Living inside a story

Some time around 2010, give or take a year, I was on one of these fam­ily hol­i­days with all the uncles around. Some treas­ure unearthed from grand­pa’s eclect­ic book­shelf made the rounds. Someone had ran­domly taken the book out and after a few pages star­ted read­ing a bunch of mem­or­able pas­sages out loud to the rest of us, and after anoth­er day or two who­ever was read­ing the book at the time con­stantly searched for it, as oth­ers snatched it away to read it in full them­selves. The final win­ner was I, it’s still in my shelf and I habitu­ally recom­mend it to any his­tory afi­cion­ados I encounter out there: Stefan Zweig’s bio­graphy of Joseph Fouché.

The cheap and torn old paper­back­’s sub­head­ing lur­idly calls him “the only man Napoléon was ever afraid of”. Fouché was the emper­or’s own police min­is­ter, i.e., head of an all-know­ing web of spies ran­ging from one end of the world to the oth­er. Helping her to pay off her ever-grow­ing gambling debts, Fouché even had the empress Joséphine on his payroll, and half the empire down from there. Fouché on the one hand man­aging the interi­or and his coun­ter­part Talleyrand in the min­istry of for­eign affairs on the oth­er hand were two essen­tial pil­lars for Napoléon’s reign. The two are exem­plary of totally oppos­ite char­ac­ters com­ple­ment­ing one anoth­er. Fouché was a man from the province, ugly of looks and not exactly well-integ­rated into the high soci­ety, dili­gently amass­ing ton upon ton of tiny scraps of inform­a­tion on his desk, till slowly but stead­ily a pic­ture of the great­er whole emerged from them that would reduce all the many options he enter­tained in his mind to the one he would then pur­sue. Often he could afford to just sit there and wait, as every­one would be aware that Fouché knew every single of their dirty secrets, and always reli­ably bet­ted on the win­ning party in a conflict.

Talleyrand on the oth­er hand stood at the centre of atten­tion: Legendary feasts took place in his res­id­ence, he knew every­one and their dog, had as many lov­ers as was cus­tom­ary in the 18th cen­tury and was­n’t exactly known for his fond­ness of hard work. He was smart enough not to have to. Given some input – a missive, a dis­cus­sion –, in a second he would con­nect the dots and through the smal­lest neces­sary amount of dip­lomacy – more than Fouché he knew how to handle the car­rot and not just the loom­ing stick – get closer to what he wanted. Their respect­ive work­ing meth­ods have been per­fectly described about a hun­dred years later by someone who might not have known about Fouché and Talleyrand:

[…] know­ledge, too, is noth­ing more than the con­struc­tion of myths about the world, since myth resides in its very found­a­tions and we can­not escape bey­ond myth. Poetry arrives at the mean­ing of the world anti­cipando, deduct­ively, on the basis of great and dar­ing short-cuts and approx­im­a­tions. Knowledge tends to the same induct­ively, meth­od­ic­ally, tak­ing the entire mater­i­al of exper­i­ence into account. At bot­tom, both one and the oth­er have the same aim.

Neither of them had any goal or belief that they would value high­er than sur­viv­al, and so they both sur­vived polar oppos­ites of suc­cess­ive sys­tems: The ancien régime, the revolu­tion, the dir­ect­ory, Napoléon. Both were shaped by the church: Fouché as an Oratorian tutor, Talleyrand even­tu­ally even as the bish­op of Autan. Both were legendary as turn­coats and back­stab­bers (see “sur­viv­al”), and both loathed each oth­er. The one time they ami­ably showed up togeth­er in pub­lic, Napoléon raced back to Paris from his cam­paign in Spain at a record speed when he heard the news that Fouché had atten­ded one of Talleyrand parties, receiv­ing a most cour­teous wel­come and chat­ting cor­di­ally with the host for half an hour. Such was their repu­ta­tion that the hypo­thet­ic­al threat of them over­com­ing their rivalry scared the most power­ful man since Charles V (since Caesar, if the blo­g’s cen­sor is asleep!) shit­less – which to achieve had in fact been the sole reas­on behind their rendezvous.

