Galician Vice: Unearthing Deviance & Masochism in Bruno Schulz
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default, Galician Vice:
Unearthing Deviance & Masochism in Bruno Schulz, ‘Meeting: A Young Jewish Man and Two Women in an Urban Alley’ by Bruno Schulz, 1920, oil on cardboard, 53 x 70 cm, from the collection of Muzeum Liter, center, spotkanie_bruno_schulz_reprodukcjaen.jpg
How far was famed author Bruno Schulz aware of and influenced by Sacher-Masoch, the name behind the term ‘masochism’ – and to what extent is ‘the Galician vice’ present in Schulz’s art and literature? And how do all these scandalous whispers connect with Franz Kafka? Culture.pl’s Juliette Bretan braces herself and investigates.
Bruno Schulz might have been an enigmatic writer – his works magical and fantastical – but he remained a son of Drohobycz through and through. Much has already been written about the way his stories are woven almost irrevocably into the fabric of his hometown and wider region.
But exploring his stories through the context of his local life might also expose other, shadier influences on his writing. Grounding a reading of Schulz’s work in the history of Galicia, the region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had come under Austrian rule, Bohdan Budurowycz argues there are some hidden allusions in the writer’s works:
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Schulz’s sketches reveal some of their author’s personality traits which come through only occasionally and almost furtively in his writings, namely his preoccupation with deviant sexuality.
Bohdan Budurowycz, 'Galicia in the Work of Bruno Schulz'
And this, Budurowycz suggests, can be attributed to the influence of one Galician figure alone:
It was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), a second-rate Austrian writer, who introduced Galicia to the West European reading public […] both [he and Schulz] – born within some fifty miles of each other – shared another peculiar affinity. While Sacher-Masoch was immortalised when a term derived from his name was added to the lexicon of sexual aberrations, Schulz also gained a certain notoriety because of his addiction to masochism […] Thus, what is sometimes referred to as le vice anglais could be called, with more justification, the Galician vice.
Bohdan Budurowycz, 'Galicia in the Work of Bruno Schulz'
The tantalising origins
Born in 1836 in Lviv, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch had appeared to live a conventional life. The son of the police chief of Lviv, he grew up at a time when Galicia was ethnically heterogeneous – and he, like Schulz, drew upon his own childhood experiences in his many works. Sacher-Masoch in fact once said he had ‘spent [his] childhood in a police residence’ – and Larry Wolff believes that ‘the darker side of police work – bondage, imprisonment, punishment, and especially flogging – may have made a particular impression on his youthful imagination’. Coupled with what Wolff calls the ‘brutally oppressive conditions of serfdom in Galicia’ during Sacher-Masoch’s childhood, his stories depict a distinctly perverse locale.
One of Sacher-Masoch’s most famous – and most sadistically Galician works – was the 1870 Venus in Furs, the story of a deviant sexual relationship between Wanda von Dunajev, a whip-wielding woman from Lviv, and her slave, the Galician nobleman Severin von Kusiemski, who was almost perpetually depicted as lying at her feet.
Written in a confessional style, the story was in fact inspired by Sacher-Masoch’s own experience of sexual perversion: in the 1860s, he had embarked upon an affair with a woman called Fanny Pistor, who agreed to wear furs and act cruelly towards him. In return, Sacher-Masoch was to be her manservant, allegedly adopting the name Gregor – a typical servant’s name of the time.
The fictional couple in Venus in Furs also agree a similar contract of duties to each other, with one of the clauses requiring Severin to again take on the name Gregor and act submissively – as Wolff puts it, ‘the Galician nobleman turned Galician slave’. Another section also demands that:
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Mme. von Dunajev on her behalf agrees to appear as often as possible in her furs, especially when she purposes some cruelty toward her slave.
Trans. Gertrud Lenzer
Along with obvious ties to Sacher-Masoch’s experiences, the agreements in this contract also bring to mind another Eastern European author – not Schulz, but Franz Kafka.
