Published in Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History
Copyright (c) Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
This material is offered here only for personal, classroom and scholarly use, but not for republication. If you wish to cite or quote any of this material in scholarly works, please check the printed version for accuracy.
Click on note numbers to jump to the notes. Click on [RETURN] to return to the text.
Polish poet and devoted biographer Jerzy Ficowski, of course, has heroically and invaluably attempted to make available all the details of the artist's material life (that he came from a merchant-class family of assimilated Jews, spoke Polish at home and knew German like most Galicianers,4 studied architecture in Lwow, corresponded with writer Deborah Vogel) from all the usual biographical sources--letters, interviews, state documents,memoirs, and photographs. Still, the very artifacts that make Schulz's life worth remembering have resisted close examination.
Much of the current interest in Bruno Schulz in North America stems from the work of contemporary writers like David Grossman (See Under: Love), Cynthia Ozick (The Messiah of Stockholm), and Philip Roth ("The Prague Orgy"), who have built legends around Schulz, invoking his figure as a trope in their own stories. Each of these works incorporates a fictionalized character or lost literary father based on the actual Schulz. We are able to recognize that character by significant details, such as appropriated passages from his stories, references to the lost manuscript of his novel, The Messiah, and above all, the bizarre circumstances of his death.5
There have been a number of recent articles on this Schulz-derivative literature, so I will not attempt to account for this whole curious phenomenon in detail, but I would like to look briefly at Ozick's work as symptomatic. Her Schulz mystery The Messiah of Stockholm6 recounts the obsession of Lars Andemening, an unappreciated literary reviewer for the Stockholm Morgentorn, with the stories and drawings of Bruno Schulz, whom he believed to be his actual father, and the intrigue surrounding his attempts to find the manuscript of The Messiah. He is aided and thwarted in his goal by an elderly book dealer, Heidi, and her usually absent husband, Dr. Eklund. He is given a manuscript, which Dr. Eklund has authenticated by matching it to other samples of Schulz's handwriting, and reads it voraciously. Meanwhile, Ozick speculatively outlines the work as it passes through Lars's mind. It describes a desolate Drohobycz in which the people have been replaced by stone idols. The Messiah arrives--a feathery creature with wings resembling pages from a book--to find the idols burning each other. The Messiah gives birth to a small bird that lands on all the idols, causing them to burn up, leaving Drohobycz empty. Lars becomes suspicious, accuses Dr. Eklund of forging the manuscript, and rashly sets it aflame in its brass jar. Eklund is an acknowledged forger, but it is unclear in the end whether he has forged the manuscript or if the manuscript was real and he had faked other documents for the purpose of locating and smuggling the manuscript out of Poland.
The symbolism of Ozick's proposed reconstruction clearly reflects her postwar interests. The remarkable fiction of Drohobycz has been "invaded by the characters of an unknown alphabet" (110). Its former population, having escaped to the familiar destinations of Jewish emigres, are replaced by stones. Even those stones are burned up like the markers of Jewish graves bulldozed after the war to make way for progress (in the now burgeoning Drohobycz?). With the former Jews of Drohobycz and their remnants, the text experiences its own Holocaust inside the brass amphora.
The problem of the work is not so much about Schulz, but about the seeming incommensurability that the postwar generation feels with regard to the world of their parents and grandparents. With the loss of family ties to Russia and Eastern Europe, those born "over here" also lost the linguistic ties necessary to maintain continuity with that culture. The age of Schulz seems like an age of giants. Ozick, Roth, and Grossman must ask, along with Dr. Eklund (127), responding to Lars's charge of forgery,
"I could make that? I, I? A seraph made it! Idiocy--I could make that? Instinct's the maker! Transfiguration, is this your belief? Conspiracy gives birth to a masterwork? You had your look, you saw! You think what's born sublime can be connived at? How? How, without that dead man's genius? What is there to empower such an impersonation?"Not only is there no possibility of imitating the masterpiece, but the Holocaust of the text is the impossibility of even understanding it if you had it in front of you. I will argue that Schulz's texts are particularly about the connection of one text to its antecedents. Ozick's text is about the impossibility, in her generation, of such connections.
The influence of Schulz is much more profoundly felt in the works of Polish dramatist/artist Tadeusz Kantor and the Yugoslavian prosaist Danilo Kis who have incorporated Schulz's figures and icons into their own creation, rather than dwelling on the trope of Bruno Schulz, the man. Both frequently work in an autobiographical mode and Kis often writes in the first person, like Schulz. Kis is said to have told John Updike in an interview, "Schulz is my God,"7 and he picks up mythic elements from Schulz, such as ancient books with secret wisdom and the journey to the underworld in "The Encyclopedia of the Dead."8 Kantor lifts characters, such as Adela from Schulz's collection Sklepy Cinamonowy (Cinnamon Shops),9 and inserts them into works like the drama The Dead Class. He also transforms icons from Schulz's drawings, such as the daguerrotype camera-automobile,10 which reappears as a daguerrotype-machine gun in Kantor's Wielopole, Wielopole and Today is My Birthday in a striking engagement of Adorno's problem of representation after Auschwitz.
For Ozick, Roth, and Grossman, Eastern Europe is quite literally a dead world. They are writers in a Diaspora, reaching across the divide of the Shoah for literary fathers, grasping at traces through often weak translations. Their postwar problem is a great one, but by its ineluctable logic it cannot be Schulz's problem. He may, perhaps, have been responding to the sense that Galicia's distinctive, mystical hasidic culture was receding into history as his generation assimilated, but the Second World War was not part of any experience reflected in Schulz's extant writings. Ozick can borrow from Schulz only in self-parody, lamenting the irretrievability of those motifs. Kantor and Kis--the ones who stayed--can claim without irony the entire interwar Polish avant-garde as part of their living literary heritage and should be seen as the legitimate bearers of that aesthetic into the postwar age.
Schulz criticism, by and large, is broad, descriptive, and deals more with ethos and aftertaste than with actual text.11 Everyone wants to say something about Schulz, but it is quite difficult to figure out what to say. Schulz's stories are fragmented, elliptical, often without plot or seeming direction, indeed leaving us with more aftertaste than argument. But an aftertaste is not without components, meaning, and causes. The question, then, is, how do we read Schulz to figure out what went into the broth, before it was strained?
The term mythical has become a commonplace in Schulz scholarship, but few have attempted the critical step of explicating that mythology.12 Schulz did not generate the idea of mythology in an act of pure genius. He received some notion of what myth was, as well as a store of material--motifs, situations, compositional forms--that would become the stuff of his mythic world. Readers have argued that the materials of Schulz's mythic reality are the streets, shops, and personalities of his native Drohobycz, or, citing a well-known letter from Schulz to Andrzej Plesniewicz, they ascribe the source of Schulz's mythology to his "childhood." The former is a half-truth, because one could not learn what a myth was just by walking down the streets of Drohobycz. The latter is almost meaningless, as there could be no biographical materials on the utopian childhood that Schulz describes.
In that letter, Schulz writes:
What you say about our artificially prolonged childhood [dziecinstwo]--our immaturity [niedojrzalosc]--takes me a little aback. After all, the kind of art closest to my heart is precisely a regression, childhood revisited. If it were possible to reverse development, to grasp some road back around to childhood again, to have its abundance and limitlessness once more--then that "age of genius," those "messianic times" promised and sworn to us by all mythologies, would come to pass. My ideal goal is to "mature" into childhood. That would be genuine maturity.13Schulz is touted as the youngest member of Poland's great triumvirate of the interwar avant-garde, along with the painter, dramatist, novelist, and aesthetician Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) and prosaist-dramatist Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969), who were all deeply invested in an idea like "childhood." Witkiewicz was architect of a theory of "Pure Form" (Czysta Forma), not unlike Kant's theory of the Sublime with an expressionistic bent. The idea was that art should produce the "metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence" or "unity in plurality" as one overwhelming sensation stemming from the perception of that work. "Unity in plurality" suggests the Kantian categories of the bounded and the limitless perceived at once in the apprehension of the Sublime, and Schulz called his childhood "limitless." This would be a "metaphysical" sensation for Witkiewicz, because it makes the perceiver aware of the most fundamental boundaries of cognition. Gombrowicz gave this view a more psychological inflection in terms of his idea of "immaturity" (niedojrzalosc), a mythic primitive of the psyche, uncorrupted by the effects of socialization or education. All three approaches derive in part from critic Karol Irzykowski's only novel, Paluba (translated roughly as The Hag), which retells the dreams of its main character, Maria Dunin, then comments on those dreams, attempting to strip away all "acceptable" forms of social expression to find what genuinely constitutes human nature.
Jerzy Ficowski, reaching a bit deeper than some of the other critics, points generally to obscure, ancient folk myth as a source--the "childhood of humanity"--but never tracks it down.14 This statement places Schulz well within the realm of the neoromantic Polish avant-garde,15 looking for what was basically human in the uncorrupted margins of social life, but it does not tell us what distinguishes Schulz from his compatriots. My goal here will be to set out a method for reading Schulz--one that I think can be justified on the basis of the text itself. Schulz praised Kafka's writing for containing its own poetics.16 I would not claim that all literary texts include a "key" to their own deciphering, but I believe that the primary purpose of "The Night of the Great Season," the last story from Cinnamon Shops, is to tell us how to read Schulz.17
What it means "to explicate Schulz" is not obvious. Schulz writes in one of his most far-seeing aesthetic statements:
Poetry happens when short-circuits of sense occur between words, a sudden regeneration of the primeval myths. . . . Not one scrap of an idea of ours does not originate in myth, isn't transformed, mutilated, denatured mythology. The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables, creating tales. . . . [T]he building materials [that the search for human knowledge] uses were used once before; they come from forgotten, fragmented tales or "histories." Poetry recognizes these lost meanings, restores words to their places, connects them by the old semantics.18In Schulz's case, I think that "explication" means researching that "old semantics," and finding the "transformed, mutilated, denatured mythology." Schulz may not have intended his stories to have the "forgotten, fragmented" mythical resonances that they have, but what Schulz intended and what his stories mean are two different matters. I doubt that Schulz read--or in his day could have read, as they may not have been available in translation from difficult old Hebrew and Aramaic sources--all the materials I will bring to bear on Schulz. At the same time, I think that he could not have avoided receiving them, through Jewish folk tales and through the ordinary ceremony of Judaism. Drohobycz is in the heart of hasidic territory, and hasidic teaching prized storytelling and sermon as highly as, if not more than, critical study of the ancient texts. The period from 1864 to the outbreak of the First World War19 saw a flourishing of publication of popular editions, in Yiddish as well as German and Polish translation, of hasidic stories, so these tales would certainly have been quite popular in Schulz's youth. As an adult, he would also have access to Buber and Rosenzweig's translations of hasidic stories, as well as German translation of Talmud to support his mythic edifice. In reconstructing the myths of Schulz's work, then, we may be able to suggest what he means by "childhood," before the onset of degenerate "maturation."
