Portraits of students and staff of the King Jagiełło school, including writer Bruno Schulz (to the left of the photograph of the school building), Drogobych, 1930. (YIVO)

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Schulz, Bruno

(1892–1942), prose writer, literary critic, and artist. Born in Drohobycz, Galicia, to an assimilated, impoverished merchant family, Bruno Schulz studied architecture at the Lwów Polytechnic (1910–1914). During World War I, his family took refuge in Vienna, where Bruno briefly resumed his studies. In 1924, he began teaching handicrafts and drawing in a Drohobycz school. Schulz made his debut as an artist in the 1920s and as a prose writer in the 1930s.

Schulz was closely associated with Polish modernist writers, including Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz, and his works were published in Wiadomości Literackie, Skamander, Studio, and other journals. In 1938, he visited Paris, hoping to exhibit his artwork there. He continued to teach after the Red Army entered Drohobycz in 1939. After the Nazi takeover in 1941 he was confined to the ghetto, where he was shot and killed in the street on 19 November 1942, the day he had planned to escape to the Aryan side of the city.

During his lifetime, Schulz published two volumes of prose: Sklepy cynamonowe (The Cinnamon Shops; 1933; published in English in 1963) and Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Sanatorium under the Hourglass; 1936; issued in English in 1978). A Polish translation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial was published in 1936 under Schulz’s name, though the translation had actually been done by Schulz’s fiancée, Józefina Szelińska. He also wrote literary criticism, focusing primarily on Witold Gombrowicz, Zofia Nałkowska, Kafka, Aldous Huxley, François Mauriac, Louis Aragon, and Georges Bernanos. Schulz’s magnum opus was “Mesjasz” (Messiah), a novel he began writing in 1934. Two surviving fragments of it were included in Sanatorium pod klepsydrą: “Genialna epoka” (The Golden Era) and “Księga” (The Book). Also lost was Schulz’s only work in German, the novella “Die Heimkehr” (The Homecoming; 1937), which he presented to Thomas Mann. Schulz’s biographer and critic Jerzy Ficowski managed to reconstruct partially his epistolary output and published the writer’s correspondence in Księga listów (Book of Letters; 1975 [exp. ed. 2004]). In fact, Schulz’s prose developed out of his written correspondence, particularly from his letters to Dvora Vogel (1900–1942), whom the artist met in 1930.

Schulz belonged to a group of avant-garde artists who combined writing and fine art. His early ambitions centered on art more than on literature, and approximately 500 paintings and examples of graphic art have been preserved. One of the best among them is a series of graphics titled Księga bałwochwalcza (The Idolatrous Book; 1920–1921). A sizable collection of bookplates has also been preserved, as well as illustrations of literary works, including Schulz’s own.

Schulz’s art was exhibited at group shows in Warsaw, Vilna, Lwów, and Kraków, and at individual exhibitions in Truskawiec (1928) and Lwów (1930). His artistic output combined expressionism with an inclination to the use of geometrical forms, and the grotesque with mythological, biblical, and literary motifs. Its eroticism (including the masochistic theme of female domination of men) scandalized the interwar public. Jewish themes, particularly Hasidic motifs, appear in his artworks more frequently than in his writings.

Schulz was one of the greatest Polish writers of the twentieth century. Past generations of critics associated him with symbolism, expressionism, and surrealism, but today his innovative prose is interpreted in the context of modernism, in which ontological issues overshadow epistemological ones, or even in the context of the postmodernist tendency to play with tradition as well as with the twentieth-century crisis of mimesis. His writing is poetic prose in which language plays a key role and metaphor constitutes the source of fictional events and action. He was undoubtedly influenced by the philosophy, anthropology, and psychology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Freud. In his writings, one finds some traces of the Jungian theory of archetypes. The philosophical underpinnings of Schulz’s prose also include the Gnostic tradition and twentieth-century anthropological, theosophical, and mystical attempts to unite the image of man and his world.