In particular, it evokes Kafka’s short story Metamorphosis, in which a character called Gregor finds he has become an insect:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin […] His room, a proper human room although a little too small, lay peacefully between its four familiar walls. A collection of textile samples lay spread out on the table – Samsa was a travelling salesman – and above it there hung a picture that he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and housed in a nice, gilded frame. It showed a lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa who sat upright, raising a heavy fur muff that covered the whole of her lower arm towards the viewer.
Trans. David Wyllie
The ties between Sacher-Masoch and Kafka also go deeper than fur. Kafka’s works are saturated with sadomasochistic behaviour, from the eternal, nightmarish torment of The Trial, to the fixation on power, subordination and humiliation in Description of a Struggle.
But the connections in Metamorphosis are far more explicit, with the motif of transformation coming across in the title, which evokes Severin’s – and Sacher-Masoch’s - embodiment of a ‘vermin’ of a slave. F. M. Kuna even suggests there is more to the name connection between Sacher-Masoch and Kafka:
If all the evidence points to Kafka’s Gregor being a symbolic name, in the manner indicated, then the temptation is great to read Gregor’s surname, SAMSA, as an anagrammatic abbreviation of the first masochist’s name SACHER-MASOCH. That the last two letters had to be turned round is of course due to Kafka’s well-known practice of making the names of some of his heroes rhythmically consonant with his own name […] the elaborate allusion is not so much a ‘literary’ one as an allusion to an actual life situation.
F. M. Kuna, ‘Art as Direct Vision: Kafka and Sacher-Masoch’
And it is the symbol of fur in Metamorphosis which appears to cinch the association. According to George Colpitts, the fur industry boomed in the western world in the late 19th century – he thinks ‘it might not be simply coincidental that in the period when many women were wearing fur that libidinous associations with it and slang terminology around female genitalia […] emerged in the English lexicon by 1921’.
Significantly, Schulz also uses fur as a symbol of power and authority, with his drawings including women swathed in fur-like clothing. And, in his short story August in The Street of Crocodiles, a description of the ‘fox-fur of a nobleman’s coat’ is used to describe acacia trees. This primarily evokes the nobleman Severin, but the ancient symbolism of the acacia tree with gods and goddesses could also recollect the introduction of the character Adela a few lines before, who is first described as being like the goddess of fruitful abundance, Pomona. And this, of course, links back to the powerful, authoritative Venus of Sacher-Masoch.
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Masochism in Mitteleuropa
But if sadomasochism was so pervasive in European literature of the late 19th and early 20th century is there more of a connection to Schulz than brief flashes of fur?
Aside from the fact that Schulz was known as ‘The Polish Kafka’ for his similar labyrinthine, eccentric descriptions, Russell E. Brown argues that animal transformations in Schulz also recall Kafka’s Metamorphosis, along with, crucially, the Schulzian obsession with a father figure – who becomes an animal.
As Ariko Kato notes, at the time Schulz was writing, Freudian theory – which is, of course, tied to regression and oedipal tendencies – was becoming increasingly popular in Poland. Freud was writing in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which Lviv was also located:
Since the first decade of the twentieth century, Freudian theories, like the novels of Sacher-Masoch, have been translated into Polish. In 1936, in the second open letter to Schulz, Gombrowicz wrote, ‘I know that if someone today talks about thighs, people say Freud and that’s all.’ […] In 1937, the Encyclopedia of Sexology was published in Warsaw […] the article titled ‘Literature and Pshycoanalysis’ in the Polish encyclopedia described Schulz as one of the writers influenced by Freudian theory, along with Witkacy.
