By Georges Sebbag Translated by Howard Slater

Translators Note. It is also worth mentioning at the outset that the word ‘berg’ used by Sebbag is in fact a word made-up by Gombrowicz to express a character’s idiosyncrasies. It is something of an ‘enigmatic signifier’ in that its uses in the novel range from the totally ordinary to the explicitly taboo. ‘Berg’ as mundane perversion, as verbal stand-in for any and all possible non-words. 

A mental masturbation, one could say; Cosmos is a hammer-blow of a novel. And planted in the flesh, the sting produces its effect in the crazy, venomous final scenes. Gombrowicz teaches the reader a lesson and confines him in a vibrant revelation. From the house to the open air, from beginning to end, the same walks and reveries, the same approach. Unlike Pornographia, where the genesis of the relationships between the characters is shrouded in shadow, Cosmos is a perpetual exposure of the mechanisms of relationship. Association, criticism, interpretation:  we learn what they are in this disturbing, philosophical novel. 

A Dark Nature 

Nature presents itself as a vast spectacle, as a terrible negation: time is but a multitude of seconds lost forever, the self makes room for the void, nothingness occupies the interval, the place of human encounters; each atom of space folds back on itself, the separation is de rigeur; simply, with darkness the landscape dissipates; and darkness is conducive to all endeavours. Starting from night or chaos, paradoxically, we give ourselves almost all possibilities. Above all, the darkness shines; acts and decisions stand out against such a background. A little by chance, the mind distinguishes and analyses: tired or distracted, it indulges in description, decipherment. We were waiting for the fresh light of an intelligence and Gombrowicz brings forth from the night and nothingness a bewildered spirit, but one that is quick to seize the semblance of life encountered [recontrée]. Emptiness installs distance or remoteness, however through these pits of distraction, the pleasant hero takes advantage of his state of drowsiness or reverie to make connections. Awake and on the look-out, in the hour of sleep, in the nights of dim moonlight. 

The undifferentiated origin, a perfect block, opaque and translucent, teems with possibilities; realities slip away, adopting a system of screens. Planes follow one another, and become backgrounds. Dark origins, at first intact, inviolate. By moving the objects, by detaching the planes [plans], the hidden sovereignty is incrementally offered to view. Life through [à travers] vision. 

The series of planes, simulacra or screens allows the game of hide-and-seek of insignificant details and elements to take place; thanks to a chiaroscuro or an unexpected moment of attention, the buried, the abandoned, the derisory begins to sparkle; the pale brilliance of the insignificant redoubles in importance: the sign, visible (always clearly visible) and invisible (obliterated in the midst of similarities) hides a formidable intensity in its tenuity, a participation in individual and social dramas, in the luxuriant life of nature. 

The world of darkness and emptiness allows the numb mind to pull itself together. To cut out sections in reality; to see poses behind the screen of masks which follow one another; to stumble on the essence of the hiding place; to tell oneself that an important game is then being played. From which side should we look? Because it is easy to look or to turn on the lights, it is essential to deal only with the imperceptible, insofar as it has a secret character: what is detail for the other is indescribable pleasure for the pornographer; how to perceive the elusive kinship of mouths and how to observe them if one fears being spied-upon? The secret comes into conflict with the transparency of acts: to take refuge, in broad daylight, in the invisible, in the insignificant, while the house is made of glass. Secrecy is provoked, despite the fears; the present is rendered banal or absent to the other, yet is vivid and crucial to the pornographer. What are we hiding? The smuttiness [cochonerie] or, if you prefer, the berg. Through the berg we covet the feminine bergus. We also seek slippery and perverse pleasures: sucking, licking, spitting. 

A Method of Association 

The explicit method making it possible to evoke a secret pornography in Cosmos, by bringing clues and glittering objects out of the shadows, is the method of putting into relation: an associative, critical and interpretative method. Things stick to each other: on the one hand signs must be de-signed, on the other hand, they must be related, linked by relation. The imperceptible slip perceived in the dark and in the smuttiness [cochonerie] facilitates such a coming and going. Buccal return [renvoi] made of a fluid chain of ideas, images or aggregates. With mental ping-pong, we do not follow straight lines: the reflex composes with reflection. The mind deviates and rectifies; suspecting opposites, contradictoriness, it brings them together. To associate by going where one rarely goes: to link virginity and perversion, because of the deviant character of the relationship in general (and of this association in particular). The signs are strung together, sometimes the last clue overflows; the connection is so complete that the superfluous exasperates it; but if the theme is decentred, the intermediary beings – which also serve as mediators – form the central links. Slipping from one sign to another, drawing up lists, a sequence of familiar words, a memory aid. The associative method involves a confrontation of opposing regions: what appears contrary at the start turns out to be only the diversity of perverse differences: the innocent and frail mouth calls for deviation as much as a marked and undone [défaite] mouth; it is not a strong analogy that binds two opposing mouths; it is the frank and pure deviation of the relationship, of pornography. 

