SCHULZ, NOSTALGIA AND POLISH CULTURE TODAY
The territory of East Germany has had an economically difficult time since the end of the Soviet era. In cultural terms it nationally realigned some classic literary icons from the severed region, but also coined a new word ostalgia, east-nostalgia, a more contented ‘innocent’ time before annexation stripped identity and hope except for emigration. It borders Poland not only geographically but through related history that was tragic for Poland with the Partition by Prussia-Austria-Russia then two horrendous wars with little or no western help until EU funding in the 1990s. Poland’s nostalgia is partly reflected in local regional pride and, it seems, in culture too. A parallel version was—and still is—the Jewish view of ostjuden from Schulz’s Galicia. Their pious traditionalism was a nostalgic ideal but not embraced by brethren in the richer west when met. The perspectives of these three inter-connected territories involve ‘here’ and ‘somewhere else’ simultaneously.
The socio-political and economic overlap the cultural dimension. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the vast majority of Polish citizens only the economic is of interest today. Their own press states this—with less negativity than my statement suggests—and the many individuals I meet overwhelmingly confirms this. A high number go to university, nearly ten times more than in the UK and for longer, yet are astonishingly unaware of world affairs. They adhere to Europe for economic reasons, the pseudo-freedom of jeans and machines, credit cards for a coffee and public chairs for dirty feet. In such a vacuum culture-vultures are an endangered species, and its pre-21st century variety rare as unicorns, left to a province of bestiary maps with their curious artefacts made of wood-bark and dark fluid.
This isn’t unusual. After all, the west has gone the same route for longer, with obscure tribes of academics a last bastion holed-up in decaying forts as the siege intensifies. Westerners presume their history and era to be the best, the most logical meaning of the world, when in truth it’s only a reflection of their own mentality. Poland, on the other hand, has become deluged with foreign (mostly non-literature) books until shops have no space for their own classics. University publications stay there. Big bookshops don’t pay small publishers for years. The largest publisher signs a contract, pays translator and author then says “there are too many names in the book for readers, they won’t be able to understand it”. So they think Polish readers are stupid. Asked to contribute to a leading academic journal, they had no money but can give one copy. Everybody was listed on the cover except the foreigner, who was not allowed to join their library because they didn’t know me.
Leading writers here say they’re unable to influence their own publishers, who respond by telling them what they should write. Publishers, like institutes, rule culture. They are the priests and the rest are the flock. The public assume that writers put out what they want the public to read, but this is an Occam’s Razor situation. Those who believe they are ‘the culture’ are fooling themselves, a façade. The publisher-editor, a biophage of those who create and provide their food and drink, thinks himself not the parasite but the host. But, as biology shows, this has a way of paralysing body and mind. Meanwhile, readers in this chain seek authentic nourishment rather than the junk-food that editors prefer to serve up because they “know the market” instead of realising they spawned it. The library is one of the last refuges, a temporary antidote in these “economic times”. The (incredible) lives of Wat, Leśmian, Przybyszewski and Tuwim, are unknown in spite of long school education. How many even know that 2013 is designated Tuwim’s year? The graves of crucial cultural internationalists like Lange and Zegadłowicz are ignored as is the major art of Żechowski and Baczyński who I’m told are now declined by museums because “no funds or space” even when donated.
The Warsaw Museum of Literature has a very rare lacquer illustrated box, lent by Bruno Schulz’s last relative after it was handed over by SS Felix Landau’s son, but it is never exhibited. The same museum—that has wine-and-cheese exhibitions of Schulz—has one of the most important archives of the writer donated free by the son of Schulz’s friend Artur Sandauer a quarter of a century ago. It is never shown, published or discussed, and I learned about it from Adam Sandauer who most kindly showed us the bequest document. Is it because his father was not liked by Schulz’s biographer? Incredible as it sounds, this may be true. Kraków’s public-funded Institute of Polish Culture has a new Schulz portal with an eu-domain in English. Its Chronology is decades out of date and without new factual discoveries by an Italian, Austrian, Ukrainian, Israeli and this Englishman; they tell me it is because the last Chronology was done by the biographer Jerzy Ficowski before he died. They prefer to ignore everything since including international research, as he did too.
In the ’90s he ‘sanctioned’ a collected works that is incomplete. The translated fiction (used by Penguin Books) is a travesty of misprints, cuts and illegal insertions. Only John Curran Davis’ website, an excellent labour of love, is complete and accurate. The imbalance of a writer’s ravaged oeuvre, subsequently sent out into the larger English-speaking world in an ersatz form, is redressed by a foreigner ignored in Poland.
The same Institute fanfares a retired American professor who they sponsor. She told me at the outset that she knew “next to nothing about Schulz”, and after two years nothing has been shown (but of course will), my point being that how can we know its quality if nothing is seen of it? Another project resorts to Google-English. Institutes follow the same line as publishers, self-arbiters promoting what Arthur Koestler called “the call-girl circuit”.
Nationalism is primitive in any form, not only the hooligans on National Day or violent defence of a cross made by scouts. The ‘Jewish Journal’ 18/4/13 describes two groups wandering round Auschwitz waving flags. An Israeli shouted “Oh hello you Polish asshole!”, which was the article’s title. There is no comment at all that this is what happens when idiots go to a site of remembrance and mourning but, instead of thought or sadness, can only wave their coloured rags like infants with balloons. They’ve lost the ability to comprehend that a flag is inappropriate, a symbol of aggression engenders …aggression. Nationalism, what Aldous Huxley called Moloch-theology, is always selective about history too (compare the truth of the Mongol invasions with Polish history books, or that England invented Star of David patches in the 12th century); it smacks of adverts claiming the best traditional home-made food when manufactured with chemical additives in a factory.
By presumed popular consent, Nationalists drag in God as the author of their plan, like a villager who sees nowhere else so patents it the nexus, the capital of all he surveys. Near-blind, short-sighted, they dimly sketch a partial past leading up to an accidental present that soon passes into a forgotten future. Is not the historical perspective of the Pole (Krasinski warned 150 years of them aping Europeans when reunited to the continent) or Briton absurdly puny when compared to the millennia of Egypt, China, India, even Mexico and Babylon? “I don’t recognise patriotism in any respect,” wrote Tolstoy, “least of all in education…Nationalism is only an opinion and assumption that is shared by some others. It means nothing at all.” Goethe wrote in 1827 that there is no such thing as national literature, the term is meaningless—but will this ever be realised? Witness Prague now eager to make big money (one street is ticket-only!) from the international reputation of a Jewish-German-speaking-Austrian citizen called Kafka whom they preferred to ignore because of it until the 1960s, decades after his death in 1924. His Society is sponsored by a Holocaust Foundation.
Polish publishers say that there is no market for Schulz—but there is for bonsai trees or Nazis—that everything is known or published though hasn’t been. It might surprise readers to learn that important materials are still kept private, or that it’s taken 80 years to find a ‘new’ review of his debut in a major city’s daily newspaper (‘Głos Poranny’, Vol.6, #55, Łódź). Three new photographs of him appeared (one has less than 10% of his head) dated 1938. He mysteriously doesn’t move there, as if challenging posterity.
An exhibition flooded the media about a new drawing but wasn’t in any of his styles or subjects, perhaps by E.Lilien. A writer called a meeting because discovered that if you turn Schulz’s drawings upside down you see a portrait of Victor Hugo. (He ignores emails in Polish asking about his other sources so culture isn’t shared by Gondowicz.) For years another endlessly talks of Schulz’s fiancée, whose family keeps crucial material hidden, but nothing new is produced. Readers hope for genuine discoveries, perhaps correction of errors, but smoke and mirrors pervade.
An English internet magazine has a competition for stories based on Schulz’s work. Internationalism, yes, but why is it considered positive to be “like Schulz”, as in Poland regarding the work of Tulli and Stasiuk? Where is the historical parallel for such criteria? Can we assume Russia is eagerly searching for a new Dostoevsky or France for a new Proust—can we imagine the great originals doing book-signings?!—even though publishers probably wouldn’t publish them today for their own imposed assumptions. (They want to exploit a famous writer’s name in a title however.) Is copying an original creator’s themes and style to be encouraged? Its nadir is reached when Foer—who in an interview mocked writers spending a lot of time on their work, reminding one of Salman Rushdie who said he writes for those ignorant about a subject or place—simply does a cut-and-paste of Schulz’s texts to be lauded with awards. For those with short memories, this was a hobby of screaming schoolgirls when The Beatles published books in 1968. Yet Schulz’s prose is seen as the highest Polish and an honour if compared.
The flipside of the nostalgia coin is that originality cannot be allowed to stand on its own, it has to be adapted, challenged, in fact played with. This is fashionable now in the theatre where modern is therefore better because later, but does later imply more knowledge just because of the passage of time? (Porphyry used ‘ancient’ in 300AD.) An absence of criteria that once determined art’s worth (distinct from value) means it is so called because someone—again we come back to a primary arbiter—designates it thus. A piece of unworked granite, that Rodin would have called a piece of granite to be formed into the vision he saw within himself, is nowadays sent from the quarry to be worth tens of thousands when invested with a title (or even ‘Untitled’). Chaos not cosmos. The criteria of the Nobel, with its ignoble origins and ignoring of Kafka, Joyce, Tolstoy, Strindberg, Ibsen, Proust, Spengler isn’t always immune (Colin Wilson wrote some profound words about Beckett in this regard). A gallery of hundreds of Face-book portraits I was told is beyond criticism because media highly praised it; I thought of the emperor’s clothes or trendy pseudo-scientific butterfly-effect.
The international status of the writer-artist Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) in the new century is increasingly widespread. Readers as far away as Taiwan (which repeats the English edition’s false title) to Scandinavia and South America enjoy his Magical Realism despatched from Europe’s outpost of Drohobycz. In a new era after copyright expiry, a central issue arises. What is the view of Schulz in his homeland, and how much of the artist features in this equation? It’s an unmentioned fact that even graduates know as little about the Schulz saga as the Ukrainian citizens of his home-town.
The example of East Germany (and Schulz’s mother read him Goethe) has a parallel here. It’s not development that’s wanted but heart-felt association with the past. For Jewish commentators too, absent before the mid-1960s like Holocaust books (cf. Norman Finkelstein). Some say Poland has traces of anti-Semitism, so does Germany, Austria, France. Semite actually refers to Semitic speakers, the numerous tribes of south-west Asia including not only Jews but Arabs and also Phoenicians. It’s one of the terrible tragedies of today that immigrants in Israel actually, technically, practice anti-Semitism on Palestinians (cf. the brave Marek Edelman). Schulz establishes a link with Poland’s first return to independence and temporary peace when 80% lived rurally and Galicia existed as a heartland. It is heritage, and thus unquestionable, sacrosanct, not for foreigners to meddle with. This scenario was met by an English publisher at the museum of a famous playwright, in spite of his having the sanction of the widow. The icon is only for historical purposes, for archivists not producers; his summer house is a neglected ruin.
If you attempt a dialogue, the basis of culture, you’ll more often than not be ignored. They don’t want to share or confirm sources, the facts are theirs, they hold the magical key, the same line Ficowski took when his reputation was established, ignoring Sandaur, Panas, or naming information-providers apart from a small booklet published once in Kraków. (I witnessed this publicly with an ex-student of Schulz.) When I asked him if Schulz and Nałkowska had a relationship he said it was none of our business. The main website (Serbian) wants your book free for no review, limiting themselves to the insulting of sources that one shouldn’t trust old people who knew the subject personally because such witnesses are unreliable and “only want money and fame”!! It reminds one of the Polish idiom of the gardener’s dog.
The opposite approach sustains world culture. Seneca, Lucan, Quintilian and Martial were born in Spain not Rome; Lautréamont and Laforgue were born in Uruguay; Rilke and Kafka in Prague, Arthur Koestler (Hungary) and Isaac Deutscher (Poland): all were embraced abroad. Teodor de Wyzewa is better remembered in France than his Polish homeland, and a kindred case is Przybyszewski. It’s true they changed their language, and Schulz only wrote one story and some letters in German, but his travels, views and library show a parallel perspective. He certainly wished to be known abroad after stunning success in 1934-38, and borderless posterity fulfilled this dream.
The old halcyon days are seen time and again in Polish media. A new computer animation in cinemas, ‘Warszawa 1935’, is falsely advertised with an image of real Warsaw but digital virtual models only depict the city centre full of rich well-dressed citizens, when in truth it housed the poor and a large percentage of Jews which together formed the large majority. They are absent from the lovely, miraculously reconstituted boulevards that show traffic-lights before were installed. It’s like the films depicting Nazis as charmingly handsome and dashing as James Bond. Bookshop windows are crammed with piles about them as if something new, or indeed worth, knowing about that abomination of the human species.
Pre-war Poland was when Tuwim reigned, when Mickiewicz and Norwid gained a new higher position due to revaluation. They became patriots and pure Polish poets, soon sanctioned by academia. The nostalgia neatly side-steps the fact that (Jewish) Leśmian was deemed an outsider and left unburied for weeks while the family waited for the Academy of Literature to give him his due honour; that Witkacy was a spectacle of comedy for lucky tourists in Zakopane; or Gombrowicz never chose to return from self-imposed exile to his homeland. The western-influenced Stefan Grabinski bitterly realised in his last years that writers who want to be individuals and not followers of fashion had no place in Poland. If one said that “Poles are not generally psychologists, they are incapable of correctly judging someone they are talking to or a book they are reading,” one could be criticised as an outsider not knowing the Polish character. But the statement is in Gombrowicz’s diary. I would like to think I have met exceptions to this rule.
And the social dimension? “Authorities in Warsaw and other Polish cities where demolition occurs don’t take into consideration that these buildings could have an aesthetic or historic value eligible for protection. The absence of discussion and public reaction are striking…Physical annihilation is unanimously sanctified…[There is no] respect for those who survived and raised the capital from the ruins,” those who rebuilt with their bare hands not for money but love and hope. Not written by a foreigner, but Michał Wisniewski in 2012. A city does not belong to the speculator who destroys just for self-profit, nor does culture to those with their own whitewash. Is the non-stop noise of their new pathology—renovation—using primitive equipment or the proclivity for leaving holes in the ground also examples of nostalgia?! It masks the removal of homes replaced by ‘luxury’ flats and offices. This visitor hasn’t (yet) found one who knows that the official policy of Solidarity is to demolish the Soviet’s Palace of Culture.
“This is a city of careerists…People don’t study for knowledge but for a position and celebrity, acquired through social contacts, women, parties…I know genuine scholars, even men of genius, brought to a sudden halt in their development, who have taken to giving lessons or writing popular articles which no one reads or, if they do, fail to understand.” The writer says he has made great discoveries but those who hold the (non-political) power are only interested in two discoveries: those that increase their dividends and cheat others, in price or merchandise. Such fraud is called genius. The choice is between starving to death or becoming an idiot, he says, but if you can dance and amuse you can forge a career, in other words play to the arena what the stage-manager wants to be entertained by. They’ll call you eminent and a success at once. This fine analysis of culture today was written by Bolesław Prus, in his Warsaw masterpiece ‘The Doll’, in 1890.
