Decay is the Way Dead Things Live

By Jacob MikanowskiMarch 2, 2012

Decay is the Way Dead Things Live

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann
Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel
Cinnamon Shops by Bruno Schulz

THE FICTION OF BRUNO SCHULZ is alive with dead things. His stories all take place in the narrow landscape of his childhood: the small, provincial town of Drohobycz in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now western Ukraine, a few years after the start of the twentieth century. At the same time, they seem to occupy a separate cosmos, one whose physics, biology and even meteorology are distinct from our own. Schulz’s Drohobycz is a city of abnormal winds, intercalated seasons and illusory geography, in which time is entirely plastic, stretching out and contracting according to its own desires.

Here, the boundaries between people and things aren’t fixed. Human beings are susceptible to sudden, inexplicable transformations. They turn into animals — cockroaches, flies, crustaceans — and objects — a pile of ash, a primitive telegraph, a heap of rubbish, the rubber tube of an enema. A flock of multicolored birds flies from the family house in winter; in the fall, it returns blind and misshapen, the birds’ anatomy a nonsense of cardboard and carrion. The substance of reality seems paper-thin and prone to tearing. In attics, darkness degenerates and ferments. Unmade beds rise like dough. Colorless poppies sprout out of the weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish.

But perhaps the most important way in which Schulz’s cosmos differs from our own is that dead things are never simply dead. Matter is never inert. Beneath its inertia and clumsiness, matter trembles with a life of its own. It pulsates and shivers, grows, ferments and germinates. Its curious respiration can be felt passing over moldering, water-stained walls and in the pullulating jungles of wallpaper. In certain environments — in forgotten rooms overgrown with bricks and above rubbish heaps, abounding in the hummus of memories, nostalgia, and sterile boredom — matter sprouts and flowers in a parody of vegetable life. Trapped in wax figures and tailors’ dummies or crucified in chests and tables, it rebels against the cruel prison of its form.

Schulz’s fiction is one of those rare bodies of literary work that gives rise to its own cosmology. Attention to the secret, inner life of matter is at its heart. This is what makes his stories seem so strange and unlike anything else in the modernist canon, at once domestic and uncanny, sweetly nostalgic and unaccountably bizarre. The life of matter is also at the heart of his poetic project. As he explained in a letter to his friend and literary rival S.I. Witkiewicz, his 1934 short-story collection Cinnamon Shops (The Street of Crocodiles in English) “offers a certain recipe for reality, posits a certain special kind of substance … it contains no dead, hard, limited objects … the life of the substance consists in the assuming and consuming of numberless masks.”

Within the stories, it is left to Jacob, Schulz’s father, to justify the peculiar theology behind living matter. The central story in Cinnamon Shops is called “Tailors’ Dummies.” In it, Jacob gives a series of lectures, or parodies of lectures. The first is subtitled “The Second Book of Genesis,” and that is, in effect, what they all are: accounts of the creation, or really, the re-creation of the world according to a set of metaphysical principles that owe something to Surrealism and something to Gnostic myth. Schulz calls these doctrines the “Regions of the Great Heresy,” and they are the closest thing that exists to a blueprint for the Schulzian universe. Jacob explains that matter is infinitely pliable:

The whole of matter pulsates with the infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself.

Creation is unfinished. It was begun by the Demiurge, the world-maker of Platonic thought, but where he had classical methods and superb materials, we have junk: colored tissue, papier-mâché, sawdust. In the second Genesis, man will be remade in the image of this new universe as a mannequin, a second-rate creature made out of the cheapest materials, with only one leg and a canvas back, a temporary being brought to life for a single word or gesture.

It’s hard not to read this as a profession of artistic faith, of Schulz’s conviction in an art made out of scraps and remnants. What Kafka is to imprisonment and Beckett is to waiting, Schulz is to trash. Not just trash, but stuff — detritus, objects, substances, matter in all its welter and confusion. The whole spectrum of useless, obsolete junk that fills every corner of the world is present and animate in his work — but why?

This is where I run into the main problem in writing about Schulz. He didn’t leave much behind: two slim collections of stories, a volume of drawings, and a handful of letters. At the same time, the gap between his public self and his private work, between the comically timid school teacher marooned in a provincial town and the supremely confident, ebulliently imaginative modernist, is so wide that it opens the door to any number of possible interpretations.




