Through a somewhat surrealistic literary language, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (a title that means practically nothing) presents a concept of human life; secular, social, intellectually creative and also existentially disoriented. It places it among the dominant cultural powers according to a mechanism of formation and deformation. What does that mean? Every structure of human life, individual or corporeal, both established and developing, manifests itself with the help of speech, the use of symbols, in reference to the values it respects, that is, through its Form, according to Gombrowicz’s vocabulary. By maintaining his Form, he fights for a position in the socio-political hierarchy for recognition, also for fame and for the power to influence others.
However, he always confronts the danger of deformation by encountering obstacles, indifference and animosity at every stage of his formation. Looking for its authenticity, the individual is not able to do it completely because never, at any moment in his life, is he absolutely independent of the circumstances, that is: of the moral norms, of the social conventions, of the legal regulations, of the public opinion, of the intellectual currents that dominate, in their moment, the discourse on values and many other factors more or less defined. He needs to use several compulsory conventions, language and customs first, those he had absorbed in the early stages of his life, and constantly confronts other people who are fighting for their own originality and recognition. In addition, he needs to meet the expectations of his own society, and, for example, to remain mature, is a theme especially pronounced by the Polish author.
Society, regardless of its cultural character, expects us to remain mature and responsible in accordance with the norms that society upholds. The education system prepares us to mature in family life, professional life, and public life, but at the same time it limits us in our spontaneous originality because it imposes on us conventional models of the good, the true, the beautiful, the proper, and the normal.
It is not only ordinary people who are constantly confronted with obstacles and repressions of various degrees of intensity. Much more this concerns artists and members of cultural circles who seek and/or maintain their unrepeatable character, especially in confrontation with other cultural groups. One dimension of the mechanism of formation and deformation, now mentioned, is an encounter, if not a clash, between the province (secondary cultures) and the metropolis (dominant cultures). Both are responsible for cultural formation, but there is enormous tension between them and here Gombrowicz gives us his first-hand experience of the subject. He refers to the Argentine and Polish cultures, two very different cultures geographically, but at the same time very similar in feeling marginalized compared to French culture (at that time) and in aspiring to approach the metropolis that symbolized Paris – the cultural metropolis of the Western world in the mid-twentieth century. We can say that, despite the changes of the metropolis in recent decades to the Silicon Valley, Brussels, etc., the mechanism now works too and it is worth studying Gombrowicz to rethink this mechanism in the context of present cultural clashes.
Ferdydurke contains many references of an existentialist type because it analyses the meaning of cultural creation as a personal strategy to maintain the meaning of life. What is original in Gombrowicz is to maintain that this strategy must necessarily have a social aspect because we do not exist culturally without other people. We are not culturally autonomous, although we would like to be authentic and self-determined in our decisions and in our plans. Being authentic and autonomous is not possible for social beings. What is possible is to self-create an image, a mask, that we use to impress the world around us. That is our fundamental freedom. What happens when we leave the mask? Just another mask underneath to perform another social role, and another…and another. We do not live authentic life by wishing, at the same time, to live authentically and freely. This insoluble tension is a fundamental theme of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke.