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Maturing into childhood: an interpretive framework of a modern cosmogony and poetics.

But how can I form the conception of the sizelessness of Matter?


My ideal goal is to "mature" into childhood. That would be genuine maturity.

--Bruno Schulz

This article proposes a strategy for reading Bruno Schulz's prose as a peculiar modernist version of cosmogony, establishing an analytical connection between the dualistic images of Neoplatonic matter dominating Schulz's prose and a perspective of the child used by the narrator in his project. It demonstrates how maturing into childhood allows the narrator to defamiliarize the world of his hometown, and recreate the entire cosmos, a repetition of the originary creative act. This cosmogonic project echoes the process of the Coleridgean "Primary Imagination," thereby identifying one more item in Bruno Schulz's actual and imaginary library constructed by his readers and commentators.


Bruno Schulz: "Nihilistic Fulfiller"

In 1961, a few months after the French translation of Bruno Schulz's selected stories was published by Julliard, Witold Gombrowicz asked in his diary: "What will happen now? Will it be a 'dud' or a universal success?" And then continued:
 Its ties to Kafka may smooth the way or, just as easily,
 obstruct it. If they say, here is one more relation, he is
 lost. If on the other hand, they spot his particular luminosity,
 the light pulsating from him like from a phosphorizing
 insect, then he will glide into the imagination cultivated
 by Kafka and his kin.... But right now in July it
 is impossible to say, and certainly not easy to predict the
 fate of his uncommon work in Paris. (1)

What has really happened to Schulz's art in the sixty-five years since he was shot by a Gestapo officer in 1942? His only two completed works, collections of short stories, Sklepy cynamonowe [Cinnamon Shops] (2) (1934) and Sanatorium pod klepsydra [Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hour Glass] (1937), have been translated into major languages, and his drawings are shown at exhibitions all over the world. UNESCO generously named 1992 "the Year of Bruno Schulz" to commemorate the centennial anniversary of his birthday. His murals depicting scenes from German fairytales, ordered in 1942 by Felix Landau, a member of an Einsatzkommando, for his son's bedroom, were secretly removed in 2001 by Yad Vashem representatives from the former Landau residence in Schulz's hometown, Drohobycz (in today's Ukraine), and transported to Israel, opening an international debate: Whom does Schulz belong to? To Poles? To Jews from Israel? Or maybe to Ukrainians? Perhaps the best answer to this question would be that of Gombrowicz: Schulz belongs, first of all, to literature, to the literature of European modernism. And, for those not familiar with his prose, I would suggest placing him initially in the constellation of Central European writers, like Franz Kafka (whom he translated into Polish), Reiner Maria Rilke (his beloved poet), and Thomas Mann (especially in his Joseph und seine Bruder).

Instead of writing another paragraph introducing Schulz and his work before moving to the main argument of the current text, let us read, quoted here in extenso, the literary portrait of Bruno Schulz, sketched by Witold Gombrowicz, the writer who emerged almost at the same time as Schulz, and who, though radically different, was closer to him than any other artist. The point of departure of this--perhaps most insightful and analytically unsurpassed--portrait of Schulz is the difference between two Gnostics meeting each other in the space between two concepts of matter where they place their entire metaphysical and poetical programs:
 Bruno was a man who was denying himself. I was a man
 seeking himself. He wanted annihilation. I wanted realization.
 He was born to be a slave. I was born to be a master.
 He wanted denigration. I wanted to be "above" and
 "superior to." He was of the Jewish race. I was from a
 family of Polish gentry. And he was a relentless, untempered
 masochist--one sensed this in him all the time. No,
 he was not made to dominate! A tiny gnome with an
 enormous head, appearing too scared to dare exist, he was
 ejected from life and crouched along its peripheries.
 Bruno did not acknowledge his rights to exist, he sought
 his own annihilation--not that he wanted to commit suicide;
 he merely "strove" for nonbeing with all his might
 (and this is precisely what made him, Heidegger-style, so
 sensitive to being). In my opinion there was no instinct
 that moves a sick animal to separate, remove itself. He
 was superfluous. He was extraneous. It is possible that his
 masochism also had a different aspect, I don't know, but
 it most certainly was homage paid to the powers of being
 that were trampling him.


 And it was with a perverse artist like that I made friends.
 Since he governed with delectation and kneeled sensually,
 couldn't art at least have become a tool of his personality
 even momentarily, something that he could put to his own
 spiritual or simply personal use? Hermes, Sandauer calls
 him. No, no, to my mind there wasn't much Hermes in
 him; he was useless as an intermediary between spirit and
 matter. In fact, his perverse attitude to being (the
 Heideggerian question "Why does Something and not
 Nothing exist?" could be the motto of his work) resulted
 in the fact that matter for him became illuminated by the
 spirit, and the spirit was incarnated, but this Hermes-like
 process is spiced with the desire to "debilitate" being:
 matter is corrupt, diseased, or insidiously hostile, or mystifying,
 and the spiritual world is transformed into an
 utterly sensual phantasmagoria of color and light, its spiritual
 purpose is corrupted. To replace existence with half-existence,
 or with the appearance of existence--such were
 Bruno's secret dreams. He also wanted to weaken matter
 as well as spirit. We often discussed various moral and
 social issues but behind everything he said crouched the
 passivity of someone brought to ruin. As an artist he was
 completely fixed in the very material of his work, in his
 own game and internal arrangements, when he wrote a
 story he had no other law beyond the immanent law of the
 unfolding form. A false ascetic, sensuous saint, lascivious
 monk, nihilistic fulfiller. And he knew this. (3)

In their prose then, both Schulz and Gombrowicz threaded a delicate path between the affirmation of creation and the almost explicitly Manichean fear of matter. Gombrowicz, however, sees Schulz from the perspective of his own atheism, ignoring Schulz's cosmogonic effort at recreating and redeeming 'degraded reality.' Let us then scrutinize Gombrowicz's portrait, and try to redeem Schulz by relocating him from the Gnostic literary branch to the Neoplatonic one, where matter is also understood as a receptacle for forms.

Two Matters, Two Regressions

Bruno Schulz leaves no doubt that the correspondence between the subjective creative act of the artist and the act of the Demiurge creating the entire cosmos is one of the main, if not the most important, themes of Sklepy cynamonowe. In this small-volume debut collection of short stories from 1934, the narrator, most likely an artist himself, who for the most part of the cycle is transformed into a boy, tries to reach the mythical origins of the home town "cosmos," located in Galicia (today's Ukraine). Consequently, following an algorithm of the Platonic-Biblical scenario, he begins with registering movements of matter at the moment just before it receives conclusive forms, and, simultaneously, tries to reconstruct the Book containing the original Word--the very beginning--out of the torn pages from an old advertisement catalogue, which have been "profaned" and destroyed by the maid, Adela, who uses them in the kitchen for wrapping vegetables and meat. Like another boy, Kotik Letaev, in Andrei Bely's work--the other Slavic modernist "cosmogony" (4)--the narrator experiences the moment when the world of shaped objects emerges out of the primordial chaos.

The dominating imagery of this peculiar parallel cosmogony, recreating Cosmos and the microcosms of the artist's hometown, is focused on matter, the originary substance, and its ambiguous, conceptually elusive status. Not accidentally, the central story of the collection is a three-part sequence, "Traktat o manekinach albo Wtora Ksiega Rodzaju" ("Treatise on Tailors' Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis"). It is the narrator's account of the lecture on matter given by his father, a textile merchant, to his seamstresses, Paulina and Polda, and his maid Adela.

Here I will focus on just this one particular moment of the reconstructed cosmogony, the moment when the narrator experiences matter and tries to grasp it in a poetic image. We should note, however, that the imagery of Sklepy cynamonowe indicates two opposing concepts of matter: on the one hand, the inert or dead matter, which for Schulz--as well as for the Gnostics, and to a certain extent for Plotinus (with whose concepts Schulz was familiar through various secondary sources)--is synonymous with void and evil on the ethical level; and, on the other hand, the vital matter, rich in potentiality, which is similar to Aristotelian formulations. (5) We are taken then into the center of the theological, philosophical, and poetic debates on the concept of matter. First, however, we need to examine the narrative strategy employed by Schulz, allowing him to achieve the cosmogonic dimension corresponding to the everyday reality of the small Galician town in 1934.

The Child and the Primary Imagination

In a letter to one of his friends, Andrzej Plesniewicz, from which one of the epigraphs of this essay is taken, Bruno Schulz writes:
 What you say about our artificially prolonged childhood--our
 immaturity--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. (6)

The postulate of "maturing into childhood" contains Schulz's entire program for literature, its epistemological and aesthetic foundations. It is not, however, a glorification of the naive creative spontaneity of a child. In Schulz, the artist has to regress and, at the same time, mature into childhood, i.e., regain the child's perspective without losing the present experience and directing him to the quest of finding the messianic time, which is always in the future. Only through regression towards the mythical origin, the state of "abundance and limitlessness," accessed by the peculiarly attuned perception suitable for grasping it, can one redeem the 'degenerated reality' in the time that is yet to come, the messianic time.

Although it seems to be a commonplace in modernist literature, the particular status of the child in Schulz's poetic system has its roots in Romanticism, especially in Coleridge and Wordsworth. Polish critics in their pursuit of more and more complex interpretations usually leading to Kabala (known to them from the translations and popularizing books of Gershom Scholem), often forget about these obvious associations. Through the figure of his transformed narrator (at some moments, he also becomes an old man), recreating simultaneously a microcosm of the small town and the entire cosmos, Schulz realizes Coleridge's poetic postulate of carrying on "the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood," and combining "the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which every day for perhaps forty years rendered familiar." (7) Continuing this association, the narrator "maturing into childhood," like the figure of the child for Coleridge, allows Schulz "[t]o find no contradiction in the union of old and new; to contemplate the ANCIENT of days and all his works with feelings as fresh, as if all had then sprung forth at the first creative fiat; [childhood] characterizes the mind that feels the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it." (8) The child-artist from Schulz's prose, like the child-poet from The Prelude is both "creator and receiver":
 For feeling has to him imparted power
 That through growing faculties of sense
 Doth like an Agent of the one great Mind,
 Create, creator and receiver both
 Working but in alliance with the works
 Which it beholds. (9)

Schulz's program for literature continues, to a certain extent, the romantic project of restoring the lost unity of man, divinity, and nature, through the subjective creative act of imagination, or, more precisely, Coleridgean Primary Imagination. And, indeed, the imaginative act of "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" (10) is a major movement in Schulz's mythopoetic prose. The narrator of Schulz's prose, however, unlike the lyrical "I-s" of Coleridge and Wordsworth, exercises the creating powers of the primary imagination in a very small isolated universe of everyday objects mixed with the limited natural-urban world. The sublime images, representing Infinity, do not emerge from the typical mountain landscapes of Wordsworth or Shelley, but from descriptions of small home gardens and plants, street lights, various accidental books, furniture, or stuffed animals--from the commodified material world that has lost its internal sense and structure.

