Though I am a fuddyduddy bookstore apologist, I confess my favorite mode of shopping for books is online—at three in the morning, after a night out with friends. It's great fun: you're back at home, still buzzing and crackling, you've browsed from your email inbox into some book review or recommendation, and your heightened suggestibility presently enters into conjunction with your one-click-enabled Amazon account.
Ten days later you find an unexpected package in the mail, and in that package is some 1937 surrealist Polish novel called Ferdydurke by a guy (Witold Gombrowicz) you're pretty sure you've never heard of.
"What the fuck is this?" you say to yourself.
So you read the book, because you suppose that must have been your plan all along. And you finish the last page and study the back cover for a few moments.
"What the fuck was that?" you say to yourself.
So: Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke.
It's a weird book, especially to the twenty-first century reader dipping into it without much context, intimate knowledge of Polish society circa 1930, and who has to rely on a translator to convey what must very clearly be an idiosyncratic and neologistic writing style. But the surface of it is easy enough to follow: a thirty-year-old author, "Joey" (a surrogate for Gombry himself) wakes up one morning after an unsettling dream, and as he sits around mulling over the failure of his novel and seething at the fatuousness of the Polish literati, a schoolteacher barges into his room. The prof sits down, flips bemusedly through Joey's book, quizzes him on Latin verbs, and tells him it's time to go to school. "Chirp, chirp, little chickie!" And he takes Joey by the hand and leads him through town to school.
Things get kind of strange from there.
Without thinking very hard about it, the two books I'd most readily compare Ferdydurke to would be Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and maybe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This isn't to say that any of these books are just transatlantic funhouse mirrors of each other, but points of contact do exist between them. Like Alice, Ferdydurke is episodic rather than progressive, it occasionally (and very memorably) digresses into stories within stories, and delights in upending conventional manners and common knowledge. And like Fear and Loathing, it endeavors to shock, its tone is one of guffawing, scorching irreverence, and it vociferates the rebellious sentiments of a very particular time and place. Fear and Loathing is a psychedelic arrow launched at the brain of an America that had traded in the spirit of the Sixties for a Richard M. Nixon presidency (and loses much of its meaning when divorced from this context); Ferdydurke, even to the foreign reader who skips the foreword and translator's notes, is plainly a venue for Gombry to drop his pants and moon the pre-WWII Polish cultural establishment.
One of the problems with literary pillorizing, of course, is that the effectiveness of a work largely depends on the reader's familiarity with the object inside the authorial crosshairs. And the substance of shock has a fairly short half-life. After all, it's left to the cultural historians at this point to tell the younger generations that The Simpsons, Night Trap, and Eminem once had fretful parents and congresspeople in paroxysms and fainting fits. And it's left to the editors at Yale University Press to point out that Ferdydurke was banned in Poland for decades by the Nazis and Soviets as subversive filth (and is now, naturally, shoved down the throats of Polish students).
Even so: though the context is unfamiliar, and although time (and to some extent translation) have divested Ferdydurke of its bite, the broader themes of Joey's nightmare retain their teeth. Curiously, Gombry pretty much hypothesizes the implications of the Stanford Prison Experiment almost forty years in advance: to a large extent, the person we are is the person that those around us treat us as. In one of his tangents from the narration, Gombry proposes that one of his novel's primary concerns is "nothing other than the suffering that comes from our being constricted by another human being, from the fact that we are strangled and stifled by a tight, narrow, stiff notion of ourselves that is held by another human being." When the avuncular teacher tells Joey it's time to go to school and treats him like a truant student, a truant student is what he becomes, unable to address the teacher without first raising his hand. When he's introduced to the other sixth graders as a sixth grader, the other boys treat him as the thing they're told he is, and Joey—despite being twice their age—is reduced to the weird new kid in class. When a modern-minded teenage schoolgirl—hip, beautiful, aloof—decides he must be an insecure, affectatious, old-fashioned geek, he has no alternative but to become these things; and as he desperately tries to prove to her that he isn't insecure or affectatious (or a teenager, for that matter), his new face becomes him more and more. Joey can only act out the role he's been shoved into.
It's a troubling thought: that the notion of an "authentic self" is bullshit, that we only are as we stand in the esteem of others—"Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man's soul, even if it be the soul of an idiot." What's especially galling about this arrangement is that so bloody many of these networks of relations through which we make sense of ourselves are artificial, outmoded, mendacious—thoroughly absurd, when you think on it a bit.
