This past spring I attended an enlightening seminar on Alien Worlds in Medieval Literature led by Niklaus Largier at UC Berkeley. Among the heterogeneous texts we read were Wolfram’s Parzival, Mandeville’s travels, Herzog Ernst, and selections of Dante’s Inferno. In exploring these texts, the course was concerned with the ways in which alternative space, be it imaginary, abject, or religious, is created for the reader. We had many talks about visions, and many talks about heterotopias. I often found my mind wandering back to Schulz’s concept of the Word and marveling at the connections between his work and artistic aim and that of the medieval sacred text. What follows is an excerpt from a paper in which I synthesize the work of Schulz and Martin Buber’s 1909 collection of visionary texts entitled Ekstatische Konfessionen (Ecstatic Confessions) in order to explore the connection between bodily sensation (ultimately utilizing Michel Serres’ concept of a “mingled body” to describe the visionary body) and visionary experience.
Physical sight—though perhaps the most overtly present—is not the only sense to appear in Schulz’s texts. The visionary nights of “Spring,” for example, are accompanied by the scent of jasmine and lilac while the hand-drawn birds of “The Age of Genius” imbue the landscape with “cherry red sweetness” and “air scented with lavender.” Elsewhere the “glare of [God’s] wisdom [spreads] a super-scent” and The Book is turned with “trembling fingers.” In each case, physical sense is instrumental in establishing a relationship between Joseph’s internal world and the external world of the vision. Moreover, the fever of creativity itself, which serves as the stabilizing event in the “Age of Genius” is accompanied by a full body experience of smells, sights, textures, tastes:
It was toward the end of winter. The world had dissolved in puddles, but sudden waves of heat seemed full of fire and pepper. The honeysweet pulp of day was cut into silvery furrow, into prisms filled with colors and spicy piquancies. Noonday collected within a short space the whole fire of these days and all the moments that glowed.
At that hour, unable to contain the heat, the day shed its scales of silvery tinplate, of crunchy tinfoil, and, layer after layer, disclosed its core of solid brightness.
Here time itself is bodily: its qualities are marked by such tactile images as “pulp,” “scales” and “silvery tinplate” while its flavors are “honeysweet” and filled with a heat which seems “full of fire and pepper”. One would be hard pressed to discover a more synesthetic verbal experience; indeed, the reader is pulled along with Joseph, tasting and smelling as the visions emerge. Schulz goes on to note that “[a]s if this were not enough, chimneys smoked and billowed with lustrous steam,” underscoring the impossible fullness of the sensory landscape. Bursting with these colors and flavors, time regresses into a Schulzian non-time filled with “solid brightness” and in this apex of sensuality visionary travel becomes possible.
Interestingly enough, though, a similar disavowal of the body—much akin to that of an acetic monk—also accompanies these visionary experiences. Joseph is so enraptured with his vision of The Book, that, burning “with quiet ecstasy,” he forgets to eat. The reader is led to assume that Joseph’s body is nourished instead by the Authentic. Again, in the midst of furious creation and “prey to [his] inspirations”, he does not notice Adela when she brings him food, despite the fact that she is dressed “in her Sunday best” and smells “of spring.”Amidst the flurry of imagination, sight, smell, and taste are subsumed. Instead, Joseph becomes a sort of automaton by which the drawings of the “Age of Genius,” are committed to paper:
I stood rigid as a signpost, with outstretched, elongated fingers, pointed in anger, in fierce concentration, hand trembling in ecstasy.
My hand guided me, alien and pale, and pulled me after it, a stiff, waxen hand, like the large votive hands in churches, like angels palms raised for an oath.