Bruno Schulz: The Rites of Spring, cliché verre, ca. 1920

When back then I first read Zweig’s bio­graphy, it was my final years of school and his­tory was, though rather acci­dent­ally, one of my three main sub­jects. Just a couple of months had passed since we had covered Napoléon extens­ively – damned tim­ing! Ever since, I’ve recom­men­ded it to all the fel­low his­tory freaks I’ve met, and it’s by far the best of Zweig’s many his­tor­ic­al bio­graph­ies. 16 to 18 is the per­fect age to get into his books, because the main short­com­ing of his writ­ing is the exag­ger­ated pathos that comes nat­ur­ally to teen­agers, any­way (if you don’t know what I mean, re-read some opin­ion essay you wrote in high school). Fouché is suf­fer­ing less from this than Mary Stuart or Erasmus of Rotterdam, because pretty much all the char­ac­ters sur­round­ing Napoléon were lar­ger than life any­way. I’m still re-read­ing the Zweig bio­graphy from time to time, right now how­ever it’s Adam Zamoyski’s “1815” about the Congress of Vienna that’s my cur­rent lec­ture and per­haps the main impulse for this post. In com­par­is­on with Zweig, his writ­ing seems even more object­ive than it prob­ably is, and all the more it stands out how Zweig did­n’t really exag­ger­ate the bizarre per­son­al­it­ies and incid­ents at the dawn of the long 19th cen­tury. Ah, what a bless­ing such prot­ag­on­ists must be for the his­tor­i­an! Each one an abso­lutely unique specimen.

Closing the book when the cuppa tea’s empty yanks me out of a dif­fer­ent world as if I had been read­ing fic­tion. Involuntarily you won­der why we haven’t got char­ac­ters like that rul­ing our coun­tries any­more. Certainly I would­n’t expect a Napoléon, con­sid­er­ing just how utterly sin­gu­lar his appear­ance was – but where are the Metternich, Castlereagh and Freiherr vom Stein of our days? The Wilhelmine of Sagan whose bed played a great­er role in dip­lomacy than many offi­cial treat­ies, and the Prince Eugène with his sur­real extent of loy­alty? The auto­crat-turned lib­er­al Tsar Alexander and rags-to-roy­al Bernadotte?

Bruno Schulz: The Infanta and her Dwarves, cliché verre, ca. 1920

As always when presen­ted with a hypo­thes­is along the lines of “back in the olden days everything used to be bet­ter” it clashes with my dogma of “Nothing Ever Changes”. Hence the ques­tion: How were the politi­cians of 1815 per­ceived – in 1815?

And there we arrive at a very famil­i­ar pic­ture. Elected gov­ern­ments (i.e. chiefly the British) fear for re-elec­tion and everything they do gets fire from the oppos­i­tion. The auto­crats seem to have it bet­ter, but are often judged by proxy: In that age it is uni­ver­sally accep­ted that it is their min­is­ters and coun­sel­lors that mat­ter; and these are sub­ject to sim­il­ar dynam­ics as the elec­ted act­ors, bat­tling domest­ic rivals, for­eign rivals and the pub­lic opin­ion, each of which could lead to their demise.

At the same time, and as always, the stor­ies that are com­mon know­ledge today wer­en’t recog­nised while still in the mak­ing. Long-term gambles can nev­er be judged, nor seen at all, until way after they paid off (or failed to do so). Applied to our present we can test the latency by look­ing back 10, 20, 40 years. Passing by the moment­ous events of our time, there’s 9/11 – a story still far from codi­fic­a­tion as long as there are still people of all nations bat­tling in the Near East without even know­ing what for yet (yet!). There’s the fall of the Iron Curtain – a story that I’d wager might con­sol­id­ate itself in rel­at­ively near future. Now that Thatcher and Kohl have died, per­haps we just need to wait for Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev’s exit from the stage for a nar­rat­ive to become gen­er­al con­sensus – in oth­er words: for those real people to become char­ac­ters in a story. This has already happened to the gen­er­a­tion before them: Willy Brandt, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro. The recently deceased Kohl is still so much a real human in the col­lect­ive mind that we’d think of his fal­louts with his sons, his Lady Macbeth of Oggersheim and his bio­graph­er issues as the prob­lems of a real per­son; while the skirt-chas­ing of Brandt and Kennedy are talked about in a sim­il­ar way as you would talk about Zeus“ adven­tures, while Fidel Castro even so shortly after his death has already turned into a more enter­tain­ing James Bond vil­lain than all the products of Eon combined.

And yet the seeds of stor­ies about our cur­rent present are already start­ing to bud. This entire ques­tion of try­ing to find the myth­o­lo­gic­al in the present we live in is some­thing on which I spent much more thought than ink. There was, how­ever, anoth­er draughts­man and print­maker and most not­ably, writer, whose work is entirely centered on that one ques­tion: Bruno Schulz, who hap­pens to be the author of the above-quoted pas­sage about know­ledge and poetry.

Apart from a few travels, as well as study stays, Schulz spent his entire life in the small Galician town of Drohobycz, to which he had a sort of love-hate rela­tion­ship. He lived there in the deep­est province, often com­plain­ing how his work as a draw­ing teach­er at the loc­al gim­nazjum did­n’t leave him suf­fi­cient time for his writ­ing and draw­ing endeav­ours, to an extent ridiculed and poorly under­stood by the towns­folk (as so often with this sort of trope it’s too much of a ste­reo­type to not be taken without a grain of salt and too real­ist­ic to not be men­tioned nev­er­the­less). He was sort of an out­cast of the major­ity Jewish com­munity and yet did­n’t join the Catholic church; he screwed up his rela­tion­ships very much in the same way Kafka did; he dreamt of a break­through as a print­maker in Vienna or in Paris (where friends of his cer­tainly tried to get him exhib­ited and to fur­ther his way – efforts even­tu­ally cut short by the out­break of the war) and yet always returned to Drohobycz in the end, finally being murdered an SS man a hun­dred metres from the place where he had been born. Singular dra­mat­ic moments, adven­ture, great pas­sion that would have influ­enced his work: nil.

Bruno Schulz: The enchanted city II, cliché verre, 1922

The unspec­tac­u­lar every­day life of a rather unre­mark­able pro­vin­cial town turned into mas­ter­pieces of myth­o­logy in Schulz“ hands. Many of his stor­ies resemble short vign­ettes explor­ing a single top­ic, but spiced with her­met­ic cyphers that resur­face again and again in his work, often organ­ised as oppos­ite pairs: the male and the female, sea­sons of the year, action and indol­ence. A selec­tion of stor­ies, English trans­la­tion, from the “Cinnamon Shops” can be read here, I’d recom­mend the linked “Birds” as a good starter, while the title story or the “Street of Crocodiles” prob­ably show more of Schulz“ spe­cial skill. Apart from a few out­right fant­ast­ic stor­ies, such as the “Birds”, most pieces are unevent­ful on the sur­face and only gain through their deep explor­a­tion of a theme, such as “August”, in which noth­ing hap­pens, but which describes a sum­mer so richly that you might get a sun­burn from reading.

Although after a first read­ing it might seem dif­fer­ent, Schulz avoided to be any more obscure than abso­lutely neces­sary in his writ­ing, as far as I can tell. There is a short essay mini­ature by him that on its own could com­pletely replace this post – in fact I’m only provid­ing examples and illus­tra­tions for the same ideas that are con­densed there, in “The Mythologisation of Reality”. It would be sense­less for me to com­ment on it, as I could­n’t add any­thing mean­ing­ful to it that it does­n’t already contain.

Bruno Schulz: Self por­trait, cliché verre, ca. 1920

Let’s look back towards Zweig. Full of pathos, some­times so much that it’s out­right cringy, he arrives at a high level of myth­o­lo­gisa­tion. So how does Schulz“ approach dif­fer and achieve his myth­o­lo­gisa­tion in what I’d per­ceive as a much bet­ter way?

I’d sus­pect that Zweig essen­tially described things as he saw them. When he writes a pas­sage about Händel fin­ish­ing to write an ora­tor­io: “The mir­acle of the will had been worked by the inspired soul, just as the para­lysed body had once worked the mir­acle of resur­rec­tion. It was all writ­ten down, formed and con­struc­ted, rising and unfold­ing in melody – just one word still remained, the last in the work: „Amen“ ”, all his awe is heart­felt, and his emo­tion he writes lines that seem com­ic­al to a read­er who does­n’t share it. Zweig does­n’t search for the myth­os, he lives in it.

