(disclaimer: may contain spoilers)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the author Witold Gombrowicz, he is considered by some to be the greatest 20th century novelist nobody knows. I’ve had the (mis)fortune of reading three of his novels recently: Ferdydurke, Cosmos, and Pornografia, and I recommend them, not necessarily because they’re enjoyable (they’re often quite frustrating), but because they force the reader to reconsider reality and interpret their surroundings abstract and disorienting ways. This could, of course, lead to insanity, but it could also lead to a heightened awareness of space and self.
Surely countless scholars have written extensive and eloquent essays on what I’m about to poop out here in a lazy and rigorously questionable blog entry: the manipulation of space and meaning in Gombrowicz’s Cosmos. I’m writing this simply to give you a brief taste of what to expect with the faint hope that someday, someone else will read this story, and we will be able to commiserate. But first, let me summarize for you the basic Gombrowiczian story arch (from the aforementioned works) so you are familiar with the temporal design of his storytelling:
1) Confused Narrator and Unintentional Accomplice enter a household of caricatures.
2) Due to boredom/desire, the Narrator and Accomplice stir up trouble in the household.
3) The ideological foundations of the household collapse into a heap of rubble exposing a senseless and inexplicable void of reason or purpose.
4) Some minor character dies remorselessly in a foolish manner, and nobody learns a lesson.
With that said, onto Cosmos:
Cosmos follows the story of two students who decide to spend the summer in a rural boarding house in order to escape their petty problems back home. On the way to the house, in the street, they discover a gruesome scene: a dead sparrow deliberately hung from from a tree. The scene with the sparrow haunts the minds of two students as they meet the house family, and the narrator makes the baseless assumption that someone in the family had something to do with the hung sparrow.
The next 100 pages is about the students trying to solve the mystery of the sparrow by secretly following clues to nowhere and causing trouble through their efforts in trying to connect everything with everything else even though nothing really connects to anything. Or as the New York Times put it: “The Plotlessness Thickens.”
Why is it called Cosmos? Because at one point, the author looks at the stars, and contemplates about how each individual star has nothing at all to do with any other star, being millions of light years away from each other, and yet, from Earth, we arbitrarily draw connection between them to form constellations, and out of those constellations, meaning. And suddenly, the reality of the vast cosmos becomes his immediate environment: the boarding house. The stars become the items and clues around him, and the individual marks and things which have no relation or context are suddenly ascribed meaning in his desperate attempt to solve the great Mystery of the Sparrow.
This is the lesson I want to convey from this book: deriving meaning out of non-meaning is madness, and yet, meaning has consequences even if it’s out of nothing. So what comes first: the search to find meaning or meaning itself? Does the desire for meaning create meaning when no meaning is warranted? Is meaning self-fulfilling?
Like drawing lines between the stars, the narrator finds marks on the ceiling of the house pointing outside, leading to a twig hanging from a brick – a connection he immediately draws to the hanging of the sparrow. With this, he follows branches to the maid, and rummaging around in the maid’s dwelling, he finds yet another clue that leads to another clue until nothing adds up. Then he makes his own clues, because the idea of a meaningless universe frightens him. Just like the stars, his clues have no reason and no meaning.
Or do they, and does it matter?
Just like the characters themselves, I’m not sure I fully grasp the lesson to be learned here. But there’s one thing this story tells me: both a world full of meaning and a world void of meaning are equally terrifying.
Don’t be too reckless in your quest for meaning. Also, read the book. I would hope it would influence how you look at things in relation to each other.