Bruno Schulz, Witkacy and Jerzy Ficowski

I attended a conference this morning, on the life and work of the writer illustrator Bruno Schulz.

One of the guests at the conference, the wife of the poet Jerzy Ficowski spoke about her husband’s life-long fascination and search for Schulz’ work. Towards the end of her talk, she read a quote from a letter that Bruno Schulz wrote to Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy):

I think that the rationalization of the vision of things rooted in the work of art is like the demasking of actors. It is the end of the game, it is the impoverishment of the question of the work. Not because art is an anagram with a hidden key [and] philosophy is this same anagram–solved. The difference is more profound. In the work of art the umbilical cord is not yet cut that joins it to the whole of the problem. The blood of the mystery is still circulating; the ends of the vessels escape into the surrounding night and return full of dark fluid. 


Sklepy Cynamonowe [Cinnamon Shops] was published in 1934, and is available in English translation as The Street of Crocodiles. The conference included the screening of a film with that title by the Quay brothers that was inspired by Schulz’ work.

After reading Sklepy Cynamonowe, Ficowski sent a letter of gratitude and admiration to Schulz, who likely never received it due to the tragic circumstances of nazi occupation. Bruno Schulz was killed by a Gestapo officer on the streets of the Jewish ghetto in Drohobycz in 1942. Ficowski tried to collect and make available as much of Schulz’ work as possible, but some of his work, such as The Messiah, was never recovered.

The second film screened was a documentary interview with Jerzy Ficowski, Amulety i definicje czyli szkic do portretu Jerzego Ficowskiego. The documentary ends with the following Ficowski lyric:

I’m a poet, I patch the holes in umbrellas with raindrops.

[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from  May 05, 2007 ]

Miłosz on Herbert Marcuse

Miłosz dedicates an entire chapter of his Visions from San Francisco Bay to Herbert Marcuse. The chapter begins with a quote from One Dimensional Man

The quantification of nature, which led to its explication in terms of mathematical structures, separated reality from all inherent ends and, consequently, separated the true from the good, science from ethics … Then the precarious ontological link between Logos and Eros is broken, and scientific rationality emerges as essentially neutral.


Miłosz originally published the polish version of the Visions from San Francisco Bay in 1969, they are reflections on a particularly significant period in American history which he happened to have spent at University of California, Berkeley. He notices that Marcuse was especially popular among young Americans, struggling with identifying the source of their discontent


It is very difficult to live feeling that reality is covered by a veil or multitude of veils that one tries to draw aside in order to get at something “firm” – but the veils are invisible, moving, slippery; they elude names because their perversity is so great that they are transformed as often as they are named. Comedy and terror flow over them in waves of images of the absurd. Under such conditions, not far from schizophrenia (one of whose symptoms is that a schizophrenic may see a tree but it is not completely real; a real tree is expected to appear any moment, but it never quite does), Marcuse comes forth and says: This happened because you are unfree.


The description of our socialization and knowledege as a source of bondage, as well as the call towards ‘negation’ as a path towards freedom is reminiscient of another sage teaching around California during this time, Jiddu Krishnamurti.


The tyranny oppressing you does not have any command center in any palace or castle, no one has planned it and it need not resort to orders and prohibitions. But the control which is exercised over you is total, for you have been transformed from within – your mind, your emotions, your desires do not belong to you, they have been imposed by society’s rituals. If you want to be free, the first step must be the realization that any of your reflections on daily life, on man, are not independent, since the material at your disposal, the material of your perceptions and ideas, is not your own as you believe. It is not with the world that you are communicating but with your own civilization, which disguises itself and passes itself off as the world. So let conciousness discover how and by what means you are manipulated. That can be done.

The instrument of control employed by the collective is language – spoken, written, pictorial. The information that language transmits can be evaluated with relative ease, but the dislocations of meaning brought about in language by the elimination of certain expressions, the inverting of concepts, even through syntax, are much more difficult to perceive. Marcuse considers the analysis of language to be the principal task, although he seems not to have any doubts about the somewhat daunting dimensions of such an enterprise. He attacks language that breaks the reality we perceive into fragments of “facts”, since that language fully supports a cow-like view of the world – we don’t know what a cow staring at a passing automobile thinks, but we sense that it is something on the order of a pure statement: it’s there, nothing more than that. According to Marcuse, there is a close connection between the colloquial language that fashions everyone imperceptibly and the limitations of the philosophers it has also fashioned.

To the delight of his young readers, Marcuse concentrates his attack on positivist philosophy, powerful in American universities, and especially despised by the students. For that philosophy renders any longing for a coherent world view impossible and derides that longing as well. “Values detached from objective reality become subjective,” to use Marcuse’s words, and what is subjective is not considered philosophical. The young turn away from such linguistic games, which they find sterile – a healthy impulse on their part, for what sort of philosophy would investigate a valueless, cow-like world? But they are then condemned to dangle in the void of their own subjectivity, an all-consuming relativism from which neither hallucinogens nor Eastern religions will save them. According to Marcuse, however, positivist philosophy is not an innocent exercise practiced by armchair sages. In agreement with science in a common contempt for Eros – values, detached and banished – it strives to perfect the language of technological domination

source: Visions from San Francisco Bay, (1985 translation by Richard Lourie) p.187-


Miłosz admits a common tradition and ‘early acquired habits’ with Marcuse, the conviction that a marriage of Logos and Eros is necessary to understanding the human condition. However, Miłosz also struggles with the contradiction in Marcuse, “To consider the citizens of any country, as Marcuse does, depraved creatures, blameless idiots but idiots nonetheless, is to condemn oneself to intellectual arrogance”.

