The following comments on Bruno Schulz are drawn from the first chapter of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary 1961–1966.
It would be hard to call it friendship—in the years we became acquainted we were both still unborn. The years 1934, 1935. Aleje Ujazdowskie. We are strolling along. Talking. He and I on Sluzewska. 1 He, Witkacy,2 and I. Nalkowska,3 he and I. In this film, “flickering onto the screen of memory,” I see him as someone almost completely unknown to me, but then I see myself that way, too—it was not us, but the introduction to us, an overture, prologue.
I would like immediately to unload an irritating impropriety, something most certainly in bad taste: Bruno adored me but I did not adore him.
He first showed up at my place, on Sluzewska, after the publication of Cinnamon Shops—I had just published my Memoir from Adolescence. He was small, strange, chimerical, focused, intense, almost feverish—and this is how our conversations got started, usually on walks.
That we truly needed each other is indisputable. We found ourselves in a vacuum, our literary situations were permeated with a void, our admirers were spectral, something of the apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto, we both roamed Polish literature like a flourish, ornament, chimera, griffin.
After reading my first book, Bruno discovered a companion in me. He kept showing up in order to find confirmation in me, wanting me to furnish him with the Outside without which an inner life is condemned to a monologue—and he wanted me to use him in the same way. He would show up as a friend, yes (I emphasize) as a kindred spirit to consolidate and raise my esteem.
And here is where the “miss” or “dislocation,” to use the language of our works, came in…for his extended hand did not meet my own. I did not return his regard, I gave him abysmally little, almost nothing, of myself, our relationship was a fiasco…but perhaps even this secretly worked to our advantage. Perhaps he and I needed fiasco rather than happy symbiosis.
Today I can speak of this openly because he has died.
Allow me therefore to repeat once again with delight: how he built me up, how he strengthened me. In my melancholy literary life I have gotten my share of shabby treatment, but I have also met people who would favor me, out of the blue, with the lavishness of a Padishah—no one, however, was more generous than Bruno. Never, before or since, have I bathed in such crystalline joy on account of my every artistic attainment. No one ever supported me in so heartfelt a manner, no one ever delighted in me, ever stoked each and every one of my thoughts the way he did—I note: never in the course of our friendship was there any malice toward me on Bruno’s part; indeed, he fed me the milk of human kindness…. It will suffice for me to tell you what happened with Ferdydurke. I gave him the unfinished book, still in typescript, and he returned it in a week, his face extinguished.
“You should return to your fantasies of Memoir from Adolescence, that kind of writing suits you better,” he said with obvious and considerable vexation.
But later when he read Ferdydurke in book form he burst into a flame which almost scorched me, cool as I was. When he had the opportunity to come to Warsaw, he gave a lecture (later reprinted in Skamander) on Ferdydurke at the Writers Union which was taken for a lot of fanfare and infuriated the mandarins of our day.
Do you think I am not aware of how much more tactful it would be if I did not thrust myself to the forefront in this souvenir about a “deceased friend”? Modesty!… I hasten to warn you that I am familiar with this rule in its social as well as moral aspect. But didn’t Prince Ypsilanti say that those who know one should not eat fish with a knife may eat fish with a knife? So much for the drawing room. And if you have in mind even more profound moral considerations, then I will say to you, quite frankly, that in maintaining silence about these things I would be completely distorting what had come to exist between us—and this kind of sin is unforgivable in a writer because his motto should always be: optimal proximity to reality. Perhaps I should not write about Schulz with me or me with Schulz—but would it be worth recommending this kind of abstinence? Dangerous subjects exist for prim old maids to run from, not literature. Omit this? The distaste, the weariness with myself that overwhelms me because even here in writing about a “deceased friend,” I have to be myself…I have to risk being distasteful.
And what was my reaction to Schulz’s magnanimity? I liked him…yes. We had a lot of friendly talks, I often backed him up; in the eyes of others, we were a pair. Appearances! My nature never allowed me to approach him other than with incredulity; I trusted neither him nor his art. Have I ever honestly read even a single one of his stories, from beginning to end? No—they bored me stiff. I had to be extremely careful, therefore, in everything I said so that he would not suspect the void which lay waiting in ambush for both of us. How much did he really suspect?
I am not blaming myself at all for lacking the feelings to reciprocate. On the contrary—I consider it laudable that I did not allow myself to be bribed; I find it quite appealing when we respond with an icy coolness to someone else’s white heat; an artist should not be the function of someone else’s temperatures. Except that…I did write a brief article about Bruno in the Morning Courier (Kurier Poranny) and I recall dreading that people would say that I was praising him because he had praised me…out of this fear came an article not directly about Schulz but about how one should go about reading him. And sometimes I could be quite petty toward him and perhaps this might even have been mean except that the meanness of my stinginess, like the nobility of his magnanimity, was strangely deprived of all weight. Inauthentic. As if. Unreal. In virtue and in sin, we embryos were innocent.
Were we friends? Colleagues? How often we were mentioned together in various literary inventories as “Polish experimental prose.” And yet if anyone existed in Polish art who was 100 percent my opposite, it was he.