The research of these traces will constitute a sort of psychoanalysis of the text. The logic of these "strange" stories becomes clearer if they are read like dreams. In terms of a basic problem for cognitive psychologists, a chess expert can often reconstruct entire games from memory, but can rarely reproduce a randomly assembled board.20 Likewise, everyone is a "real-world expert," and few people are "dream-world experts"; hence, dreams are difficult to explain. They have an internal logic and make sense while they are happening, but seem to fall apart when we try to explain them on the basis of their plots.
If we accept for the sake of our discussion Daniel Dennett's argument that consciousness is composed of "multiple drafts" of reality, constantly being edited and reedited in our minds as we attempt to make sense of our perceptions21 we might see dreams as drafts that do not go through the normal redaction process. Dream plots do not seem like reality when we awake, because they are merely fragments of reality--"unedited drafts" of what the world is like based on scraps of memory. While we might accept from Freudian theory the idea of an unconscious and the value of the interpretation of dreams, we must, if we take Dennett's approach, change what we mean by the "unconscious" and what we would have to do to interpret a text like a dream, if we see it as reflective of an unconscious state.
Traditional psychoanalytic theory might see the interpretation of dreams as the allegorical renarrativizing of the text into a single stream of consciousness passing through a Cartesian theater in the mind, resolving into traditional Freudian master-narratives like the Oedipus complex or Jungian archetypes. A multiple-drafts theory of consciousness makes room for allegory, but not into a single stream. The multiple drafts coursing through our minds before we become aware of a cognitive state called "consciousness" are the origin of that state, and not resolvable into some one prior thing, like "the repressed," since the repressed would only be composed, on this view, as more drafts of reality. A reading of a dream, then, guided by this theory, would attempt to understand the confluence of many narratives rather than to resolve them into one.
We should bear in mind a distinction between the unconscious of the text and Schulz's own unconscious. Some "unconscious" elements of Schulz's stories might have fit into his own intentional schemes, others might not. Because we are seeking the unconscious, we may sometimes seek precisely what Schulz could not decipher in his own work. As such, the intention of the work may be diametrically opposed to any stated intention of Schulz. Indeed, we would have to interpret any statement of intention by Schulz as another text.
For Schulz, the unconscious will be the fragmented mythical traces in his stories. Schulz was a modernist, so some of those preconscious narratives will point back to the myths that Freud, Jung, and their disciples used in reading basic human mental conflicts. Many will point back to Jewish myths of equal or greater hermeneutic value for our purposes. Most importantly, perhaps, many of Schulz's myths will reflect his reappropriation of everyday life on an epic scale.
Cinnamon Shops is composed of thirteen stories, told in the first person from the perspective of an unnamed boy. Set in a small unnamed Galician town that seems almost identical to Drohobycz, the stories are the tales about the boy's eccentric father, who, like Schulz's own father, was a textile merchant named Jakub; various relatives; shop assistants and neighborhood locals; and fantastic events that occur in the town. Most important among these other characters is the family's servant, Adela, who seems more in charge of things than does the family that employs her, as servants sometimes are. Jakub has an obsession for collecting birds in his attic, described in "Ptaki" ("Birds"), acquired impossibly from around the world, until they are chased away by Adela. He is also prone to expatiating on questions of existence and creation, as he does in a three-part "Traktat o manekinach" ("Tractate on Mannequins," my translation). The progress of the tales is a balancing act between the father who created the boy and the boy who, as narrator, creates the father.
The final story of the cycle tells the day of the unraveling of the father. It takes place during a magical autumn, in a year in which there is a thirteenth month. With the changing of the leaves outside, Jakub is preparing to release for sale new bolts of fabric in the rich colors of the season. Crowds of customers rush in, and the store is transformed into a frenzied marketplace; Jakub barely able to keep control. The scene is fantastically described with images of Jakub as Moses futilely attempting to rein in the worshipers of the Golden Calf, and shop assistants chasing after Adela. The day ends and all go home. Father sits down, watching the customers wander off in the sunset, and he sees his birds. Having long ago been chased away, they seem to return, but deformed and crippled. He calls to them, but they no longer respond to his voice. Meanwhile, the customers from the shop, now spread out over the landscape, have begun to throw stones at the birds. The father surveys their deformed corpses, and with the next day, the magical season has ended.
This last story, "Noc wielkiego sezonu" begins with a discussion of the falszywy miesiac, translated by Celina Wieniewska as "freak month," an appendage to the year. If we count the three sections of the "Tractate on Mannequins" as one chapter, then this is a thirteenth chapter, like a thirteenth month. Schulz's gesture is to separate this story from the rest of the stories as an appendage, an "apocrypha" or significantly a "palimpsest," a text erased and written over. What is most interesting to the reader of palimpsests is not what has been recently written, but the traces of what has been erased. As in a palimpsest, then, Schulz entices us to find what has been erased. In his epilogue, "Noc wielkiego sezonu," he is in fact "writing over" the remainder of the text.
He is not only "writing over," but in "writing down these tales, revising the stories about my father on the used margins of its text," he asks,
don't I too, surrender to the secret hope that they will merge imperceptibly with the yellowing pages of that most splendid, moldering book, that they will sink into the gentle rustle of its pages and become absorbed there? (108-9, 126)This desire to write in the margins of the text and become absorbed within it, revising the stories about the fathers, is precisely to aspire to the ranks of the great historical talmudic commentators.
