Gombrowicz’s reply to Cioran’s ‘‘The Conveniences and Inconveniences of Exile’’

Giedroyc wanted me to reply to Cioran’s (a Rumanian writer) article, ‘‘The Conveniences and Inconveniences of Exile.’’ The answer contains my view of the role of literature in exile.

Cioran’s words reek of a basement coolness and the rot of the grave, but they are too petty. Who is he talking about? Who should one understand to be the ‘‘writer in exile’’? Adam Mickiewicz wrote books and so does Mr. X, quite correct and readable ones, both are ‘‘writers’’ and nota bene, writers in exile, but here all parallels end.

Rimbaud? Norwid? Kafka? Słowacki? (There are a variety of exiles.) I believe that none of them would have been too horrified at this category of hell. It is very painful not to have readers and very unpleasant not to be able to publish one’s works. It certainly is not sweet being unknown, highly unpleasant to see oneself deprived of the aid of that mechanism that pushes one to the top, that creates publicity and organizes fame, but art is loaded with elements of loneliness and self-sufficiency, it finds its satisfaction and sense of purpose in itself. The homeland? Why, every eminent person because of that very eminence was a foreigner even at home. Readers? Why, they never wrote ‘‘for’’ readers anyway, always ‘‘against’’ them. Honors, success, reknown, fame: why, they became famous exactly because they valued themselves more than their success.

And that which is a little Kafka, Conrad, or Mickiewicz in even the smaller caliber writer, that which is genuine talent and real superiority or real maturity, will in no measure fit into Cioran’s basement. I would also like to remind Cioran that not only émigré but all art remains in the most intimate contact with decay, it is born of decadence, it is a transmutation of illness into health. All art, generally speaking, borders on silliness, defeat, degradation. Is there an artist who is not, as Cioran says, ‘‘an ambitious being, aggressive in his defeat, embittered, a conniving conqueror’’? Has Cioran ever seen an artist or writer who was not, who did not have to be, a megalomaniac? And art, as Boy once correctly said, is a graveyard: for every thousand people who were incapable of ‘‘coming into existence’’ and who remained in a sphere of painful insufficiency, barely one or two is capable of really ‘‘coming into existence.’’ This dirt, therefore, this venom of unsatisfied ambitions, this tossing and turning in a vacuum, this catastrophe has very little to do with emigration and a lot to do with art. They make up an aspect of every literary café and truly it is a matter of indifference where in the world the writers who are not writers enough in order to really be writers, suffer.

And perhaps it is healthier that they were deprived of doles, applause, all those tiny caresses that the state and society lavished upon them in the good old days in the name of ‘‘supporting native creativity.’’ This family playing at greatness and distinction, the sympathetic noise created at one time by the condescendingly smiling press and the half-baked critics, deprived of a feeling for the scale of events, that process of artificially pumping candidates up into a ‘‘national writer’’ . . . didn’t all this reek of kitsch? And the result? Nations that at best were capable of producing a few authentic writers nurtured entire hosts of wonders in this incubator, and in this familial warmth, which was a mixture of spinsterish goodness and a cynical disregard for values, all hierarchy disintegrated. Is it surprising then that these hothouse creations, nurtured in the womb of the nation, wilt when out of the womb? Cioran writes about how a writer torn away from his people is lost. If that is the case, this writer never existed in the first place: he was a writer in embryo. Instead, it seems to me that theoretically speaking and bypassing material hardship, the immersing of oneself in the world, that is, emigration, should constitute an incredible stimulus for literature.

For lo and behold the country’s elite is kicked out over the border. It can think, feel, and write from the outside. It gains distance. It gains an incredible spiritual freedom. All bonds burst. One can be more of oneself. In the general din all the forms that have existed until now loosen up and one can move toward the future in a more ruthless way.

An exceptional opportunity! The moment everyone has dreamed of ! It would seem, therefore, that the stronger individuals, the richer individuals would roar like lions! Then why don’t they? Why has the voice of these people faded abroad?