Schulz creates, then, his narrative perspective through the dual narration in which the narrator presents the viewpoint of the child, verbalizing it, however, in the complex and sophisticated language of an adult artist. The figure of a child allows him to reach the mythical origins, and the figure of an adult provides a language that can transform these immature epiphanies into poetic images. The narrator regressing into childhood, in a way, defamiliarizes the provincial town, and recreates out of these defamiliarized elements the original cosmos repeating the "infinite" in the "finite mind." The unstable status of the narrator subjected to constant transformations allows Schulz to represent the ungraspable essence of a creative process. Ending this section, we need to note that Schulz himself leaves evidence of his still unexplored romantic affinities, recalling the cliche imagery from Goethe's "Der Erlkonig":
 I do not know from where, in childhood, we develop
 certain images of the fundamental meaning. They play
 the role of those threads in a solution around which a
 sense of the world is crystallizing itself. The image of a
 child carried by his father through the space of the
 grandiose night, and conversing with darkness, belongs
 for me to these images as well. The father hugs him,
 clasps him in his arms, separates him from the element
 that is talking and talking; but for the child these arms
 are transparent, the night penetrating through them is
 reaching him, and through caresses of his father, he is
 hearing unceasingly her [the night's] horrible persuasions.
 And he, tormented, full of fatalism, responds to
 these indagations [investigations] of the night with a
 tragic readiness, being entirely taken by that element
 from which there is no escape [my translation]. (11)

"The Street of Crocodiles": Dead Matter

In the remaining sections of this article, I will concentrate on the imagery of the two states of matter as perceived by the child-narrator: matter full of potentialities, an excess of the moment of creation when the "Demiurge" introduced in his father's 'lecture' begins to mold it, and matter emerging from the corrupted world of the commodified things in which an excess of contradictory forms turns the created material world into the inert space where one cannot find even the Augustinian "trace" (vestigium), or Pseudo-Dionysian "echo" (apehemata) of form. The suspension between these two states--between matter understood as a sheer void and matter as a possibility, a receptacle--is perhaps the most important moment for Schulz's 'materialist mysticism.' In this impossible material space, Schulz creates his entire poetic metaphysics. As explained above, Schulz accesses this moment belonging to the myth through the childhood experience, and, according to his poetic cosmogony, it is precisely the child's perspective from which one can perceive the ambiguity of matter.

The Gnostic image of inert matter dominates the story entitled "The Street of Crocodiles." This story constitutes an antipode in the narrative structure of the entire collection, introducing the dead region where the movement of creation, rich in possibilities and governing the dominating imagery of the collection, is arrested. (12)

In his imaginary journey through the Street of Crocodiles--the Americanized town's district of corruption--the narrator, collecting all the observed elements in a particular montage of images and objects--from street signs and old advertisements to pornographic magazines--reaches a singular clothing store. The excessive store assortment that the narrator finds on the shelves is registered by him as a kind of self-annihilating inventory. All its elements add up to nothing: "The store rooms, which could be seen through the open door, were stacked high with boxes and crates--an enormous filing cabinet rising to the attic to disintegrate into the geometry of emptiness, into the timbers (13) of void." (14)

As a kind of commentary on this essentially Gnostic image, let us quote again from Bruno Schultz's "Traktat o manekinach albo Wtora Ksiega Rodzaju" ("Treatise on Tailors' Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis"), a subsection from the story of "The Tailors' Dummies" in Sklepy cynamonowe. The narrator's father, in his series of "most interesting and most unusual lectures," (15) leading into the risky and equivocal "Regions of the Great Heresy," (16) after discussing the vitality of matter, becomes fascinated by "doubtful and problematic forms, like the ectoplasm of a medium, by pseudo-matter." (17)

In this section of the story, the father also talks about the disintegration of the potentiality and fertility of matter into a degraded formlessness and impotency, precisely through people's illegitimate combinations of things and material:
 Who knows ... how many suffering, crippled, fragmentary
 forms of life there are, such as the artificially created life of
 chests and tables quickly nailed together, crucified timbers,
 silent martyrs to cruel human inventiveness. The terrible
 transplantation of incompatible and hostile races of wood,
 their merging into one misbegotten personality. (18)

Man's efforts at shaping timber, matter potential for receiving form, are almost always threatened by deviation--crucifixion of potentiality. Vital matter pregnant with potentiality, instead of receiving form, dissolves into an excess of contradictions, and is degraded into dead matter.

"The Street of Crocodiles" also addresses the question of writing about such an impossible space. The narrator's exploration of this region of corruption starts with identifying it on the old Baroque map; it is marked as "the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known," (19) says the narrator. And then he notices that the typeface of the street names changes: "The lines of only a few streets were marked in black and their names given in simple, unadorned lettering, different from the noble script of the other captions." (20) "The cartographer must have been loath to include that district in the city and his reservations found expression in the typographical treatment," (21) concludes the narrator. Later in the story, the narrator continues his excursus on writing about the "timber of void," commenting on the language coded in that particular "typographical treatment." What language is capable of grasping such a non-space? The narrator states:
 Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so
 to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness. Let
 us say it bluntly: the misfortune of that area is that nothing
 ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach its definite
 conclusion. Gestures hang in the air, movements are
 prematurely exhausted and cannot overcome a certain
 point of inertia.... It is in fact no more than fermentation
 of desires, prematurely aroused and therefore impotent
 and empty.... Obviously, we were unable to afford
 anything better than a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations
 cut out from last year's moldering newspapers. (22)

As we see, for Schulz the catalogue, or montage of imitations, is a sort of stylistic narrative ersatz, the only possible, imperfect way of grasping inert matter.