The work of association is done above all by accumulation: the different mouths, the various indentations, the different hangings (so many signs of perversion). After accumulation comes dissolution: the corrosive and natural neutrality leaves the associative chain in suspense, and the eye is blinded by corruption, decomposition, dislocation. Dissolution develops accumulation when the night of nature surges forth, as it once did. But construction by accumulation dominates; it is based on a large number of points of view: discovering a new sign, directing the relationship in a certain direction calls for a mobile and changing view. Accumulation leads to invention. The pornographer invents and reinforces his sexuality. The method of association is delicate [fine] and gradual [dosée] The narrator of Cosmos divides, adds, associates and decomposes. Methodically, the eye of Gombrowicz tries to analyse things and relationships between people. 

During a friendly reunion – of sexual union – the solemn and moving moments are suddenly followed by an inexistence, a relaxation. How to perpetuate the berg, the feeling of existence, the connection if we fall back into the original darkness, into buzzing indifference? How not to feel the indecision (which path to take?) in front of the intoxicating neutrality, and not to identify this immobility with that of the associations of signs? Indices are not free from rigidity; they are privileged but also seized by the cold, even death. The anxiety persists: by denying the existence of the sign, by proclaiming its destruction, or restoring it to life; the more we want to bring it down, the more we straighten it; the more absurd it seems, the more power it contains. 

Feelings are as if plagued by the inconstant firmness of the insignificant. A nothing is at the origin of desires, tensions, loves. The associative method connects the signs to direct [diriger] a psychic energy threatened by a drop in tension. The affective, sexual, highs and lows, find a way of derivation in the discourses or acts of putting-into-relation. Association as sublimation. It does not, however, dismiss emotion; on the contrary, the passions and the berg do not belie each other and reach the most exquisite of excesses. Pornography by association is, it seems, very tempting. What could be more daring and natural than the staging of Leon indulging in solitary pleasure (and the bembergment of the bemberg in the berg) in the dark, in the presence of his daughter? 

Just as a dark boredom and a multicoloured excitement escape from nature, so in the analytic-pornographer moments of amorous tension and abstract or physical relaxation coexist. To link understanding to delirious imagination, so that the pleasures of the body complete with strange feelings are satisfied, the pornographer refines reason, sensuality, eroticizes bodies and even abstract entities: the free play of the faculties of the soul, the tightening [resserremnent] of matter and spirit, define a shattering, disconcerting, but natural lucidity; a reason close to unconscious forces, to the givens of language, to social relations, seduces. Gombrowicz, by the associative method, by the method of division – sex, language, matter are divisible – and by other means, shows that the succession of negative and positive is not irreversible (black nature and the light of the spirit, the emotional tension and relaxation), that it is not necessary to resort to a soothing dialectic, that it is enough to track down the signs and to marry in the intensity or the calm the moments of effervescence or rest. From vital spontaneity to wise states of balance there hovers a tenacious insight, a regulative and smiling indifference. 

Delirium in Nature 

After Ferdydurke and Pornographia, Gombrowicz's hammer drives the nail of critical reason almost completely into the opaque and fragile Cosmos: reasoning has its charms. Reason is not denounced in the name of a necessary or complementary unreason. Compared to the other two novels, Cosmos is explicit and more critical; leading to a perfectly clear narrative, Gombrowicz observes and insinuates that the weapons of rationalism can turn away from sterility and comfort to tackle the most troubling questions. Already a reflection is necessary on the very existence of Cosmos. Once the book has been read, an impression of completion, of definitive closure emerges. Cosmos is like a substance (living or dead, it doesn't matter) or a monad. The task of the commentator, for example, is fixed in advance: to desire the total explanation of Cosmos is superfluous – the complete book explains itself – but a commentary remains possible if one follows the methods of the narrator; choose landmarks, establish relationships, gather parts together. To discourse on Cosmos by drawing on the implicit directives contained in the book results in a radically new discourse. 

The call for the creation of differences does not prevent Cosmos from being a quasi-closed world (an axiomatic comprising postulates and definitions); the completeness of such a system proves its degree of elaboration and finitude [finition]. However complete Cosmos may be, other cosmoi can be born: Gombrowicz lays down a rule for the invention of new systems. Thus, the mania and the science of the historian who believes he has said everything about a novel are ridiculed: the idea of a reproduced or reconstructed totality is unthinkable, given the completion of the primitive Cosmos. In the end, the linguist wanting to sum up a book can hardly do better than advise that it be read: to discourse is either to invent or repeat. Literary criticism is partial, insofar as it necessarily deals with the parts of a work, and total, since it in turn produces a finished whole. Totalization is impossible not because the elements are lacking but because of their proliferation: in the universe the signs and relations are infinite in number; nothing then stops the mind (except the excesses of nature). Any combination is possible. 

