Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bruno Schulz: Wisdom from "The Street of Crocodiles"

     I recently found a book called "The Street of Crocodiles" by an author named Bruno Schulz, who was shot dead by Nazis on a sidewalk of the Polish village where he grew up.  Shulz's book tells the story of life in this village and describes what it was like growing up with a crazy father (a man who imported rare bird eggs and hatched them in his attic) and other odd characters like a half-wit girl Touya who slept on a mattress in some bushes at the edge of the village.  Before he goes on to describe these people and this place Schulz reflects on what makes certain memories stand out.  It's one of the best explanations I've ever read about why certain memories stick with us so strongly, while others just seem to disappear.  His insights go much deeper but I can't attempt to do them justice so I'll let him speak for himself.  

"I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us.  They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the world crystalizes for us. They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life...
Such images constitute a program, establish our soul's fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings. It seems to me that the rest of our life passes in the interpretation of those insights, in the attempt to master them with all the wisdom we acquire, to draw them through all the range of intellect we have in our possession.  These early images mark the boundaries of an artist's creativity. His creativity is a deduction from assumptions already made. He cannot now discover anything new; he learns only to understand more and more the secret entrusted to him at the beginning, and his art is a constant exegesis, a commentary on that single verse that was assigned him.  But art will never unravel that secret completely.  The secret remains insoluble. The knot in which the soul was bound is no trick knot, coming apart with a tug at its end. On the contrary, it grows tighter and tighter. We work at it, untying, tracing the path of the string, seeking the end, and out of this manipulating comes art" (20).

Translated by Jerzy Ficowski

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