Joseph here, “rigid as a signpost”, still retains the use of his body, but exists as a conduit through which the visionary experience flows. He barks curses in an “alien voice” and creates “as if by a foreign hand.” The sense of touch and use of his hand is crucial, but so is a retreat from the physical realm. Indeed, Schulz’s explorations of vision throughout these stories manifest in an uneasy dichotomy, both affirming and denying the body. In one sense, Joseph explores the visionary world with his body and sensory perception becomes a crucial element of discovery. There is a bodily engagement with the visions themselves, which manifests in the language of the senses. On the other hand, though, Joseph is rendered a saintly, disembodied figure comparable to an angelic statue, as in the above passage, through which the mysteries of vision are transmitted.
In each of these cases, Joseph’s visions of the authentic Book are also rife with examples of the type of “ecstasy” Martin Buber traces in his volume Ekstatische Konfessionen. In his introduction to the first edition published by Eugen Diederichs, a publisher of esoteric texts most prolific at the turn of century, Buber expresses an interest in his collection’s collective expression with “the placing outside [i.e. the written text] of something inward [i.e. the visionary experience]” despite the ineffability of such an event. “Ecstasy,” he notes, “stands beyond the common experience. It is unity, solitude, uniqueness: that which cannot be transferred. It is the abyss that cannot be fathomed: the unsayable.” Such concerns of the mystical tradition are, I think, appropriately placed in a discussion of Schulz, for despite the fact that there is no concrete evidence that Schulz read these texts, mystical visionary literature was very much a part of the interwar Jewish milieu in which Schulz lived. As Jerzy Ficowski notes, in spite of the fact that Schulz’s family was not religious, he was nonetheless “not indifferent to myths or sacred rites.”
As such, an interest in the type of “ecstatic confessions” that Martin Buber collected in his 1909 volume—if not with this collection specifically—was very much in the air during Schulz’s brief period of artistic creation. The interwar period itself was a uniquely situated point in the history of Eastern European Jewry; in spite of repeated threats to their religion, personhood, and claim to rights, the newly emerging Polish state was what Harry M. Rabinowicz calls “a period of religious renaissance” for the Jews.
In this fruitful environment, a Jewish modernism surfaced as well, and Schulz was very much a part of this tradition. Hassidic fables, religious texts, and a new interest in mysticism all helped structure an emerging Jewish artist. Martin Buber, a proponent for an individual religiosity divorced from dogma, published several influential collections that helped further this tradition, including Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman (The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, 1906), Die Legende des Baalschem (The Legend of Baalschem, 1908) and Die Erzahlungen der Chassidim (Tales of the Hasidism, 1949). However, Buber’s interests, much like Schulz’s, were not exclusively tied to the Jewish faith and this allowed his work’s influence to extend beyond Jewish communities. His admiration of non-denomination mystical literature, as evidenced in Ekstatische Konfessionen, both reflected and furthered an emerging European artistic tradition towards the inner experience of ecstasy. Not the least significant of these artists to engage with this tradition is Rainer Maria Rilke, whose works of “precision and purity” Schulz described as so influential to his artistic development.
At the very least, Schulz’s admiration for Rilke places him in contact with this tradition, as does his geographic locale. In Buber’s collection, too, there exist some parallels that are certainly worth noting and exploring, not the least of which is a recurring concern with bodily sensation which elicits marked resonances to Schulz’s depiction of Joseph’s visionary landscape.
Visionary literature of the Middle Ages—the period from which the bulk of Ekstatische Konfessionen is drawn—is rife with expressions of bodily sensation. Although one may be inclined to imagine the medieval mystic as an acetic man or woman with little need of the physical senses, we actually see that in their written texts “the artificial evocation of taste, touch, and smell form a sphere of exploration and education of the senses and passions in a specific way.” Like Schulz, many medieval mystics evoked the language of sensory perception in descriptions of visionary ecstasy. In Buber’s anthology, for example, Mechtild Von Magdenburg, speaking from the voice of God, compares the soul to the taste of a grape, the fragrance of balsam, and the radiance of the sun. Angela Di Foligno refers repeatedly to “the eyes of the soul” and Julian of Norwich opens a “spiritual eye.” Again, in a text by Alpais of Cudot, the author’s soul trembles, much like Joseph’s hand trembles when it is possessed by a mystical creativity in “The Age of Genius.” In fact, the texts included in Ekstatische Konfessionen refer so frequently to the language of sight, the fragrances of spiritual love, and the touch of God, that a catalogue of the many instances here would be redundant. What is important to note are the ways in which this language is applied, and to what ends.