Focusing on the notion of totality is tacitly commanded by a natural reason which, relying on the associative method, leads to doubt, criticism and interpretation. Hypotheses are put forward, without the research advancing a step, as if chaos prevented any conclusion. In Ferdydurke the discovery of youth, in Pornographia the complicity through the staging that offers the joyful and surprising image of a dispersed plurality; but here the analyst unfolds his analyses, nature obscures his landscape: plurality is concentrated and closed. So, with Cosmos, the critique of nature and reason arouses partial realities on a background of infinite and dark chaos: the concept of totality is relative, because the innumerable coexisting and juxtaposable parcels [parcelles] do not form a whole (unless you give yourself a complete Cosmos). Relativism and interpretation go hand in hand. Delirious reason associates, interprets and finds itself cold or moved in the face of plurality. However, it retains a confidence that continually pushes it to consider hypotheses to choose from: being too sure of itself or sinking into silence would be death warrants; wandering reason flees immobility: delirium reassures it, but naturally. 

Reason instinctively responds to the delirium of a harmonious and divided nature; it applies the categories of difference and resemblance (which emanate from the cosmos) to parts of the human body, for example; already in Ferdydurke analysis, synthesis and dismantling were used; in Cosmos the pornographic function of a bodily part, of any object, is accentuated by a cement that guarantees physical union, adhesion, sliding: saliva. Hence the desire to spit gently in the existing bergs. The erogenous zones swell and gain the immensity of the cosmos, a cat serves as an erotic mediator, and the soul binds to the body. So, we begin to think that analysis, delirium, the associative method reflect the qualities of spitting. Speech as fluid as saliva slips from one detail to another, delirious understanding solicits its arguments, reason walks and dreams in nature: all analysis – slippery and sinuous – is both obscene and natural. Perversity draws its power not from some corner of the landscape, from memory or from sensibility, but from the flagrant innocence of the cosmos. The understanding and the imagination associated become naturally, but also each faculty of the soul is naturally perverse. Reason is pornographic in essence; it imitates the body, to which it is intensely linked, and above all detaches itself, wanders, walks in the sky, the emptiness of abstraction with as much ease as if it possessed the spontaneity and ubiquity of the imagination. Talking, sucking, spitting are the reasonable signs of the solitary dreamer and walker. 

Although the clues may be distant, reason, by a detour, bridges the distance. Raymond Roussel has travelled the interval (at once empty, thin and indefinite) which connects two almost similar signs (their weak and explosive difference corresponding to the patient gait which brings them together): the Process calls for a lively imagination as much as an obstinate reason. Gombrowicz draws in the same way from the forces of the understanding, but to spare the imagination certain tasks; the reason which wanders in the mountains and the woods becomes naturalized (having learned its apprenticeship among men). Reason in the face of the cosmos acquires a perverse nature. Of course, it runs to suicide if it claims that its associations, its hypotheses are true (it runs to madness if it advocates an ideal of truth, whereas it bathes in a plural nihilism). The wandering reason of Cosmos, a close relative of the imagination, using certain processes to its advantage – as with Roussel – invents beautiful deliriums, more subtle than those of the learned Dali, and so much more interesting and lively than those of rationalism. Perhaps the cosmos, society, the individual need associative, interpretative and critical deliriums; the appropriate instrument would then be wandering reason: is it not that language allows us to call a barking animal and a constellation by the same name? Doesn't logic, with its sacred principles, authorize the researcher to lay foundations, to raise buildings; better still, to be precisely investigated or a permanent detective? Employing a black humour Gombrowicz allows himself, while living with more or less mediocre beings, to be guided in Cosmos by dreaming reason; a sad hero determined to read the lines of hands, walls, trees and sky. 

Gombrowicz, swimming in these constellations of insignificant signs, has achieved a literary and philosophical tour de force in Cosmos. To venture into Cosmos is to let yourself be locked up little by little, without being seriously tempted by the emergency exits (Outer Space, Man). So, the desire to be bemberger, to put-into-relation, to love existence and men (without saying so), is coupled with a singular illusion, that of adding something to Cosmos, and to the other worlds, which gravitate – in us and around us. 

From L’Archibras No.3, 1968, p33-35. 

Translators Note

Wilfully obscure, or enigmatically enticing?  We here present an appraisal of a little-known novel (Cosmos) by a now little-known writer (Gombrowicz) by a reviewer (Sebbag) who is even obscure to those who’ve had more than a cursory engagement with the French surrealism of the 60s and 70s. The novelist in the spotlight, Gombrowicz, did enjoy the publication of his works by John Calder and the support of Milan Kundera, John Updike and Gilles Deleuze, but since the late 60s his novels have largely been made available by American publishers. Perhaps going to Sebbag as our impresario is the most propitious way to introduce him again as, being a novelist who, in dry matter-of-fact prose, specialises in evocations of the uncanny, of unconscious communication, it is to Sebbag’s credit that he extends this ‘disturbing strangeness’ (inquiétante étrangeté) in his review-article which being more impressionistic than explicatory, being more revealing of how the novel affected him than in providing contextual tools to ‘understand it’, seems to be a more ‘realistic’ appraisal of the novel.  


Witold Gombrowicz: Cosmos, Grove Press, 1967/2005. Translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt.