The Street of Crocodiles, Part 2
Originally published on The Solute
Schulz writes a kind of manifesto on his obsessions in the book’s centerpiece, “Treatise on Tailor’s Dummies or The Second Book of Genesis.” It’s hard to know how seriously to take it — the whole passage comes from the mouth of the tailor, who’s not all there at the best of times, and who Schulz describes as a “heresiarch.” He tells the girls in his shop that there’s no such thing as an inanimate object: “In the depth of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions build up, attempts at forms appear. The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is constantly in motion.”
Schulz takes this idea to much more disturbing places than his cartoon contemporaries. Long before the term “uncanny valley,” the concept of the uncanny, the eeriness of artificial representations of human forms, was essential to both psychoanalysis and Surrealism. But neither Freud nor Dalí brought up that terror as vividly as Schulz:
Figures in a waxwork museum, even fairground parodies of dummies, must not be treated lightly. Matter never makes jokes: it is always full of the tragically serious. Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, that it will not shape it like fate, like destiny? Can you imagine the pain, the dull imprisoned suffering, built into that dummy which does not know why it must be what it is, why it must remain in that forcibly imposed form which is no more than a parody? Do you understand the power of form, of expression, of pretense, the arbitrary tyranny imposed on a helpless block, and ruling it like its own tyrannical, despotic soul? You give a head of canvas and oakum an expression of anger and leave it with it, with the convulsion, the tension enclosed once and for all, a blind fury for which there is no outlet. …
Have you ever heard at night the terrible howling of these wax figures, shut in their fair booths; the pitiful chorus of those forms of wood or porcelain, banging their fists against the walls of their prisons?
Human forms aren’t the only ones with the potential for life. Elsewhere, bolts of cloth reproduce and expand, and garbage heaps grow into metal vines and bushes.
Earlier, the tailor verbalizes another of Schulz’s guiding obsessions as he plots the creation of his own race, not quite of atomic supermen, but mannequins: “The Demiurge was in love with consummate, superb, and complicated materials; we shall give priority to trash. We are simply entranced by the cheapness, shabbiness, and inferiority of material.” In other words, he loves trash, anything dirty or dingy or dusty, anything ragged or rotten or rusty, and Schulz shares that love.
The title story explores a district so disreputable it’s a blank on the map of the city, a “parasitical quarter,” “a pseudo-Americanism grafted on the old, crumbling core of the city, shot up here in rich but empty and colorless vegetation of pretentious vulgarity” full of “cheap jerry-built houses with grotesque facades.” Schulz explicitly compares that colorlessness to a cheap catalog come to life, a “paper imitation” of the modern city, “a montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s newspapers,” where even the sky is “shoddy.”
As disgustedly as his fascination manifests itself in this story, Schulz joyously glories in trash elsewhere. In “Cinnamon Shops,” street performers are endowed with all the dignity of high opera. In “The Night of the Great Season,” he lovingly describes “kiosks and barrows, made from empty boxes, papered with advertisements, full of soap, of gay trash, of gilded nothings.”
If Surrealism was already well established by the time Schulz joined the fray, he got out well ahead of Pop Art. At the climax of that story the father’s lost birds come to his rescue as the crowd demanding he open his shop turns into a mob, but as they come closer they’re revealed as a “brood of freaks,” a “malformed, wasted tribe of birds…returning degenerated and stupidly overgrown. Nonsensically large, stupidly developed, the birds were empty and lifeless inside…nothing but enormous bunches of feathers tufted with carrion.”
If matter can be shaped, it can be reshaped, and it is. Besides the many indignities the tailor’s body suffers, in his treatise, he describes his brother, who was transformed into a rubber hose. The narrator’s Aunt Perasia turns so livid when Adela the maid throws her rooster into the fireplace, “it seemed in her paroxysm of fury she might disintegrate into separate gestures, that she would divide into a hundred spiders, would spread out over the floor in a black, shimmering net of crazy running cockroaches. Instead, she began to shrink and dwindle…black and folded like a wilted, charred sheet of paper, oxidized into a petal of ash, disintegrating into dust and nothingness.”
I love reading works from other languages, not just for the obvious diversity of perspective they can offer, but for how they can make me see my own language in a new light. It takes a good translator to do that, and Celina Wieniewska is a great one, refusing to hammer the square peg of Schulz’s poetic Polish into the round hole of idiomatic English. What native speaker would ever think to describe their narrator lying “among the remains of breakfast” or his professor as “given to esoteric smiles and discreet silences,” or the “cosmic homelessness and loneliness of the wind?”
Schulz’s debut should have been the beginning of a body of work that changed the literary landscape forever. Instead, the Holocaust, that gaping hole in the middle of 20th-century history, swallowed him up in his prime. The Jewish author’s artistic skills saved his life for a time when Felix Landau of the SS hired him to create a mural for his children’s bedroom. That might tempt us to brand him a collaborator, but he used the time well to collect stories from survivors for his magnum opus, The Messiah, which he smuggled out of the country with Gentile friends. Chronicling such harsh realities may seem like a strange left turn for Schulz, but the enormousness of that enormity has always rendered it incomprehensible — maybe surrealism was the only way to make it real.
The Messiah. We know the manuscript exists. But no one knows where. Also lost: the countless future masterpieces Schulz might have created if he had lived.
Instead, he died senselessly in an incident that reminds us why Hannah Arendt had the Holocaust in mind when she invented the phrase “banality of evil.” Landau murdered a Jewish prisoner favored by his colleague Karl Günther, who responded by shooting Schulz dead in the streets. “You killed my Jew,” Günther said, simply, “so I killed yours.” Schulz, the author who reached into the alternate brainspace of childhood to create works of unprecedented magic, killed by childish pettiness in its ugliest form. We have so little left of him, but what we do only underscores what a gigantic tragedy his murder is.