Translating Gombrowicz’s Liminal Aesthetics

by Pawel Wojtas (Author)
©2014 Monographs 208 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 39


The book offers a novel attempt at recapitulating Gombrowicz’s aesthetics in the postmodern Anglo-American context. The research extends to English and American literary traditions in order to account for the ways the writer’s version of existentialism is interpreted in diverse contexts, generating alternative interpretations of his peculiar philosophy. Furthermore it demonstrates the ways in which textual indeterminacy and the nebulous notion of the Other underpin Gombrowicz’s text of existence. The final chapter undertakes to pair up the process of translation with the liminal act of participation. The translations of Gombrowicz’s selected works are juxtaposed to argue the extent to which his master tropes (fail to) preserve their otherness when translated into English, as well as to test the ways translation as a self-reflexive act responds to the otherness of texts determined by different hermeneutic conditions. This study intends to fill, if partially, some lacunae on the map of Gombrowicz’s Translation Studies and to inspire further debates on the related aspects of postmodern existentialism of his works.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Gombrowicz’s existentialism: a Polish and Anglo-American perspective
  • 1.1. Gombrowicz’s existentialism in the light of Polish literary studies
  • 1.2. “Not quite our cup of tea”: an Anglo-American perspective
  • 1.3. Gombrowicz through the lens of Translation Studies
  • 1.3.1. Translating Gombrowicz
  • Chapter 2: Towards poststructuralist translation theory
  • 2.1. Différance and the original text
  • 2.2. Différance and hermeneutics
  • 2.3. Translating, simulating
  • 2.4. Supplement
  • Chapter 3: Voicing the Other: text and existence
  • 3.1. Différance against Gombrowicz’s existential rhetoric
  • 3.2. Rhetoric of liminality
  • 3.3. On metafiction
  • 3.4. Between reading and existence
  • 3.5. Liquidity
  • 3.6. Textual(ter)ity: hermeneutic experience of the other
  • 3.6.1. Conceptualisations of alterity
  • 3.6.2. (Ef)facing the other of reading
  • 3.7. Textu(re)ality
  • Chapter 4: Acts of translation
  • 4.1. Acts of participation
  • 4.1.1. The making of Trans-Atlantyk
  • 4.2. (Un)common denominators
  • 4.2.1. Postmodernism as translation
  • 4.2.2. Polish and Western postmodern experience as translation
  • 4.2.3. Post-war experience as simulation
  • 4.2.4. Polish and Anglo-American simulacra
  • 4.2.5. The cosmos of translation in the translations of Cosmos
  • 4.3. Transgressing the liminality of translation
  • 4.3.1. Transgressing (or not)
  • 4.3.2. Transgressive translation
  • 4.4. After translation
  • Conclusions
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Series index

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The principal aim of this book is to show that a comparative textual analysis of Witold Gombrowicz’s selected works and their English translations – one carried out within historical and cultural milieux of Polish, English and American critical and literary traditions – exposes hermeneutically conditioned interpretations of the writer’s account of existentialism which approximates the condition of translation. Gombrowicz’s idiosyncratic linguistic and existential tropes will be investigated through the theoretical lens of deconstruction. This investigation involves drawing together a number of conceptual threads, chiefly coined by the poststructuralist as well as postmodernist theorists, in order to indicate metatextual parallels between the philosophers of the limit and Gombrowicz’s existentialism. These are revealed in their common denominator: the liminality between language and being. Therefore, the selected works used for close reading, namely Cosmos, Trans-Atlantyk, Ferdydurke, The Marriage, and Pornografia and their English translations, have been chosen on the grounds that they best exemplify instable reciprocal relations between the philosophy of existence and language, which lends itself as a propitious starting ground for the existential study of language.

In this context, Gombrowicz divulges that “The artist who realizes himself inside art will never be creative. He must remain on its peripheries where art meets life” (Diary 54). Gombrowicz’s awareness of the ‘peripheries’ symbolising the liminality between art and existence, as well as dramatising an unstable relation between immanence and transcendence, resonates with the poststructuralist interest in the limit, which constitutes the main focus of the present study. Gombrowicz’s fiction produces a peculiar double bind of language, which is itself a metaphor of the existential concerns it conveys. Generating metalinguistic and metafictional effects, Gombrowcz’s text constructs a symbiosis between language and being, whose evident boundaries refuse to materialize. Therefore, Gombrowicz’s language does not merely function as a carrier of fiction and metaphysical existentialist philosophy, but in fact unveils linguistic operations structured as the events it refers to. At any rate, the reciprocally transposable axes of language, fiction and existence are not approached as detached textual categories.