The nostalgia ticket may not always be conscious or conspiratorial, though angry arguments flare when an established view is challenged. It manifests in numerous ways. In Hungary the new government of Fidesz in 2010 tells theatres and publishers to reflect the ‘true’ Hungary of tradition. In Belarus old people vote for a dictator because still believe in Soviet-style ‘protection’. Serbians refuse to accept that ‘our holy land’ of Kosovo is separately independent in spite of voting. In Polish culture it can refer to or define when literature stayed within clearly marked borders.
The Skamander group, named after a symbolic river, formed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and lectured that if you were not nationalist, “one of us”, you are lost. This binomial classification quickly gained currency. Gombrowicz said that the Skamanders would be always and easily the ‘best’ simply because addressed Poles and their condition exclusively. They had no dialogue outside its borders, which is preferable to those without interest beyond the national sphere. But Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Witkacy did have such an inter-cultural vision and this doesn’t fit comfortably with those preferring a simpler national view. In chess is a moment when it’s better not to move because may weaken one’s position: zugzwang. Nostalgia is permanent zugzwang—let the clock run out!—which promotes indifference to what affects the image already in place.
Their great figures rest as if in a thermally-sealed cabinet labelled property of the national museum, isolated from the wider cosmos that forms every creator’s world; if suspected, it’s easier to reject. But as Colin Wilson wrote, all literature everywhere has one feature in common: it attempts to step back from the flux of the present to make some broader generalisations about life and human destiny within an indifferent universe. The ultimate aim is to teach ‘what life is’ (or can be) according to how it’s seen when examined more closely. Bruno Schulz is not actually proposing a philosophy for living, it is not existential—except in the sense of living an authentic way of life as far as he could—but rather portrays a psyche during and in the immediate aftermath of something as inexplicable as life itself.
My books and essays on Schulz, Huysmans, Francis Thompson, Coventry Patmore, Stanisław Przybyszewski, Stefan Żechowski and others revolve around this central axis: What was the intention of the subject during their full career, what did they achieve and wish to achieve, how did they want to be seen and remembered, for what, in short, did they live and suffer? If this seems high-blown perhaps we’ve lost some essence, some elemental quality, from the equation of artistic labour. What might be called the spirit of the matter encompasses a life’s entire length and depth of choices toward a goal.
Of course we can only surmise such elements, but surmise implies looking below the surface veneer or sheen polished by others with their own instruments. No view, personal or an eagerly subscribed to agenda, can hold more weight than facts—and they are less than a full biography’s worth in Schulz’s tragic case. Out of the terrible debris come twenty nine stories, a few essays and reviews along with 160 letters in the public domain so far retrieved. Of John Keats, who lived exactly half Schulz’s span, 300 letters exist like the 250 of Rimbaud; Rilke wrote 10,000, ‘Lewis Carroll’ over 100,000, while the first edition of Proust’s correspondence (he lived a year longer) extends to 21 volumes, Chekhov lived several years less but there are 8 volumes. Bruno Schulz’s work contains more loss and absence than presence. The fullest portrait is a mosaic composed of fragmented shards.
Since 1992, when a stamp issue memorialised his birth-year, there have been anniversary events. His home-town—admittedly now in Ukraine, but ties are supposed to be strong—features a plaque on his house. Festivals there are attended by a few dozen devotees, films shown, an ‘installation’ of high-heels shoes placed around a building, music provided by a band named after the writer—and thus litter the internet with an irrelevant connection—as if the micro amounts to the macro. Absurd claims are made, e.g. a pupil of Schulz’s is “the last Jew born in Drohobycz” or his “last surviving student”. The website can’t spell his name correctly, reminding one of the 1935 Lwów exhibition catalogue that, in spite of his new literary fame, refers throughout to Szulc. It happens to Huysmans in English but never in his native France.
