The Heretic and the Maidens

Jan Gondowicz

In one of Bruno Schulz’s drawings a gray-bearded Jakub kneels at the feet of two young seamstresses busy at their work. His advances are patronizingly observed by a tailor’s golem – a canvas mannequin with a polished knob instead of a head. The demonic servant girl, Adela, who has just come in with tea, glares furiously at the shameful scene.In truth, no such drawing exists, though somebody might easily assemble one through Photoshop. Among Schulz’s sketches he would find a tailor kneeling before a client, young ladies with unintelligent faces seated arm in arm, dignified likenesses of Jakub, the stern Adela, and even the mannequin. And yet it seems somehow certain that such a drawing must have existed. As with the later Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, Schulz supplied illustrations for Cinnamon Shops, though the director of the Rój publishing house, Marian Kister, rejected this extravagance from an unknown debutant. Then, in September, 1939, Rój’s Warsaw offices went up in flames in the Nazi invasion.

Before Literature

On coming into contact with Schulz’s work, one often has the temptation to reconstruct what is potential within it, what has been dispersed or sometimes cleverly concealed, just like these lost pictures. For Schulz is a perfidious narrator and at the same time he follows the biblical model in constructing his stories from the ruins and remnants of his own earlier stories. As in the case of Wittgenstein – for whom we distinguish between a “first,” “second,” and perhaps even a “third” philosophy – with Schulz we may speak of a first, second and third mythology. The second – the best known – involves the demiurgic pretensions of the Father and the history of his metamorphoses. The third is the myth of the Book, the search for the Authentic, and the underground kingdom of the stories from Spring, which lead towards the messianic idea of the renewal of the world.

However, what interests me most of all is the first mythology. But the trouble with this mythology is that it came before literature. In fact, it was expressed in Schulz’s artistic work, which today – aside from The Book of Idolatry – has been almost completely destroyed. Whoever wants to investigate where it all originated must resort to retrospective analysis, treating the drawings as the remnants of a ruined plot. From its very name it’s clear that The Book of Idolatry is surely meant to be read. In Schulz’s texts, however, we must search for (surely intentional) inconsistencies, which in the light of the founding myth cease to be inconsistencies at all.

This founding myth was a response to a question occupying the Drohobycz artistic group “Kalleia,” which was founded by Schulz and some of his contemporaries a year or two before the First World War and was active for around a decade. The theory goes that young people of both sexes, whose names Jerzy Ficowski managed to gather and whose faces Schulz preserved, through a collective effort of imagination and with some help from various readings, half-seriously reconstructed the pagan cult of a goddess of fertility and – to speak plainly – of eroticism. Here we have symbolic idolatry and genuine hungers. This constitutes the first Schulzean “mythologizing of reality.” The “sacred” drawings of The Book of Idolatry conceal visions of the rituals of this cult transferred into the reality of a small Galician town. Particularly characteristic are the nocturnal theophanies of a lunar goddess who leads the residents of the town into a state of ecstasy. In some of Schulz’s later narratives, motifs of unusual disturbances to the celestial mechanism and strange climatic caprices return to signify the sudden advent of a time of immoral fulfillments. The city, which during the summer days is submitted to a cruel solar discipline, is transformed over such nights into a phantasmagorical Sodom.