The streets of Drohobycz for Schulz are, like pages of the Talmud, "labyrinths of new adventures and chapters."22 The main text is a central market square and layers of commentary weave around it, with a wide margin for yet further commentary to be inscribed. In their day, the great talmudic rabbis were merely annotators of the Mishnah, but now it is their words that are the subject of criticism, and their lives that constitute legends; hence "they [have merged] imperceptibly with the yellowing pages of that most splendid moldering book." As the need has passed for the mundane, practical laws found in the Mishnah, the marginal text, containing lore and parables as well as legal exposition has overtaken the central text in importance. Schulz makes a Talmud of his cycle of stories, in which this "marginal" story is a kind of Gemara on the text at the center. Thus we can claim that the three parts of Schulz's "Tractate on Mannequins" should be regarded as one chapter, following the form of the Talmud.23 As readers of Schulz, then, we might do no better than to inscribe our detailed comments in the too-small margins of the too-quickly moldering, acidic pages of our copies of his stories, and that as we fill the margins his words will occupy the center.
That labyrinth of Schulz's stories is in constant play with the labyrinth of Drohobycz and its "cinnamon shops": "In its multiple labyrinths nests of brightness were hewn: the shops--large colored lanterns--filled with goods and the bustle of customers." By using the gesture of a code word or epithet, a technique common to Schulz whereby he layers meaning into a word such as "labyrinth," finding the "old semantics," the author textualizes the city here. The epilogue surrounds the stories which surround Drohobycz. In Polish prose there is a stronger taboo of repeating words than there is in English. When Schulz does so, then, the effect is quite deliberate. He tags certain objects with epithets or repeats certain words and similar words, applying their euphonic resonance for semantic enrichment. The effect is anaphoric and elevates the tone to the level of epic.
Polish critic Jerzy Jarzebski brilliantly reads the Schulzian chronotope as the fusion of "dream time" or mythic time with labyrinth space,24 but fails to recognize the connection to the ancient Jewish texts. Here is a typical case where an apparent lack of familiarity with Jewish sources has rendered Schulz simply one among many from the Greeks to Umberto Eco who have invoked the motif of the labyrinth. The folding of the labyrinth theme into the topos of the Talmud, however, expands our reading into a new dimension: city is not only dream or myth but text to be explicated and annotated. Not only is Schulz's writing like a labyrinthine structure, but a labyrinthine map of the city is like a text from the fragmented memory of childhood--a text that is labyrinthine in all dimensions (externally in its graphic appearance, internally in its logic, continuously on the dimension of interpretation proceeding from external to internal, then recursively as we negotiate among nested interpretations somehow inside and outside the text, as we create our own interpretations). We have not only labyrinths, but infinitely recursive ones.
Jarzebski's space-time analysis attempts a dialogic, Bakhtinian reading, but perhaps as in many of Bakhtin's own readings, his argument fails to be dialogic enough. True dialogue must be of infinite dimension, as dialogues are always dynamic. If we try to imagine infinity as a very large number, we have missed the point entirely. As soon as we attempt to "stop" it for examination, dialogue itself can become the object of parodistic travesty, in Bakhtin's terms.
This problem strikes at the heart of Schulz's mythopoesis. The admission of a Schulzian chronotope, a time-space, cannot permit participation in a direct historically linear progression of textual evolution. Schulz's borrowings are all over the place. We can follow one branch of the labyrinth, following the traces of one mythological tradition, and suddenly find that we reappear in another system, as if we had violated the dimensions of space and time. We can only be in the process of tracing, constantly revising, reediting multiple parallel narratives, in light of dialogic progression. The "Pure Form" of mythology for Schulz is not some specific fixed state that we could imagine, like Rousseau's "state of nature," but rather it exists in an environment of constant uncertainty, in which it might emerge as a singularity at any moment.
The title, our entrance to the labyrinth, Noc wielkiego sezonu, leaves much to the imagination of the anglophone reader, who likes to project either a definite or an indefinite article before each noun. Native Slavic speakers tend to have as much trouble with this phenomenon in English as native English speakers have with verbal aspect in the Slavic languages. "The Night of the Great Season," as translator Celina Wieniewska has it, suggests that "wielki sezon" is something that falls on one night. Conversely "A Night of a Great Season" might imply some particular kind of season, like the deer-hunting season, which was better this year than in other years, and that the story was about some unspecified night in this particularly good season.
"Wielki Sezon," however, suggests an annual ritual, like the Catholic "Wielki Tydzien," literally "Great Week," the Polish name for "Holy Week." Similarly, the period of the Jewish High Holidays from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are considered a "season"--likely a particularly potent one for Schulz, as this is when it is said that those who will live out the next year are inscribed into the "book of life." We also know from biographical materials that Yom Kippur and Easter were the most fascinating holidays for Schulz. These days, with their solemn focus on penance, flagellation, and the Easter veneration of the image of the crucified Christ, are strongly related to the masochistic vision of idolatry evident in his drawings and descriptions of Adela. In this title Schulz combines these ideas of "Great Week" and the "High Holiday Season" into the "Great Season" of his own mythological calendar. We might then say that this is the story of what happened on some unspecified night of the annual "Holy Season," or in English "A Night of the Holy Season."
This piecing together of fragments of different mythologies is a standard mode of Schulzian myth making. The mythic origins of the elements are real. They have a textual history. Their combination, however, is "illogical." They could make sense only in the ephemeral logic of dreams or in the disjointed reasoning of a child's mind, concatenating arbitrary relations as causal links.25
We might trace the idea of the falszywy miesiac in the same way. In our English translation, we have the "freak month," suggesting something "monstrous" or in another flavor "capricious." Yet this idea has specific roots in the Jewish calendar, the "yellowed romance of the year" (108, 126), a particularly fecund source of mythic resonance for Schulz, in which nothing is so "freakish." Schulz writes:
Everyone knows, that in the course of ordinary, normal years, whimsical time sometimes bears from its womb other years, peculiar years, degenerate years, which, like a sixth little finger on the hand, grow a thirteenth, defective month somewhere.What can be "freakish," if "everyone knows"? On the surface, it is no more a mystery than our "freak day," which happens every four years on February 29.