This passage looks almost like an intentional illustration of selections from Plato's Timaeus, or from Plotinus's Enneads, commenting on it. Assuming that we are dealing here with the Neoplatonic or Gnostic concept of reasoning about dead matter (which could also be documented by the romantic and modernist constellations of texts with which Schulz was familiar), this style could be another variation on Plato's "bastard reasoning," later appropriated and developed by Plotinus, who presented it as a reasoning about matter:

"But how can I form the conception of the sizelessness of Matter?"

How do you form the concept of any absence of quality? What is the Act of the Intellect, what is the mental approach, in such case?

The secret is indetermination.

Likeness knows its like: the indeterminate knows its indeterminate. Around this indefinite a definite conception will be realized, but the way lies through indefiniteness. All knowledge comes by Reason and Intellectual Act; in this case Reason conveys information in any account it gives, but the act which aims at being intellectual is, here, not intellection but rather its failure: therefore (in this crippled approach) the representation [phantasm] of Matter must be spurious, and not genuine, compounded of an unreal part and with the diverse kind of reasoning. (23)

Associating Platonic and Neoplatonic concepts of matter with the imagination of Schulz is not just an interpretative caprice. In the 1920s and 1930s in Poland, not to mention the turn of the century, we can observe a renaissance of interest in Romantic messianic philosophy--especially in the formulations of Jozef Hoene-Wronski, Andrzej Towianski, Adam Mickiewicz, and Juliusz Slowacki--which was founded to a great extent on Neoplatonic-Romantic Natural philosophy, as well as on texts like Proclus's commentary on Timaeus, or the works of Jacob Bohme and Emanuel Swedenborg. For example, a very popular series of the twenty-four lectures by Waclaw Mileski on national natural philosophy--in which he also discussed various concepts of matter and khora (the concept from Plato's Timaeus, where it is the origin of all things; in Aristotle and later in Plotinus it is interpreted as receptacle)--was broadcast on Polish Radio in 1926, when Schulz was forming his ideas and developed them in his correspondence with the poets, Debora Vogel and Wladyslaw Rift. Readers of Schulz, pursuing newer and newer associations, taken out of context, such as the Kabala, often overlook the more obvious romantic genealogy.

This genealogy is reinforced by one more group of images coming from romantic and neo-romantic (Young Poland in the case of Polish literature) cliches, and which Schulz shares with Gombrowicz, namely, the image of twilight as the "force devouring shapes"--to use Gombrowicz's words--that produces void:
 The whole world suddenly began to wilt and blacken and
 exclude an uncertain dusk which contaminated everything.
 Treacherous and poisonous, the plague of dusk spread,
 passed from an object to another, and everything it touched
 became black and rotten and scattered into dust. People fled
 before it in silent panic, but the disease always caught up
 with them and spread in a dark rash on their foreheads.
 Their faces disappeared under large, shapeless spots. They
 continued on their way, now featureless, without eyes,
 shedding as they walked one mask after another, so that
 dusk became filled with the discarded larvae dropped in
 their flight. Then a black, rotting bark began to cover everything
 in large putrid scabs of darkness. And while down
 below everything disintegrated and changed into nothingness
 in that silent panic of quick dissolution, above there
 grew and endured the alarum of sunset. (24)

This image has its romantic archetype in the famous twilight from the sixth chapter of Gogol' s Dead Souls, providing the material for developing the conceptual framework of the current text. (25)

Generatio Aequivoca: "Fantastic Fermentations of Matter"

Now we will move to the opposite state of matter in Schulz, matter understood as an excess and vitality, whose images Schulz organizes in long enumerations. In order to talk about vital matter, we need to invite one more writer. Any investigation of such stylistic particularity, and the question of understanding "the possibility of combining in one image both the positive and negative poles," (26) in the Slavic context, brings to mind Mikhail Bakhtin's explicit analyses of series (riady) as literary device in "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel" (27) and Rabelais and his World, and directly links writing in catalogues, or any other forms of lists, with materialistic thinking.

But even more relevant in this case is Bakhtin's lesser known text on hydra, which links material imagination and an image of the amorphous body with biology. (28) One critic argues that "Bakhtin's portrayal of the grotesque body [that is, body constructed by obsessive, often contradictory, sequences], is the way in which it echoes his discussion of the biology of the organisms dissected by Hans Dreish's and Kanaev's experiments, particularly the biology of the hydra." (29) In Bakhtin's text "Contemporary Vitalism" (possibly written by Ivan Kanaev), we find a biological description of the opposition of what Bakhtin calls cosmic terror--dead matter--to joyful matter, the same artistic image constructed by Bakhtin out of a combination of Rabelaisian series.