It’s possible, and I’ve seen it claimed, that Schulz was a committed Neoplatonist with gnostic tendencies, or that his work reflects the influence of Kabbalah, or Proust, or that its strange laws reflect a return to the world of childhood or a regression to the mythopoetic logic of primitive man. A more prosaic explanation for the overripe tumult of Schulz’s prose might have to do with the actual conditions of his home town. Drohobycz was an oil town. More than that, it was the capital of the short-lived Galician oil boom, one part shtetl and two parts Klondike. One of Schulz’s contemporaries recalled life there before World War I as being similar to “life in a hot swamp. Rottenness and a bad smell were everywhere.” Looking through microfilms of the Drohobycz paper from the time of Schulz’s youth, I was struck by the number of explosions and terrible fires it recorded at the many derricks that surrounded the city. The fermentation described by Schulz was at one level literal, driven by the pressure of the gas beneath its streets. This is the origin of the city he described in the story “The Street of Crocodiles,” the “paper imitation” of “modernity and metropolitan corruption,” with its ersatz red-light district, disappearing pornographers, and cardboard trams. But what about the rest? The sudden, mushroom-like growth of global capital doesn’t explain more than a corner of Schulz’s hermetic universe, and certainly not the part about living matter. There is a clue left in the text though: In the final “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies,” Jacob illustrates his lecture with a little science experiment:


Here my father began to set before our eyes the picture of that generatio aequivoca which he had dreamed up, a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of the fantastic fermentation of matter. They were creations resembling, in appearance only, living creatures such as crustaceans, vertebrates, cephalopods…These creatures — mobile, sensitive to stimuli, and yet outside the pale of real life — could be brought forth by suspending certain complex colloids in solutions of kitchen salt.


There is a scientific basis for artificial life and for living matter — or rather, a pseudo-scientific one. The strange entities in Schulz’s work are the direct descendants of a now forgotten episode from the history of science, when Victorian scientists began to hunt for the missing link between dead matter and organic life. This story begins shortly after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.


Darwin’s work provided an explanation for the diversity of living organisms and their transformations across time, but he refused to speculate on the source of the first primitive organisms on earth — and this is where Ernst Haeckel steps in. For half a century, Haeckel was Darwin’s greatest champion in Germany and one of the most flamboyant evolutionary theorists anywhere. He was also a polymathic artistic genius in the fullest tradition of German Romanticism, spurred by grief over the death of his young wife to plumb the mysteries of the universe. From his base at his home in Jena, the Villa Medusa, he invented the evolutionary tree, coined the word “ecology,” named the Protists, illustrated the masterpiece of biologic psychedelia, Art Forms in Nature, catalogued thousands of species of marine invertebrates, including two jellyfish named in honor of his mistress’s yellow hair, and prophesied the discovery of the Java Man. He’s even the namesake of a mountain in California’s Evolution Basin. Confronted with the gap between life and nonlife, Haeckel posited a missing link, an Urschleim or primal ooze, simpler than any cell which could have arisen at some point in the history of the Earth by spontaneous generation out of inorganic matter. He named this hypothetical organism the Monera; made up of unorganized protoplasm, it would be “an entirely homogenous and structureless substance, a living particle of albumen, capable of nourishment and reproduction.”


Haeckel’s prediction seemed to come true within months of his making it. In 1868 Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s chief defender in Britain, examined some sediment samples dredged up from the sea floor a decade before with a powerful new microscope and found that they contained a transparent gelatinous matter, visibly mobile, yet lacking a nucleus or cell membrane. In August of that year, he announced that this slime was Haeckel’s missing link, the living protoplasm. He named it Bathybius haeckelii. Haeckel was elated with the discovery. When Huxley wrote to him about his “godchild,” he replied with the rallying cry, “Vive Monera!” Bathybius was a confirmation of his deepest beliefs about the origin of life, and soon it started popping up everywhere. It was found in the Bay of Biscay and on the bottom of the South Atlantic and Indian oceans. Haeckel assumed this meant it was universal. He imagined Bathybius as a globe-spanning super-organism. The seafloor was home to “a continuous scum of living matter girding the whole surface of the earth.”


Sadly, the reign of Bathybius was short-lived. Scientists on the Challenger expedition, the founding voyage of modern oceanography (1872-1876), searched for it across the world’s oceans without success. Instead, they discovered that the ooze appeared whenever they mixed their samples with preserving alcohol. Bathybius was, in fact, totally inorganic, a colloidal precipitate of calcium sulfate. The ur-organism proved to be nothing more than mud and booze.


Bathybius was not the universal precursor to all life, but despite its debunking, living matter continued to have a career in the shadowy corners of fin-de-siècle science. For a few years after Marie Curie’s discovery of radium in 1898, it seemed as if radioactivity might hold the secret for the production of artificial life. Radium itself seemed strangely alive. It gave off heat and powerful rays of energy; it glowed with its own light and decayed into other elements. After Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy discovered that radioactivity indicated the transmutation of elements, they named these new radioelements metabolons for their ability to reproduce.