Schulz’s comments about his own writings and his programmatic works prove his connections with the symbolist concept of art and the ideas of Nietzsche. In his crucial essay “Mityzacja rzeczywistości” (Mythification of Reality; 1936) Schulz elevated the myth to the role of key literary principle. He saw metaphor as the kernel of myth and believed the main task of art was to return to its own mythical roots in order to restore the unity of the vision of the world as a cosmos. Searching for that primordial unity, the artist does not create ex nihilo but builds from salvaged and scattered fragments. Metaphor has the power of linking elements that have been separated and belong to different spheres. The metaphor is part of Schulz’s philosophy of the word according to which the primordial Word—which he equates with elemental myth and meaning—is juxtaposed to the “word” as a means of everyday communication. The idea of eternal return and the myth of the beginning appear also in his vision of art as the artist’s second childhood—a golden age restoring the fullness of existence and the unity of world with language.

In Schulz’s stories, a dynamic, fluid reality is subjected to constant metamorphosis, blurring the borders between life and death, reality and dream, and the physical and the spiritual; time is cyclical and space is organized around a sacred center according to mythical patterns. The fates of protagonists are organized according to the plot structures of myth (e.g., the biblical story of Jacob and Joseph). Among Schulz’s key motifs are initiation into knowledge about the order of existence contained in the Book, “heretical experiments” in which people dream of reenacting the role of the creator, and of heroes being lost in labyrinths of space and time. The outcome of their activities is usually disastrous and the protagonists themselves are crippled, defective, hybrid, unfinished beings (his motif of mannequins).

As a Polish writer of Jewish background, Schulz was a moderate assimilationist, reconciling his private Jewishness with Polish and European aspirations. His strong attachment to Jewishness is unquestionable. Even when he considered marrying a Catholic, he rejected baptism, choosing instead to leave the Jewish religious community in 1936 as a “nonreligious” person. His correspondence indicates that he felt at home among members of the Polish-speaking Jewish intelligentsia regardless of their ideological orientations.

Schulz published his texts in Polish Jewish periodicals that also reviewed his artistic and literary work. Polish critics, however, have only recently begun to associate Schulz with Jewish culture and to interpret him in a Jewish context. One of the first interpretations of this kind was put forward by the critic Jan Błoński, who shows the significance of biblical traditions and Schulz’s understanding of the world as the Book and commentary. Another critic, Władysław Panas, suggests Schulz may be interpreted in the context of kabbalistic mysticism, especially of the Lurianic tradition. Panas relates messianic themes in Schulz’s prose and graphics to the kabbalistic concept of the cosmic drama of “breaking the vessels” and dispersing divine light. The world that arises from a cosmic catastrophe is broken, and it is the artist’s task to restore its original wholeness. The “mythification of reality” is nothing less than assigning art a key role in the act of tikun—the restitution of the primordial unity of being, the world’s redemption and salvation. The rhythm of regression and expansion characteristic of Schulz’s world echoes the two phases of God’s creative activity—withdrawal and emanation. Panas also interprets in kabbalistic terms Schulz’s symbolism of light and word.

The various interpretations of Schulz’s work in European, Polish, and Jewish contexts complement each other to create an image of the artist—“a cosmopolitan genius” who combines a glorious Polish style and intellectual inspirations of European romanticism and modernism—with biblical, postbiblical and East European Jewish traditions.

Suggested Reading

Włodzimierz Bolecki, Jerzy Jarzębski, and Stanisław Rosiek, eds., Słownik schulzowski (Gdańsk, 2003); Jerzy Ficowski, Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz; A Biographical Portrait, trans. and ed. Theodosia Robertson (New York, 2003); Jerzy Jarzębski, Schulz (Wrocław, 1999); Władysław Panas, Księga blasku: Traktat o kabale w prozie Brunona Schulza (Lublin, Pol., 1997); Władysław Panas, Bruno od Mesjasza: Rzecz o dwóch ekslibrisach oraz jednym obrazie i kilkudziesięciu rysunkach Brunona Schulza (Lublin, Pol., 2001); Bruno Schulz, Collected Works, ed. Jerzy Ficowski (London, 1998); Krzysztof Stala, On the Margins of Reality: The Paradoxes of Representation in Bruno Schulz’s Fiction (Stockholm, 1993).



Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti; revised by Magda Opalski