I am no longer capable of remembering whether this was ever openly stated in the dialogue we carried on with his every visit to Warsaw. But once, while walking down Aleje Ujazdowskie, in front of the Chopin monument, he said that even though our works were joined by “their irony, sarcastic escapism, and game of hide-and-seek, my spot on the map is a hundred miles away from yours, and what’s more, your voice, in order to reach mine, would have to be deflected by a third something or other; there is no direct telephone line between us.”
In my opinion, it was like this: 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 enormous head, appearing too scared to dare exist, he was rejected by life and slouched along its peripheries. Bruno did not acknowledge his right 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 sense of guilt à la Kafka in this striving, it was more like the instinct that moves a sick animal to separate, remove itself. He was superfluous. He was extra. 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.
What should a man cast out of life do? He can do nothing but take refuge in the Spirit—and it will be God if he is a believer; Morality, if he is not a believer but is a moral man; Art if he has deified beauty…. Bruno was not so much a disbeliever in God as he was uninterested in Him, and even though he demonstrated a profound moral sense in all his dealings, he was not at all disposed to morality conceived as doctrine and conscious dictate of action. So only art remained…. And indeed I saw him completely devoted to it, consumed by it with a zeal and concentration I had never seen in anyone else—he, a fanatic of art, its slave. He entered this cloister and submitted to its rigors, carrying out its strictest injunctions with great humility in order to attain perfection.
Except that he never attained sanctification.
As far as I got to know Bruno, a man not at all easy to get to know, his masochistic inclinations, duly thrown into relief by Sandauer,4 make up the key to the spiritual defeat which befell him in his last refuge, in art. Yes, the dialectic of pleasure and pain, peculiar to masochism (and characteristic of art as well), and even more so, the desire for self-destruction, can explain a great deal.
What happens when a monk who is flagellating himself with enthusiasm before a holy image suddenly feels that the whip has stopped being the instrument of torture and has become the instrument of ecstasy? The logical development of this situation would lead us to a macabre paradox: the sinner, to attain salvation, thinks up more and more horrific tortures, yet the greater the pain the greater the fun, the more delicious the sin!
Never mind about the pain. Let us talk about the self-destruction. This holy artist—such do occur—could most certainly have drawn so much dignity and pride, so much spirit from the splendor of artistic attainments, that his biological decrepitude would have become less important. He could have come into existence at this other pole, because life was rejecting him. He who humbles himself will be exalted—he could have risen this way. But what if degradation and humility cost him nothing, what if they had no moral value in him? On the contrary, he was pleased by everything that degraded him, everything that hurled him to the ground. He approached art like a lake, with the intention of drowning in it. Falling to his knees before the Spirit, he experienced sensual pleasure. He wanted to be a servant, nothing more. He craved nonexistence.
Such are the trials of someone who likes the taste of the lash!
And if he called art “betrayal” or “a feint,” it was because of this perversion.
And it was with a perverse artist like this that I made friends. Since he groveled with delectation and kneeled sensually, couldn’t art at least have become a tool of his personality even momentarily, something which 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 for him matter 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 the 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.
While he subordinated himself to art this way, I wanted to be “above” it. This was our chief disagreement.
I hail, as I have said, from the landed gentry, and this is a burden almost equally strong and only a bit less tragic than to have behind one those thousands of years of Jewish banishment. The first work I wrote at age eighteen was the history of my family, based on household archives which encompassed four hundred years of affluent living in Samogitia.5 A landowner—whether he is a Polish squire or an American farmer makes no difference—will always harbor distrust of culture, for his remoteness from the great centers of human activity makes him resistant to human confrontations and products. And he will have the nature of a master. He will demand that culture be for him—not he for culture—all that is humble service, devotion, sacrifice will appear suspect to him. To which of the Polish gentry that imported paintings from Italy in their day would it have occurred to humble himself before a masterpiece hanging on the wall? Not to a single one. Both the works and artists who created them were treated high-handedly.
I, on the other hand, traitor and derider of my “class” that I was, belonged to it nevertheless—and I have probably already said that many of my roots are to be found in the epoch when the gentry was most unrestrained, the eighteenth century. I am very much from the Saxon period. Even for this reason, then, Bruno, kneeling before art, was completely unacceptable. But that’s not all. Having one leg in the jolly world of the landed gentry, another in the world of the intellect and avant-garde literature, I was between worlds. Being in-between is not a bad way to elevate yourself—for in applying the principle of divide et impera you can bring about the mutual devouring of the two worlds, then escape and soar “above” them.
I had a habit of passing myself off as an artist with my relatives in the country (to irritate them), and with artists I passed myself off as a first-rate landed gentleman (to infuriate them, in turn).
I was always irritated by artists who were too fanatic. I can’t stand poets who are poets too much and painters too devoted to painting. I generally want man not to devote himself to anything entirely. I want him always to be a little detached from what he does. Bruno was more of an artist than all of the poètes maudits put together and for the paradoxical reason that he did not adore art at all. In adoring one is someone and he preferred to lose himself in it, to vanish altogether.
