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The Seasons, Bruno Schulz, and Our World in Metamorphosis

By Kat Mulligan



Night after enduring night, I liberated myself to the streets which were irritated with months’ worth of ice. To Rachmaninoff preludes and Tchaikovsky ballets, I milled around the city in contemplation, extracting loose scraps of poetry from every stately building and hurried pedestrian. Even as I played the role of the tortured artist, with my cheeks rouged to a consumptive glow by the harsh Montreal wind and a scowl embittering my lips as a result, I could not have been more invigorated. After having suffered the weight of many winters’ numbnesses, I had finally discovered this time around the secret to surviving the earth’s least popular season: you must resign yourself to its claws.


With my summer spent in a constant state of socialization and my autumn spent winding down and trying my hand at love, by the winter I had returned to what I always knew—symmetry is the stuff of pleasure, and for my many months of elation I had to balance the scales. Whether or not we like to admit it, beauty exhausts us in time; winter arrives to alleviate this pressure. In spiritual hibernation, unobserved, we become familiar with ourselves again.


This talk of seasonal transition brings me to Bruno Schulz, who, by cruel design, has not lived to see these winters, springs, summers, and autumns of which he has aided my enjoyment. Bruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish artist and writer, one of the three titans of the Polish literary avant-garde of the twentieth century, whom I discovered on Goodreads while in the throes of a Polish literature craze. Often named the Polish Kafka (although many scholars and readers alike, myself included, hesitate to adopt this title), he was known for his slim body of short fiction work, in which a sole protagonist named Joseph hops from story to story, navigating a variety of ages and fantastical scenarios. A theme I have been turning over in my head since my first read of his work is his concept of material metamorphosis.

Schulz’s writing is characterized by a deep reverence for all matter, whether constructed into living beings or inanimate objects. This reverence stems from his idea that all matter undergoes a constant metamorphosis in order to return to its metaphysical essence. Matter is perfect, and it is merely the forms that portray it that are inadequate. Therefore, this distortion is a necessary process in the laying bare of our surroundings. In “Essay for S.I. Witkiewicz,” Schulz explains that, “the substance of that reality exists in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life. It contains no dead, hard, limited objects. Everything diffuses beyond its borders, remains in a given shape only momentarily, leaving this shape behind at the first opportunity… This migration of forms is the essence of life” (Letters, 113).


Since all matter is subject to change, can we not also say that the seasons undergo this very same metamorphosis? After the cold of winter relents, in comes spring; it is the same earth, only wearing a different face. Its form, in varying states, is a shroud thrown over an unchanging core.

The geographical location also determines the face a season wears. Spring in Canada is a trial wholly unlike that of spring in Virginia, where I grew up. My best friend once told me that I, a March baby, was born in winter—but where I’m from, my birthday was always the herald of spring, when we would flock to the outdoors and recognize an otherworldly optimism rolling in from out of town. Spring here, on the other hand, lasts only a few weeks and follows a tug-of-war between the clouds and the sun, where one feels as though they are stumbling through a tunnel whose end merely suggests light. It is as if winter were stubbornly bleeding out onto the land that its knuckles are whitening around.


With Canadian spring feeling more like a concept than a reality, we could liken it to a subdivision of Schulz’s metamorphic matter. Not only are tangible forms given reverent attention, but so are what Schulz names pseudo-flora and pseudo-fauna. One cannot touch these things of second-order creation and they are liable to be missed by distraction, but they are all the more essential in maintaining the organism of our world. These are the “old apartments saturated with the emanations of numerous existences and events; used up atmospheres, rich in the specific ingredients of human dreams; rubbish heaps, abounding in the humus of memories, of nostalgia, and of sterile boredom” (Tailors’ Dummies, 37). Pseudo-flora and pseudo-fauna also belong to the metamorphosis that Schulz describes. As quickly as the moonlight strains through the battered roof of a farmhouse and inspires awe, so does it, too, vanish into the black clot of night.