We say "defective," because they rarely reach their full maturity. Like an infant delivered too late, it lags behind in growth, a hunchback month, a half-withered shoot more conjectural than real. (108, my translation)
Though the overall effect of Schulz's stories is fantastic, the specific details he uses tend to be scrupulously realistic descriptions of everyday life. When Schulz describes the angle of light on a particular street at a specific time on a certain day of the year, we can be fairly sure it is like that. This is the area where Schulz's architect's precision appears. It would be a cheaply gothic effect to heighten the fantastic quality of the story with words like "freakish." As such it would weaken Schulz's technique of raising the everyday, or as we will see below, "flea-market reality," to the level of epic.
The Hebrew lunar calendar contains the idea of a "defective month," where I would locate the source of the term "falszywy miesiac." A defective month has only twenty-nine days, rather than thirty. It is incomplete, "lags behind in growth." Yet these months occur every year, only partially corresponding to Schulz's idea. It also contains the idea of the extra month in the triennial second Adar.
So when Schulz writes:
From the quietened and cooler flow of time, from the completely new smell in the air, from the different consistency of the light, one could recognize that one had entered a new series of days, a new era of the Lord's Year (109, 126)he is referring to the Hebrew year as opposed to the secular year. "New era" is a mistranslation, losing Schulz's catachresis of a nowa okolica, or "new neighborhood" that conflates the year with the town. When a whole month is intercalated, the changes in the quality of light and atmosphere that Schulz describes are quite drastic. The "neighborhood" reflects these changes and in itself becomes a calendar. In turn, the whole cycle of thirteen stories might be seen as a kind of calendar.
In old Hebrew mythology the second Adar is surrounded with mythic properties. According to one legend, for instance, "Joshua selected as his warriors against Amalek men who were born in the second Adar, against whom witchcraft has no power."26 It does not actually coincide with the High Holiday season or Holy Week, but it is not beyond Schulz to rearrange the calendar to concentrate the maximum mythic potential.
Schulz's "defective month" does not have to fit the logic of the actual Hebrew calendar. It is reassembled from scattered bits of text like the tablets of Moses or scraps of print in a Kurt Schwitters composition. As such, it gives us a clue as readers that our critique must be "more conjectural than real."
The Hebrew calendar is regulated by the appearance of the new moon. It is not surprising that Schulz latches on to this rite, derived, as psychologist Theodor Reik suggests, from pagan ritual. Its mythological resonances are ancient, and would have appealed to Schulz on many levels. Moon worship, for instance, was often associated with worship of woman, like the worship of Adela, Schulz's idol, or of the women in his collection of drawings, Ksiega balwochwalcza (The Book of Idolatry).27 An association between the new moon and menstruation is explicit, for instance, in Hiddush Levana. As an architect, he could have understood and would have likely been interested in the medieval geometry from Maimonides' Sanctification of the New Moon (Qiddush Hahodesh) in the Mishneh Torah. To one who could not likely have comprehended the original text, we could easily imagine a childlike curiosity for Maimonides' mystical geometric drawings, and Schulz could certainly have investigated their meaning.
The title for Schulz's Book of Idolatry probably comes from the talmudic volume of the same name, `Avodah Zarah. It is unclear whether he took more than the title, but the Talmud's specific prohibition of representational images, or even shards of images that may have been used for the purpose of idolatry, and particularly the Bible's commandment against graven images, would have all been of concern to Schulz as a graphic artist. The etching technique he employed, called cliche verre, entailed coating a glass plate with a black pigment, which was etched away using a sharp instrument. The plate, like a glass-plate negative, could then be put in contact with photosensitive paper, and could be used to make a large number of copies without any wear, unlike, say a lithograph stone, which becomes less sharp with each impression. Exod. 32:4--from precisely the passage which, I will argue, is the chief source for the frenzied scene in Jakub's shop in our story--prohibits just such an instrument when it notes that Aaron, when making the Golden Calf, "fashioned it with a graving tool." Heresy is a recurring motif throughout Schulz's work, and Schulz likely imagined his masochistic etchings of idolatry as "graven images" in both the literal and figurative senses.
He could also have been attracted to the Tractate Sanhedrin (translated in German) of the Talmud, which outlines the law of the Great Synhedrion. This chief judicial body of Jews in the time of the Talmud had the announcement of the New Moon as one of its most important duties. Several of Schulz's drawings superimpose an ancient Synhedrion on the backdrop of a glorified Drohobycz, indicating a fascination for the august body, and association of them with the local elders. I will argue below, that his Synhedrion may also be read in terms of the earliest, proto-Synhedrion--Jacob and his sons.
The motif of the new moon enters most significantly in the episode where darkness sets in (111 ff., 129 ff.). There are fragments of several myths here. The first is the plague of darkness from Exodus, here a "plague of dusk." The detailed descriptions of the textures and colors of fabrics further invokes the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle in the later chapters of Exodus. The second is the "darkness before the storm" of colors that is about to "engulf" the town, and a third is the darkness of the new moon. These three myths are woven together throughout the narrative. In even one phrase we can layer all three levels: faldzista noc jesienna ("undulating autumn night," 111, 130). Faldzista can suggest a "night of waves," perhaps the myth of Noah or the crossing of the Red Sea. Alternately, we could read "hilly autumn night" fitting into the image of the pleats of fabric that become the hills of the Sinai. Schulz could also be engaging in wordplay, deriving new roots from the resonance of a cluster of superficially similar terms, faldzista / fala / falszywa, connecting the ideas of "folded, wavelike and defective," relating to the new moon, as well as the idea that this "Night of the Holy Season" is part of a cycle, a cycle of stories that fit together and have their own wavelike rhythm, while this is the defective part which does not seem to fit.
