“There are things than cannot ever occur with any precision. They are too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to loose their integrity in the frailty of realisation. ” - Bruno Schulz
Self Portrait (1920-1922)
Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892 – November 19, 1942) was a writer and artist whose talent and imagination seems now almost too potent to occur, "the ground of reality" too frail to carry him. His artwork is strange and rich and filled with metaphor and meaning. Monstrous looking men who seem to be caught transforming into animals, worship at the feet of lithe, opulently innocent looking women, the men are bestial and staring up at them with self disgust, fear and admiration.
The Procession from 'The Book of Idolatry' series from (1920-1924)
The women stand as symbols of grace and beauty, perfection in form and character, whilst the men huddle in mortification and disgust at their own appearance and abhorrent nature. Some look away, others stare in wonder and shame at the beauty before them. Often Schulz appears in the drawings as one of those half man/half animal beings.
Pilgrims II (1922)
Susanna and the Elders (1920-1921)
Enchanted City II (1920-1921)
Though he considered himself an artist first and a writer second, for me it's his writing that really "soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame". His writing is extraordinary. His writing is so filled with rich and decadent metaphor that the very air the characters breath seems to be fecund with meaning. The scents and sounds of the streets and houses the nooks and crannies, shadows, inanimate objects and people, all become drenched in Schulz's vivid and overwhelming imagination. Every inch of Drohobych (where Schulz's stories are based and where he spent much of his life) is painted in rich lyrical and metaphorical meaning. His writing often threatens to overwhelm in its vivid descriptions and decadent metaphors, as he weaves metaphor over metaphor into a web of ideas and images that are unlike anything I have ever read. Just as Schulz sees meaning writ large upon the matter and non matter of the universe, so we too feel the enormity of his vision and the overpowering imagination that haunts his every thought and everything he sees and feels.
“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.” - Bruno Schulz
Reading his stories is like viewing the world through the eyes of a person able to see the a world of pure imagination, metaphor and creativity. By reading his work we feel like the 'Demiurge' of his stories, beings of pure creative power, demigods. He is not saying that the world doesn't exist without this imaginative interpretation, but that we are free to view it this way if we too have the vision, to view these hidden metaphors and see the creative power of everything around us.
“There open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets. One’s imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which the streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night.” - Bruno Schulz
Drohobych market square (c.1915) : National Library / Polona
Self Portrait (1933)
Bruno Schulz teaching teaching handicrafts (1934).
Bruno Schulz with friends (1934) photo: Jan Kochanowski / Elżbieta Jasińska's Archive.
It is something of a shock to the Schulz reader to discover that his death can also be viewed as a metaphor, that the vivd and beautiful world of Schulz's imagination was shattered by a Nazi bullet.
During WW2 Schulz was forced into a Drohobycz Ghetto with many other dispossessed Jews. A Nazi Gestapo officer offered him protection in return for painting murals in his Drohobych residence for his child. It has often been said that Schulz brought his life with the art he created on the walls of the child's room.
When he was nearing its completion it is said that Schulz began making preparations to escape the ghetto. He was carrying a loaf of bread home home one night walking through the "Aryan quarter," when another Gestapo officer shot him through the head in an act of revenge. The murals were then painted over and forgotten.
Much of Schulz work was passed through the fence of the ghetto to friends and subsequently disappeared in the chaos of the holocaust and the aftermath of WW2, but many pieces of work, drawings and stories survived.
The murals were thought to be lost for good until they were found in 2001 by Benjamin Geissler, a German documentary filmmaker. Many had visited the flat to find the murals but they remained undiscovered. The then owner of the flat had not noticed them behind the pots and pan of her pantry due to her poor eyesight. The film crew were present when they were discovered, noticing the faded images behind the paint.
I won't describe the ensuing controversy that surrounded the removal of the murals. The paintings are now on display at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Schulz published two books during his lifetime, “Cinnamon Shops” (1934) and “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1937). He is known to have been working on a book he called “The Messiah” at the time of his death which he considered his magnum opus, but it has never been discovered, some say it never existed at all. More recently a short story names 'Undula' was discovered. By chance a Ukrainian researcher named Lesya Khomych found a strange short story published in an oil industry newspaper in 1922. The story is thought to be a short story written by Schulz using a pseudonym, though this will most likely never be proved. The story does have the style and imagination of Schulz's writing.
