Once I was explaining to someone that in order to feel the real cosmic significance of man for man, he should imagine the following: I am completely alone in a desert. I have never seen people nor do I imagine that another man is even possible. At that very moment an analogous creature appears in my field of vision, which, while not being me, is nevertheless the same principle in an alien body. Someone identical but alien nevertheless. And suddenly I experience, at precisely the same moment, a wondrous fulfillment and a painful division. Yet one revelation stands out above all the rest: I have become boundless, unpredictable to myself, multiple in possibilities through this alien, fresh but identical power, which approaches me as if I were approaching myself from the outside…. Man through man. Man in relation to man. Man created by man. Man strengthened by man.
—Witold Gombrowicz, Diary Volume One, Northwestern University Press, p 20
You can’t read Gombrowicz for long until you come across the concept of the “interhuman”, that it is impossible to speak of a human being in isolation, that every human being is born into a human network, meaning that together we form a system of forces such that each individual forms and is formed by others. And once you encounter the idea, it keeps coming up again and again, for it is imbued into everything Gombrowicz wrote. Because it is throughout all of his writing it is difficult to summarize, but I will attempt a first sketch of such a summary, based on Volume One of the Diary.
I would like to say first that in our world “interhumanity” has become an accepted fact, but an odd sort of one. No one really doubts anymore that when you say, “an individual” you mean: his or her family, friends, genetics, wider social networks—in short, his or her world. You can’t take one out of the other any more than a fish out of water. When Gombrowicz wrote Ferdydurke this was not a common idea. But today it is. And with the World Wide Web we now have a tool that we use collectively to quickly move masses of people this way or that. We are seeing this clearly in the moment of the Coronavirus pandemic. And if anyone is examining the phenomenon in relation to historical mobilization I’m not aware of it. Our interhumanity is today a given, and yet we scarcely know how to put our hands on it. It’s like an awesome new tool in our midst and we’re just Kubrick apes tentatively putting our fingers on it. It’s here, that’s for sure. But now what? It can’t hurt to go back and look at one of the writers who was most lucid about its emerging reality.
Let’s look at that person for a moment. Was he not a unique human being? An individual? Possessed of genius, perhaps? Did he not write novels? Was he not in a sense alone, marooned, an exile? Indeed, he could have gone back to Poland, to his countrymen, to protect his roots, to fight for liberation. He did not have to stay in Argentina when the war broke out. He chose to do that. Gombrowicz was with Nietzsche on the matter of free will and determination: neither extreme would do. The individual is born with certain strengths and weaknesses into a social system. Some “decisions” are “made” for him but he makes other moves that, however you wish to characterize them, have an effect on others. A human being is not either or: either made or a maker. A human being is both: both made and a maker. This arduous path, impossible ever to grasp as a total image in the mind, lasts as long as the individual lives. It was in exile that Gombrowicz was able to see most clearly how connected he was. In Poland he was too close. Distance from his group enabled him to be lucid about his connectedness to it, and informed all of his art.
Gombrowicz and Nietzsche
And in being who he was and creating the art that he did, we are able to see the idea or the spirit of the global citizen. We might recall Nietzsche’s dream of an Übermensch. If we can say that the Übermensch suggests a mind less constrained by the local bonds of interhumanity with a greater capacity to create in full lucidity, then could a global citizen such as Gombrowicz be a first step toward it? Well, maybe and maybe not. Gombrowicz held the view that, “it is difficult to imagine something more tawdry, ridiculous, or in worst taste than his superman” [p144]. The world is forever issuing a fresh batch of seventeen year-olds. The system may not allow such a radical possibility. We may only be equipped to achieve a certain clarity of vision but never able as a people to cross that bridge to the Overman. And one person by themselves a Superman would have struck Gombrowicz as ludicrous and is, in our world, a mere cartoon. Gombrowicz suggests that youth and immaturity itself—the unformed—exerts an important function in the system in terms of vitality. In writing, “Reality is not something that allows itself to be completely contained in form. Form is not in harmony with the essence of life, but all thought which tries to describe this imperfection also becomes form and thereby confirms only our striving for it.” [p 93]—he seems to be in accord with Nietzsche’s teaching. He could be as merciless as Nietzsche toward the philosophers of his day. Of Sartre he observed: “I have the impression [of] a frogman rising from the depths without remembering to remove his wetsuit. The awful mask, planned for an inhuman pressure, has adhered to his face.” [p 190] Elsewhere, in addressing himself, he sounds like Nietzsche: “You are like a rope, which children call a jump rope: it is thrust ahead so they can jump over it.” [p 123] On the other hand, with his fascination for youth, the inferior, the unformed, and the importance he placed on it he seems to part ways with Nietzsche.
But one thing seems certain: when the vision of interhumanity was new, new dreams were still possible. Today we are so deep into our collective dream we scarcely know it is a dream. We are afraid to dream, unaware that all the while we are deep inside a dream.
To wake up is to know we are dreaming and with that knowledge comes the possibility of dreaming a better dream. How do we do that? We can practice. And one way is through the creative play of fiction.
What Do You Want?
Nietzsche said that everything profound loves a mask. Gombrowicz suggested that masks are all that we have. What is real? Do “I” even exist? For Gombrowicz the biggest folly seemed to be to rest (he might have said to attempt to rest) confident in any form, any answer. An individual is always in flux, always in the process of forming. The struggle does not end until death.
I, too…. tried this authentic life, full of loyalty to existence in myself. But what do you want? It can’t be done…. that authenticity turned out to be falser than all my previous deceptions…. 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…. What do you want? [pp 183-4]
Shall We Dance?
I have always tried to bring out this “interhuman sphere” artistically, which, in The Marriage, for instance, grows to the heights of a creative force superior to individual consciousness…. the only deity accessible to us. This happens because an element of Form is produced between people that delineates each man individually. I am like a voice in an orchestra that must tune itself to its sound, find its place in the melody or, like a dancer for whom it is not so important exactly what is danced, the important thing is to join in the dance with others…. tuning myself to others in Form. [p 192]
And So, Who Am I?
It is not only I who imposes meaning on myself. Others impose meaning as well. From the clash of these interpretations arises a third meaning, which delineates me. [p 146]