Ariko Kato, 'The Early Graphic Works of Bruno Schulz and Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs'
A very Mitteleuropean sadomasochism could thus be seen as being at work, and the importance of local backgrounds is also central to the three writers – all of whom were from towns in Austro-Hungary. Larysa Tsybenko argues that a polyglot culture existed in Galicia, the home of Sacher-Masoch and Schulz:
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[Sacher-Masoch’s] knowledge of many languages and the natural talent of a story teller helped the language in which [he] writes to shape up, perhaps for the first time in Austrian literature, into a linguistic phenomenon characteristic of multicultural spaces – a phenomenon later manifested in the work of […] the German-language Joseph Roth and the Polish-language Bruno Schulz. This phenomenon provided Sacher-Masoch’s individual style with a particular expressiveness, endowing his language with a characteristic polyphony.
And, as Budurowycz says of Schulz’s works: ‘even his manner of writing – long, elaborate sentences, a sometimes convoluted style, and frequent use of foreign words – is akin to the Austro-Galician officialese, with its obscure, pretentiously wordy phrasing.’
The mention of ‘officialese’ again evokes those motifs of power present in Sacher-Masoch and Kafka. And the emphasis on language also points towards the diverse identities of the writers – Sacher-Masoch was Austrian, but mainly wrote about the eclectic Galicia; Kafka was a German-speaking Jew in Prague, and Schulz was a Polish Jewish writer, working at a time when 1/3 of people living in Poland had declared themselves ethnic minorities.
Incidentally, when Venus in Furs was translated into Polish in 1913 – with further translations in 1919 – this multi-ethnic pattern appeared to occur again. In the Polish version, Wanda was rewritten as coming from Russia, rather than Lviv, with the exoticism of Galicia seen through the eyes of an Austrian removed. As Ariko Kato notes, one professor from Jagiellonian University even criticised Sacher-Masoch for claiming Slavs were masochists.
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Venus in Schulz
But there’s another, more prominent, bond between Sacher-Masoch and Schulz. Schulz’s famous drawings, picked out in glowing cliché-verre, have explicit echoes of the Austrian writer’s sadomasochist ideas, with depictions in The Book of Idolatry showing men grovelling at the feet of haughty eroticised women.
Allegedly, Schulz even once said they were intended as illustrations for a new translation of Venus in Furs.
But in either case, the connection between the drawings and Sacher-Masoch’s novel cannot be underemphasised. According to Kato, the women in his works also ‘have iconographic references to Goddess Venus’, with some early drawings including the name ‘Venus’ in their titles, and others linked to symbols of the goddess, like spring.
Kato also suggests the character of Undula, who often appears in Schulz’s drawings, resembles Wanda from Venus in Furs. Jeszcze raz Undula depicts Undula with her hair tied up and a man at her feet, echoing the introduction of Wanda in Sacher-Masoch, when she appears like a painting, with ‘knotted hair’. Kato also points out that ‘given the contextual backdrop, we can also discern that the hairstyle is similar to that of the statue of Venus’.
Incidentally, according to Wolff, knotted or matted hair had also became ‘a characteristic pathology of Eastern Europe’ after the 19th-century disease Plica Polonica.
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But the Polish side to the story goes on: Theodosia Robertson suggests that Undula is also the counterpart to Adela – the rhythmic connections between the names also evoke Kuna’s analysis of Gregor Samsa, and could be reminiscent of Wanda too. The character of Adela is often cited as the central link between Sacher-Masoch and Schulz: she wields an intense domination over the house, despite being only a servant.
As the goddess Pomona’s representative, she is first described as bringing in sustenance for a house which itself stands ‘in Market Square’. She seems to embody the role of tantalising middleman between producer and consumer: the food she handles has ‘a yet undefined taste’, remaining on the cusp of satisfaction, and later, Adela also enacts this desire, with her ‘tickling’ finger in Birds allowing her own body to transform into an enticing – if tormenting – commodity.
