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Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles

The brothers Quay ( have a stunning animated short, The Street of Crocodiles, based on Bruno Schulz’s story of same nameIts imagery is built of layers of dust and grim, rusted screws scuttling across the floor, emotionless doll faces, and wet, raw meat.   I was drawn to read the Street of Crocodiles primarily because I was so entranced by the work of the brothers Quay, and I wanted to read the story that had inspired it.

The story’s focus is loosely around a boy, living in Poland, accounting for us the manic obsessions that consume his father, and the observations of his daily life, which he imbues with an intense and complicated magic.  The language is multifaceted and requires careful attention. In his thoughtful and worthwhile forward, Jonathan Safran Foer writes of reading it for the first time:

“I loved the book, but I didn’t like it. The language was too heightened, the images too magical and precarious, the yearnings too dire, the sense of loss too palpable.”

As I started reading, the language initially turned me off.  The text is twisting and complicated, layered with adjectives and uncommon words to trip you up and confuse what you thought were simple sentiments.  But then there are moments when you pause, and realize that the language isn’t superfluous, and any emotion can be viewed through a variety of filters.

“Nowhere as much as there do we feel threatened by possibilities, shaken by the nearness of fulfillment, pale and faint with the delightful rigidity of realization.”

I’ve never thought of using the word “rigidity” to define realization before, but here it feels right.  Possibilities, fulfillment, realization- these are words that we generally understand to be positive and optimistic.  Schultz’s approach points out the finality of realization, and the complications and turmoil you may feel at having multiple options.   A world filled with possibilities loses its simplicity, structure, and easy answers, and possibility, by it’s uncertain nature, opens you up to failure.

The character of the father is a fascinating, and loving portrait of a man who is completely consumed (and later destroyed) by obscure passions and personal demons.  I really loved a section in which he rants to a couple of bored girls about the “demiurge” [‘an artisan-like figure responsible for the fashioning and maintenance of the physical universe’ (thank you Wikipedia)]

“The demiurge was in love with consummate, superb, and complicated materials; we shall give priority to trash.  We are simply entranced and enchanted by the cheapness, shabbiness, and inferiority of material….Demiurge, that great master and artist, made matter invisible, made it disappear under the surface of life. We on the contrary, love its creaking, its resistance, its clumsiness. We like to see behind each gesture, behind each move, its inertia, its heavy effort, its bearlike awkwardness.”

This resonated with my own particular interests as a builder and an artist, and I felt it shared something in common with ITP in general.  As many of us begin to explore coding and physical computing there is a kind of ‘enchantment’ as each of us creates artificial movement for the first time, or suddenly understands how a keyboard may work, or how lines of code can interact with us.  We are breathing life into previously still and silent materials.  This book celebrates creation and the reappropriation of daily life into something more intense, loving, and involved.  It also presents this heightened relationship with daily life through the character of a man who is arguably insane, slowly loses his ties to humanity, and eventually withers and dies.  The narrow line he draws between a passionate pursuit of knowledge and insanity is ambiguous, and opens up a number of questions about the price of unmitigated passion.

As I came to the end of the book, still uncertain about my overall feelings, I turned to Foer’s forward and thought it was completely fitting that it ended in this way:

“Good writers are pleasing, very good writers make you feel and think, great writers make you change.  ‘A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside of us,’ Kafka famously wrote. Schulz’s two slim books are the sharpest axes I’ve ever come across.”


3 comments to Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles

  • Nancy

    What a wonderful commentary. I know this is one of Marianne’s favorite books.. can I share your work with her?
    Also.. love these sentences:
    “As many of us begin to explore coding and physical computing there is a kind of ‘enchantment’ as each of us creates artificial movement for the first time, or suddenly understands how a keyboard may work, or how lines of code can interact with us. We are breathing life into previously still and silent materials. This book celebrates creation and the reappropriation of daily life into something more intense, loving, and involved.”

  • Erin Smith

    thanks nancy! please feel free to share. for me it’s a book that would be aided by more conversation and probably a re-reading or two. there were definitely moments when I felt like just reading through it was real work, but I think that also speaks to the fact that there really is a LOT to get out of it. it’s got a lot to give if you put some work in.

  • wl379

    “We are breathing life into previously still and silent materials.” So beautifully put, Erin. For me, in many ways, that statement expresses the most fascinating part about our role as artists and builders. It’s paradoxical in nature: how does one animate the inanimate? And WHY do we want to? What we end up with can never come alive, and we know that right from the start. But we are still compelled to make the gesture. So we choose the media that are most conducive to expressing what we want to say. It’s great that you chose to read this story based on your love of the film. I haven’t read it yet, but now I’d like to. The initial reaction you had towards “rigidity of realization”, I felt towards “delightful rigidity”. I felt the juxtaposition of two words that invoked two entirely different feelings was clunky. Delightful, even saying that word in my head now, feels almost like an onomatopoeia, bright and effervescent. It would seem a poor choice to describe rigidity, but after sinking in for a moment, it feels right. What happens between these two words when read together is like alchemy, inspiring a reaction that gives the phrase its meaning, its “life”. The Brothers Quay actively play on this point in their films. They take blank doll faces and raw, dead meat, and painstakingly move them around to create a story of life. It’s grotesque and perverse how form and function intersect, being so dramatically, fundamentally at odds. The inanimate and dead are transformed into the living. Watching the film is like watching magic, but more unsettling, since the viewer is never allowed to fully disassociate the materials used in the film from our living world. It’s a constant reminder, like the choice of words in the story, of the role of the maker. We will never succeed at creating life using these methods, but what we end up creating can be much more fascinating, an honest expression of our own desires and limitations.