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Are there ways in which we can look to literature to deepen our understanding of not just what it means to be human, but what it means to be a human in the physical world? The following post is a brief introduction to a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association’s 2012 Conference at Brown University on Bruno Schulz. As the conference’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change” and my seminar is entitled “The Human as Catastrophic,” I am particularly interested in the ways in which alternative creation myths in Schulz’s stories function as blueprints, perhaps, to elucidate a different understanding of the human’s place in the world.


This past year, in which I have been looking extensively at the work of Bruno Schulz,
I have gradually discovered that the body of work committed to paper by this Polish-born author is a difficult—if not impossible—thing to describe. How can one say that these tales are fantastic without denying their poignancy, or admit their author’s modernist aesthetic without discounting his joyful spirit? In my many workings and re-workings of critical introductions on the topic, I have come to terms with the near-impossibility of a successful narrative rendering of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe; perhaps better suited to Schulz is a list of characters and plot elements, the big ones of which would include a father figure that comes to resemble the cockroaches he fears, apocalyptic comets, a Heresiarch’s inordinate fondness for mannequins, Pan as a man in a grubby jacket, and an abundance of malevolent women. But this, too, falls flat. For in Schulz’s work there is a usurpation of both the simplicity of such narratives and the focus of human mastery they imply. Rather, the fantastical masterwork of Sklepy Cynamonowe is rampant with what Jane Bennett so aptly calls “thing power.” The landscape of reality in Sklepy Cynamonowe is a veritable wonderland of hybrid relations and non-human actants: for every person Schulz describes, there is a nonperson who takes center stage elsewhere.

Schulz, who was born in the sleepy Eastern European town of Drohobycz in 1892, was in some fundamental way concerned with a project to re-create the world. Though this is in no small part a reflection of the geopolitical instability of his interwar Poland, Schulz’s philosophical leanings transcend the trappings such an overtly sociohistorical focus would imply. At the close of his 1936 essay “The Mythologizing of Reality,” Schulz considers the uncanny ability of words to rise above the corporeal world, to both render the inexplicable and transform living breath from stale air; he laments our careless discounting of myth in favor of more accurate “reality” and argues “the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word.” For Schulz, the work of the author is not simply in creating tales that amuse or distract; rather, it is a noble and essential profession that sees its aim as both challenging the world and reinventing it.

As such, Schulz saw himself as a figure divorced of time and place, much to the chagrin of his more politically minded peers. In a series of open letters published in Studio no. 7 in 1936, writer Witold Gombrowicz accuses Schulz of ignoring the concerns and opinions of the common man and woman in favor of an elitist concern for ephemeral “truth”. As evidence, he cites a likely fictional encounter with a “certain doctor’s wife…met by accident on Line 18.” This proverbial stand-in for the masses discounts Schulz as “either a sick pervert or a poseur, but most probably a poseur”, to which Gombrowicz challenges Schulz to respond. And respond he does:

I know what you’re thinking, what a low opinion you hold of our life. And that pains me. You compare it with the life of the doctor’s wife, and that life seems real to you, more firmly rooted in the soil, whereas we, creating up in Cloud-cuckoo-land and devoted to some chimera under hundreds of atmospheric pressures of boredom, distill our products that are useful to almost no one.

In his description of what separates the proverbial “doctor’s wife from Wilcza Street” from artists such as himself and Gombrowicz, Schulz also utilizes the metaphor of scientific experimentation to assert “the avant-garde of biology is thought, experiment, creative discovery. We, in fact, are this belligerent biology, this conquering biology; we are the truly vital.” Contrary to Gombrowicz, who privileged ordinary women and chance encounters over the sublime, Schulz was very much concerned eternal truth, however elusive.

This brief digression into the realm of aesthetics is only to show that Schulz himself believed strongly in the story’s ability to reframe reality; rather than a reflection of the real, or mere communication of ideas, the word for Schulz was something very much alive and capable of invoking change. In this way, we can more clearly view Schulz through the lens of Bennett: in creating stories and making up tales, can we not also open the door to visions of “belligerent biology” rife with vital materialism and the agency of matter? Can Schulz’s aims of spiritual truth also be opened onto a more concrete, physical one?

Appropriately, such themes of creation and re-creation abound in Schulz’s work. In the story “Traktat o Manekinach”, the narrator’s eccentric father gives two heretical lectures on life and lifelessness; one is entitled “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis” and the other “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies: Conclusion.” On this “nameless Tuesday,” the narrator, along with a small crowd of female shopkeepers, listens, apprehensively:

“There is no dead matter,” he taught us, “lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life. The range of these forms is infinite and their shades and nuances limitless. The Demiurge was in possession of important and creative recipes. Thanks to them, he created a multiplicity of species which renew themselves by their own devices. No one knows whether these recipes will ever be reconstructed. But this is unnecessary, because even if the classical methods of creation should prove inaccessible for evermore, there still remain some illegal methods, an infinity of heretical and criminal methods.”

His father, the narrator tells us, “never tired of glorifying this extraordinary element—matter.” Had Schulz not explicitly deemed the father figure—also known as the Heresiarch—a “metaphysical conjurer,” the connotations are clear. The Heresiarch is a modern day alchemist, one who seeks to form an alternative creation myth in which the dross of the everyday is transformed into animate gold.  In this alternative creation story, humans relinquish their primacy over other forms of matter, each of which has a unique place in the cosmos. Echoing Jane Bennett’s discussion of “non-linear assemblages,” these “unknown forms of life” are as essential to nature as are the more familiar forms we are accustomed to. Such statements, I am inclined to believe, are nothing short of a revolutionary re-framing of the human’s place in the world.