And this is how Joey manages to turn the tables on his malefactors: by making them ridiculous. By using what little wiggle room his roles give him to place his foes in
situations where their identities, activities, and powers become
scrambled. There's a very bent kind of logic to it: by Ferdydurke's reckoning, if the Joker really wanted to
defeat Batman, the way to go about it wouldn't be with bombs, poisons, or by striking at him through Robin. All he'd have to do is catch Bats him on the
toilet, tights and utility belt around his ankles, grunting and farting. It would destroy the caped crusader
utterly; he'd become a joke, robbed of all his power forever.
(Herein, of course, is the raw destructive potential of comedy. If someone can be made ridiculous, he can be conquered, and anyone can be made ridiculous.)
Speaking of the Joker: one of his lines from The Dark Knight echoes one of the sentiments pervading Ferdydurke:
You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan". But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
It can be a humiliating, awful thing to be put into a box you don't wish to be in. But Gombry suggests that it's more startling, mutually horrifying for all parties involved, to find oneself without a box to be placed in; to look at oneself through those around you and find a completely incoherent image.
From the beginning, Joey is unable to resist being dragged off to school because the situation is too ridiculous, too incomprehensible to resist. ("This was ridiculous! To ridiculous to be real! Incredible because it was ridiculous! Too ridiculous even to fight back . . . . Just as you can't when someone asks you an inane and trivial question—so I couldn't either.") Towards the end of the book, Joey finds himself persuaded to kidnap a young yokel of a valet so his rapist schoolboy friend can act out a fantasy of homoerotic fraternization between social classes. It's a terrible, baffling thing: it's not quite pederasty, it's not quite Bolshevism, and the people who catch wind of it are seriously rattled because they don't have any drawers in their mental cabinets to file it under. The thought of committing such an inexplicable crime fills Joey with such dread that he resolves to change the plan, and instead kidnaps the young woman whom the valet serves. Not that it's any less serious a crime, but it's a crime with precedent, a crime he can wrap his own head around more easily, and more comfortably explain to his captors if he gets nabbed in the act.
Which brings us back round to the shelf stability of iconoclasm: once the unnameable gets a name and propagates into a trope, it loses its power. Shock invariably shrinks to schlock.
I think a helpful cipher for decrypting Ferdydurke—or at least framing it in terms nearer to our own experience— is a statement from Gombry made shortly after the novel's publication:
We live in an era of violent changes, of accelerated development, in
which settled forms are breaking under life's pressure . . . The need to
find a form for what is yet immature, uncrystalized and underdeveloped,
as well as the groan at the impossibility of such a postulate——this is
the chief excitement of my book.
Ah, yes. Modernism. Now we know where we are (provided we can take Gombry at his word).
It is impossible for us to understand precisely what it must have been to experience the velocity and turbulence of the early twentieth century. We can compare the acceleration of that age to our own, but not its velocity or its position. Suddenly this was the world: electricity, radio, automobiles, airplanes, movie theatres, Americanism, Nazism, Bolshevism, Stalinism, the Great War, the League of Nations, the atrophy of European colonialism, the Lost Generation, jazz records, Hollywood, liberalism, iceboxes, the assembly line, psychoanalysis, atheism, stock traders destroying the world economy, on and on and on and on.
The Modernist writers and artists perceived how
profoundly the changes humanity made to its world were changing
humanity in turn, and who sought to create art that reflected or otherwise
spoke to those changes and their ramifications. It was an effort to question, to reinvent, to crack open the old forms to draw out the viridescence of a new age. (This, by the by, was one
of the chief concerns of William Carlos Williams, and one of the things
he obliquely puzzles over throughout The Descent of Winter.)
From the 1900s to the 1930s, civilization went from a trot to a run.
Gombry's story of schoolboys and ass and more ass was his attempt to address the
metamorphosis of the world in what he took to be its own vocabulary, or
in terms appropriate to it: a neologistic tirade against forms and formalism, maturity, reverence for the past, high ideals and absolutes, slavish adherence to trends, and seriousness in general.
1980s to the 2010s, culture launched from a sprint into mach 1. As the boiler
is turned up and all the human things of this world scintillate and
collide with ever heightening rapidity, the transformations of the
world's forms, and of all of our visible and implicit relations to the
rest of the humanity and its creations, elapse with increasing speed and
It makes me wonder: what is the literature, what is the syntax, lexicon, and story most suited for speaking to the age of smartphones, drones, and carbon? Or are its most authentic and apropos expressions of itself totally removed from print, as per the prophecies of McLuhan?
After Ferdydurke, I can guess that Gombry would have probably answered in one of two ways: either "yes, absolutely," or "who gives a damn?"