Other historians and literary critics working on the period corroborate the idea of titillation in the modern era: Allison Pease’s work on modernism and mass culture implies covetousness can descend into the pornographic, with the distance between observer and observed collapsing in an ecstatic climax. She references Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) to indicate the modern mass who ‘[absorb] the work of art’ and steadily move closer to the desired – and with Schulz’s drawings imbued by erotic suggestiveness, this analysis works to stress a sadomasochistic reading of his art and literature. Adela too is described as wielding a ‘limitless’ power – evoking the pornographic repudiation of distance Pease describes.
But Kato’s reference to the popularity of Freud in Interwar Poland also brings another sadomasochistic link to the fore. According to the Encyclopedia of Sexology from 1937 which she references – and which was published just after Schulz had published his two collections of short stories – masochism was linked to fetishism, particularly for boots.
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Doctor Jan Kochanowski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), Roman Jasiński & Bruno Schulz in Jan Kochanowski's apartment on Wiejska Street in Warsaw, circa 1934, photo: Jan Kochanowski / archive of Elżbieta Jasińska / Fotonova / East News
Budorowycz also suggests Schulz had a ‘classical type of masochism, connected, as it so often is, with foot fetishism’ – he quotes one of Schulz’s close friends, the more explicitly controversial artist Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, who is reported to have said:
For Schulz, the female instrument of oppression over males is the leg. . . . With their legs Schulz’s females stamp on, torture, and drive to desperate, helpless fury his dwarfish, humiliated and sex-tormented male freaks, who find in their own degradation the highest form of agonised bliss.
Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz
This foot fetishism clearly comes across in Schulz’s drawings, but his short stories also hint at this sexual deviancy. The mention of Adela’s tickling finger in fact forces the father figure – her employer – to his knees, reversing the roles of slave and master; he is also driven to ‘the point of madness’ by anything similar to a ‘leg’, including Adela’s ‘long-handled broom’.
How fixed was Schulz’s Galician vice?
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'Jeszcze Raz Undula', Bruno Schulz's drawing, photo: National Museum of Art in Kraków
In keeping with Pease, Kato thus suggests that whilst Sacher-Masoch and Schulz in turn were inspired by Venus in their works, theirs was a very modern twist on the goddess, with the subject placed in contemporary settings. She thus argues that Schulz’s allusions to Venus could be considered a part of his parodic style of historical paintings, with his self-portraits working to undercut high art, by replacing devotion to the goddesses of mythology with a devotion to naked women.
Recalling the two interwoven narratives in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs – one from the present, and one from the past – she argues that both artists thus challenged the mimetic idea of a representative artwork. This begs the question of whether fiction and reality overlap in his works too.
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Kato mentions that at the beginning of Gombrowicz’s open letter, the writer quoted ‘a possibly fictitious comment’ by a doctor’s wife:
Bruno Schulz, she said, he’s either a sick pervert or a poseur, but most probably a poseur. He’s only pretending.
Comment cited by Gombrowicz
She goes on to say the idea of a ‘Schulz-masochist’ may well, therefore, have been a type of ‘intellectual play among Schulz’s contemporaries’.
‘Schulz, to some extent,’ she concludes, ‘played his part as a masochist – a part that was given to him – in Polish literary circles.’
Thus, one could say the titillating transformations don’t stop with the perverse fiction of Mitteleuropa.
Written by Juliette Bretan
20th century polish literature
20th century polish art
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Sources: ‘Nationalizing Sacher-Masoch: A Curious Case Of Cultural Reception In Russia And Ukraine’ by Vitaly Chernetsky, 2008; ‘On Masochism: A Contribution to the History of a Phantasy and Its Theory’ by Gertrud Lenzer, 1975;‘The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture’ by Larry Wolff, 2010; ‘Art as Direct Vision: Kafka and Sacher-Masoch’ by F.M. Kuna, 1972;‘The Early Graphic Works of Bruno Schulz and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs: Schulz as a Modernist in (Un)masking Bruno Schulz’ by Ariko Kato, edited by Dieter De Bruyn, Kris van Heuckelom, 2009.