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Synopsis of François Regnault, ‘Optique de Gombrowicz’

[‘The Optic of Witold Gombrowicz’]

CpA 7.3:57–70

This article is a reading of the novel Pornografia (Pornography by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. Along with Jean-Claude Milner’s ‘Grammaire d’Aragon’ (CpA 7.2), and Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Les Pouvoirs de la littérature’ [‘The Powers of Literature’], Regnault’s article was originally intended for publication in the eighth issue of the journal Cahiers marxistes-léninistes in 1966. But as Regnault and Milner remember, and as François Dosse notes in his History of Structuralism, the articles ‘created a serious crisis’ for the editorial board, and were rejected.1 Milner’s article on Aragon and Regnault’s on Gombrowicz were then both published in Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Volume 7 (March-April 1967), devoted to the theme ‘>Du mythe au roman’ [‘From Myth to the Novel’].

Gombrowicz’s novel Pornography was written in the mid-1950s and translated into French in 1960. After having lived in Argentina for many years, Gombrowicz moved to Paris in the 60s, where La Pornographie and his subsequent novel Cosmos (1969) enjoyed considerable literary success. The novel Pornography takes place in Poland during the Second World War. In the first part, Witold, the narrator, and his self-conscious friend Frederick take a train to the countryside residence of their friend Hippolyte, where they become involved in perverse, voyeuristic relations with a boy and girl. At the end of the first part, a woman (Amelia) is murdered, and Frederick and Witold are obliged to take on the role of responsible adults. In the second half of the novel, Frederick’s perversity takes over, and the structures of the ‘adult’ world are progressively and vertiginously dismantled. According to Regnault, ‘the novel turns around perversion, inversion and conversion’ (CpA 7.3:58). The novel takes ‘the orientation of gazes’ (66) between adults and the young as its subject-matter. But for Gombrowicz, ‘pornography is a theological, not a physical optic’. Working on the assumption that ‘sin alone makes conversion possible’, the novel engineers ‘the conversion of the pornographer’ (66)2. For Regnault, Gombrowicz’s Pornography will be a ‘machine’ (61) or a ‘system’ (65) that must be ‘put to work’, its combinations exhausted, its trajectory and finally its own mechanism revealed.

The first section of the essay is subtitled ‘Pornography, the novel’. Regnault relates how the main characters of the novel fall into two classes: adult and juvenile, old and young, and this is Gombrowicz’s supreme distinction (58). The adults include Witold and Frederick, Hippolyte, Amelie, the woman who dies at the end of the first part, and Siemian, the secret leader of a Resistance Army who is revealed as such in the second part. The non-adults include Karol, Hippolyte’s son, and Henia, the servant girl, and Skuziak, the young peasant who is identified as the murderer of Amelie. In this collection with two classes, there are three possible types of relation:

1. A circular ‘intimist’ relation between the young, who ‘love’ each other, ‘without knowing it’ (Karol and Henia).

2. A vertical ‘extremist’ [extrémiste] relation between the adults and the juveniles, fundamentally unequal, whichever side one takes.

3. A perfectly equal relationship between the adults, or between ‘extremists’ (CpA 7.3:59).

All other types of relation (of paternity or maternity, of parenthood, of domination, of indifference, etc…) can, within the optic of the novel, be led back to one of these three relations. ‘The novel has the function of leading them there. By the last page, nothing remains but these three relations’. The novel should be taken as a ‘system’ in which ‘it is displacements accompanied by compensations that make the characters act’ (59).

It is the second, asymmetrical relation of desire from adult to youth that is Gombrowicz’s focus in the novel. But the relation to God is also crucially important. ‘God is the mature being par excellence, and to flee God is to throw oneself into immaturity’ (60). Since God is the ‘supreme extremist’, however, it is only possible to have an ‘oblique relationship’ with him. Referring to Gombrowicz’s remarks in the preface to the French edition of Pornography, in response to an enquiry about the ‘philosophical meaning of Pornography’, Regnault extrapolates two ‘axioms’ of Gombrowicz’s work:

  • Thesis I: ‘Man, as we all know, tends towards the absolute. Towards plenitude. Towards truth, towards God, towards total maturity [...]. To grasp everything, to realise himself entirely, this is his imperative.’3
  • Thesis II: ‘Now, what is manifested in Pornography, it seems to me, is another goal of man, more secret no doubt, in some sense illegal: his need for the non-achieved [son besoin du Non-achevé], for Imperfection [...]. Inferiority [...] for Youth [la Jeunesse].’4
  • To these axioms, Regnault adds a set of corollaries: ‘God, alone being absolutely mature, is nobody else’s extremist. One therefore cannot be an extremist to God’.

The human desire for youth and beauty, according to Gombrowicz, results in humanity being ‘suspended between God and youth’.5 There is only one, ‘oblique’ way of entering an extremist relationship with God, and that is insofar as ‘one is less mature than him’. However, ‘God being nobody’s extremist, a relation of pure immaturity-maturity with him is impossible, for according to our definitions of the relations 1, 2, and 3, it is necessary to be two, and two extremists in particular, to entertain with youth an asymmetrical relation of type 2’ (60). But because God can only be one, all relation with him ultimately becomes impossible, and collapses into the dual relationship between Witold and Frederick at the end of the novel (61).

