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The Street of Crocodiles

Bruno Schulz was born in 1892 to a Jewish family in Drohobych, wrote and worked as high-school art teacher, and was shot and killed by a Nazi Gestapo officer in 1942. He has been survived by a small body of works and is now considered to be one of the great figures of Polish literature. His best known composition is The Street of Crocodiles, a mythologized retelling of his childhood; life with the “demonic woman” of the household, the servant girl Adela; and, most importantly, of Schulz’ father, an eccentric cloth merchant-turned-mad prophetic figure. The boy Bruno confesses that he “[was] inclined to underrate the value of [his father’s] sovereign magic, which saved us from the lethargy of empty days and nights” (Schulz 25).

The Street of Crocodiles has been on my to-read list for a long time, so I was excited to see that it was an option for our Applications reading. Reading the book was quite stunning – Schulz’ scenarios and imagery come from some other realm, one more stunning than our own. I was most taken by the play between living and inanimate states within the book. For example, in Bruno Schulz’ world, vegetables become octopi and squid, wardrobes suffer and resent their hewn form, and mannequins are immobile beings who deserve sympathy and recognition. There isn’t a page in the book where an object that we know to be still Schulz makes live and breathe. (The converse also exists, where the living are reduced to lesser or inanimate form. Weasels in the forest become the taxidermied dead versions of themselves, a flock of birds not real but actually a museum’s collection of specimens, and Schulz’ father is himself reduced to a cockroach.)

I’ve read a number of articles dissecting The Street of Crocodiles and Schulz’ use of personification is often mentioned, but I haven’t seen any deeper discussion about the reasoning behind it. I think objects often endear themselves to us (through utility, daily interaction, aesthetic) and become alive and take on anthropomorphized characteristics in our minds. What are your thoughts on objects becoming characters in our lives? What does it say about human nature and the ways with which we interact with the world? Magical realism is a really popular genre because it saves us from the lethargy of our own empty days and nights – what surreal moments of magic have you experienced recently? Think of examples both related and NOT related at all to technology.

5 comments to The Street of Crocodiles

  • Alexandra "Diracles"

    Living in a city with as much human energy as New York I feel that our imagination is oftentimes ignited by actual happenings versus our own personification of inanimate things. Reading your response made me realize how long it has been since my mind has wandered in the way that Schultz’s must have during his upbringing. I definitely experienced much more elaborate day dreaming while growing up. There is something severe about being young and obligated to a home which you possibly don’t relate to. As a young person you have no choice but to sit, learn, and wait until you can do it your own way.

    My last magical moment was probably just walking around the sidewalk on a beautiful fall day in my neighborhood in Ft Greene, Brooklyn. In awe of the histories and variety of people buzzing around me. It’s encapsulating and inspiring. I’ll admit at times I imagine I am dancing down the street or swinging from the railings in the subway. I check out each persons face and try to read a tiny bit into their story: what age? are they headed to work? what do they do? are they in a bad mood? what did they have for breakfast?. There is such an overflow of people in this city it is hard to imagine wanting an object to substitute for a similar role.

  • Surya

    There is a lot to be said for magical realism I think. Along with making the mundane a bit more interesting, I think it is a very human way of dealing with times of great adversity. It allows a method of escapism that is sometimes required for survival.

    This weekend I went to volunteer at the rockaways, where I was helping to provide food and water to residents of one of the housing projects. I was taken aback by how poor the relief effort had been over there. It felt like the hurricane had occurred a couple of days ago, not weeks. Going door-to-door asking people what they needed I got used to seeing a stream of forlorn faces. The only light heartedness was provided by some children who were playing on the streets. I was listening in as I passed them and it was clear that Sandy had provided them with a lot of new material for re-imagining their environment. From being a war zone to a post apocalyptic world, these kids were trying to adjust to the reality of the situation in the way that came to them most naturally. I just wonder if the same is true for adults too, in times like this, can the anthropomorphization of objects help people better express their current predicament and provide, at the least, some form of catharsis.

  • Myriam Melki

    You post reminded me of this great art historian / architect I had as an instructor back in Lebanon. He once told us a silly story that somehow never left my mind. He said that every now and then, while strolling the streets at nights, he would stop and stare at the mannequins in the window displays. It always reminded him of Jean Louis Daguerre’s Paris-Boulevard, first picture ever taken… The shutter was open for more than 30 min. So you look at this picture and you notice something strikingly strange. There are only two people in the picture. A shoe shiner, and the person getting his shoe shined. The shutter speed was so slow, and the people passing-by never stayed long enough for the camera to register their presence. They were just too fast to ever exist on this picture. So, when in front of the dark window displays at night, Toni C. (my instructor) would bring the mannequins to life in his awesome mind. He had this theory that he knew was not true, whereby the mannequins move so slowly that we never get to see them moving… And that we are so fast that they never even see us. It’s like living in two parallel worlds that could and will never collide. And even though I know that none of this is true in reality, in theory, I always found this story compelling. Reality is our world. It doesn’t hurt to make it livelier and embellish the truth when writing a book, or bringing a project to life. I am definitely going to read this book. Thank you Val for posting this review. M

  • Myriam Melki

    Oh, I almost forgot. Here is the picture I am referring to in my previous post.

  • Nancy

    And thank you Myriam for that story!

    Also Valerie.. check out Mike Allison’s post about objects…