Image as Non-silent Poetry. Bruno Schulz and Female Legs or Two Aesthetic Antitheses
Already at that time a shapely female shoe attracted and bothered many men’s hearts. For example, in the Bible we can read about Judith and Holofernes: “her beautiful shoes dazzled him.”
(Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge: for Doctors, Lawyers and Sociologists. Warsaw, 1937)
In Brunon Schulz’s The Idolatrous Booke, men are absorbed by the sight of women’s feet and shoes. The men in Schulz’s entire prose are characterised by a weakness for female legs. The father, the hero of a story entitled The Treatise on Mannequins from The Cinnamon Shops, is looking at Adela’s feet in black stockings for a long time in order to finally give in to their charm.
“My father stood up slowly with his eyes lowered, made a step forward like an automaton and dropped to his knees.”
Those who knew Schulz personally often mention the fact that the writer would frequently assume the poses of the men described in his works. Maria Budratzka-Tempele remembers that when she was posing for her portrait, Schulz most liked her dress “made of velvet with black and green georgette”, “shoes – black lacquer with green fabric” and black silk stockings . The model also recounts an event when the poet drunk wine from her shoe . This happened in 1919, i.e. a year after Schulz’s return from Vienna. At that time, he joined a group of art lovers founded by Jewish youth; Budratzka was a founder of this group.
Another event is also known, recollected by the daughter of Schulz’s friend, Irena Kejlin-Mitelman, which was later interpreted as proof of the writer’s masochistic nature. The woman wrote that Schulz suddenly walked in front of the easel and fell to her feet in a pose which is often assumed by the men presented in his graphics .
A similar event of 1927 is recounted by Adam Ważyk. During a meeting with young girls in Zakopane, “Schulz sometimes amused us by pretending to be a chimpanzee, and at other time, he would suddenly curl himself up at the feet of Miss X, persiflaging his own drawings” . According to Ola Watowa, writers of the inter-war period believed Schulz to be a masochist on account of his drawings . However, Ważyk suspected that this was just an attempt to copy or to play the role of the masochists and fetishists who proliferated in the graphics of the author of The Cinnamon Shops.
The gestures of Schulz and other men from these graphics, made with respect to a female’s legs and shoes, are nothing new. Edward and Otto, the main heroes of Elective Affinities (1809) of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, discuss the charms of the female leg. Goethe’s literature and philosophy had great impact of Schulz’s creativity. When speaking of Charlotte, Edward’s wife, Otto notices: “A beautiful foot is a great gift of nature; its charm is indestructible. I looked at this leg today – I am still willing to kiss her shoe, emulating this slightly barbaric, yet passionate manner of expressing adoration by the members of Polish gentry, for whom there is supposedly nothing more wonderful than to drink to the health of a beloved and admired person from her shoe.”
Drinking alcohol from the shoe of a beloved woman is also included in the Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge: for Doctors, Lawyers and Sociologists (Warsaw, 1937), which is a translation of the German Handwörterbuch der Sexualwissenschaft (Bonn, 1923) and which was supplemented by a Pole. In an article entitled But i trzewik the author, under the name of ‘Scheuer’, writes: “In Poland, drinking wine out of the bride’s shoe was a very popular custom” . It is conceivable that in the German version, the author of this article referred to the above-quoted Elective Affinities by Goethe. Schulz might have been inspired by the same source, when he was raising the wine-filled shoe of Budratzka to his lips.
In Elective Affinities, there is a scene where a man kisses a woman’s shoe – an image well known from Schulz’s graphics. “[Edward] fell to his knees in front of her [Charlotte] and she could not stop him from kissing her shoes, and when he was left with it in his hand, he grabbed her foot and gently pressed to his chest” . The image of a man kneeling in front of a woman and holding her shoe in his hand also appears in the excellent novel of Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), Venus in Furs (1870). The novel became an inspiration to write The Idolatrous Booke . The main hero and narrator, Seweryn, the son of a Galicia landowner, knelt before the beloved Wanda, a young and beautiful window from Lviv, “caught her foot and kissed it.” However, Wanda ran away, and “I was left only with her charming shoe in my hand,” complains the hero. Masoch’s Venus in Furs has rich literary connotations, starting from the Bible to Goethe’s Faustus. The image of a kneeling man holding a woman’s shoe in his hand is also a reference to the scene with Edward presented in the above-mentioned fragment of Goethe’s Elective Affinities.