If the radioactive elements were partially alive, it stood to reason that they might make inert matter come to life. John Butler Burke, a young scientist at the Cavendish Laboratory in Oxford, a hotbed of early research into radioactivity, sought to test this hypothesis. In a 1905 experiment, he claimed to have demonstrated radium’s vitalizing force. By adding a bit of radium to a petri dish of sterilized bouillon, Burke produced an array of dynamic cellular forms which seemed to grow and divide over a period of days. He named these semi-living organisms, part-radium and part-microbe, “radiobes.” A subsequent experiment by C. Stuart Gager of the New York Botanical Garden claimed to show that “radium rays act as a stimulus to living protoplasm.” Radium was life-giving and life-enhancing. Because of these imagined properties, a radium craze swept America. Dozens of products were rushed to market to cash in on its health-giving power: from radium water, a “liquid sunshine cocktail,” to radium chocolates, crucifixes, and suppositories.


As with Bathybius, the excitement over living radium died down after a few years. From then on, living matter became the province of biochemists, men like Otto Bütschli and A.I. Oparin, who hoped that primitive forms of life could be synthesized in the laboratory. Their efforts focused on producing artificial protoplasm, a biological root-stock which would demonstrate the technical feasibility of spontaneous generation. None of them succeeded in actually bringing dead matter to life, but they did create a number of intriguing simulacra whose movement and appearance mimicked real organisms. The recipes for these artificial protozoans varied. Julius Bernstein recommended a drop of mercury on a bed of nitric acid. Alfonso Herrera made his protoplasm out of a mixture of pepsin, peptone, “fibrine acetique,” oleic acid, soap, sugar, extract of bile, carbonates of potassium, of calcium, and of ammonium, lactate of calcium, phosphates of calcium and of magnesium, sulfates of calcium and of iron, and chloride of sodium. Dr. Otto Bütschli, the great Heidelberg protoplasm specialist, preferred a humble foam consisting of tiny drops of soapy water suspended in olive oil. When offered the correct chemical “food,” all of these preparations would spring to life, gliding, expanding, pursuing and then ingesting their prey.


The search for the missing link between dead matter and organic life left a deep, though now almost invisible, impression on the literature of European Modernism. Jacob’s pseudofauna and pseudoflora can be read as indirect, theologically loaded, mystical takes on these simple, startling chemical demonstrations. His universe is like Bütschli’s oil-foam, waiting for the right chemical (or divine) touch to blossom into life. But Schulz’s fiction isn’t the only place these experiments turn up.


At the beginning of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, Jonathan Leverkühn, a farmer, prepares a scientific demonstration for his son Adrian and his friend Serenus: the Devouring Drop, a drop of volatile oil that takes on the qualities of a living organism. Like Jacob, the elder Leverkühn experiments with colloids. He owns a crystallization vessel, which he fills with diluted sodium silicate and sows with crystals of potassium dichromate and copper sulfate. From this mixture, osmotic pressure produces a variety of remarkable shapes: “A grotesque miniature landscape of different colored growths — a muddle of vegetation, sprouting blue, green and brown and reminiscent of algae, fungi, rooted polyps, of mosses, too, but also of mussels, fleshy flower spikes, tiny trees or twigs, and here and there even of human limbs.” Leverkühn finds these artificial life-forms pitiable, but his son Adrian laughs at them. Adrian will in time become a scandalously gifted modernist composer. His failure to feel sympathy for his father’s colloidal creatures presages his opposition to the natural world of harmony.


The first robots in modern fiction, in Karel Capek's 1921 play R.U.R, likewise owe their existence to speculation about synthetic life. Capek's robots are not mechanical. Their inventor, Rossum, begins his career studying ocean fauna on a distant island. Before long he decides to “imitate the living matter known as protoplasm” by chemical synthesis, and he soon discovers an “artificial living matter” out of which he can manufacture any form of life, including the proletarian.



This equation between the formlessness of protoplasm and the mutability of the working class is also present in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. In At the Mountains of Madness, the star-shaped alien Elder Ones who build a civilization in the Antarctic are aristocratic, art-loving socialists. Their slaves, the Shoggoths, are shape-shifting monstrosities created out of “viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells” able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes. Even on the nightmare plateau of Leng, the proletariat appears as a shapeless ooze, an anarchic, resentful, fetid mass trapped between life and non-life, sentient only in so far as it can mimic its departed masters.