In the second section, entitled ‘Pornography, the Instrument’, having posited Gombrowicz’s axioms and derived his own corollaries, Regnault ‘puts the machine to work’ (61). Referring to scenes in which an optical space of oblique rays is represented,6 he suggests that ‘nature is described quite precisely as an optical illusion defined as a system of transformation. It is this illusion that must be reduced, and it is this transformation that it will be necessary to re-transform’ (62). All ‘oblique’ relations to God must be subjected to a ‘reduction’. ‘All relation to God must be led back to this impossible relation of immaturity-maturity that it dissimulates’. The theme of the book is that ‘sin alone makes conversion possible’. ‘As there is to be no conversion through grace, there must be a perversion by means of youth’; it is perversion that now takes on the role of ‘the active force that displaces the luminous lines’ (66). The optic of moral and theological systems must be inverted and perverted. The novel is a ‘system’ which, in its first part, ‘re-establishes true images’ by reducing oblique ones to vertical ones (all oblique relations with God will be reduced). In the scenes of Frederick’s subversion of the mass and the death of Amelia (a religious believer), God is made to ‘disappear’. He will be absent from the entire second part of the novel, in the course of which the ‘vertical’ will be reduced to the ‘horizontal’. The system terminates with ‘the reduction of all relations of immaturity-maturity to the relations between extremists and intimists’.

This leads to a special, Gombrowiczian definition of ‘pornography’. According to Regnault, ‘the science of perversion that re-establishes true images will be called pornography. In pornography, the graphic, just as important as the porno, designates the optical nature of the system’ (62). In other words, Gombrowicz’s novel is not ‘pornographic’ in the conventional sense. It is rather an ‘instrument’ that ‘sketches out the true lines of the force of desire’, permitting the operation of ‘all the necessary inversions’ and the ‘dissipation of all illusory conversions’. Frederick approaches the girl and the boy like a ‘theatrical producer’, creating suspended tableaus with them for his own voyeuristic enjoyment. His ‘pornographic’ desire draws all the other characters in its wake.

The languages of geometry and mathematics, chemistry and optics, are used by Gombrowicz throughout. For instance, during the operation of the reduction of Amelia: Frederick is ‘afraid of this explosive mixture, of this A (Amelia) multiplied (by H plus K)’. Within the ‘calculus’ of the novel, moreover, youth plays a specific role: it ‘does not designate itself, which would be to multiply the multiplier, and to commit an error of the calculus’ (66).

The third section is subtitled ‘Obscenity [cochonnerie] ceases being obscene if we persevere.’7 Regnault says he is not content to double the commentary the author himself adds to the book, and will now proceed to raise questions about the structure of the novel. Regnault examines the role of the character Olek Skuziak, who murders Amelia. It is peculiar that the character is introduced as Amelia’s murderer and then promptly disappears until the end of the novel, when he is himself murdered by Frederick.

He is another Karol, when Karol is already enough to realise the quartet. It is due to his appearance that the author declares that ‘a couple is quite different from three’, while [...] when both Karol and Henia are involved, he is called number 2. These numbers [chiffres] therefore simultaneously imply that he plays a double role, that he is useless, but also that he is too much, that it is necessary to get rid of him. He is literally the being of ‘riddance [débarras]’, and, curiously, he is needed insofar as he constitutes a number, and counts for one, yet must be suppressed insofar as he has a double role [...]. It is clear that the character of Olek Skuziak is playing here the role that Lacan, drawing attention to the oblong cranium reflected in Holbein’s Ambassadors,8 attributed to anamorphosis. Skuziak is well integrated in the tale, and at the same time, he has no place at all in it (68-9).

Skuziak is thus the cipher [chiffre] of the novel itself, the ‘number two’ that ‘names the novel itself as its device’. The only point in introducing a useless character is ‘to relate the action back to the novelist’.

Gombrowicz has a self-conscious approach to structure that renders the novel devoid of verisimilitude and realism. ‘Matters of great importance to the characters (voyeurism, agony, murders) are determined by nothing other than reasons of structure. Structures have their reasons, of which realism knows nothing. They only lack verisimilitude from the perspective of the “realist vision of things” (and what is a realist vision?)’ (69).

Here Regnault situates Gombrowicz’s Pornography in the tradition of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which could be said to represent ‘a decisive break [coupure]’ from the approach to the novel found in Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse. Although novels portraying ‘the transparency of consciousness’ are no longer uncommon, novels where ‘transparency itself assumes consciousness’ are rare: ‘so rare’ that Pornography could be ‘the first since Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (57). Both Goethe and Gombrowicz incorporate explanations of structure into their narratives, and both make references to a chemical model of combination. ‘Gombrowicz’s novelty consists in his going one step further and perfecting Goethe’s revolution’: the character of Olek Skuziak allows him to destroy the narratives completely and put himself ‘in the position of speaking to oneself alone’. Regnault writes, on Gombrowicz’s behalf: ‘My pornography is an optic of perversions, but it is also an inversion of the art of writing, a pornology of writing’. When Gombrowicz writes of ‘persevering in obscenity’, the persevering designates the rigours of the structure, which allow one to surpass the charms of obscenity and lead to their expulsion.