Here is the full story...
By Marceli Weron [Bruno Schulz]
Translated by Stanley Bill
It must be weeks or months now that I’ve been locked in this solitude. I keep falling into sleep and then waking again, so that phantoms of wakefulness become tangled with figments of the somnolent darkness. And so time passes. It seems to me that I’ve lived in this long, crooked room before, in some distant past. Sometimes I recognize the oversized furniture that stretches up to the ceiling, these plain oak wardrobes bristling with dust-covered junk. A large, multi-armed tin lamp hangs from above, swaying gently.
I lie in the corner of a long yellow bed, my body barely filling even a third of its expanse. There are moments in which the room, illumined by the yellow light of the lamp, seems to vanish from my sight. In a heavy lethargy of thought, I feel only the calm, powerful rhythm of my breath, as it raises my chest in a regular beat. In harmony with this rhythm comes the breath of all things.
Time oozes away with the vapid hissing of the oil lamp. The old furniture cracks and creaks in the silence. Shadows lurk and conspire in the depths of the room – jagged, crooked, and broken. They stretch out their long necks and peer at me through their arms. I don’t turn over. What for? As soon as I look, they will all be quiet in their places again, and only the floor and the old wardrobe will creak and groan. Everything will be still, unchanged, like before. Once more there will be silence, and the old lamp will sweeten its boredom with a sleepy hiss.
Great, black cockroaches stand motionless, staring vacantly into the light. They seem dead. All of a sudden, those flat, headless bodies take off in an uncanny crablike run, cutting diagonally across the floor.
I sleep, wake, and then doze off again, patiently pushing my way through sickly thickets of phantoms and dreams. They become tangled and intertwined as they wander along with me – soft, milky, luxuriant bushes, like the pale nocturnal sprouts of potatoes in cellars, like monstrous growths of diseased mushrooms.
Perhaps out in the world it’s already spring. I don’t know how many days and nights have passed since that time… I remember that gray, heavy dawn of a February day, that purple procession of Bacchantes. Through what pale nights of revelry, through what moonlit suburban parks did I not fly after them, like a moth bewitched by Undula’s smile. And everywhere I saw her in the shoulders of the dancers: Undula, languid and leaning enticingly in black gauze and panties; Undula, her eyes afire behind the black lace of a fan. And so I followed her with a sweet, burning frenzy in my heart, until my swooning legs would carry me no further and the carnival spat me out, half-dead, on some empty street in the thick gloom before dawn.
Then came those blind wanderings, with sleep in my eyes, up old staircases climbing through many dark stories, crossings of black attic spaces, aerial ascents through galleries swaying in the dark gusts of wind, until I was swallowed up by a quiet, familiar corridor, and found myself at the entrance to our apartment of my childhood years. I turned the handle, and the door opened inward with a dark sigh. The scent of that forgotten interior enfolded me. Our maidservant Adela emerged from the depths of the apartment, padding noiselessly on the velvet soles of her slippers. How she had blossomed in beauty during my absence, how pearly white her shoulders were under her black, unbuttoned dress. She was not the least bit surprised by my return after all these years. She was sleepy and brusque. I could make out the swan-like curves of her slender legs as she disappeared back into the black depths of the apartment.
I groped my way through the half-light to an unmade bed and, eyes dimming with sleep, plunged my head into the pillows.
Dull sleep rolled over me like a heavy wagon, laden with the dust of darkness, covering me with its gloom.
Then the winter night began to wall itself in with black bricks of nothingness. Infinite expanses condensed into deaf, blind rock: a heavy, impenetrable mass growing into the space between things. The world congealed into nothingness.