Next, summer arrives, and unmistakably—in full force, like a tangible object. As was the case in winter, I set my mind to following the tenets of this more attractive season. I swam in the river under a willow tree until a Jean Drapeau park ranger reprimanded me for my indulgence; I pirouetted around NDG and served lemon posset on my balcony; I chased my friends to the swing set at midnight as my mouth brimmed with laughter. The trick, though, about summer—which, as it turns out, is not the case for winter—is that to resign oneself to the season is to live in unawareness and folly. Our hibernal period of contemplation is over. The soul abounds without thinking why or how.


Despite the unique sluggishness of spring and the seemingly inexorable snow showers innate in Montreal, our planet knows how to arrange itself in proper doses. The seasons come at the right time. Too much summer seduces the soul into distraction, too much winter drowns it. In our particular geographical location, we have four even, bite-sized slices of atmosphere to chew on until full. How would we orient ourselves otherwise? A wet and dry season is not enough for someone like me, who chronicles time through the environment. We must watch things die in front of us, rub at our chapped hands, wonder when the rain will let up.


In Schulz’s work, nothing is belittled. Like the seasons, matter presents itself in a balance and therefore must be respected regardless of its current manifestation. Schulz treats Joseph’s father, a tree, a peasant girl, and a mysterious sanatorium with equal gentleness, recognizing how, in an instant, they could be swallowed by either nobler or humbler forms. While we cherish beings of first-order creation (beings easily cared for, with immediately recognizable beauty, created with love by a higher power) without much thought, Schulz sought to elevate the backwater, so to speak, to admiration—those forgotten scraps thrown out by the imperfect, incomplete world. For a tailor’s dummy he showed great pity, plagued by the thought that humans, in their unawareness of the slippery shapes around them and the inherent life imbued in them, are wont to maim these dummies with pins. As if turning over a rock to reveal a colony of bugs, Schulz illuminated through his writing a marbled reality in full rapture, twisted up and blended by change.


Unlike many acclaimed writers of his day, Schulz lived provincially for his whole life in the town of Drohobycz (a territory of the Second Polish Republic at the time, now part of Western Ukraine). It was there that he, on the 19th of November, 1942, was shot by a Gestapo officer in the city’s ghetto while carrying a loaf of bread back home. It was the day before he planned to flee the ghetto to safety. But Schulz, despite living in and dying by the forces of one of the most wicked eras of history, did not write such oozing, dark prose as a result of his circumstances. Rather, he intended his work to be a declaration of life, a manifesto for the unconquerable vigor in all of us, delivered in odes to the underdogs of our reality—the ambivalent fathers, the small creatures, the sooty backrooms in disuse.


Finally, as August’s gummy heat tempers into a crisp wind blowing into September, I would like to remember Schulz’s teachings. Although he grappled with much loftier topics than the back to school season, it is worth pausing to examine our surroundings in flux, to appreciate what is discarded and what is ushered into the new season, and to remind ourselves that no form that captures the atmosphere is permanent. There is no reason to fear the dwindling heat or the encroaching frost. The earth, in its palatable summertime, was only recently a diamond glittering on the finger of someone soaring with the bliss of matrimony. Now, as the temperature’s descent requires a bit more strength from us, the earth metamorphosizes into a high mark earned after a string of red-eyed library nights, a joy fiercely won. Again and again, no matter the insufficient forms it comes packaged in, all will cease to be the same as it was. However, with care, we may open ourselves to this change. The leaves will abandon the canopy, the sky will bruise, we will yearn for beauty, and finally, with patience, we will once again possess it.



Works Cited


Goddard, Michael. Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism, and the Subversion of Form. Purdue University Press, 2010. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/17342.


Kuprel, Diana. “Errant Events on the Branch Tracks of Time: Bruno Schulz and Mythical Consciousness.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, 1996, pp. 100–17. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/308499.


Schonle, Andreas, and Bruno Schulz. “Of Sublimity, Shrinkage, and Selfhood in the Works of Bruno Schulz.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, no. 3, 1998, pp. 467–82. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/309683.


Schulz, Bruno. Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz: With Selected Prose. Fromm International, 1990.


Schulz, Bruno. The Street of Crocodiles. Penguin Books, 1997.

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