Finally, after discussing Gombrowicz’s use of genre and cliché, Regnault concludes that ‘one can take up old clichés again in new novels, because one cannot revolutionise clichés. One revolutionises only structures’ (70).

In ‘Les Pouvoirs de la littérature’, his introduction to the never-published literary issue of Cahiers marxistes-léninistes, Jacques-Alain Miller states that Gombrowicz, Aragon and Borges surpass previous modernist literary approaches that leave a place for commentary on the act of writing at their centre. To say that every work asymptotically tends to have nothing but its own composition as a subject-matter leads to a ‘bad infinity’, and these three writers seek to avoid that. Their approach, on the contrary, is to ‘realise the limit of the asymptote in a point’. In Gombrowicz’s Pornography, the character of Olek Skuziak is precisely such an ‘impossible’ and ‘anamorphic’ presence, ‘the composition now become the subject, a narrative constructing itself in proportion that it states the very system that supports it’. Against Valéry, who claims that ‘a literature of which one can perceive the system is lost’, Miller affirms ‘another literature, that of the achieved asymptote, the machine constructed with the sole end of permitting the description of its own functioning’.9

Gombrowicz himself commented on Regnault’s piece (without mentioning the latter’s name) in Entretiens de Dominique de Roux avec Gombrowicz (1968; translated as A Kind of Testament).10

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Elective Affinities, trans. R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin, 1978.
  • Gombrowicz, Witold. La Pornographie [1960], trans. Georges Lisowski. Paris: Julliard, 1962. Pornografia, trans. Alistair Hamilton. London: Penguin, 1991.
  • ---. ‘Preface’ in La Pornographie. Paris: Julliard, 1962.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1963-64), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1979.

Selected secondary sources:

  • Dosse, François. History of Structuralism [1991], vol. 1, trans. Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • ---. Entretiens de Dominique de Roux avec Gombrowicz. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1968. A Kind of Testament, trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Caldar & Boyars, 1973.
  • Miller, Jacques-Alain. ‘Les Pouvoirs de la littérature’, Cahiers marxistes-léninistes 8 (January 1966). Reprinted in Miller, Un début dans la vie. Paris: Gallimard, 2002.
  • Regnault, François. Théâtre - Équinoxes. Écrits sur le theatre, vol. 1. Paris: Actes Sud, 2001.


1. François Dosse, History of Structuralism, vol. 1, 281; cf. Regnault interview; Milner interview.

2. Regnault is referring in particular to Gombrowicz, La Pornographie, 88-90.

3. Gombrowicz, ‘Preface’ to La Pornographie, 9. Omitted from the English translation.

4. Gombrowicz, ‘Preface’ to La Pornographie, 9.

5. Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament [Entretiens de Dominique de Roux avec Gombrowicz], 123. In the ‘Preface’, Gombrowicz elaborates on the ‘dialectic’ he is attempting to identify: ‘In my view, the ages of man serve as an instrument for the dialectic between plenitude and non-plenitude, between value and its underside [la sous-valeur]. This is why I attribute such an immeasurable and dramatic role to youth. And it is for this reason that my universe is degraded: as if somebody had grasped the spirit by the scruff of its neck [saisi l’Esprit par la peau du cou] and immersed it in lightness and inferiority’ (11).

6. Gombrowicz, La Pornographie, 31; Pornografia, 50.

7. Gombrowicz, La Pornographie, 171; Pornografia, 118.

8. Regnault refers to Lacan’s Seminar XI, Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (68); in the part of the seminar on the gaze, the sessions devoted to ‘Anamorphosis’ and ‘The Line and Light’ take place on 19 February and 4 March 1964.

9. Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘Les Pouvoirs de la littérature’, 92-93.

10. ‘The analysis which certain critics have made of my work according to the rules of structuralism have never fully convinced me. Some time ago I read a very serious analysis of Pornography accompanied by a diagram. The author claimed that the main character of the book was Skuziak, the country body who Frederick kills at the last moment, almost gratuitously, without a concrete motive. He said that that was my most successful device, that I surpassed romantic form and that I gave the novel a new dimension. He said I had introduced the act of writing the novel into the novel I was writing. […] As far as I’m concerned, Frederick kills Skuziak for the very same reason that we put a piece of beef into our broth: to make it taste better. He wants to make it tastier, he requires the savour of a murdered boy. He acts like a theatrical producer. Besides, that was the part he was playing from the start. He wants to reach different “realities”, unforeseen charms and beauties, by selecting people, by forming new combinations between the young and the old – a sort of Christopher Columbus who isn’t searching for America, but for a new reality, a new poetry. This boy, Skuziak, is a marginal figure, we don’t know what he’s doing here. He must be connected with the situation. But how? By being killed. It’s a rhyme added to the poem, but a rhyme for the sake of rhyme and no other reason’ (Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament [Entretiens de Dominique de Roux avec Gombrowicz], 73).