They do not roar because, first of all, they are too free. Art demands style, order, discipline. Cioran correctly underscores the danger of too much isolation, of excessive freedom. Everything to which they were tied and everything that bound them homeland, ideology, politics, group, program, faith, milieu—everything vanished in the whirlpool of history and only a bubble filled with nothingness remained on the surface. Those thrown out of their little world found themselves facing a world, a boundless world and, consequently, one that was impossible to master. Only a universal culture can come to terms with the world, never parochial cultures, never those who live only on fragments of existence. Only he who knows how to reach deeper, beyond the homeland, only he for whom the homeland is but one of the revelations in an eternal and universal life, will not be incited to anarchy by the loss of his homeland. The loss of a homeland will not disturb the internal order of only those whose homeland is the world. Contemporary history has turned out to be too violent and borderless for literatures too national and specific.

And it is exactly this excess of freedom that inhibits the writer most. Threatened by the enormity of the world and the finality of its affairs, they grasp at the past convulsively; they cling desperately to themselves; they want to remain as they were; they fear even the slightest change in themselves, thinking that everything will then fall apart; and, finally, they cling convulsively to the only hope remaining: the hope of recovering the homeland. Recovering the homeland, however, cannot come to pass without waging a battle, and a battle requires strength and collective strength can be achieved only by giving up one’s I. In order to produce this strength, the writer must impose a blind faith, among other deficiencies, on himself and his compatriots and the luxury of objective and free thinking becomes a grievous sin. He does not know how to be a writer without a homeland or in order to regain his homeland, he has to stop being a writer, at least a serious writer.

Though perhaps there is yet another reason for this spiritual paralysis, at least where it is not a matter of intellectuals but artists. I have in mind the very concept of art and the artist, as it has come to be accepted in Western Europe. It does not seem to be that our modern beliefs concerning the essence of art, the role of the artist, the relationship of artist to society have tallied with reality. The artistic philosophy of the West derives from the elite in crystallized societies where nothing interferes with conventional language but there is nothing a man thrown outside the limits of convention can do with such a philosophy. The concept of art forged on that side of the curtain by the victorious bureaucracy of the proletariat is even more elitist and more naive. An artist in emigration, however, is forced to exist not only outside of his people, but also outside of the elite. He confronts the spiritually and intellectually inferior sphere far more directly. Nothing isolates him from this contact, he has personally to endure the pressure of a brutal and immature life. He is like a bankrupt count who sees that the manners of the salon are worthless if there is no salon. Sometimes this pushes people in the direction of ‘‘democratic’’ shallowness, into a kindly ordinariness or into a crude ‘‘realism’’ and sometimes it condemns them to isolation. We have to find a way to feel like aristocrats once again (in the deeper sense of the word).

Therefore, if there is talk about the disintegration and decadence of émigré literature, then this notion of the issue would be closest to me because here, at least, we liberate ourselves for a moment from the vicious circle of trivialities and touch the difficulties capable of destroying authentic writers. I do not deny at all that overcoming these problems requires a great determination and boldness of spirit. It is not easy to be an émigré writer, which means almost total isolation. Why should it be surprising, therefore, that overcome by our own weakness and the enormity of the tasks, we bury our heads in the sand and, organizing parodies of the past for ourselves, we flee the big world to live in our little one?

Yet sooner or later our thought must work its way out of the impasse. Our problems will find people to solve them. At some point, it is no longer a matter of creativity itself, but the recovery of the capacity to create. We have to produce that portion of freedom, boldness, ruthlessness, and even, I would say, irresponsibility, without which creation is impossible. We have to accustom ourselves to a new scale of existence. We will have to treat our most cherished feelings unceremoniously, with sangfroid in order to attain other values. The minute we begin to shape the world in the place where we happen to be and with the means at our disposal, the enormity of the task will shrink, the boundlessness will become delineated, and the turbulent waters of chaos will begin to recede.

GOMBROWICZ, Witold. Diary. Transl. by Lillian Vallee. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pps. 48-52.

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