"Father" is a central notion in Schulz's mythology, likely constituting much of the attraction for contemporary writers like Roth, perpetually searching for a lost father.28 He is built on several Jewish stories that follow a pattern, containing the elements of the family patriarch, aged scholar, and the power of communication with birds. Jakub is sometimes Abraham, Noah, Moses, Joshua, a hasidic mystic and, as his name suggests, Jacob.
In "Birds" we see the Father as Noah collecting birds from all over the world. He hoards them in the attic that in a child's imagination could easily function as an "ark," with its exposed wooden surfaces, rafters, and elongated shape. In the three-part "Tractate on Mannequins," we see the father as an old patriarch and scholar expatiating on problems of metaphysics, matter and form, and idolatry/Adela-try.29 In "Noc wielkiego sezonu" Father stands over a mercantile Baal worship, asking in his mind, "Where were the shop assistants?" (112, 131) while watching "the shop assistants chasing Adela" (gonitwe subiektow za Adela, 112, 132) as Moses asked, Where was Aaron? Here Adela is an isomorphism of the Golden Calf, the whole scene resembling the "Procession" from Schulz's collection of drawings, The Book of Idolatry.30 Appropriately so, as gonitwa or "chase" resonates with gonic sie (to be in heat), a term applied to cows. In a gesture suited to an idol, Adela "barricad[es] herself . . . behind the kitchen dresser" (113, 132). She could have chosen a chair or sacks of flour, but a credenza has more the character of an altar. Taking in the scene, "father stood purple with rage" (my translation, ojciec stal purpurowy ze wzburzenia) like the prematurely aged Moses, returned from Mount Sinai with the tablets, observing the worship of the Golden Calf.
At this point the Moses story merges with the tale of Joshua at the battle of Jericho, when Father blows his puzon z rogu (literally, "trombone made of horn") combining the images of "God's trombones" and the shofar. On the one hand we see the mad, idolatrous crowd and on the other, we see the "ramparts of cloth" (szance sukienne, 113, 133) come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho, where the shofar blower is "like a fighting prophet"--Moses or Joshua, who is regarded in certain contexts as the "second Moses." The shofar was also traditionally blown in ancient times to announce the arrival of the new moon,31 adding a third mythic function to the horn.
Schulz folds several levels of meaning into the "ramparts of cloth." Like the walls of Jericho, ramparts of cloth would prove a poor defense. The image of Father standing on such ramparts suggest that the idea of the Father as a great patriarch is some how untenable. At the same time a "szaniec" is not only a rampart but the last act of a striptease, feeding into the motif of striptease among the biblical idolaters who were naked or half-dressed, alternately suggesting that the father is going to be revealed as he truly is and resonating with the Karol Irzykowski's idea of the "szaniec Paluby," or "the Hag's last stand"--that the world must be stripped of its garments down to Pure Form, which for Schulz was its mythic fragments.
Schulz's actual father was named Jakub, but it is curious that in this cycle of stories, the son who narrates is unnamed. He does receive a name in Schulz's second cycle, Sanatorium pod klepsydra (Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass), where he is not called "Bruno" but "Jozef." The relation of Jacob and Joseph seems an obvious connection to draw in the first cycle, but may have required an external suggestion for even Schulz to make this relation explicit. The first part of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers appears in 1933, probably too late to have influenced Cinnamon Shops, which comes out in December of 1933 (with a 1934 date on it).32 It would have been in time to have affected the Sanatorium cycle, however, published in 1937. The first three parts of Mann's tale were published by 1936 in Vienna. Schulz and Mann corresponded briefly in 1938 and 1939,33 and it is alleged that Schulz may have even sent Mann a typescript copy his lost novel The Messiah, though this has never been confirmed.
Mann's novel seemed to have sparked a more general interest in the Jacob and Joseph story, as evidenced by a small volume printed in 1935 entitled Die Josefslegende,34 including an assemblage of Yiddish folk tales about Joseph, translated by Buber and Rozenzweig, and six color plates of watercolors dated to the 1820s by an unknown Podolian artist. The iconography of these images bears a striking resemblance to some of Schulz's Jewish sketches from the 1930s. Those drawings, unfortunately, have not been dated precisely. They seem to be a series of pencil sketches, which Ficowski dates as circa 1932 some of which are redrawn in pen and ink, dated by Ficowski as before 1936. Why Schulz would have waited four years between the sketch and final product is unclear. Ficowski's approximate dates (where there are no dates on the drawings themselves) seem to be based on a combination of information on the ownership of the drawings and comparative analysis.