I, on the other hand, wanted to be myself, myself, not an artist or an idea or any of my works—just myself. I wanted to be above art, writing, style, ideas.
He liked me to attack him. Actually I even have the impression that he understood a really strange fact—namely, that I, having known him for so long, had not even taken the trouble to read his book. He was discreet and did not quiz me on it, knowing I would fail the test. (But perhaps he knew—the way I did—that high art almost always remains unread, that it acts differently somehow, by its very presence in a given culture?) Everything that went into my knowledge of him (and still goes into it) derives from the bits of reading (which dazzled me) combined with bits that have remained from our many conversations. Did he perhaps relish my scorn? And put me on a pedestal because of it?
I was also astonished by his keen and easy understanding of what alienated me from art, but united me with the everyday things in life. Cultured, educated people have a difficult time grasping this in me. How is it that you, a difficult, sophisticated writer, are bored by Kafka, unimpressed by painting, read cheap novels?—I have often been asked these questions. Bruno had no trouble at all with the schoolboy in me (perhaps this was simply because his marvelous intelligence conceived of me in broader terms).
Frustration. False note. Who knows…perhaps this appealed to him not only because he was an enemy of realization on principle. Perhaps because his capacity for awe hit upon my incapacity for it, this turned out to be a mutual enrichment from the standpoint of our artistic potentials?
If someone had eavesdropped on our conversations in those now distant years, he would have taken us for conspirators. The plot? Bruno talked to me about an “illegal codex” and I spoke to him about “exploding the situation” and “compromising form.” He told me about “reality’s side track” and I carried on about a “liberating cacophony.” There was also talk about “subculture” and “just-short-of-beauties,” and “kitsch” (which Bruno called “ersatz“), etc. What sort of laboratory was this?
In fact we were conspirators. We were consumed with experimenting with a certain explosive material called Form. But this was not form in any ordinary sense—the issue was “creating form,” “producing it,” and “creating oneself through the creation of form.” It is hard for me to explain this in few words; those interested should look into our books. I will note only that although each of us began differently (for while I wanted to get at myself, and to man in general, through a provocation of form and its dissonant explosions, Bruno gave himself up to this alchemy gratis, completely gratis, with the impartiality of a peripheral being), we had a certain trait in common. We were both utterly alone in confrontation with Form. Bruno the monk without God…and I, with my proud humanity which was indeed “alone with itself,” supported by nothing, a king of categorical imperative crying in a void: be yourself!
These games with form united us, therefore. And is it exactly here that I have the suspicion—for experimenters like ourselves, people in a trial stage—wouldn’t a failed friendship be the luckiest of developments? What would have happened if I had responded to admiration with admiration—wouldn’t we have felt too content…too serious, in each other’s eyes? If he had felt my awe, if I had, in admiring, placed a value on his admiration—wouldn’t this have made us too heavy for experimentation…with one another? Ah, yes, both he and I sought admiration, affirmation…because a vacuum wears one down…. Would this kind of harmony have been in keeping with our style? Far more in keeping with our style was exactly the bungled reverse of a thing, in which his extended hand did not meet mine—this typically Schulzian situation, certainly not alien to me either, allowed us at least to preserve the strange freedom of beings not yet born, the peculiar innocence of embryos—this, therefore, rendered us light in confrontation with Form.
And as for admiration—or lack of it—what did we really care since both of us were not real writers.
Let us not forget to mention the third musketeer, Witkacy (Witkiewicz). The one arrayed in plumes of a metaphysical dandy, the perpetually removed madman. I did not like him. He irritated me, and his experiments with form, probably the boldest of all, were unconvincing to me—they were too intellectual and incapable of moving beyond a grimace…. I felt he lacked talent. And his tricks, the same Dali uses today to épater, were too classic in their surrealism for my taste.
Like King Lear, Witkacy always showed up with a retinue of courtiers and jesters, recruited chiefly from among the various literary deformities (like all dictators, he could bear only inferior beings). Upon seeing Schulz or me with the master, many of these humble acolytes would consider us members of Witkacy’s court as no other interpretation would fit into their servile heads—and hence the rumor that Schulz and I hail from Witkacy’s school. Nothing doing. Bruno, as I recall, profited little and judged him unenthusiastically; and I see no traces of Witkacy in his work.
But we were, nonetheless, a trinity and a fairly characteristic one. Witkiewicz: intentional affirmation of the madness of “pure form” through vengeance as well as fulfillment of his tragic destiny, the distraught madman. Schulz: self-destruction in form, the drowned madman. I: burning desire to use form to get at my “I” and reality, the madman in revolt.
—translated by Lillian Vallee
April 13, 1989
Aleje Ujazdowskie and Sluzewska are streets in an elegant section of Warsaw. ↩
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Polish playwright, novelist, painter, and philosopher. He committed suicide in September 1939. ↩
Zofia Nalkowska, a well-known Polish novelist and a promoter of Schulz’s work in the period between the two wars. ↩
Arthur Sandauer, a controversial postwar Polish literary critic whose studies of Schulz and Gombrowicz led to discussion and reassessment of their work. ↩
The ethnic heartland of Lithuania. ↩