never be an exact replica of its original, so a story can never be a true representation of what it purports to tell.
Lists proliferate throughout Cosmos, lists of events and items and debris. A hanged sparrow, an arrow on the ceiling, a piece of wood, a strangled cat, mouths, hands, lust, paranoia: ‘Such a continual accumulation and disintegration of things can hardly be called a story,’ admits the narrator, but like all narrators he is possessed by the compulsion to link and to shape, terrorised by the threat of formlessness. In the great modernist tradition, nothing much happens, but everything signifies.
Telling stories, Witold Gombrowicz knows, involves making order out of chaos, choosing from among endless possibilities to create connections that appear inevitable. For Witold, the character-narrator of the text, making up stories is a compulsion and a source of endless anxiety. ‘As I am telling this story in retrospect,’ he realises, ‘I cannot tell it as it really happened’; but he continues telling nonetheless, ‘shaping the future out of a mass of undifferentiated facts’. The inadequacy of language to the reality of experience has been a literary preoccupation more or less since storytelling has existed, and it is a source of perpetual despair to Gombrowicz’s narrator:
‘Can nothing ever be described as it really was, reconstituted in its anonymous actuality? Will no one ever be able to reproduce the incoherence of the living moment at its moment of birth? Born as we are out of chaos, why can we never establish contact with it? No sooner do we look at it than order, pattern, shape is born under our eyes.’
Witold’s narrative is at once a parody of the realist project – with its endless lists of details accumulating in a doomed attempt to capture the minutiae of each banal moment – and an absurd, excessive enactment of the storytelling, pattern-making impulse. From the moment they stumble upon the bizarre spectacle of a hanged sparrow in a thicket, everything Witold and his companion see becomes obscurely related to this event. Things become inexplicably and inextricably connected to other things; everything is coloured by the demented perception of the conspiracy theorist, where reality becomes ‘contaminated, so to speak, by the possibility of innumerable hidden meanings’, the world steeped in ‘an oppressive profusion of possible links and clues’. After following an arrow on the ceiling that may very well not, in fact, be an arrow at all, every discovery oscillates in Witold’s mind between ‘pure coincidence’ and unbearable significance:
‘The hanged sparrow, the hanged chicken, the arrow in the dining-room, the arrow in our bedroom, the bit of wood hanging from a string, all pointed to a hidden meaning, as in a game of charades, when the letters start combining to try to form a word. But what word? It did seem as if an attempt was being made to convey an idea. But what idea?
And from whom did it come? If it was an idea, then there must be someone behind it. But who?’
In the stubborn absence of such an agent, a subjectivity behind the patterns to invest them with real significance, Witold eventually finds himself driven to occupy the position himself. In a moment of frenzied exhaustion, the accumulation of reality having become ‘intolerable’, he strangles a cat and hangs it in an inexplicable attempt to fulfil his own conspiracy theory, ‘completing the series’ and bringing his imaginary patterns abruptly and violently into the realm of the real.
Realism has always meant a different thing on screen than it has on the page. Films don’t need to list a tortuous catalogue of details to document the world’s existence. They just need to point: look, see? There it is, the world, in all its vivid materiality. Without the organizing, mediating presence of the narrative voice, the screen can seem to offer a more direct kind of access to the real (or something like it). But if the cardinal rule of film is show, don’t tell, how to translate such a telling-driven text into moving images? In his final film, released just before his death in early 2016, Andrzej Żuławski leaves us an intriguing attempt. If Gombrowicz’s novel is about obsessive narrative, Żuławski decides to shatter narrative into smithereens. You wouldn’t necessarily guess this from the promotional materials: stills of the windswept leads hint at tragic romance; the trailer’s tense score evokes the atmosphere of a thriller, its oblique snippets of dialogue promising mysteries and twists. The film is, of course, none of these things. It is a manic, impenetrable whirlpool of sensation, sound, language, described by critics as everything from ecstatic “absinthe distilled secretly in a prison cell” to “an impenetrable layer of gibberish tics”.