Numerous well-known examples of man’s fetishist approach to female shoes and legs can also be found in German literature. This phenomenon is also known in Polish literature, whereas Schulz is a continuator and reviver of this literary motif. This manner of expressing love is practiced not only by literary characters created by Schulz; in real life, Schulz makes similar gestures. This behaviour is to be interpreted in an inter-textual manner in relation to other works.
In this context, we cannot overlook the antithesis posed by Schulz. By his masochistic or fetishist behaviour, he was emulating persons presented in his works. Therefore, the author re-presents his work of art. In this manner, he demonstrates the antithesis against the fact that “a work of art is emulation of nature.” Schulz’s episode with Kejlin-Mitelman, analysed from this prospect, shows yet another aspect of this problem. Walking from behind the easel in order to lie down next to the model’s feet, Schulz simply walked into his own drawing, thereby blurring the border between fiction and reality or completely ignoring it. Schulz is an author who, being the subject of his creativity, at the same time was becoming its object. He was the creator and the creative material, the director and the actor, for whom there was no division into reality and the world of artistic creation. Art was an integral part of the world for the writer. And vice-versa. The real world was a part of a given work of art.
The most interesting aspect is how Schulz renews and undertakes the motif of a man looking at female legs. This motif appears in all of his works, from graphics from the 1920’s to short stories from the 1930’s. The relation between men and women in his creativity is often interpreted in the category of visual relation, i.e. men are described as observing subjects and women as objects of such observation. The relation between both sexes is non-returnable, and there is no physical contact.
However, few researchers noticed that the shape of this relation had changed in mid 1930’s, which is clearly visible in short-stories written after the publication of The Cinnamon Shops (1933). Legs ceased to be the passive object of male observation. They started “to speak.”
In a short-story entitled Spring from The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass collection, there is a fragment published originally in the Skamander magazine in 1936.
And then legs are revealed: crossed and intertwined in a white shape full of irresistible expression, and young walkers, passing them by, go silent and grow pale, stuck by the pertinence of the argument, deeply convinced and defeated. (154)
Legs have a shape that is “meaningful.” The “shape” argues and convinces the observers, who even “go silent” with respect to this “shape.” The visual item plays a verbal function, whereas the observer ceases to be the subject of narration. The subject of narration is not the only one describing the object of observation, whereas the object of observation is given a “voice.”
A similar manner of personification of female legs can be observed in a short story entitled The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass published in Wiadomości Literackie in 1935.
Under the sanction of this faith, the body is becoming more beautiful, whereas legs, flexible legs in immaculate shoes, are speaking by their gait, explain eagerly the liquid, glossy monologue of stepping into the richness of the idea which is passed over in silence by the face closed due to pride. They hold their hands in the pockets of short, tight jackets. In cafés and in theatres, they cross their legs exposed up to their knees and they remain silent in a meaningful way. (266)
Here, legs also “explain”, soliloquise and “remain silent in a meaningful way.” The relation between a man and a woman, i.e. between an observer and an object of observation, becomes interactive and equal. The object of observation was provided with its own “language.”
Europe has had the tradition of comparisons between art genres, for example between literature and poetry. Horatio’s words “Ut pictura poesis” (Horatio, Ars poetica, 361) and “Painting is the silent poetry and poetry is the speaking painting” of Simonides of Keos (Plutarch, Molarii, 17F-18A, 58B, 346F-347A). Poetry speaks, whereas painting remains silent. These statements hide certain a logo-centric hierarchy, i.e. the superiority of poetry over painting.
Schulz put forward an antithesis against this traditional hierarchy. According to Schulz, the object of sight also “speaks.” “Painting is speaking poetry” - this is the thesis contained in Schulz’s motif of a man looking at female legs.