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Friday
Jan112008

Cosmos

There was an oppressive profusion of possible links and clues.  How many sentences can be composed with the twenty–six letters of the alphabet?  How many meanings could be deduced from these hundreds of weeds, clumps of earth, and other details?
It was, I believe, Robbe-Grillet who said that the nouveau roman movement of the 1950s (and, by extension, the modern novel) was simply an attempt to take the detective novel seriously.  The product of this manifesto are books such as this recent masterpiece.  Modern readers no longer have any patience for the vaguely connected reflections of the artist and crave a throbbing plot and explanations as complete as a jigsaw, which, I can say without fear of perjury, is a desire that afflicts every one of us from time to time.  Things must fit together, not just fall apart.  And yet sometimes, as in Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos, there is too much fitting.   

180px-Gombrowicz2.jpgHerein lies Witold’s problem (Witold is also the name of the protagonist): he and his fellow traveler Fuchs have come across a hanged sparrow, “too high for it to have been done by anyone but an adult.”  Witold’s subsequent attempts to explain this occurrence leads him to suspect everything and everyone. “In spite of myself,” he says, “I started working out shapes and relationships ... what attracted me about these things was one thing’s being behind another.”  Thus begin the makings of the reluctant sleuth: an otherwise uninformed narrator hurled willy–nilly into the realm of crime and uncertainty, a plot quite in keeping with detective fiction conventions.  “Looking at one point masks everything else,” he continues, “when we stare at a single point on a map we are quite aware that others elude us,” because apart from that point perhaps, “everything is happening on the same level.”  This is of course the antithesis of what a detective is supposed to be doing: that is, configuring a “sort of pattern” within all that he sees, “a kind of confused message [which] could be divined in the series of events.”  “How many ‘almosts’ had I not come across?” laments Witold, who concludes that “there is a sort of excess about reality, and after a certain point it can become intolerable” — an admission not terribly distant from the “ineluctable modality of the visible” that Stephen Dedalus comes to accept.

Witold’s bizarre decision to hang Lena’s cat is important for three reasons.  First, Witold mocks the evil precedent of the bastard son and eventual parricide Smerdyakov, who, as a boy, hanged cats and likely tortured other animals (Witold himself is not evil, despite his action).  Second, our narrator is now a murderer, and the motive for the crime appears to be rather extraordinary.  In Witold’s case, “strangling her [Lena’s] beloved cat had brought me closer to her.”  But the third reason is a linguistic one: the cat’s murder denotes an attempt on Witold’s part to speak Lena’s “language.”  In other words, it has a similar and comparative value to the hanging of the sparrow and might therefore, in relation to this first hanging, signify something of greater importance to Lena (this argument will be familiar to certain linguists).  If what the dead sparrow signifies to Witold were different than what it signified to Lena, one might assume that the linguistic unit of a “hanged sparrow” did not share a common definition for both persons; there appears to be, however, an agreed definition of the linguistic unit “hanged cat.”  Should there “always [be] the same act of hanging, though the object changes”  — and we have several hangings in the novel (the sparrow, allegedly the chicken, a piece of wood, the cat, and, finally, Louis) — then Witold’s concatenation of these events would be based mostly on the fact that they are all hangings and not simply murders, thus supporting this value definition. 

While a reconciliation of the various hangings in Cosmos is logical, we realize that, at the same time, these are separate occurrences (the sparrow, for example, was not hanged several times).  For that reason, Witold seems to find himself caught between linguistic units, since
I [Witold] felt myself to be suspended between those two poles [the dead bird and the ‘hanged’ piece of wood], so to speak, and our sitting together at the table under the lamp here seemed to have a special significance ‘in relation to’ the bird and the bit of wood .... they were two futilities and we were in between them.  
They are ‘futilities’ because “each and every object is a huge army, an inexhaustible host”: each person’s interpretation is bound to vary, if only minutely at times.  The point is such a basic linguistic premise that it almost appears ridiculous to return to it continuously.  But Gombrowicz is well aware of  this convention of (good) detective fiction, where all the necessary events or facts are present within its pages, and simply require ordering and comprehension.  The reader feels cheated when, upon finally reaching the much–desired solution, he finds that a key facet of that solution lurked in certain events and facts to which he had not been made privy.

If there is an ontology in the novel, it is that the sleuth’s task is to bypass the obvious, to avoid the sententious rebuff “one is what one is” and to assume that “there was always something behind everything.”  Yet the number of possible links is practically infinite, so even if we “have spotted one sign ... how many more [which] we had not spotted might be concealed in the natural order of things?"  Which makes “had it really no relation to me? Who could tell?” more than just a plausible epigraph to Cosmos, but a lovely conundrum that modern literature is finally learning to answer rather than avoid.

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