The following is an excerpt from a paper written for Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska‘s Summer 2012 course “Jews in Poland” at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.
At the close of his 1936 essay “The Mythologizing of Reality,” Bruno 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. Even the most cursory look at Schulz’s brief oeuvre presents a clear view of this principle in practice: in the face of looming war and a divided nation-state, Schulz creates a transformative autho-mythology in which his father turns into a bird, Pan appears as a man in a grubby jacket, apocalyptic comets threaten, and anthropomorphic landscapes abound. Born under the Austro-Hungarian rule of Galicia—in a town that was to become incorporated into Poland, and later, after Schulz’s death, to Ukraine—Schulz was actively working from within a milieu that was both oppressive and frighteningly volatile. His response was storytelling.
Such a philosophy of has its roots in the Jewish storytelling tradition, which did not come to a close with the writing of the Torah. Unlike other major religions, Judaism presupposes a covenant with God, which necessitates a diologic relationship with the Torah and even God himself. In an attempt to discover and elucidate the hidden meanings of the Torah, the Jews turned to storytelling. As a result, the Midrash and Aggadah were born, and this tradition continued to flourish in the “messianic” period which abounded in Schulz’s interwar milleu. The emergence of this body of literature became second only to the Torah and kept Judaism from stagnating. As Howard Schwartz notes:
These stories retained their immediacy because subsequent generations gave themselves to projecting themselves into the biblical archetypes and reliving the myths in themselves. In this way it was possible for the Aggadah to become a vehicle for the personal and mythic expressions of the people that could then be absorbed into the tradition, as well as a means of permitting the religion to evolve, which it did.
There is no doubt that Schulz and his contemporaries were influenced by such a tradition, even though many were not strictly religious as such. Certainly, this desire to write a different sort of Polish-Jewish identity was very much a part of the cultural zeitgeist. It would be a mistake, though, to consider Schulz’s stories as a part of this tradition; for, as Schwartz notes, the ultimate aim of rabbinic storytelling has never been literary and is always explicitly tied to the Torah. Contra this, Schulz viewed the written Word as imbued with a power that exceeds that of the Torah and dedicated himself to, in a sense, rewriting this sacred book; almost without a doubt, this is at least part of the “heresy” to which his stories constantly refer. In this way, though they take the message of storytelling as knowledge-seeking to a different level, they owe much to the rabbinic storytelling tradition.
In the story “Tailors’ Dummies” collected in The Street of Crocodiles the narrator’s eccentric father delivers a series of lectures on what he deems the ingenuity of matter. 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. He sees both the fermentation of matter and its decay most everywhere: in old apartments and in tailors’ dummies, ordinary households and wallpaper; this combination of flowering and decay mirror an newly emerging Polish-Jewish life. Definitions of selfhood were being re-worked in interwar Poland as Poland itself emerged and Jewish people still lived in relative autonomy. The question then was how to define oneself: Polish, Polish-Jewish, Jewish-Polish, or Jewish?
Moreover, the “unknown forms of life” of which the Heresiarch speaks are as essential to nature as are the more familiar forms we are accustomed to. In no small way, Schulz and his family were familiar with the world’s tendency to overlook “unknown forms of life.” Born into an emerging Polish state that had previously welcomed Jewish immigrants—however minimally—the Jews of the newly formed Polish state lived a precarious existence. Yet, 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”:
It marked a reemphasis on Torah, and the reemergence of a Shulchan Aruch Jew for whom the Torah was all-embracing and all-sufficient. It was “hard to be a Jew,” but it was compensatingly “good to be a Jew.” In an age of systematic persecution and licensed persecution, the Jew managed to retain a spiritual joie de vivre.
It is no mere accident that the years in which Bruno Schulz wrote saw an unprecedented reemergence of Polish-Jewish community. Although Bruno Schulz’s family was not strictly religious and Schulz probably never learned to read Yiddish, he was, as Jerzy Ficowski notes “not indifferent to myths or sacred rites.” As such, Schulz’s stories retain the essence of Jewish mythology if not the realism of everyday Jewish life. In an essay discussing Schulz in the context Martin Buber’s work, Karen Underhill rightly avers this generation of writers “can fruitfully be placed within a constellation of assimilated Jewish intellectuals…whose work reveals an attempt to incorporate Jewish philosophical and mystical heritage into modern, often secular systems of thought.” Additionally, in Schulz’s work, an often uncomfortable dichotomy is reflected in the juncture between old and new Judaism, between the cultural traditions of an ostracized Jewish community and the secularism of an emerging Jewish intellectualism. Works such as Schulz’s present what Underhill calls “a third position.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of Schulz’s prose is its ineffability; in both content and form, its fantastic turns of phrase and eloquent propositions require many re-readings. In its multifariousness, it lends itself to almost any reading the reader should allow herself, but with one catch: Never will any one reading be complete. Although I have attempted to show here that Schulz’s interwar Jewish identity is a very real aspect of The Street of Crocodiles and “Tailors’ Dummies” in particular, it would be misleading to suggest that this background is the driving force of Schulz’s work. Rather, blending of readings is in order, as is a willingness to suspend surety of any kind. This, it seems to me is “the lost cause of poetry” and mirrors the strange ecosystems Schulz’s Heresiarch describes. Like the “pseudofauna” and “pseudoflora” Schulz’s Heresiarch describes elsewhere, Schulz’s work lives and grows of its own devising and beyond its practical application. These stories succeed in reflecting and challenging their historical context at the same time they resist this application by declaring timelessness.