Discovered in the eighteenth century, the hydra, the fresh-water polyp, was described by Doctor Bazin in 1745 as
 an insignificant animal [which] announced itself in the
 world and is changing what we considered the permanent
 order of the universe, [of which] philosophers are frightened
 ... , [and] the poet will tell you that even death itself
 turned pale because of it.... [I]n short, those who see it
 grow giddy. (30)

Its major quality, so attractive for experiments conducted by vitalists, is what Bakhtin/Kanaev describes as its "amazing capacity for organic regulation." (31) Dissecting the hydra into segments, the German biologist Hans Driesch demonstrated its propensity to reform. In an experiment called "contanplation," two hydras spliced together grow into one multi-headed and multi-tentacled organism after a certain time. What is more, if later in the course of the experiment, the scientist tears all the heads off, they will grow out again. Thus, the biology of the hydra provides us with a figure through which we can understand the grotesque body: It is dynamic, amorphous, and incomplete. (32)

Not to lose track of the current argument, we need to skip Bakhtin's critique of vitalism and Driesch's "entelechy" argument at this point. What is important for us is the fact that the grotesque body--hydra--holds the potential for a twofold interpretation. Thus, using the idiom of matter, it could be seen as either an example of dead matter, the movement of corruption by deformation or, conversely, of vital matter, rich in the infinite possibility of being born. The latter would be a dominating image of Bruno Schulz's prose. The hydra as image of the amorphous body, and its ability for regeneration, creates the interpretative possibility of extending the proposed argument to Polish literature, since Polish romanticism has been saturated with references to the discoveries of Bazin and the biological-mystical concepts of Charles Bonnet and Boucher de Perthes, especially in Juliusz Slowacki's romantic mystical writings.

Schulz did not only develop a similar image of material ambiguity and excess of vitality, but also used the biological metaphor perversely reversed by pointing at vertebrates in which he observed the amorphousness of the polyp. In the conclusion to his "Treatise on Tailors' Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis," we find the following picture of the ambiguity of vital matter:
 Here my father began to set before our eyes the
 picture of that generatio aequivoca which he had
 dreamed up, a species of beings only half organic, a kind
 of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of fantastic
 fermentation of matter.

 They were creations resembling, in appearance
 only, living creatures such as crustaceans, vertebrates,
 cephalopods. In reality the appearance was misleading--they
 were amorphous creatures, with no internal structure,
 products of immediate tendency of matter which, equipped
 with memory, repeats from force of habit the forms already
 accepted. The morphological scope of matter is limited on
 the whole and a certain quota of forms is repeated over and
 over again on various levels of existence. (33)

While comparing, we should also acknowledge another association. Generatio aequivoca, a term denoting self-reproduction, comes to Schulz most likely from Schopenhauer, (34) whose thought was critical in shaping the imagination of Russian and Polish writers. He saw generatio aequivoca as "infinite eagerness, ease, and exuberance with which the will-to-live presses impetuously into existence," (35) and related it also to the opposite movement of putrefaction. This leads one back to Romantic metaphors.

In the course of "Treatise on Tailors' Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis," this biological-poetic image, according to the major rules of Schulz's poetics, (36) turns into another level of metaphor, devoid of biological associations. The mutations of hydravital matter are projected onto the world of the everyday object, in this case, the furniture already known to us, one of the most expansive and oppressive kinds of material object:
 In apartments of that kind, wallpapers must be weary and
 bored with incessant changes in all the cadenzas of
 rhythm; no wonder that they are susceptible to distant,
 dangerous dreams. The essence of furniture is unstable,
 degenerate, and receptive to abnormal temptations: it is
 then that on this sick, tired, and wasted soil colourful and
 exuberant mildew can flourish in a fantastic growth, like
 a beautiful rash. (37)

Here the Kanaev/Bakhtin hydra receives another image, in addition to the grotesque body and Rabelaisian series.

The moment of the emergence of the vital matter, rich in potentiality, is visible in the quoted cliche image of twilight. By juxtaposition, the twilights in Witold Gombrowicz--a writer who belongs to Schulz's constellation--pass into the night that is the inert darkness of Cosmos (the title of his last novel). In Schulz, the night, which follows the twilight, opens a space which is rich in infinite possibilities: "Then suddenly night came, a vast night, growing vaster from a pressure of great gusts of wind. In its multiple labyrinths nests of brightness were hewn." (38) Thus, in Schulz's prose the image of inert matter is always followed by the image of matter which shows excessive vitality, in the process of constant transformations. This process corresponds to a series of interpenetrating metaphors, which can be associated with Platonic reasoning, or rather Platonic imagination about the khora-receptacle. It is built, as summarized by a later commentator, out of a "crowd of comparisons and metaphors whose variety is surprising." (39) This figure is what Plotinus had in mind when writing that "illegitimate reasoning" produces phantasms and, by extension, illegitimate images. Phantasmagoria is precisely the most frequently used word in reference to Schulz's prose.

Let us look at some enumerations which expose the order or disorder of the represented phenomena better than any other narrative technique. One of Schulz's most characteristic lists records fluctuations of matter in the description of a garden and an orchard--"a dismal spot, beyond which one could not see further," which is located at "a blind alley leading from the courtyard," (40) as the narrator writes:
 There, spread out before him, was a large, overgrown garden.
 Tall pear trees, broad apple trees, grew there in profusion,
 covered with silvery rustling leaves, with a foaming white
 glinting net. Thick tangled grass, never cut, covered the
 undulating ground with a fluffy carpet. Common meadowgrass
 with feathery heads grew there; wild parsley with its
 delicate filigrees; ground ivy with rough wrinkled leaves, and
 dead nettles smelling of mint. Shiny sinewy plantains spotted
 with rest shot up to display bunches of thick red seeds. (41)

