I was standing outside a “culture palace” on a square in Drohobych, sharing a smoke with Adam Michnik, Poland’s towering cultural figure, former dissident, and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza. And, like me, a big fan of Drohobych’s native son – writer and graphic artist Bruno Schulz. The date was June 3, 2016 and the occasion – the opening day of the 7th International Bruno Schulz Festival, held here biennially.
The US presidential election was in full swing and although it was still a couple of weeks until Donald Trump’s nomination as Republican candidate for president, everyone was discussing his inevitable candidacy with eyes wide with disbelief. And so were we, Michnik and I. Trying and failing to put into words his dismay at Trump and his worldview, Michnik then made a comparison, which it has taken me until now to fully process and appreciate, although I immediately felt the truth of it in my gut. “Schulz is the opposite of Trump!” exclaimed the great fellow-Schulzian over the clatter of the passing trolleybus.
Was it even legitimate to compare a businessman-cum-politician and future “leader of the free world” with a writer of surrealist childhood tales from a Galician backwater of Austria-Hungary? And in which ways would they be opposite of each other: in their respective worldly achievements as expressed in wealth accumulated, political victories won, women conquered by hook or crook? In their sheer ability to survive?
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One can certainly see Trump and Schulz as diametrically opposed in these and other ways. Trump was able through his father’s inheritance and ruthless cunning to become a real-estate tycoon and build himself a golden palace high up in New York’s skies; Schulz barely scraped by as a teacher of drawing and crafts in middle school, earning just enough for a rare trip to Warsaw and once to Paris. Trump boasts of robust health despite his reported regular diet of burgers and fries while Schulz was of frail constitution, weak and afraid of heights. Trump has five children from three marriages and has over the years cavorted with numerous porn actresses and fashion models; similarly to Franz Kafka, Schulz was extremely shy around women and wanted to marry only one woman in his life, a Warsaw native, but was too afraid and uncertain of his prospects as a husband to leave his beloved Drohobych. Indeed, as I write this, in my mind are juxtaposed two contrasting images: of the future American president grabbing an aspiring TV starlet “by her pussy” (his words, not mine!) and of various shapely women’s legs and feet trampling on Schulz’s face – a recurring imagery in Schulz’s graphic oeuvre.
But above and beyond these admittedly surface, tabloid-worthy contrasts, it is the worldview in all of its aesthetic sensibilities that sets the two men far apart. Schulz was a bard sans pareil of childhood as it comes into contact with the mystery and sensual exuberance of nature, as it creates a whole universe out of a dusty provincial little town, and as it is gradually claimed by an adolescent, angst-ridden sexuality. The world for Schulz is endowed with the infinite wonder of existence nestled in even its smallest parts – in the lush and wild vegetation of a garden behind a delapidated hut, a whimpering shivering puppy, dust motes illuminated by sun rays slanting through a window. Schulz’s world is, in all of its mind-boggling variety, subject to myriad interpretations and readings “between the lines” as contained in the “The Book” (the title of one of Schulz’s short stories). Trump, by contrast, doesn’t grapple with multiple interpretations of anything because he simply doesn’t read. Except one book: “Being Donald Trump”, to paraphrase the famous Hollywood movie.
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Schulz’s is a world that eschews the black-and-white dichotomy of “us vs. them,” “black vs. white” in favor of the full spectrum of the rainbow. And I believe that this is the world that Schulz’s Messiah was coming to proclaim. “The Messiah” is the novel that Schulz was finishing while trying to survive as a Jew in the Nazi-occupied Drohobych. It is said that Schulz gave the novel’s draft, along with hundreds of graphic works, for safe-keeping to a Polish neighbor. On November 19, 1941, the “Black Thursday,” a Nazi officer shot and killed Schulz as the latter was crossing a street clutching a loaf of bread, on his way home. “The Messiah” has never been found.
By nature, I am wary of all of history’s messiahs – whether they be religious or political – Jesus, or Gandhi, or Obama, or Trump, and whether they promise “Hope”®or to “Make America Great Again.”®And I am with Michnik in seeing the last name on that list as the falsest recent messiah of them all – setting red Americans against blue Americans, liberals against conservatives, straight vs gay, greed vs. self-sacrifice,economic development vs. the environment, short-term prosperity vs. long-term survival.
So, no false messiah for me in 2020. I would rather be naive and hope against hope for the coming of the Lost Messiah of Drohobych. While continuing my smoke-filled conversation with Pan Michnik.
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