An iconographic argument might add yet another clue, which could place this series as 1935-36, after the appearance of Die Josefslegende. One of Schulz's drawings from this period,35 for instance, pictures several older bearded men gesturing to each other with an obviously younger male seated on the ground, legs crossed his hands behind his back, outside the frame. In the background, two of the older men are whispering to each other. In the Buber/Rozenzweig volume, the plate (1) showing the sale of Joseph similarly includes several older men, of whom two are in the background speaking privately--clearly Joseph's brothers--and two traveling merchants--clearly the Ishmaelites--exchanging a bag of money for a reluctant Joseph. Ficowski names the Schulz image "In Jerusalem," but there is no title on the actual drawing, and the iconography suggests that this might be the sale of Joseph. A later version of the Schulz drawing,36 however, might cast my theory into doubt, as it changes the possible Joseph's position. In the later version, he is seated on a bench, legs straight, with his hands visible. Ficowski would agree, however, that one pair of untitled drawings37 of Jewish men standing around a well with expressions of outrage and sadness, shows Jacob's well [SEE FIGURE]. There is no analogue in Die Josefslegende, but one could read the old man being comforted at the vertex of this V-shaped composition as Jacob, having been told of Joseph's disappearance. Die Josefslegende (pl. 2) places this scene indoors with one of the brothers holding up the bloody garment before Jacob. There is also a sketch of Jewish men seated at benches around a table38 resembling plate 4 from Die Josefslegende, of Joseph greeting his brothers in Egypt.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Joseph story for Schulz would have been the scene with the wife of Potiphar, represented in the third plate from Die Josefslegende. Two guards with swords drawn are watching a man bound in chains outside the house, as the wife of Potiphar in front of her bed "catches Joseph by his garment" (Gen. 39:12). The image of dominating women in bed with men in submissive positions will be familiar from several of Schulz's drawings from this period. One in particular39 shows a woman reclining on a bed with two men bowed at her feet. The bed is a long flat bed, like Potiphar's in the watercolor, though Joseph is the only man in the room with her in Die Josefslegende. The buildings in Schulz's background are block-shaped like the ones in the two drawings mentioned above, and all three are drawn with a similarly quick, heavy line, suggesting that they may be part of a group. The block-shaped structures suggest an ancient city, as opposed to the clearly identifiable buildings of Drohobycz in most of his other works.
Die Josefslegende would have been interesting to Schulz also for its format, which, like all of Schulz's collections of stories, involved the interaction of images and text. Schulz illustrated not only his own works, but also the first edition of Gombrowicz's major novel, Ferdydurke. Bozena Shallcross has argued convincingly that Schulz's illustrations are not representations of scenes in his stories, but parallel texts that interact with the stories to produce yet more meaning.40 Die Josefslegende is explicitly designed with that intention in mind. If anything, the text is meant to "illustrate" the color plates, which would have been a real novelty in 1935. The story of Jacob and Joseph combines all of Schulz's major themes of the strong patriarch, the dominant woman, childhood, and a talent for the interpretation of dreams. It seems a highly likely source of identification for Schulz, and he seems to have quickly taken it up explicitly when Mann's work brought it to the public.
Adela might be seen as one of the "birds" in father's charge. Her epithet is "fluttering" (trzepocacy),41 a word typically associated with birds in Polish. Particularly, the term is applied to her eyes, which are named in a permissible but older form in the instrumental case in Polish, oczyma (114, 134), derived from the dual form in Old Church Slavonic, giving the text a medieval flavor. Adela is the greatest threat to father's authority, always fluttering on the verge of leaving his flock, drawing many followers behind her. The story ends as the father loses his patriarchal status, signified by the inability to communicate with the birds--his loss of the "great and powerful words" (114, 134) he thundered over the idolaters. The first sign of this decay is the transfer of the epithet from birds and Adela to dead fish (115, 136). With this fluttering, a whole mythic universe over which father reigned is shattered.
The language of the birds mentioned in the text is a common motif in Judaic mythology. Elijah knew the language of the birds,42 and was said to have been fed by ravens. Solomon knew the language of all animals (I Kings 5:13). Buber's 1927 large anthology, Die Chassidischen Bucher, which would have been available just in time to have played a formative role in Schulz's early prose, contains many stories on this theme. Schulz's stories began around 1928 as letters to his fiancee, the Yiddish writer Deborah Vogel, who certainly could have put Schulz on to Buber. There is a story told about both Solomon and the Baal Shem Tov, in which Solomon/BeSHT teaches an eager disciple the language of the birds, but the disciple loses the power, because he attempts to acquire wisdom in haste instead of through long study.43 In another hasidic tale recounted by Buber, there is a "language of all creatures," the understanding of which is considered an ideal of learning. The most important kernel of this story from Yaakov Yitshak of Pzhysha appears in the 1927 volume:
When you, said the Rabbi, come to grasp from its very foundation what you yourself are saying, then you will begin to learn to understand the language of all beings.44The image suggests working backward from speech to uncover something universal, feeding into Schulz and Gombrowicz's ideas of working toward "immaturity" or Witkiewicz's "Pure Form" or like Irzykowski, stripping consciousness of the effects of socialization.
The myth has, in fact, a wide pre-Judaic and more recent tradition, associated with prelapsarian wisdom, which fits precisely into the Schulzian version of "Pure Form," or uncorrupt consciousness. Enkidu of the Gilgamesh epic was a child of the wilderness. Adam and Eve are given "dominion" over beasts in Gen. 1:26. In Greek and Roman mythology Orpheus knew the language of birds, as did Asilas in book X of the Aeneid. In the medieval period, Saint Francis of Assisi was said to speak with birds. Saint Francis would have also been a nexus for the masochism and idolatry themes in Schulz. Saint Francis may represent the gentler side of the Father. He is a fighting prophet, but seems physically incapable of doing harm, and becomes a martyr in the end.
