You can’t honor the living if you don’t honor the dead, and large swaths of the current death machine work towards erasing them. One way to erase the past is to erase history. Another is to sanitize it and put our heroes on pedestals. That’s why I like to engage in conversation and occasional correspondence with dead folks. From time to time, I will write letters to dead artists, writers, and other notable or unknown people. Sometimes, the occasion for this arises organically, from a question or reference in the air. Other times, I may discover that it is the birthday of a person of interest and be moved to strike up a conversation. This can be especially fruitful when it offers an opportunity to engage with someone previously unknown to me, as is the case with today’s entry.
Here’s something I learned this morning as I was wondering what today’s post would be about: On this day in 1904, writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland. My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.” I decided to make him the subject of my next “Real Talk with Dead Folks,” which is one of the Breadcrumbs exercises that I find generative, especially when I am tired of my own ideas.
I’m sorry we couldn’t do this in person. Perhaps you would not have talked to me, but I think I would have enjoyed listening to you, at least for a little while. Probably I would have found you a bit too obsessed with yourself and this question of authenticity, and perhaps you would have made assumptions about me when you learned that I worked in schools, which are the places that perhaps best fueled your sense of the absurd. We’d both have our reasons, I’m sure. Fortunately, when it comes to this sort of work, liking or not liking does not need to factor into capacity for deep appreciation.
You claimed that the best lessons of school were in the breaks, when your classmates beat you. Your education, you said, was reading ––forbidden books, especially–– and loafing. You were often ill. Puzzling over your dreams, the symbolism and possibility within them, you considered a possible way out. Of what? I wondered. And you said, The whole farce! Then I knew I loved you.
It was perhaps one long project you were on, a quest to get to the “real” of you. You kept a daily public diary also, but you preferred different lenses: sometimes polemic, other times self-absorbed lens. I am skeptical of claims to authenticity, but I have a soft spot for those committed to an aesthetic with relentless dedication. For this, I can love you also.
They called you “creepy as Poe” and “absurdist as Kafka” and you relentlessly criticized their forms––all of them, calling them covers for the conventions you despised. Refusing to be tamed, you cultivated immaturity as wisdom, imperfection as an antidote to the fake. Every artist has their obsessions; your grail was authenticity. “I am a circus,” you said, “what more do you want?” Hah! I thought. That’s all I need to know.
You raged at the teachers babbling clichés and poked at the nonsense of their often-hollow aphorisms, so devoid of meaning as to be deemed universally palatable substitutions for truth for anyone who prefers the easy nicety to real thinking. “Chirp, chirp, little chickie!” your hero announced.
Were any of your elders spared your criticism? You called out Schulz on his assent to conventions, you joked that Proust “found more in his cookie. . . than they found in years of smoking crematoria.” You called Kafka “unreadable” and lacking sex appeal. You called your diary the faithful dog of your soul. You did have a few nice things to say about Kierkegaard.
Rejecting institutions of honor, you baptized yourself a self-made man, planned a life of exile in obscurity, and were soon after celebrated. But Europe broke your heart. You were a bumpkin among sophisticates, and you died soon after.
Relentless in your quest not to be a type of writer, but yourself, you left behind a legacy at once brilliant, hilarious, dangerous, redemptive, perverse, irreverent, heartfelt, and voluminous. Today I celebrate your defiance of easy classification, and I celebrate your love of the absurd.
Titles, for example, you did only randomly. You chose names for your books like one names a dog – “to tell one from the other,” you said. You had, after all, the one faithful dog of your soul, your daily letters, and this was after all, the singular work of a life, continuous and ongoing in all of its embedded and wondrous contradictions.
You said, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” You reminded, “Don’t be fooled by your own wisdom.” You honored paying attention, observing “the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence.”
Thanks for leaving a trail. I’m glad to meet you. I love the way you challenge people to examine contradictions, how you challenge pedestal-making with irreverence, and how you combat calcification of statues built as stand-ins for truth by dancing with the fluid and absurd.
I hope to see more of you in years to come.
Follow-up: It didn’t occur to me until this morning to make this a series on Breadcrumbs. Until now, I hadn’t articulated the impulse to be in conversation with dead people I never met, nor had I acknowledged that it’s something I tend to do in my notebooks and in my head fairly regularly. I’ve done this once before on the blog, in a memo to artist Hieronymous Bosch, posted here: “Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work.” I look forward to more of these.
The source I used for this exercise is Ruth Franklin’s excellent New Yorker article about the writer, “Imp of the Perverse: Witold Gombrowicz’s war against cliché.”