Of course everyone has their own way of paying homage. I only list facts and differences. Mine does not impede or disqualify yours, it would be arrogant. If one shows respect so should the receivers of that respect. Polish intellectuals not in the Schulz sphere tell me that Poland’s tragic history includes foreign silence about it. This engenders sensitivity but also a need to beat one’s chest in complaint, which in time may become a preferable catch-all comfort hard to overcome. But I see many examples where it was discussed abroad, starting at least with Mickiewicz being seen in France (by Hugo, Mérimée, Lautréamont etc) as a great internationalist. And how many of us know about Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech etc culture, here or abroad?!
In 2003 was the superb last major Schulz exhibition, including the wall-paintings found by the German film-maker Geissler before clandestinely shipped to Israel. Yet a huge national museum exhibition of inter-war art in 2008 completely ignored Schulz. Status and approach is subjective but is only an image, a reproduction, a hologram presented? Do lecturers stating, boldly, that Schulz was a masochist because of the art he (only) drew in the 1920s, or that he “would have been a Zionist if Israel had existed during his lifetime”, really think they know his character? They increasingly seem to be ascribing his work to an equivalent genizah, a room for damaged Holy Books with the name God on them until proper ritual-burial in a cemetery.
I believe, after fifteen years of study, that he borrowed far more than the keepers of nostalgia would like to be told about. Such routes are not in their itinerary. Far easier to invest the subject with their own beliefs, to project their own personalities, that after all is the nature of all ideologies kept warm at the hearth of nostalgia. To claim he was hiding a love of his racial background—when readers knew he was Jewish anyway!—not one public or private example exemplifies. Everyone who knew and met him recalls that international (including Polish) culture was his motivation, stimulus and impetus. As a bi-lingual intellectual cosmopolitan he sought recognition westwards not eastwards. Is the trusting reader, new to the subject, allowed to distinguish between fact and interpretation? The methodology smacks of school curriculum when the teacher makes a statement and the pupil is expected to copy it down verbatim in order to gain a higher mark.
A life-work is a cohesive unity. Schulz’s stories, art, essays, reviews and letters form a carefully-considered personal philosophy. It isn’t journalism or the latest sensation, nor is it bestowed for puerile cut-and-paste. Schulz is parallel to the theological-Marxist dialectics of Walter Benjamin, the criticism of criticism of Brecht, the post-Romantic Symbolism of Stefan George, Rilke’s Inwardness, the lost domain of Alain-Fournier who entered the Pantheon with one book. By exploring their worlds they sought personal truths applied to culture within social contexts, navigating a Land of Heart’s Desire, Isle of the Blessed, Republic of Dreams. Later explorers can only navigate in turn by analogy, the only way Spengler believed, like Goethe, to understand living not dead forms. This of course isn’t infallible. Napoleon is always compared to Caesar and Alexander—only the second example is close—but he compared himself to neither of them, preferring Charlemagne.
Our separation in time becomes a dissonance in space, as the Modern replaces what once stood and held value ‘over there’. It cannot be re-found, if it ever was findable in the first place, but only intimated to later wanderers wishing to visit and experience such a place of emotion for themselves. The obscured signposts and paths have become overgrown by foliage and thorn. “Here we are on the crumbling edge of history. How can we know what lies ahead when we are so uncertain as to what has happened in our immediate past?” wrote Hadrian’s servant Julia Balbillus in another of the world’s beautiful texts in 130AD. Her contemporary Lucian believed that “History should be written with truthfulness and hopes for the future rather than flattery to please today’s recipients of praise”. Those who should be helping travellers—‘the public’—regain certain routes have crumpled and transposed the map upside down for their own purposes. Perhaps it was originally written in invisible ink. The only way, it now seems, for the dead and their places to be restored with the oxygen of vitality is by private, secretive sorcery, summoning the migration routes of antediluvians to stumble upon caves and light them with torches once more. As Schulz says in one of his texts, others will always prefer plaster-cast fossils anyway.