How difficult it is to breathe in a room caught in the pincers of a winter night. Through the walls and ceiling one can feel the pressure of a thousand atmospheres of darkness. The air is barren, lacking nourishment for the lungs. The light of the lamp is overgrown with black mushrooms. One’s pulse becomes faint and shallow. Boredom, boredom, boredom. Somewhere deep in the solid mass of the night, lone wayfarers walk along the dark corridors of the winter. Their hopeless conversations and monotonous tales seem to reach me. Undula reposes in her fragrant bed in a deep slumber that sucks out of her the memory of the orgies and frenzies. Her limp, soft body – peeled out of the confines of gauze, panties and stockings – has been snatched up by the darkness, which clutches her in four enormous paws, like a great furry bear, gathering her white, velvety limbs into one sweet handful, over which it pants with purple tongue. And she, unresponsive, her eyes in distant dreams, numbly gives herself over to be devoured, while her pink veins pulsate with milky ways of stars, drunk in by her eyes on those vertiginous carnival nights.
Undula, Undula, o sigh of the soul for the land of the happy and perfect! How my soul expanded in that light, when I stood, a humble Lazarus, at your bright threshold. Through you, in a feverish shiver, I came to know my own misery and ugliness in the light of your perfection. How sweet it was to read from a single glance the sentence condemning me forever, and to obey with the deepest humility the gesture of your hand, spurning me from your banqueting tables. I would have doubted your perfection had you done anything else. Now it’s time for me to return to the furnace from which I came, botched and misshapen. I go to atone for the error of the Demiurge who created me.
Undula, Undula! Soon I will forget you too, o bright dream of that other land. The final darkness and the hideousness of the furnace draw near.
The lamp filters the boredom, hissing its monotonous song. I seem to have heard it before, long ago, somewhere at the beginning of life, when as a sickly, forlorn infant I fussed and fretted through tearful nights. Who then called out to me and brought me back as I blindly sought the path of return to maternal, primordial nothingness?
How the lamp smokes. The gray arms of the candelabra have sprung out of the ceiling like a polyp. The shadows whisper and plot. Cockroaches scuttle noiselessly across the yellow floor. My bed is so long that I can’t see its other end. As always, I am ill, gravely ill. How bitter and filled with abomination is the road to the furnace.
Then it began. These monotonous, futile dialogues with pain have utterly worn me down. Endlessly I argue with it, adamant that it can’t reach me as pure intellect. While everything else becomes muddled and clouded, I feel ever more clearly how he – the suffering one – is separated from my watching self. And yet at the same time I feel the delicate tickle of dread.
The flame of the lamp burns ever lower and more darkly. The shadows stretch their giraffes’ necks up to the ceiling; they want to see him. I hide him carefully away under the quilt. He is like a small, shapeless embryo without face, eyes or mouth; he was born to suffer. All he knows of life are those forms and monstrosities of suffering that he meets in the depths of the night in which he is plunged. His senses are turned inward, greedily absorbing pain in all its varieties. He has taken my sufferings upon himself. Sometimes it seems he is nothing but a great swim bladder inflated with pain, the hot veins of suffering upon its membranes.
Why do you weep and fuss the whole night through? How can I ease your sufferings, my little son? What am I to do with you? You writhe, sulk, and scowl; you cannot hear or understand human speech; and yet still you fuss and hum your monotonous pain through the night. Now you are like the scroll of an umbilical cord, twisted and pulsating…
The lamp must have gone out while I dozed. It’s dark and quiet now. Nobody weeps. There is no pain. Somewhere deep, deep in the darkness, somewhere beyond the wall, the drainpipes chatter. Lord! It’s the thaw!… The attic spaces dully roar like the bodies of enormous musical instruments. The first crack must have formed in the solid rock of that black winter. Great lumps of darkness loosen and crumble in the walls of the night. Darkness pours like ink through those fissures in the winter, muttering in the drainpipes and sewers. Lord, the spring is coming…
Out there in the world, the town slowly releases itself from manacles of darkness. The thaw chisels out house after house from that stone wall of darkness. O, to draw in the dark breath of the thaw with my breast again; o, to feel upon my face the black, moist sheets of wind sweeping down the streets. The little flames of the lamps on the street corners shrink into their wicks, turning blue as those purple sheets of wind fly around them. O, to steal away now and escape, leaving him here alone forever with his eternal pain… What base temptations do you whisper into my ear, o wind of the thaw? But in what neighbourhood of the town is that apartment? And where does that window face, knocked by its shutter? I can’t remember the street of my childhood home. O, to look out that window and to meet the breath of the thaw…
Self Portrait at the Drawing Board (1919)