COSMOS BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about women, specifically the art of figuring out which ones are interested in you, and he was saying that he never felt confident that he was reading the signs right; and that this lack of confidence, in a sense, paralysed him, so that he rarely approached them. He wanted to know how I managed it. How was it that I was always so sure? Well, I let him in on a little secret: stop worrying about signs, as you’ll only confuse yourself. A glance, a nod, a smile…did she wink?…something in her eye….scratch her nose…which means…did she sigh?…a touch…on the arm…it’s a kind of madness, all this. You can never be certain. Getting a telephone number, like a belief in God, requires a leap of faith. Oh, of course, she can say no…maybe she will say no, it’s entirely possible, but no is an answer, it is concrete, it is not a nod, a glance, a little something in the eye, perhaps. And, please, take the no as a no, don’t try and read the no, for God’s sake.

There is, with us, by which I mean human beings, an obsession, a mania, for signs, for interpretation, for creating narratives out of next to nothing. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, after the break-up, that I had, at a certain point in the relationship, given her a look of disgust, and that in that moment she had known that we were doomed. Doomed! Disgust! My face nearly always looks like that. What can you do? The truth is that I had never felt disgusted by her, of course not, but, ah, the look! And what about science? Holy science! Religion too! It’s all part of the same thing, the same madness: this need to explain, to decipher, to crack codes, to solve, to impose order and form on the world…like reading tealeaves or looking for Jesus on a taco.

“The world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on—I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!”

I’ve been a fan of the work of acclaimed Polish author Witold Gombrowicz for some time, having read and enjoyed his amusing philosophical novels Pornografia and Ferdydurke more than once. I had, however, never got around to having a go at Cosmos. It’s too impenetrable, too zany, too dated, was the impression I had been given from the small number of reviews I had encountered. Zany and impenetrable had been my thing at one stage, but I had drifted away from that in recent years, as I rested my feet in the clear and warm waters of nineteenth century literature. And maybe that break has done me good, because I came to Cosmos reenergised, fired up for exactly this kind of book. Zany! Impenetrable!

Cosmos is, on the surface, a detective story. Two students, one of whom is the narrator, are looking for a place to stay when they happen upon a bird that has been hung from a piece of wire. Out of this macabre and surreal discovery a mystery develops. First of all, the men ask themselves, ‘who hung the bird and why?’ It’s not the sort of thing you come across every day, of course. After taking lodgings with the Wojtyses family the men start to notice other unusual things [or potential clues!] – an arrow on the ceiling, a stick, a tree that appears to have been moved – which they believe to be linked, to each other and to the bird. As the narrative progresses they become more and more convinced that there is a meaning or rationale behind it all, a puzzle to be put together and solved, a bigger picture. Is someone playing a game with them? Or trying to tell them something? Or…

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[Hung Bird by Leonard Baskin]

Ah, and so we come full circle, the snake swallows its tail! All because of the ‘or.’ We must deal with that ‘or.’ Of course, someone could be messing around, or sending a message, with the bird, the stick, the tree, but what is far more likely is that Witold and Fuks [the two detectives] are simply seeing something in these random objects that isn’t actually there, or is there only because they have, in a sense, put it there themselves [‘the arrow’, the author suggests, could be merely a scratch that resembles an arrow]. They are imbuing these things with meaning, pumping significance into them; they are imposing order and form upon the world, which is, as noted, something that we, by which I mean human beings, do all the time and can, moreover, be done in relation to absolutely anything; this is, for example, how superstitions are created. As I was reading the book I was also put in mind of modern art, something like Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, say, which is a shelving unit painted grey. An ordinary shelving unit! And yet people, including the artist himself of course, see something in that shelving unit, some kind of message or comment, some significance; they, yes, pump that grey shelving unit full of significance.

Now that we have come this far, the next question is ‘why?’ Why do we do this? You might argue that we impose meaning on the world because otherwise it would be too overwhelming, too chaotic, too frightening. The world is bigger than us, more powerful; and therefore we need to try and bring it to heel. What is interesting about Cosmos, however, is that Gombrowicz takes the opposing position, which is that an ordered world is overwhelming, that what is terrifying is relentless meaning. He likens this to a swarm. In all of his work he [or his narrator] is fixated on individual body parts – the mugs and pupas in Ferdydurke, for example – and I couldn’t ever quite grasp what he was getting at until I read this novel. It now strikes me that what Gombrowicz was doing was destroying form, destroying human order by breaking people down, pulling them apart. In Cosmos, Witold obsessively focusses on Lena’s hands and lips, and one can’t help but imagine these parts floating, disembodied, in space.

“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”

I have only read Cosmos once, and so I would not suggest that I understand it completely or that this review has nailed all its themes and ideas. Indeed, I could have burdened you with many more paragraphs, as there are a number of other subjects I would like to explore – coincidence, threads and logical connections, madness and obsession, and  so on – but this review is long enough already, and there are still a couple of points I must briefly touch upon before I finish. First of all, Cosmos has been likened to the work of Samuel Beckett, and I can see why someone would make that comparison, but it is, for me, more like Beckett’s novels drunkenly carousing with Thomas Bernhard’s. I think Gombrowicz was a masterful writer, and stylist, but I will say that he is perhaps an acquired taste [and even I wasn’t keen on some of the Leon babble and nonsense]. Secondly, and most importantly of all, this is a serious contender for the funniest book I have ever read. The Lime Works, by the aforementioned Bernhard, would run it close, and I was greatly amused by both Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Walser’s The Robber, but Cosmos had me cackling so loud and so frequently my cat is now suffering from PTSD. In fact, the Berg-Bemberg conversation between Witold and Leon [you have to read it, I can’t possibly do it justice here] brought me almost to the point of hysteria. Which, I feel, is something that the author would have approved of.

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating! As a race, I think we really do read too much into everything. It’s a by-product of our constant search for the meaning of life (hah!) I think and part of what makes us human. But I do find myself constantly wonder if I see too much – even to the extent of over reading my books and finding things that really aren’t there!

    1. Yeah definitely, that’s Gombrowicz’s point, or one of them anyway. You can become overwhelmed by meaning. A great writer. Ha, don’t get me started on people seeing things in books that aren’t there. Reviews of Heart of Darkness piss me off for that very reason.

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