I’m tempted to make the rather bold assertion that the most interesting duo in Western literature of the 20th century is Czeslaw Milosz and Witold Gombrowicz. I say duo because you really have to take the two of them together. When Milosz zigs, Gombrowicz zags, when you’re feeling one way, Milosz expresses it for you, and when the mood shifts, there is Gombrowicz waiting in the wings with a change of pace.
The twentieth century was insane. We forget to remember that. For us, it’s what made us what we are and therefore it has taken on a sense of inevitability, even naturalness. But looking at it from the other way around, from the perspective of those who were going through it and for whom its twists and turns were anything but a foregone conclusion, the century is filled with so many shocks and amazements it is difficult to comprehend. And that, of course, was one of the great, if not the great, themes of literature from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the outbreak of WWI to the effective finale to the 20th century in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reuniting of Western and Eastern Europe.
Through it all, the challenge to the coherence and sustainability of human experience was relentless. If tradition was disrupted and broken down here and there in the 19th century, it was upended completely, remade from the insight out, and sometimes obliterated during the 20th. Again, we don’t often bother to stop and consider how extraordinary that process was. It was by turns exhilarating and terrifying and sometimes both simultaneously. And perhaps the horrors of the twentieth century were all the more horrifying given that the century continuously produced strains of hope that things could possibly be otherwise. Suffering is that much worse the degree to which it is perceived to have been avoidable.
Czeslaw Milosz was as sensitive to these issues as anyone. This is a man who picked his way through the rubble of Warsaw when its ruins were still steaming, when the place was just an open wound. That experience, and the knowledge gained from it, is shot through everything that Milosz ever wrote. For Milosz, man is guaranteed nothing. That’s it. Nothing. And man can be reduced, or reduce himself, to nothing, at any moment.
Gombrowicz too experienced such things. As Milosz says of him, “Gombrowicz lived in an epoch which neither quantitatively nor qualitatively brings to mind any of the previous epochs and which distinguishes itself through ubiquitous cases of ‘infection’ with mass and individual madness.” Man, as Aristotle once mentioned, needs a world, a complicated arrangement of social interactions, in order actually to be man. But that same ordering of complicated social arrangements can also be the vehicle by which human beings destroy themselves and one another.
But Gombrowicz chose flight, literally and metaphorically. From his exile in Argentina he conjured up an absurd mental universe that spins out the problems of experience in countless ‘as if’ scenarios that are so powerful exactly insofar as they make sense despite their insanity. Gombrowicz took flight into the endless malleability of human experience in order to keep a step ahead of the world as it is. That is his particular freedom. It is the freedom of Socrates as Kierkegaard describes him in The Concept of Irony, the freedom that escapes from every possible determination.
Truth be told, this version of freedom annoys Milosz. Because for Milosz, the possibility of meaning in human affairs is dependent on commitment. If nothing else, it is founded on the capacity for human beings to hold experience together even as forces from within and without work to tear it apart. How one does this is not entirely clear but Milosz’s entire oeuvre is the sustained attempt to do so even as he lacks a blueprint. That is a pretty brave literary task to set in front of oneself. From Milosz’s standpoint, Gombrowicz has retreated into his own consciousness instead of forcing himself constantly to confront the problems of the world as it is encountered. Milosz has said that, “what fascinates me is the apple: the principle of the apple, appleness in and of itself. In Gombrowicz, on the other hand, the emphasis is placed on the apple as a ‘mental fact’, on the reflection of the apple in consciousness.”
But then the two come together again, in Milosz’s mind, because Gombrowicz never falls into the trap of those intellectuals who have lost track of the root problems of experience, actual experience, that have been thrown up by the 20th century. Milosz writes that, “A comparison of Gombrowicz with western writers, with Sartre, for example, would reveal, in the case of the latter, a deficiency of a certain type of experience connected with history and specific cultural traditions, a deficiency that is compensated for by theory.”
I think we’re still working this stuff through. And I’ll make one more rash claim. The future right now is in the past. Sometimes it is in the past, the immediate past, where things get clear again. For those of us whose lives stretch from the era of the 20th century into the next one, the most important thing for taking the future seriously is doing work on the things that have recently past. Only now is it becoming even vaguely possible to understand how important are the tentative thoughts put forward by people like Milosz and Gombrowicz. And there are others, back there, waiting for us. We simply have to take seriously the idea that turning our backs on the future is a way of renewing it.