When Schulz, how­ever, describes the Street of Crocodiles in the story of the same name: “… the ambigu­ous and dubi­ous char­ac­ter of that dis­trict, so very much at odds with the fun­da­ment­al tone of the whole town. […] [I]t had thrust its roots into a patch of its peri­phery, where it had developed into a para­sit­ic dis­trict”, he con­sciously exag­ger­ates to myth­o­lo­gise a real­ity that’s much less patho­lo­gic­al to a cas­u­al observ­er. Schulz on pur­pose searches for the myth­os as an out­side observ­er. And so I’m brazenly claim­ing Schulz as a fel­low real­ist in spite of all his flowery obser­va­tion while accus­ing Zweig of the dast­ard offence of ideal­ism in spite of his great skill at depict­ing fine psy­cho­lo­gic­al nuance. In the end, though, Schulz tries to get the atmo­sphere across he hon­estly feels by encod­ing it into myth­o­logy, and in that man­ner may be a real­ist in the same way van Gogh was. Zweig starts with a piece of real­ity but goes on to pol­ish and embel­lish it to make it as shiny as pos­sible, not myth­o­lo­gising it as a mere way of encod­ing and com­mu­nic­at­ing but rather as a way to add aspects it did­n’t have to begin with in order to under­line an abstract point.

When in my own work I’m avoid­ing cliché views it’s because their cliché­ness does­n’t allow the spec­tat­or to see my ideas – instead, they view the ideas that con­sti­tute the cliché. For instance: If I would draw Notre Dame de Paris, they would­n’t see my impres­sion of what large and ancient church someone chose to put onto, of all places, a river island – instead, they’d see the thou­sand lay­ers of kitschy Disneyesque depic­tions done before. If I draw such a view nev­er­the­less, it’d be for my own pleas­ure: the dif­fi­culty of accur­ately ren­der­ing the intric­a­cies of Gothic archi­tec­ture, or some oth­er par­tic­u­lar point of interest in an oth­er­wise point­lessly often repeated scenery.

It hap­pens just so that between writ­ing the bulk of this post, a few days ago, and now, I have trav­elled a bit – so judge for your­self wheth­er it is my real­ity you’re see­ing or just the older lay­ers of the pal­impsest; and have a look at the next post.

3 Replies to “Living inside a story”

  1. Tomasz Steinmetz says: Reply

    Thank you, Leon. Well, writ­ten. A thought from my side.

    The two modes of myth­o­lo­gisa­tion are often char­ac­ter­ist­ic to an author’s view of them­selves in the world and, more widely, to their view of a per­son in the world.
    Where your ego needs strong nest­ing in the world and oth­ers, when you long for unity with the world, for the over­com­ing of ever-both­er­ing dual­ity, then myth­o­lo­gisa­tion will often be less about objects them­selves than about abstract con­cepts (vir­tues, trends, geni­us loci, well, espe­cially God and his attrib­utes). If you lean this way, you think dif­fer­ently of oth­er people, the story you live and exper­i­ence often has a pur­pose. You see dif­fer­ent aims for polit­ics. You search for dif­fer­ent things in art.

    When you are more con­tent with stay­ing with­in your­self, per­ceive bor­ders between things and per­sons more acutely, when you’re more at ease with dis­agree­ments and dison­ances, then myth­o­lo­gisa­tion will touch the prop­er­ties of real­ity more, will leave the objects to them­selves, no sub­sump­tions. A pic­ture will be just as col­our­ful but, to me, the tem­per­at­ure will stay cold. A story will be just as cap­tiv­at­ing but will lack the sweet­ness of the “should” dimension.

    Greetings from “Novemberly” cold Warsaw,

  2. What an inter­est­ing and refresh­ing post! The last two para­graph mae me think of the cur­rent prob­lems of an art form which suf­fer­ing cliché-isa­tion: photography.

    Thanks for hav­ing writ­ten this and thanks for hav­ing shared!

    1. I think to be ori­gin­al in pho­to­graphy is much harder than in paint­ing or draw­ing! Another of my her­oes, Johannes Grützke, has artic­u­lated a few quite clev­er thoughts on that – prob­ably that’s going to be the sub­ject of my next post, or the one after that. Stay tuned 🙂

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