[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Jan  16, 2007]

Czesław Miłosz 

Czesław Miłosz begins his 1980 Nobel lecture by referring to the Polish series Biblioteka Laureatów Nobla [The Library of the Nobel Laureates].

In the Captive Mind, Miłosz writes about totalitarianism from his experiences of the nazi occupation of Poland, the tragic Warsaw uprising and subsequent communist Poland. The book recounts the stories of four Polish artist intellectuals. Although their names are disguised with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta; it is common knowledge that they refer to Jerzy AndrzejewskiTadeusz BorowskiJerzy Putrament and Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński.

The Captive Mind opens with a reference to Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz‘ novel Insatiability and the pill of Murti Bing. Miłosz describes the communist totalitarian system fighting against religion in an attempt to establish a system based purely on ‘reason and science’. With religion out of the way, the authorities hoped to have the ability to justify morally unjust acts through appeal to the objective, inevitable and reasonable course of history. Czeslaw Miłosz described scientific laws and theories as bridges of understanding; bridges over an infinite abyss that is our own mortality. Faced with the realization of that mortality, many turn to prayer and artistic representations of spirituality.

In the 1960s, Miłosz became a professor of slavic languages and literatures at the University of California, where he wrote a real gem of a book that blends and weaves the history of philosophy, politics and literature The History of Polish Literature.

[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from May 05, 2006 – Feb 28, 2007]

Halina Poświatowska

When I read Halina Poświatowska’s poetry for the first time was the first time that I truly felt touched by someone’s writing. It was not until much later that I learned that she died at such a young age of 32. Fortunately, she left us much extaordinary poetry that is filled with images, thoughts and sensations all wrapped in what has always seemed to me like some sort of cosmic onomatopoeia.

Her poetry can be found online . Marek Lugowski published his translations of her work online, which is where I found this one:


untitled (“the sidewalk quilted with flowers…”)
——————————————————the sidewalk quilted with flowers has turned green
and Kant himself is as the radishes fresh and fragrant
I am biting their flesh apart and testing on my tongue
the sharp taste of the argument

I swallow philosophy
someone once warned
that wisdom is to be chewed into single strands
I drink love in gulps
and when it is called for
I have more tears than an oceanful

whiteness — the alchemy of water and soap
greenery — the tangled nerve conduits of plants
in two clenched fists I hold the not understood world
meanwhile outside the window the dawn rises like a river
and in the market the stands are taken into heaven by the row.

Polish text Copyright 1989 Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków, Poland:

***(“zazielenil sie chodnik haftowany w kwiaty…”)

zazielenił się chodnik haftowany w kwiaty
i Kant jest jak rzodkiewki świeży i pachnący
rozgryzam miąższ i na języku czuję
smak ostry argumentu

połykam filozofię
ktoś ostrzegał
że mądrość należy przeżuwać na pojedyncze włókna
haustami piję miłość
a gdy trzeba
mam wiecej łez niż ocean

biel — alchemia mydła i wody
zieleń — splątane nerwy łodyg
w obydwu zaciśniętych dłoniach trzymam świat niepojęty
a tymczasem za oknem świt wzbiera jak rzeka
i na rynku stragany w niebo wstępują rzedem

Halina Poświatowska, Polish, d. 11 oct 1967.
translation by Marek Lugowski


I remember trying to write a translation of this poem myself, and found it very difficult because the sound of Poświatowska’s words in Polish resonate for me with some mysterious rhythm and harmony which seems subdued when tranformed into English… Many of her expressions seem untranslatable; I would have translated “splątane nerwy łodyg” as “tangled branch nerves”, instead of Lugowski’s choice of “the tangled nerve conduits of plants”… Here is one more:


untitled (“when they put down pavement everywhere”)
————————————————————-when they put down pavement everywhere
trim and explain every tree
jasmine as jasmine and maple as maple
hope is of color green
and does blossom prettier than a flower

never again will I comprehend what the symbols denote
the plaza is all paved now
there is no room left for the literal
in words
in formalized signs
in gestures

when they put down pavement everywhere
silent will go
my enduring heart

Polish text Copyright 1989 Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków, Poland:

***(“kiedy juz wszedzie poloza bruk”)

kiedy już wszędzie położą bruk
przytną i wytłumaczą każde drzewo
jaśmin na jaśmin i klon na klon
nadzieja ma kolor zielony
i kwitnie piękniej niż kwiat

już nigdy nie zrozumiem co przedstawiają symbole
cały plac dokładnie zabrukowany
nie ma miejsca na dosłowność
w słowach
w sformalizowanych znakach
w gestach

kiedy już wszędzie położą bruk
uciszy się
moje wytrwałe serce

Halina Poświatowska, Polish, d. 11 oct 1967.
translation by Marek Lugowski

[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Sep 23, 2006 ]