Schulz's story/dream/myth leans into its conclusion when "these blind birds made of paper could not recognize my father. In vain did he call them with the ancient incantation, in the forgotten language of the birds--they did not hear nor see him" (116, 137 slightly edited). This is the tale's loss of connection with its mythic sources described in "The Mythologizing of Reality." The language of the birds seems to be precisely the language of myth or "immaturity." Buber recounts one parable from Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz describing the pre-Babelian language as the "holy tongue," lost when God punished the people.45 The image of Father watching flocks of deformed birds fly off into a Diaspora, like Jesus watching over a river as fish are amassed on the banks, conveys such a transformation, from the world of the Hebrew Bible to the age of the Gospel. In terms familiar in the context of Western European modernism, we might see the loss of the language of the birds as the loss of access to Frazer's primeval myths or T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative."
Schulz's texts expect the reader to reconstitute a mythology from fragmentary traces of myth submerged within the text--a flighty assemblage of pages, like "blind birds made of paper," that over the passage of time "could no longer recognize their father."46 A text--a mythology--a culture, the assemblage of a single father or author, cannot remain static, but flies from the nest, taking on a life of its own. Even Schulz himself, an assimilated Jew from Galicia, is a sign of such dynamism, a point of convergence for several belief systems. The meaning of such texts becomes a function of their intertextuality--their place among other texts. The failure of critics to recognize the interpretive demand of these works partially explains the scarcity of interpretive criticism on Schulz. This reconstructive activity is precisely what so many avoid when they stress that Schulz created "his own" strange mythology out of sheer genius. In fact, Schulz's prose is a confluence of mythic streams that could not be renarrativized as a straightforward allegory. Without specific textual criticism, Schulz's prose suffers the catastrophe of "those blind birds made of paper." The reader is left to search the skies and reassemble the flock.
The final image of the story, a cat cleaning itself, is one of contentedness. Everyone has forgotton the mythic "generation" (117, 138), and no one knows the difference. Old fragmented stories are seen as Father sees the birds, in the "complete absurdity of their flea-market anatomy" (117, my translation). Wieniewska (138) has "the nonsense of its second-rate anatomy." "Tandetny," the adjective form of "flea market," is a vital word in Schulz.47 It can mean "second-rate," but that could be a positive term in the way that "immature" is for Schulz and Gombrowicz. "Tandeta" can refer also to a stock or commodities market, reminiscent of the scene of the customers in Jakub's shop shouting to him to sell (113, 133). At the same time, it suggests a seemingly random assemblage, which could yet have a mythic order in a sufficiently childlike mind. Before the transformation from childhood to maturity, the "flea market" retains its positive, mythic sense. A good Polish flea market today is probably only a sparser version of what it was one hundred years ago--a bricolage of old swords, coins, knives, stamps, machine parts, books, embroidery, eyeglasses, fountain pens, menorahs, handmade lace, china, microscopes, cameras, war medals, carved saints, beaded caftans, military hats, wedding dresses, caged birds, farm implements, postcards, tooled metal reproductions of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, wooden shoes, fresh eggs, photographs, pocket watches, hand tools, drafting compasses, musical instruments, and fermented grain juice in old vodka bottles for the preparation of a sour soup called "zurek." Each of these things belongs to a rich semiotic system known to the initiates who buy and sell them. Those who write about Schulz are left to rummage through this exquisite garbage heap of symbols "abounding in the humus of memories, of nostalgia, and of sterile boredom."48
Graduate Center of the City University of New York
There are a number of fine works on Schulz, but not necessarily searching readings of the texts themselves, as we have seen for other great mythologists such as Blake or prose poets like Ponge or the Symbolists. Jerzy Speina offers the most comprehensive and scholarly examination of Schulz's place among modernists and surrealists, with a particular interest in the psychological and metaphysical aspects of his work in Bankructwo realnosci: Proza Brunona Schulza (The Bankrupcy of Reality: The Prose of Bruno Schulz), Towarzystwo Naukowe w Toruniu: Prace Wydzialu Filologicznego-Filozoficznego, 24:1 (Poznan, 1974).
Wojciech Wyskiel, in his monograph Inne twarz Hioba: Problematyka alienacyjna w dziele Brunona Schulza (The Other Face of Job: The Problematic of Alienation in the Works of Bruno Schulz), (Cracow, 1980), provides a solid structural overview of Schulz's prose, considering narratology, characterization, aspects of Bildungsroman, and offering detailed readings of "Wiosna" ("Spring") and "Noc lipcowa" ("July Night"). Like Brown, however (see n. 5), he limits his examination of sources to Greek mythology. Wyskiel's emphasis on structure over context leads to a more Platonic-idealistic interpretation than I argue for. He sees an opposition of "phonomenality" (zjawiskosci) and "essentiality" (esencjalnosci) existing between Schulz's myths of the labyrinth and the book, respectively, where I will argue that these motifs are part of a textual unity. This is where Wyskiel locates his gap of "alienation"--that things are estranged from their nature, and that Schulz's prose reflects this gap structurally (155).
While Wyskiel's approach is sincere, I do not believe that one can ignore context or intertextuality that can be clearly identified. A method that reduces Schulz's "flea-market" (tandetny, see below) mythology to neat structural oppositions seems to project its own idealism into its conclusions.
The recent flurry of Schulz activity should reveal some new insights in print. [RETURN]
Too late to be considered in this study is a brief paper on biblical themes in Schulz by noteworthy critic, Jan Blonski, translated in Cross Currents 12 (1993). [RETURN]
Note that the title of the translation comes from another story in the cycle, emphasizing the dark and strange side of Schulz, over his own title, which conveys the sense of home and safety he found in the streets of Drohobycz. [RETURN]
Last updated February 9, 1996. If you have any suggestions or comments on this page or anything in this archive, please e-mail me.