Primordial ancestor, universal life force, sinister mimic, signpost on the road to modernism and symbol of the working class: for three-quarters of a century, living matter fulfilled a range of roles in that area of culture where the aspirations of science merge with the dreams of art. Bruno Schulz's fictions take part in this current, but they also stand outside it. Through the myths engendered by Victorian pseudoscience, Schulz shares a genetic link with Lovecraft, Capek and Mann. But the closest analogue that I can find to the fevered materiality of his work is in the photography of the Czech Surrealist Jindrich Štyrský.

A member of the Devetsil Group and a leading figure in the interwar Czech avant-garde, Štyrský worked as a poet, painter, graphic artist and essayist. If he is remembered at all today, though, it is for his photography. In high-surrealist mode, his first exhibit was devoted to panoramas of the Marquis De Sade's castle in southern France. Then in 1934, just as Schulz was publishing his first collection of stories, Štyrský abruptly changed course. He began traveling around the small towns of Bohemia and Moravia, photographing shop windows and carnival advertisements, fair booths, signs, broken statues, stained walls and fragments of graffiti, and arranged these pictures in two cycles, Frog Man and the Man with Blinkers over His Eyes.

The two collections are made up almost entirely of objects and street scenes. Anthropomorphism and decay, recorded in accumulations of dust and cobwebs, cracked varnishes and spreading water stains, are the guiding impulses behind Štyrský's pictures. Aside from the faint reflection of the photographer in a window or the glimpsed profile of a fez-wearing circus performer, they contain no human beings, but human forms are everywhere: in masks and prosthetic limbs, silhouettes etched on walls with chalk, tailors' dummies, dancing dolls, crumbling funeral monuments and wooden cutouts of tortured saints. Together, they form an enclosed world, one that is silent, melancholy, and oddly sinister. 

In Štyrský's photographs, objects are always looking back at us, returning our gaze with eyes of their own. The bald head of a baby peers with a look of exaggerated surprise from a shop window offering toothpaste and Dr. Dralle's birch water. A mannequin in the exact shape of an armless Clark Kent shows off its orthopedic socks. A hand painted sign promises a pair of children dancing the American two-step. They seem to wince with embarrassment, both at the ridiculous cowboy costumes they have to wear and at their own shoddy workmanship. Armless Edith and 250-kilogram Anita share none of these reservations, while the Frog man, really just a boy, surrounded by a ring of doctors, looks out at his audience with sly complicity as if to say, "You see, they do it to me too."

Štyrský's world is sui generis, but it isn't completely singular. It has a direct predecessor in Eugène Atget's shop windows and hushed streetscapes, and a descendant in Emila Medková's assemblages and landscapes of disfigured plaster. His stained walls return as the metaphysical backdrop to Jan Saudek's erotic tableaux. Genealogically, if Štyrský's work is a tree limb, Walker Evans's tattered road signs and polaroids of trash are its trunk. But something does set it apart. 

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes claimed that in the texture of a dirt road, in a photograph of a blind violinist by André Kertész, he could recognize with his whole body the straggling villages in Hungary and Romania he had passed through many years before. Looking at Štyrský's haphazardly painted signs and decrepit martyrs, I feel that the same thing is true: His photographs could only come from Central Europe. But with a minor difference: they come from a world of small towns teetering on the edge of a slapdash, second-rate modernity, like Schulz's Drohobycz, whose few concessions to metropolitan corruption only make it seem like a "paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year's moldering newspapers." This is a world that came into existence sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the avatars of portable modernity — the light bulb, safety bicycle and cinematograph — and lasted until the eve of the Second World War. It is a world of stasis, in which even new things appear ruined, and decay is the only measure of time. 

Štyrský's photographs seem to say: Decay is one of the ways in which dead things live. In Schulz's stories, too, it's the main way. Things breathe their own air and persist past their obsolescence. Living matter in Schulz turns out to be the furthest thing from Haeckel's oceans of animate protoplasm. Haeckel and his descendants searched for a vitalizing principle in matter, a way in which dead matter could cross over into life and become an infinitely malleable instrument in human hands. Schulz created a world in which everything is already alive. Matter isn't the missing link to life but its parody, and because it isn't serious, it isn't mortal. 

In Schulz's cosmos the Demiurge is in control of matter. In Platonic myth the Demiurge is a great maker, a craftsman who shapes the universe out of chaos. In Gnostic thought he is something else: a demon and a usurper who preempts the original universe of the spirit with his own world of putrid flesh. Because of him, as material beings, we are sentenced to the irrevocability of extinction. 

That's the side that Schulz's writing takes, against the spirit and for the rotten profusion and clumsiness of matter. His work is a doorway to one of the unexplored regions of existence: a universe built out of garbage and rubbish, whose creatures are by turn ridiculous and pathetic, not alive but not dead, and perpetually surprised by the labyrinth of night. 


LARB Contributor

Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.


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