Bruno Schulz, born in the sleepy Eastern European town of Drohobycz in 1892, was, by all accounts, a strange and solitary man. Awkward and introspective, Schulz spent his days teaching high school drawing—a profession he loathed—in order to support his ailing mother, as well as his widowed sister and her sons. Rarely did he socialize. His free time, painfully infrequent, was reserved for the work that really mattered to him: image creation in written and visual form. Though Schulz rarely left Drohobycz, his stories and drawings seem to transcend the realities not just of southeastern Poland, but the confines of normative humanity altogether. Pan appears, men transform, and landscapes come alive; the dross of small town boredom is alchemized into the majestic, the sublime.
Schulz’s work is, in some fundamental way, a re-visioning of the world. Although the Drohobycz of Schulz’s childhood features as the backdrop, a new, fantastical Drohobycz is simultaneous written against the realities of the past. In “Ksiega” (“The Book”), Schulz’s first story in 1937’s Sanatorium pod Klepsydra (“Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass/Obituary Notice”), the semi-autobiographical narrator discovers a magical book which transforms words to images and ideas to things:
…the wind would rustle through its pages and the pictures would rise. And as the windswept pages were turned, merging the colors and shapes, a shiver ran through the columns of the text, freeing from among the letters flocks of swallows and larks. Page after page floated in the air and gently saturated the landscape with brightness.
The young narrator is neither surprised nor frightened, but he is filled with great reverence. And, as readers, we very much understand, for here we see the embodiment of the biblical dream of the word made extant; in reading, viewing, and watching, this transcendence is precisely what we are after.
As W.J.T. Mitchell reminds us in his seminal article “What is an Image?” this question of imagistic embodiment is not new. The language of images and imagery of language—as well as the chasm that is, sometimes forcefully, made to bracket off the two—has long been a central topic of inquiry for humanity. Indeed, wars—cultural, figurative, and also very literal, as in the case of iconoclasm—have been waged over such questions. Even the multi-layered definition of the word “image” speaks the blurring of boundaries between mimetic representation and the verbal. Just how can we come to terms with the uneasy co-existence of ideas and imagery? Mitchell suggests that we “give in to the temptation to see ideas as images” and note “the way in which images (and ideas) double themselves: the way we depict the act of picturing, imagine the activity of imagination, figure the practice of figuration.”
My guess is that Bruno Schulz would agree. In his work, the image and word are so intertwined that they combine and double back into the “recursive problem” Mitchell so eloquently describes. This serves to question the status of our proverbial ability to see as much as it provides new ways for doing so. The effect is not to be underestimated: A pact is created between reader, author, and text, one in which the bounds of the possible are not only questioned, they are re-envisioned all together. In times of political upheaval and uncertainty—as was very much the case in Schulz’s interwar Poland—such re-envisionings serve the critical function of reiterating the power of the image, in all its varied forms. A “true reader,” Schulz notes,
will understand me…when I look him straight in the eye and try to communicate my meaning. A short sharp look or a light clasp of his hand will stir him into awareness, and he will blink in rapture at the brilliance of The Book.
Each time I read this passage, it’s true, I can see it. And I am always glad that there is no one there to see me shudder.