On screen, Cosmos shares the book’s sense of mounting madness, but without the space of 200 pages to elaborate each intensification of its paranoid logics, the story’s leaps and bounds become even more disorienting, more stridently resistant to interpretation. Like many adaptations of self-reflexive texts, Żuławski locates his film on a metafictional level in relation to its source material: Jonathan Genet’s Witold is explicitly identified as both character and author, a present-day aspiring writer whose parents named him after the late Gombrowicz; his obsession with narrative is rendered by plentiful shots of a laptop screen filling with the text that will, presumably, come to form the novel itself. And, as the credits roll, a final metafictional gesture in a sequence of behind-the-scenes footage exposing the production of cinematic narrative: lights being hoisted, actors preparing their faces, close-ups of the film’s teeming animal life in its real lifeless form. The dead cat isn’t really dead because it was never alive; in the book it represents the violent, fleshy eruption of Witold’s paranoia into the world of life and death, but here its killing is cast back into the realm of invention, abstraction, absurdity. It’s nothing but a floppy fabric imitation, and not even a very convincing one at that.
We tend to think of film as a visual medium, but really it’s just as much an aural one. Żuławski’s strange use of music reminds us just how significant a score is to building cinematic narrative – as the amateur editors of YouTube have amply demonstrated, the same set of images can take on very different meanings depending on what we hear. Żuławski frequently builds a scene with a mounting dramatic or romantic score, only to cut the music without warning, seemingly at random, refusing the scene-defining meaning of the climactic musical moment. This project of aural confusion operates at a linguistic level, too. The sensation of disorienting, claustrophobic intensity is crafted not just by camerawork but by increasingly cluttered soundscapes: dialogue building incessantly upon dialogue, banal or enigmatic chatter that whips by too quickly to be made sense of, layers of voices talking over and past and at each other or erupting in screeches and strange distortions. The question of translation, again, bubbles under the surface of meaning and meaninglessness. We read more slowly than we hear, and part of the art of subtitling is condensing speech into readable text. Dialogue this rapid has undoubtedly been subject to extensive editorial pruning; the full force of speech remains inaccessible to the non-Francophone viewer, for whom the film’s voices function as aural landscapes severed from signification. What happens to meaning when voice and word are separated?
If Cosmos is of that age-old genre in which writers wrestle with the world’s inaccessibility to representation or understanding, it is also of another genre – closely related and equally ubiquitous – in which men wrestle with the impenetrability of the feminine other, the object of desire or disgust. Witold becomes erotically fascinated by two women, Katasia (translated as Catherette in the film – both seemingly invented names) and Lena, each dismembered under his gaze. Katasia, from the moment she is seen, is identified with the unsettling, hypnotic, ‘almost reptilian’ quality of her deformed mouth. Lena is first witnessed as a disembodied limb, a glimpse of ‘her foot and a short length of her calf’, and later becomes a mouth and then a small hand resting upon a table. The two women are obscurely connected to one other in Witold’s mind:
‘there was really nothing whatever in common between Katasia’s dissolute perverseness, that indecent, gliding mouth movement, and Lena’s fresh, virginal, half-open lips, except that they were ‘related’ to each other as on a map, just as one town on a map is related to another.’
The two women together embody the classical dichotomy of femininity: decency and indecency, purity and perversion, virgin and whore. How, indeed, could they be anything but ‘related’ to each other, since each depends on its antonym to give it meaning? Witold is resistant to this realisation – ‘In reality there was no link whatever between those two mouths, I had merely seen one in relation to the other, it had been an accident of distance, angle and position, and there was no more to it than that’ – but it refuses to subside: ‘Those two mouths together, the gliding, darting horror of the one in conjunction with the pure, gentle, half closing and half opening of the other… I succumbed to a kind of quivering astonishment at the fact that two mouths that had nothing in common could nevertheless have something in common’. They are ‘the faces of the sphinx’, indivisible and uninterpretable.
Much like the proliferation of ‘clues’ that torment Witold, Lena and Katasia become two black holes of signification, embodying endless tortuous possibilities of meaning yet utterly resistant to conclusive interpretation: ‘obscure, illegible, undecipherable, and tantalizing’, a ‘vacuum’ into which men are inexorably sucked. Witold is captivated by Lena but, like the Medusa, she cannot be looked in the eye: ‘Why could I not look at her directly? Why could I look only at her hands, sleeves, arms, neck, the periphery only?’. He fixates, most of all, on her hands, the way they rest upon the table, trying to extract meaning from their position and their movements, fabricating stories about her relationship with her husband and all the things she could possibly be to the point of absurdity (‘Would she be capable of killing a child?’). But when meaning refuses to materialise, the real status of the feminine love object is laid bare:
‘She might have been all of these things, but most probably she was none of them, for the simple reason that that hand of hers was too small, it was hardly a real hand at all. With a hand as small as that what could she amount to? Nothing at all. But how could she be nothing at all if she made such an impact? No, in herself she was nothing at all, but she made a tremendous impact all the same.’
Witold’s seemingly contradictory observation is, in fact, a neat encapsulation of the status of women in the masculine artistic imagination – a statement of the fundamental disconnect between women as embodied, fleshly beings and the power they bear as mythologies, enigmas, ideas. As Virginia Woolf put it in A Room of One’s Own, from the history of the feminine in art and culture, ‘A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.’ Lena’s vast imaginative significance in Witold’s mind sits at perplexing odds with her physical inadequacy, ‘just a trifle smaller than she ought to have been,’ which renders her ‘useless for anything but love’. If Cosmos is a book about man imposing meaning upon the chaotic otherness of the world, it is also obliquely aware that it is woman who most bears the burden of that imposition, a focal point for the desires and disgusts of whole cultures. If it is a book about riddles with nothing at their core, it is also necessarily a book about what Simone de Beauvoir called the Eternal Feminine, the air of myth and mystery that the masculine cultural imagination has always projected onto the female form: like the endless trail of clues, ‘her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness’.
Lena is a language teacher by trade; the film makes a deliberate point of the fact that she speaks ‘some’ languages, an unquantified amount, against Witold’s ‘one, barely’, and she seems to have trouble keeping them in their proper place – the first words out of her mouth are in English, quickly corrected in a room full of French. The ability to speak in tongues that man can’t understand is another version of the feminine mystery, the threat of the unintelligible. Later, following Witold’s manic attempt to explicate events and implicate her in his story, she responds with a single English word: “me”. The self said out loud in a foreign language but as object, not subject. A fragment that could be question or statement, its significance is left hanging as Victória Guerra’s face fills the screen, lipsticked mouth gaping open as if unhinged. But nothing emerges: no voice, no scream, no meaning. Nothing but an empty mouth. And in the final behind-the-scenes sequence, one of the things we see is a makeup artist painting on those bright red lips – a reminder that the feminine face and all its symbolic meaning is, like everything else here, an artistic production.
Cosmos might have given birth to a cinematic experience of excessive, relentless intensity, but among everything else, Gombrowicz’s novel might be read as nothing more than a book about boredom. Leo and Kulka, the book’s representatives of middle age and settled life, tell endless stories that are notable for nothing other than their tedium, to the point of frustration at their own meaninglessness: ‘how could I possibly explain the hows and the whys and the whos and the wherefores? How could I possibly remember all the details after all this time? And what’s the good of talking about it anyway?’ Reality, apart from anything else, is often a tedious thing; reality, often enough, is ‘Trouser-legs. Heels. Sand… nothing but this endless, ground-level plodding.’ Reality is the ‘continuous, uninterrupted flow of miniscule events’, sitting in the kitchen staring at the ceiling. There is a vast seam of literature that mines the minutiae of everyday experience for its beauty or its melancholy or its sensuality or its absurdity, but there is not much that manages to dwell so compellingly on the knife-edge between tedium and terror. Boredom is most often understood as a lack, an absence of interest or stimulation, but for Gombrowicz the tedium of the banal becomes, instead, the foundation of an excessive, overwhelming experience of the world, and the birthplace of stories: boredom, as Leo observes, ‘makes you imagine even more things than fear does.’