Many critics trace a long religious tradition of an engagement with the senses back to the Greek exegetic practice of “the five spiritual senses,” the invention of which “allowed for the creation of a space of experience, exploration, and amplification of the emotional as well as the sensory life of the soul.” That the soul has senses is an assertion with a specific set of consequences not to be taken lightly. These senses are analogous to our physical five senses, but they also traverse the boundaries of the corporeal world.
The language of the body is crucial to the depiction of the visionary place, but coexists with a disavowal of the corporeal world. Like Schulz’s visionary Joseph, the experience of ecstasy in Buber’s collection is often accompanied by a lack of physical nourishment. A nun from Elsbet Stagel’s Sister-Book, for example, notes that “except for her bodily needs she [the visionary] ate and slept a little.” Another author in the same sister-book notes that in her visionary state she “had no hunger nor thirst nor desire for sleep.” Although the spirit can feel pain, sees, touches, tastes, and hears in order to chart the visionary experience, it also breaks with the body’s need for external sustenance. In this way, the uneasy dichotomy of spirit and body is worked out through a kind of mingled secondary body-soul; in order to accomplish the visionary task, the body works itself inward and merges with the soul in order to produce an existence that relies on the language of the physical—if in name only—as much as it does the spiritual. According to Buber, this “self-liberating soul” has no need “for nourishment, and no poison can touch it. It experiences itself as a unity… because it has submerged itself entirely in itself, has plunged down to the very ground of itself, is kernel and husk, sun and eye, carouser and drink, at once.” Such a decent into the self is not one that is merely a decent from the physical; rather, its absorption of sense into soul is a crucial component of inward authenticity. Interestingly enough, the same sister who had “no hunger nor thirst nor desire for sleep” awakens from her visionary state to feel “for the first time…that I had a body.”
Elsewhere, this mingled selfhood is often manifest as the burning light of revelation. In Schulz’s text, the entire collection of Sanatorium begins with an “invasion of brightness” brought on by The Book. By rubbing the pages with a wet fingertip, the narrator’s father causes The Book to come alive, whereby “one’s eyes turned toward a virgin dawn of divine colors, toward a miraculous moistness of purest azure.” This inward movement of the eye towards a “divine” sight in no small way recalls the inner visions of Mechtild Von Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich: all three utilize the language of vision to describe an inner light. This equating of light and brightness with the revelation of the authentic text continues throughout the collection; in The Book’s emerging, the landscape becomes “saturated…with brightness” and continues to burn in the narrator’s memory “with a bright flame” while he also notes that pages of drawing in “The Age of Genius” “glowed brightly in the sun” and “breathed brightness.” This emission of “brightness” is, it seems, the stuff of the visions themselves and appears to be the cause of Joseph’s visionary experience. The decent into “The Age of Genius,” is accompanied by a landscape rife with fire and brightness, as “the curtains stood in flames, smoking in the fire…Askew on the carpet lay a quadrilateral of brightness that could not detach itself from the floor.” The narrator notes that this “bar of fire” gives him a sense of being ill at ease, presumably because he is overwhelmed with the visionary experience that this brightness exemplifies. “How can I face the flood alone,” he immediately wonders aloud, “How can I, all alone, answer the million dazzling questions that God is swamping me with?”
In each case, the experience of “light” is more than mere visual experience—it incorporates the entire body. In this way, it joins an immaterial body with sensory experience in an attempt to create something new that is paradoxically within and without. It exists in harmonic unity, as a visionary whole.