It is precisely the linguistic-ontological misalliance of the text as the exemplification of the deconstruction of metaphysics that kept poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophers busy; it also dramatises Gombrowicz’s self-reflexive writing and language. The writer was perfectly aware of the metaphysical dimension of his writing, manifested by prefaces, commentaries, forewords, essays, and diaries, which served to delineate his direct philosophical route also ← 9 | 10 → at a discursive level. It is not, however, Gombrowicz’s overt existentialist manifestos as such that are at stake in the following research, but the ways they are disclosed in the fibre of language, or rather – in order not to disregard linguistic credence on the one hand, and to play down its totalising textual hegemony on the other – within the limits of being and language, as well as their shifting reciprocal differences.

With regard to the selected methodology, the central concern of this study will address the inner workings of the language of Gombrowicz’s texts and their translations. Therefore, the orientation towards structuralist schools of thought would appear as an accurate theoretical ground from which to further the textual analysis in question. However, the reservations over adopting linguistic or structuralist orientation (with which Gombrowicz was contemporary, and relatively in agreement with, yet by no means uncritical about) stems from the conjecture that although the method would prove functional in terms of the analysis of language solely, it might fail to address some central issues pertaining to the existential study of discourse.

Furthermore, unable to renounce its evident ‘transcendent objectivity’1 in relation to the subject/object of its scrutiny, structuralism makes metatextual assumptions about texts by organising them according to preprogrammed principles and restricting their semantic possibilities. Such a method entraps the text not only in a homogeneous scientific interpretation, but also in a particular historical moment, disregarding its potential temporal and socio-cultural variations, wherein the text generates further interpretations yet to come, contingent upon the liquidity of existence. To take the argument further, structuralism fails to respond to the singularity of literature as it stands outside of its subject and treats literature as an object through transcendent objectivity, which entails an encapsulation of the subject of study within a totalising discursive theory, and squanders its interminable becoming that is realised in the liquidity of existence.

Gombrowicz himself would be a most ardent opponent of a priori judgments made on literature as organised in keeping with scientific taxonomies, and an advocate of the self-reflexive language, as well as literature constituting a metaphor of existence.2 As Gombrowicz would have it, a human being must relentlessly ← 10 | 11 → escape form (which, as a metaphor of individual existential enslavement through dependence on social impositions, comprises the writer’s main existential trope) in order to manifest his/her singularity; literature must escape the analogous form of discursive theory: it should be the textuality and texture of text that provokes auto-commentary, something which remains the only metaphor of itself. Literature that attempts at doing justice to existence is inherently autotelic as it creates its own textual and linguistic reality structured as the existence it refers to.

Concomitantly, the literary text has an advantage over its commentary ever since it constitutes its own metatext that stems from intratextual practice producing heterogeneous discourse always in the process of becoming. The very process is realised in the act of reading as an active event, which is redolent of Gombrowicz’s existential tropes that may draw parallels with the existential experience of reading: always vacillating and shunning discursive objectivity.

For that reason, theory (as form) serves to restrict the semantic scope of textual phenomena, which, by oscillating within and exploding the liminality of space between word and being, is done justice to only in the reader’s response to the textual heterogeneity, through a creative reading of the text that is not merely subject to interpretation but inspires further interpretations itself. On the reader’s part the interpretation of text cannot be limited to a single approach; rather this is the accumulation of cultural assumptions based on a never-stable geographical, historical situation, as well as social hierarchies that pave the way for interpretations recorded by experience.

In Gombrowicz the event of reading plays a crucial role in recognising and exploring the text as the other. Metatextual qualities create another dimension for the reader to explore the text from an alternative anamorphic angle; and it is through interpretation that the reader is committed to generating textual others. The act of interpretation is based on the existential experience that is anchored in the narrator-reader relation. With the intention of doing justice to the textual issues indicated above, the next part will employ theories investigating intratextual complexities of language and existence, namely postmodernist theories, deconstructive criticisms of textual difference, and, in order to explore the ways the text as being corresponds to the act of interpretation as an existential experience of heterogeneous literary text by the reader, poststructuralist hermeneutics. ← 11 | 12 → The shifting of interpretative grounds between philosophy and literature in Gombrowicz (or rather the insistence that the writer’s oeuvre be conceived beyond such conventional disciplinary divisions) will help articulate the niche of my work, extending beyond a traditional classification of Gombrowicz as an existentialist, by situating the writer’s existentialism in postmodern English and American contexts, and by exploring the ways in which it corresponds to deconstructive assumptions filtered through hermeneutic practices.

With all this in mind, I consider it justified that the methodology of this analytic inquiry comprise nonessentialist approaches committed to textual reading practice as opposed to a programmatic reading method offering a descriptive explication of the text’s meaning. This orientation has been substantiated by the conviction that the liminality between language and existence can be explored in no other way than through active engagement in the intratextual workings of a self-reflexive language of text (as opposed to investigated through a discursive theory) dramatising its inherent textual difference and/or polysemy. With regard to the latter, the author proves his partial methodological indebtedness to deconstructionist and hermeneutic textual practices.

In keeping with this theoretical premise, chapter 1 will endeavour to complete theoretical gaps left over in the studies of Gombrowicz by approaching the writer’s texts from both a contemporary literary and critical angle. Such an approach is justified by the analytic perspective contingent upon the historical situation from which I analyse Gombrowicz’s literature, which is different from the positions in which earlier critics and philosophers (along with Gombrowicz himself) interpreted Gombrowicz’s existentialism. Apart from this historical variation, this research will extend to an alternative cultural context, namely the English and American literary traditions in order to complement the state of research in Polish, British and American critical and translation studies of Gombrowicz, as well as account for the ways the writer’s version of existentialism is interpreted in diverse historical, social, cultural and political contexts, generating alternative interpretations of his peculiar existentialism.

This chapter will then venture to inspect Gombrowicz’s critical reception by the Western intellectual tradition. The choice of English and American literary and philosophical traditions, from which to further the deconstructive analysis of Gombrowicz’s existentialism in English translations, has been motivated by the resistance of the Anglo-American readership to the writer’s literary output, which is demonstrated by the scarce production of literary criticism on Gombrowicz there. In view of that, I will seek to account for the reasons Gombrowicz’s fiction has been neglected in the Anglophone tradition (which will contribute to filling in the theoretical lacunae in the proposed context) and how far the translations allow the foreign interpreter to delve into Gombrowicz’s poetics. ← 12 | 13 →

Such recapitulation of Gombrowicz’s existential tropes as well as summary of the existing state of research will now allow to introduce in chapter 2 the theoretical framework inspiring the present line of inquiry: namely, deconstructionist and hermeneutic theories. Therefore, the concepts of Derrida’s différance and Gadamer’s variety of hermeneutics will be explained in the context of the conceptualisations of translation. The following section juxtaposes Baudrillard’s concept of simulacrum, which centres on destabilising the assumptions of the source text as authoritative in relation to its translations. It will be posited that the source text is nothing but its own simulacrum, because, existing only in the event of interpretation, it is subject to a constant differentiation and simulation of itself. Derrida’s and Gadamer’s theories will be informed by simulacrum, which here refers to the translated text as not merely a simulation of the source text, but in fact a new and, in Baudrillardian terms, more legitimate text than the original. This is to create an analogy with the Derridean notion of supplement, consisting in reversing the accepted prioritisation of the source-text over its translation. It will follow that the translated text, existing in no other way than as the simulacrum of itself, constitutes a ‘dangerous supplement’ (a Derridean coinage) to the text subscribing to the practice of différance, since the event of interpretation essentially conditions subsequent interpretations of the ‘original’ text.

Chapter 3 will use the accumulated assumptions pertaining to deconstructive and hermeneutic acts of reading in order to scrutinise the non-places of alterity of Gombrowicz’s self-reflexive text articulated by the concepts of liminality and liquidity. It is to attempt to explicate the ways that the notion of liminality – which approximates Gombrowicz’s autobiographical status as an expatriate – corresponds to différance as well as shows parallels with various textual axes. The inquiry seeks to confirm that Gombrowicz’s deployment of tropes results in the rigorous existential thought that is intricately woven into the tissue of his texts and designates the processes by which his version of liminality helps situate the writer amongst postmodern writers and thinkers – although not unquestionably. Gombrowicz’s urge towards utilising archaic, neologised language and well-worn genres in new contexts stimulates a peculiar liminal space between canon and tradition, cliché and neologism, imitation and innovation. These dichotomies are not to be methodologically unravelled with either of the components being clearly delineated and favoured over the other. Rather, I argue that the very state of liminality constitutes a necessary affirmation of the becoming of text as fiction, language and existential thought, as a token of Gombrowicz’s philosophical consistency in his literature. This said, liminality exposes analogous mechanisms on the reader-text axis in hermeneutic terms. The text as becoming remains liminal when confronted with the reader, who negotiates its ← 13 | 14 → shifting meanings, never to be pinned down by a decontextualised univocal interpretation and translation.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
Dekonstruktion Postmoderne Postmodernism Existenzialismus
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 208 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Pawel Wojtas (Author)

Paweł Wojtas is Adjunct Professor of English Literature and History at the LSW Academy Warsaw and tutor of Academic English and Contemporary Anglo-American Literature at the University of Warsaw. He completed his PhD at the University of Warsaw and holds the degree of Master of Letters in English Studies conferred by the University of Stirling (UK).


Title: Translating Gombrowicz’s Liminal Aesthetics