This image belongs to the tradition of literary overgrown gardens and forests signifying formlessness, which we can find in Virgil, Dante, and the Renaissance Christian-Neoplatonic epics of Tasso, Ariosto, or Spenser. The tradition of such imagery is continued in romanticism. Symbolic ties between forest (or abandoned gardens) and formlessness is additionally strengthened by an etymological accident, as John Erskine Hankins argues. In his study of The Faerie Queene, he writes: "Latin silva or sylva was equated by Servius with Greek hyle. Hyle signifies a forest but also refers to the primordial matter which is the basic substance of all created things. Chaos consists of this matter in its unformed state of mind and is therefore an equivalent of hyle." (42) What is important for the current argument, however, is the movement of Schulz's prose towards greater and greater excess of possibilities. His catalogue is also followed by the shift to the description of another level, the cosmogonical moment when the Chaos of unlimited possibilities has not yet received the form of Cosmos. An excess of plants and shapes of the garden and the orchard breaks into an image of pure potentiality. The dark tones in the image of the overgrown garden should not, however, mislead us; we are not regressing into the darkness of the inertia of"The Street of Crocodiles," where Schulz introduced the darkness of Chaos to supply the necessary matter for generating formed living objects. This Schulzian strategy is similar to Spenser's, who inserts the description of Chaos into the stanzas devoted to the fertility of the Garden of Adonis: "For in the wide wombe of the world there lyes,/In hatefull darkness and in deepe horrore,/An huge eternal chaos, which supplyes/'The substaunces of Nature's fruitfull progenyes." (43)

The dominating direction in Schulz then is always that of peculiar regression, conforming to the main principle of the narration, and his poetics in general--regressing into childhood in order to access the mythical chaos of the origin:
 There, it was an orchard no more, but a paroxysm of madness,
 an outbreak of fury, of cynical shamelessness and lust.
 There, bestially liberated, giving full rein to their passions,
 ruled empty overgrown, cabbage heads of bursenormous
 witches, shedding their voluminous skirts in
 broad daylight, throwing them down, one by one, until
 their swollen and pushed, rustling, hole-riddled rags buried
 the whole quarrelsome bastard breed under crazy expanse.
 And still the skirts swelled and pushed, piling up on top of
 another, spreading and growing all the time--a mass of
 tiny leaves reaching up to the low eaves of a shed. (44)

We find an explicit commentary on this type of matter in "Treatise on Tailors' Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis," in which the father negates the possibility of the existence of dead matter, and explains his view of matter as a mythological receptacle:
 My father never tired of glorifying this extraordinary
 "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.
 Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible
 vitality, and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation
 which invites us to create as well. In the depth of
 matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions build up,
 attempts at form appear. The whole of matter pulsates
 with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it.
 Waiting for life-giving breath, it is endlessly in motion. It
 entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes
 which it blindly dreams up within itself. (45)

Let us expand this quotation through a reading of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), an artist himself, the third next to Gombrowicz and Schulz, member of the triad of Polish writers exported to Western European readers by critics and translators. Witkacy was the first to treat this passage, and the entire collection, with full seriousness. Several months after the publication of Sklepy cynamonowe, he reviewed it at length, focusing on Schulz's concept of matter.

Witkacy's philosophical reading, claims that in spite of the lack of systematic thought in Schulz's book, it spews out an unusually evocative worldview: Schulz's philosophy of matter--matter which is not materialism, but a kind of monadism, creating a feeling of transcendental unity with the world. He points out Schulz's material monadism, always gesturing towards another level, yet belonging to the same monadic vision. Indeed, Schulz is looking for a "metaphysical core," or trying to "revert to the roots of existence," but "the primary idea" (i.e., unity) always betrays us, and turns it into "the Regions of the Great Heresy." This region of the "Great Heresy" is situated somewhere between inanimate and animate matter. For example, the narrator's uncle, another character from Sklepy cynamonowe, is transformed into "a bundle of rubber tubing," but still participates in the family life, expressing this monism in a tangible fashion. As the sum total of living beings, inanimate matter ceases to be alien and hostile to us. The miracle of transformation is an ordinary, everyday occurrence--in the constant process of eating, drinking, breathing, the inanimate becomes animate. Witkacy adds:
 Schulz loves matter, which for him is the highest substance,
 but not in a physical sense (which makes him
 close to me philosophically); for him there is no opposition
 between matter and spirit, they constitute a unity:
 "There is no dead matter--lifelessness is only a disguise
 behind which hide unknown forms of life"--now this is a
 confession of a monadologist (or rather monadist) or
 hylozoist. But the quotation in question would be no
 more than a rather murky statement, vaguely philosophical,
 if it were not woven into entire series of real happenings
 in which the word "becomes flesh." (46)

This excessive corporality, manifested in an uninterrupted process of embodiment, was not only noticed by Witkacy at that time. In his review, written in the influential Polish literary journal Skamander after the publication of Schulz's second collection of stories, Henryk Volger--one of the few commentators to point out the romantic roots of Schulz's and Gombrowicz's prose--writes about "the nonsensical eruption of bodylines" as "a symbol of the entire Schulz world." (47)

What is significant in Witkacy's review is its ending. Witkacy, always analyzing works through strict discursive commentary, ends his review with extensive quotes from Schulz's description of nature. Paradoxically, Witkacy, the opponent of conventional description of mundane empirical reality in his own art, finds his idea of the Pure Form and the main thoughts of his "biological monadism" in Schulz's descriptions of nature. After all, what remains from Schulz's text is the image.

