Sep 24, s. How many meanings can one gleam from hundreds of weeds, colds of dirt, and other trifles? Polish author Wiltold Gombrowicz explores the notions of order in a seemingly random, chaotic world in his novel Cosmos. Gombrowicz exposes the human desire to create order from the randomness that beleaguers their existence in order to view the world as a safe, functionary society in which they are mature and essential cogs instead of a chaotic void in which we are merely immature and irrelevant. The plot of this novel is highly secondary, and consists of the narrator, a college youth on holiday named Witold, accompanying a classmate to an out of the way pension in order to study in peace. In the darkness of the forest, they discover a hung sparrow, which sets off a seemingly connected or are they?

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The search for clues, and their interpretation— the piecemeal reconstruction of the crime from the accumulated evidence—are the most basic building blocks of the mystery genre. But what happens if everything looks like a clue?

What if the difference blurs between evidence and the random entropy of day-to-day life? What if even the crime itself seems arbitrary or undefined, a non-descript, anomalous circumstance beyond the interest of any legal authorities? These are the deliberately banal in- gredients that Witold Gombrowicz combines in his novel Cosmos. The story is presented through the perspective of a young man, also named Witold, who has taken up temporary lodging as a border in a countryside home, sharing a room with his melancholy companion Fuchs.

Both are escaping an un- pleasant situation in the city— Witold running away from an unspecified family dispute in Warsaw, and Fuchs seeking a vacation from his boss Drozdowski and the mutual loathing that characterizes his relationship with his superior.

Shortly before their arrival, the two travelers come across a disturbing sight—a sparrow hanging on a bit of wire from a tree branch. In this instance, our two protagonists are haunted by the scene, and in the ensuing days they consider the possible causes and implications of the bird lynching. They have little or no evidence to guide them. But both betray a tendency toward obsessive-compulsive behavior, and soon they are perceiving potential clues everywhere they look.

They see a mark on the ceiling of their room that might be in the shape of an arrow— perhaps placed there intentionally to assist them in their investigations. Why not? Following the direction indicated by the arrow, they travel from their room to the hall and, eventually, outside, where they discover a piece of wood hanging from a piece of thread in a niche in the garden wall. The connection with the sparrow is vague and hypothetical, at best a weak analogy between two things suspended unexpectedly in out-of-the-way places.

But our protagonists believe they may be unlocking some grand mystery. Yet, in their zeal to uncover the truth, our obsessed investigators create more problems than they resolve. When you try to do both at once, you have hopelessly compromised your situation, and do neither effectively.

They are so anxious to have a mystery to solve, that they are forced to create it themselves, albeit unwittingly—and in the process become what is known as, in the parlance of the constabulary, the perps. This is an unusual scenario, but not without precedents in fiction. Jorge Luis Borges, in his story "Death and the Compass," has described a series of murders that are, in a very real sense, created by the inquiry that seeks to solve them. If the investigator had taken a different approach, the crimes would have happened differently.

In the detective story genre, this reversal of cause and effect is rare enough, but in real life our mental categories obviously dictate, a priori, some apparently "given" elements of the world that we experience. I tend to be skeptical of glib assertions of the social construction of reality to borrow a once fashionable term —the kernel of wisdom here is often pushed too far—yet it is just as dangerous to assume that we are passive spectators at the pageant of our day-to-day lives, viewing the proceedings as in a theater where our preconceptions and mental constructs, individual or collective, hold no constitutive power.

A disturbing, almost claustrophobic quality pervades the work, and many readers will be deterred by the sheer tedium which ensues when arbitrary details take on such a central role in a novel. Yet Gombrowicz succeeds in showing, albeit in an exaggerated, almost parodistic manner, a truth that may elude us in more conventional narratives—namely that our zeal to systematize, organize, and impose meaning on events can drive the course of any story, whether on the page or in real life.

In Cosmos, he simply takes that rule to its most extreme, paradoxical implication —shocking us with the discovery that even idle observers can construct the crime by the very intensity of their scrutiny.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.


Witold Gombrowicz

In an autobiographical piece, A Kind of Testament, he wrote that his family had lived for years in Lithuania on an estate between Vilnius and Kaunas but were displaced after his grandfather was accused of participating in the January Uprising of He was less than diligent in his studies, but his time in France brought him in constant contact with other young intellectuals. He also visited the Mediterranean. When Gombrowicz returned to Poland he began applying for legal positions with little success. In the s he started writing.


" COSMOS ", de Witold Gombrowicz






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