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Was Gombrowicz the First Post-Colonialist?

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Witold Gombrowicz viewed himself - not without some justification - as a forerunner of all of the more significant 20th-century philosophical and intellectual trends: he claimed to have been the first existentialist, the first structuralist as well as someone who successfully challenged the theory of  nouveau romain.  Recently many scholars of the younger generation have proclaimed him a postmodernist writer.  Perhaps the time has come to ask whether he deserves also to be considered the first "post-colonialist."  There is certainly some basis for answering this question in the affirmative.  In the Diary, he often unequivocally stated a preference for the characteristics of the "younger," distinctive, dynamic Argentinian culture with its unfulfilled potential, rather than for the "older," static, frozen up culture of Europe.  At the same time he had some harsh words for the post-colonial discourse that was taking shape during his stay in Argentina.
"I must contribute," he wrote caustically in 1958, "to this soup simmering with the platitudes (spiced with hatred toward the U.S. and with the panic-stricken fear of the 'temptations of imperialism') of South American nationalism." [1] This comment serves to reveal the ideological character of the post-colonial discourse and the tendency of the proponents of the idea of national identity and enhanced national self-esteem to blame all misfortunes on the outsiders, particularly the United States, portrayed as a symbol of brutal economic, political, and cultural exploitation that completely ignores local aspirations.  It may be almost redundant to add that such interpretations have always been, and still are, echoes of anti-Western Communist propaganda based on conveniently tailored applications of vulgarized Marxism.  Having sensed this, Gombrowicz did not hesitate, however, to criticize the cultural inferiority complex of the Argentinians, mixed up with their futile search for the "Indian essence of these parts." [2] Thus, he took a stand on an issue that in the future would divide the participants in the debate on nativism in post-colonial countries.  In questioning the probability of regaining native South American culture in its pristine, homogeneous, 'primeval' form, Gombrowicz simultaneously attacked all forms of an essentialist approach to the question of national identity.  Consequently, he proposed his own, original solution for the dilemmas brought about by dependency and independence, by the need for identity and its elusive character in a country where various cultures and races are intermingled.
The most revealing passage in the Diary on the subject of the national character of the Argentinians opens with a reference to "that accursed, easy body of theirs." [3] But what does the term "easy body" actually mean?  And why should it be called "accursed"?  Possible, albeit not quite satisfactory, answers to these questions can be found in the preceding portions of the Diary.
Gombrowicz admits to having been bewildered by the beauty of young inhabitants of Santiago del Estero.  It reveals itself to him, however, only in transitory moments, in hastily noted particles of fleeting impressions, incomplete.  Those familiar with Gombrowicz's oeuvre will not be surprised.  After all, his entire literary world was shaped by sensual experiences: the glittering of color, the constant play of shadow upon light, the rhythm of movement, and the clear outlines of a shape.  He was dazzled by "enormous dark eyes and raven hair [...]...scintillating laughter...limbs light as a dancer's...",[4] by the "girl who is like a tremulous black and white bouquet",[5] by an "almost triangular face, young and beautiful, without sin." [6] But such carnal epiphanies can be transformed into poetry only by the writer's pen: in stubborn reality they evaporate as soon as they appear.  At a closer look, a stunningly beautiful couple is stripped of its magic and becomes painfully ordinary: "The czango was poking at his teeth with a toothpick," while "his girl [...] was eating the nuts that went with his vermouth." [7]
Carnal beauty is not synonymous with either good and truth or the beauty of the mind-at least so far as Latinos are concerned-but this ancient triad was of no interest to Gombrowicz.  In his view carnal beauty is undermined by triviality, stupidity, and banality, as well as by its concealed, unrealized perversion, or even corruption, imputed by the observer: "This imperceptible madness, this innocent sin, those dark, languid eyes...." [8]
Could the "easy body" mean also a reflecting body, one capable of absorbing all the meanings projected onto it?  Could such a body represent a space within which all sensations imposed from the outside coalesce and intersect?  Should we assume that in and of itself such a body has no meaning and can, therefore, be subjected to any number of arbitrary semiotic operations?  The body in question is, of course, young-it literally embodies immaturity, a concept to which Gombrowicz, as is well known, axiologically attributes neutrality.  But even such a body is not a tabula rasa, it is not completely transparent since it undoubtedly emits erotic and esthetic signals that, although unclear, make the observer shiver.  Why, then, does the "easiness" cause disappointment and anger?  Also, does it characterize young people from one specific city in Argentina or are its implications wider?
One possible answer comes to Gombrowicz or, more precisely, to his readers, from Santucho, a writer from Santiago, who sees the source of this attitude in the Indian's need for revenge:

Surely you can see how much of the Indian there is in all of us.  Those tribes of Huries and Lules that were settled here were degraded by the Spanish and reduced to the role of slave, servant....The Indian had to defend himself against the advantage of his master. [...] How did he defend himself?  By making fun of superiority, by sneering at his master, he nurtured a talent for poking fun at everything that aspired to superiority and rule.  He demanded equality, mediocrity.  In every flight, in every spark, he saw the desire to dominate...And now you have the result.  Now everything here is so ORDINARY...[9]

Since "superiority and rule" are, without any doubt, among core terms in Gombrowicz's vocabulary, one may be justified in suspecting that it is he who speaks to us disguised as Santucho.  Nonetheless, such concepts as the master-slave relationship and that of the "talent for poking fun" deserve closer examination, if only because they frequently reappear in the works of scholars concerned with the issues of post-colonialism.
Homi K. Bhabha, one of the leading scholars in this field, emphasizes the vital role of the ambivalence of mimicry in the structure of the post-colonial discourse.  On the one hand, colonial mimicry serves to secure the authority in power that uses this discourse while, on the other hand, it helps discredit it, thus revealing the compromising contradictions hidden below the surface.  As a consequence, imitation inevitably slips into mockery:

It is from this area between between mimicry and mockery, where the reforming, civilizing mission is threatened by the displacing gaze of its disciplinary double, that my instances of colonial imitation come.  What they all share is a discursive process by which the excess

or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely "rupture" the discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a "partial" presence.  By "partial" I mean both "incomplete" and "virtual." [10]

Bhaha adds:  "The desire of colonial mimicry-an interdictory desire-may not have an object, but it has strategic objectives which I shall call the metonymy of presence." [11] And, as he explains later,

Those inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse-the difference between being English and being Anglicized; the identity between stereotypes which, through repetition, also become different; the discriminatory identities constructed across traditional cultural norms and classifications,[...] all these are metonymies of presence. [12]

Mimicry of this type, Bhaha claims, not only annihilates "narcissistic authority" of the colonizer through the "repetitious slippage of difference and desire."  "It is the process of the fixation of the colonial as a form of cross-classificatory, discriminatory knowledge within an interdictory discourse, and therefore necessarily raises the question of the authorization of colonial representations." [13]
Santucho's peroration can serve as a perfect illustration of Bhabha's conclusions.  Mimicry exposes equally the colonizer and those colonized by him.  In metonymic categories, the identity of the conqueror cannot be limited to two planes only: superiority and mastery.  By the same token, the identity of the native should not be defined by equality and ordinariness.  Derisive imitation is stressed and strengthened; not only is it both an integral and a concealed component of the colonial discourse, but it is also used as a device in the strategies of
self-defense.  We can surmise that the "easiness of the body" is one of those strategies.  That partial, quasi-virtual presence of the subject perceived in the category of strangeness-the Latino's "metonymy of presence"-and the negation of the very idea of identity by the existence of a "cross-classificatory" concept seem to be among essential components of the post-colonial discourse.  Even more important is the discrediting of the authority that tacitly justifies-and thus guarantees-the authenticity of the message.  It is that kind of authority that concerned Gombrowicz-he deemed it suspect and challenged it frequently in various ways.
This purpose was accomplished first by exposing-and mercilessly ridiculing-imitative techniques and procedures (a sense of inferiority and an ordinariness expected by the master of his subjects are transformed into lethal weapons aimed at the sense of superiority and lordliness).  Secondly, all relevant definitions are constantly questioned.  The explanation of the main characteristics of the Argentine national character, atributed to Santucho, is followed by the following direct comment from Gombrowicz:

This thickset, stubborn cacique is wrong, however.  Everything here happens without sin, but also without jeering, sneering, malice, or irony.  The jokes are friendly and one senses goodness in the very tone of the language.  It's just that...it will remain the secret of South America that decency, goodness, and the commonplace are becoming very aggressive and even dangerous. [14]

If we assume that the autochthons indeed mimicked the aggressive newcomers, then their attitude may imply a non-explicit threat of retaliation.  Gombrowicz, once an inhabitant of Central Europe, which for centuries was exposed to disasters of historic proportions, could not be indifferent to the genocidal and savage cruelties practiced by the conquistadors.  He was, indeed, haunted by the image of  "...the naked back under the whip, black head of curly hair hunched into the shoulders, eyes glancing sideways, ears alert to the swish of the strap...This is the poison that is killing me in Santiago.  They have this in their blood!  In their look.  In their smile." [15]
In the initial, brutal clash of two contrasting civilizations the "naked defenselessness of those Huries, Lules, Vilelas" faced "swords, spurs, armor, the plumed helmets of the white, bearded conquerors." [16] But the terror did not end.  Hence Gombrowicz's conclusion: "[...] Sadism and masochism still play in that colored air and dance in the streets.  Their stench poisons me.  Such is the perversity of Santiago!" [17]
Should the "easy body" of young Argentinians be perceived simply as camouflage, a disguise hiding a desire for vengeance, a hidden perversion and the undying memory of humiliation?  Or does it perhaps suggest a more general, more universal rule, difficult to pin down and formulate?  It was not by accident that Gombrowicz ended his reflections with the statement: "Mix a little slave with the most common of cities...but...I could be wrong." [18]
Thus, at one swoop, Gombrowicz casts doubt on the very possibility of explaining group characteristics by means of a coherent formula which presupposes selection, order, and clear hierarchy-requirements that he ostentatiously flouted.  At the same time he undermines the notion that a formula concerning this subject could be unequivocal, exclusive, and exhaustive.  In other words, in attaching little weight to genetic and cultural factors, he points to multidirectional and varied individual and group dependencies, based mainly on the need for domination and submission.
He poses a set of questions:   

Is Argentina chiefly its natives, who have lived here for a long time?  Is it chiefly the immigration that is tranforming and building the country?  Is Argentina precisely this: a combination, cocktail, mixture, and ferment?  Is Argentina UNDEFINABILITY?  In which case the whole Argetine questionnaire-"Who are we?"  "Which truth is our truth?" "What are we striving for?"-has to end in fiasco.  For it is not intellectual analysis, but action-action based firmly on the first person singular-that contains the answer. [19]

Hence the always valid demand that can be addressed to nationalists of every stripe as well as to advocates of post-colonialism:

Do you want to know who you are?  Don't ask.  Act.  Action will delineate and define you.  You will find out from your actions.  But you must act as an 'I', as an individual, because you can be certain only of your own needs, inclinations, passions, necessities.  Only this kind of action is direct and is a genuine extricating of yourself from chaos, self-creation.  As for the rest: isn't it mere recitation, execution of preordained plan, rubbish, kitsch? [20]

To Gombrowicz, the term "acting" in its social dimension meant constant effort toward realizing fully the potential inherent in one's social, ethnic, cultural, or national identity.  It also denoted pride in belonging to the so-called inferior (e.g., Argentinian or Polish) culture that still allows changes or, at least, is open to transformation-a stage no longer available to the old, worn out culture of Europe's West.  "Acting" also means inidividual and direct contact-intellectual, or physical-with people of differing races, beliefs, and customs.  It implies a painful, strenous process of shaping national culture in a never-ending effort to collect, interpret, and revaluate its resources.


[1] W. Gombrowicz, Diary, transl. L. Vallee, gen. ed. J. Kott (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), vol. 2 (1957-1961), p. 95. 
[2] Op. cit., p. 93.
[3] P. 98. 
[4] P. 91.
[5] Pp. 95-96.
[6] P. 97.
[7] Op. cit., p. 94.
[8] P. 97.
[9] Op. cit., p. 98.
[10] H. K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 86. 
[11] Op. cit., p. 89.
[12] Op. cit., pp. 89-90.
[13] Op. cit., p. 90.
[14] Diary, p. 98.
[15] Op. cit., p. 102.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Diary, vol. 2 [1959], p. 130.
[20] Op. cit., p. 130.

[From: "Russian Literature",             LXII (2007) IV, ss. 432-439.]

 

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