The Myth: Writing Matter

Witkacy's inconsistency leads to our last question: How do these concepts of matter help in understanding the narrative structure of the entire book, which Schulz calls "autobiography"? How are the narrative motifs--'images,' according to Witkacy; 'phantasms,' as they would be called after Plotinus--connected? To answer this question, we could reformulate concepts of matter in reference to Jacques Derrida's text on khora, or to the first invisible matter according to Duns Scotus's classification. Discussing the structure of the text, Schulz's demystified matter as potentiality comes closer to Platonic khora, which, to a certain extent, follows Witkacy's claim of looking for the mystery in matter. Animate matter as a major image dominates Schulz's text. Khora, a virgin wax or receptacle, is always virgin, preceding any possible impressions, always older--because atemporal--than everything that seems to affect it in order to take form in it. As Schulz writes: "Matter is the most passive and most defenseless essence in the cosmos. Anyone can mould it and shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve." (48)

In the text then, each narrative content, a receptacle--fabulous, legendary, or mythic--becomes the content of a different tale, also receptacle in its turn. Each tale, then, is the receptacle of another. What we are left with are narrative receptacles of receptacles. Schulz tries to construct an impossible image of a receptacle which gives a place to all the stories. It is an impossible task, since this place, khora, cannot become the object of any tale. "A secret, without a secret," writes Derrida, "remains forever impenetrable on the subject of it. Though it is not a true logos, no more is the world on khora probable myth, either, a story that is reported and in which another story will take place in turn." (49) This is a good commentary on Schulz's answer to the question about what genre Sklepy cynamonowe belongs to. He says that it is "an autobiography ... a genealogy par excellence in that it follows the spiritual family tree down to those depths where it merges into mythology, to be lost in muttering of mythological delirium." He continues: "I have always felt that the roots of the individual matrix, traced far enough down, would be lost in some matrix of myth. This is the ultimate depth; it is impossible to reach further down." (50) As one can see, then, Plato's and Plotinus's figure of "illegitimate reasoning" accurately grasps Schulz's poetics. From one telling to the next, Schulz gets farther and farther away. The mythic saying resembles a discourse without a legitimate father. And in Schulz's prose, the child-narrator tries to create the image of his father, which always slips away from any hypostasis. His father, who "never tired of glorifying this extraordinary element--matter," undergoes constant transformations, receiving various unstable forms--at one moment even changing into a bird (a caricature of the Platonic soul?)--to finally disappear. We do not know whether he really existed, or who the narrator's true father was. What is left is the child's imaginary account of the father's "Treatise on Tailor's Dummies," in which the narrator presents the theory of matter as a pure receptacle, and the theory of "illegitimate reasoning" as capable of grasping its movement in the image. The narrator calls it: "the cataleptic emanations of the brain which in some instances spread from the mouth of the person in a trance over the whole table, filled the whole room, a floating, rarefied tissue, an astral dough, on the borderline between body and soul." 51 A nihilistic fulfiller?


(1) Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, vol. 3, trans. Lillian Vallee, ed. Jan Kott (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1993), 3.

(2) There are several English editions of the translation. See note 12 below.

(3) Gombrowicz, 6-7 and 8.

(4) Cf. Andrei Bely, Kotik Letaev (Moskva: Izdatel'stvo 'Respublika,' 1997), 27-33.

(5) In Duns Scotus's reading of Aristotle, it would be the second matter which is in the stage of being capable of receiving forms. In the next stage, following Duns Scotus's Aristotelian typology, it becomes prima materia--matter containing the general form, a timber or clay out of which things are shaped. The first stage of matter is a sheer receptivity, the invisible darkness, which no one can see, for it has no shape. For further discussion of Scotus's reading of Aristotle, see John Erskine Hankins, Source and Meaning in Spenser's Allegory (Oxford: The Clarendon P, 1971), 256.

(6) "To, co Pan mowi o naszym sztucznie przedluzonym dziecinstwie--o niedojrzalosci--dezorientuje mnie troche. Gdyz zdaje mi sie, ze ten rodzaj sztuki, jaki mi lezy na sercu, jest wlasnie regresja, jest powrotem dziecinstwa. Gdyby mozna bylo uwstecznic rozwoj, osiagnac jakas okrezna droga powtornie dziecinstwo, jeszcze raz miec pelnie i bezmiar--to byloby to ziszczeniem 'genialnej epoki,' 'czasow mesjaszowych,' ktore nam sa przyrzeczone i zaprzysiezone. Moim idealem jest 'dojrzec' do dziecinstwa. To by dopiero byla prawdziwa dojrzalosc." See Bruno Schulz, Opowiadania. Wybor esejow i listow, ed. Jerzy Jarzebski (Wroclaw: Ossolineum, 1989), 424. We should note here that many critics have commented on this quotation, following, to a large extent, the classic studies in "Schulzology" by Jerzy Ficowski. "To exist in childhood," he writes, "means to find oneself in the land of fairy tale, and Schulzian fairy tale is ruled by the same laws as mythology. Like any scientific theory or religious system, it reflects a coherence to which even the most peculiar events and metamorphoses in Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass conform. As a whole, Schulz's stories are really reconstructions of a mythic 'book of childhood,' and he terms its symbolic prototypes the Book and the Authentic." See Jerzy Ficowski, Regions of the Great Heresy, trans, and ed. Theodosia Robertson (NY: W. W. Norton, 2003), 73.

(7) Samuel Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Engell and W. J. Bate (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983), 80-81.

(8) Samuel Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 80.

(9) William Wordsworth, The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet's Mind, ed. Ernest De Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1959), 59.

(10) Samuel Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 304.

(11) Nie wiem skad w dziecinstwie dochodzimy do pewnych obrazow o rozstrzygajacym dla has znaczeniu. Graja one rola tych nitek w roztworze, dokola ktorych krystalizuje sie dla nas sens swiata. Do tych obrazow nalezy jeszcze u mnie obraz dziecka niesionego przez ojca przez przestrzenie ogromnej nocy, rozmawiajacego z ciemnoscia. Ojciec tuli je, zamyka w ramionach, odgradza od zywiolu, ktory mowi i mowi, ale dla dziecka ramiona te sa przezroczyste, noc dosiega jew nich i poprzez pieszczoty ojca slyszy ono nieustannie jej straszliwe perswazje. I znekane, pelne fatalizmu odpowiada na indagacje nocy, z tragiczna gotowoscia, calkiem zaprzedane wielkiemu zywiolowi, od ktorego nie ma ucieczki. Bruno Schulz, Opowiadania, 442-43.

(12) Paradoxically, the American and English publishers and editors published Skelpy Cinamonowe (literally, Cinnamon Shops), under the title of this particular story, "The Street of Crocodiles." This marketingmotivated decision, in fact, has serious interpretative consequences. The publishers' 'reading' reorients the movement of the entire collection, stressing a direction of descent and corruption, while Schulz's original title, "Cinnamon Shops," stresses the opposite movement, ascent (although through regression) towards vitality and diversity from the uniformed dead regions of the commodified district of the narrator's hometown.

(13) In the original, Schulz writes "budulec"--a building material--but the translator, perhaps inspired by Schulz's imagination and associations, suggests an 'interpretation' in line with the current reading, and uses the word "timber" (Greek hyle). In other places, however, instead of the correct word for "matter," "materia," the translator uses the word "materiality" (materialnosc), thus destroying Schulz's unconscious interpretative construction, and pushing the entire translation into the regions of ambiguity, which, for its own part, provides an apt figure for grasping the essence of Schulz's prose.

(14) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, ed. Jerzy Ficowski, trans. Celina Wisniewska et al. (London: Picador, 1998), 56.

(15) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, trans. Celina Wisniewska (NY: Walker and Company, 1989), 29.

(16) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 30.

(17) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 38.

(18) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 38.

(19) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 63.

(20) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 63-64.

(21) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 64.

(22) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 70-72.

(23) Plotinus, Enneads, vol. II, trans. A. H. Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1966), 126-27.

(24) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 76.

(25) "Byli uzhe gustye sumerki, kogda podjechali oni k gorodu. Ten' so svetom peremeshalis' sovershenno, i kozalos', samyepredmety peremeshalisia tozhe. Pestryi shlagbaum prinial kakoi-to neopredelennyi tsvet; usy u stoiavshego na chasakh soldata kazalis' na lbu i gorazdo vyshe glaz, a nosa kak budto ne bylo vovse." N. V. Gogol, Sochinenia, ed. N. S. Tikhonravov (St. Peterburg: Izdanie A. F. Marksa, 1893), 144-45. "It was already dusk when they drove up to the town. Light and shadow had become thoroughly intermingled and, it seemed, all objects had also become intermingled among themselves. The striped tollgate had taken on some indeterminate hue; the mustachios of the soldier on sentry duty seemed to be up on his forehead and considerably above his eyes, and as his nose, why, he seemed to have none at all." Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, trans. B. G. Guerney (New Haven: Yale UP, 1996), 126.

(26) Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his WorM, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984), 308.

(27) M. M. Bakhtin, "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981), 169-71.

(28) M. M. Bakhtin [Published under I. Kanaev's name in 1926] "Contemporary Vitalism," trans. Charles Byrd, The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy, eds. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 76-97.

(29) Ben Tylor, "Kanaev, Vitalism, and the Bakhtin Circle," The Bakhtin Circle: In the Master's Absence (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004), 163-64.

(30) Qtd. in Ben Taylor, 164.

(31) Qtd. in Ben Taylor, 164.

(32) See Ben Taylor, 164.

(33) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 57.

(34) Noted by Jerzy Jarzebski. Cf. Bruno Schulz, Opowiadania, xxx.

(35) Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 2, trans. E. F. J. Pyne (NY: Dover, 1966), 350.

(36) What is characteristic of the narrator's imagination pointed out through out this article is his peculiar penchant for inventorying organic and inorganic objects; he creates various catalogues which occupy a large part of the book. These enumerations are parts of larger metaphorical imagery that builds on vocabulary from a specific discipline (microbiology, geography, botany). Jerzy Jarzebski notes that the images created in that way mix with each other, creating mixed metaphors (cf. Bruno Schulz, Opowiadania, xxxiv). These stylistic operations, in a way, lead to distinctions among various spheres of empirical and imagined reality. The entire book, according to Jarzebski, consists of a series of unstable metaphoric images, whose combinations constantly create the possibility of the emergence of a new image of empirical reality. The instability of the images in Schulz represents the instability of the world of objects, which is highly instable and--either through the abundance or lack of forms--is threatened by the regress into the initial fluctuations of matter.

(37) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 36.

(38) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 76.

(39) Jacques Derrida, On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995), 146.

(40) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 42.

(41) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 42.

(42) John Erskine Hankins, Source and Meaning in Spenser's Allegory: A Study of "The Faerie Queene" (Oxford: The Clarendon P, 1971), 69.

(43) Edmund Spenser, "The Faerie Queene," Edmund Spenser's Poetry, eds. Hugh Maclean and Lake Prescott (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), 315.

(44) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 43.

(45) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 56.

(46) The Witkiewicz Reader, ed. and trans. Daniel C. Gerould (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1993), 347.

(47) Henryk Volger, "Dwa swiaty romantyczne. O Brunonie Schulzu i Witoldzie Gombrowiczu," Skamander 12 (1938): 246.

(48) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 30.

(49) Jacques Derrida, On the Name, 117.

(50) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 370.

(51) Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, 36.
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Author:Oklot, Michal
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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