...we are at the roots now, and at once everything becomes dark, spicy, and tangled like in the depth of a forest. There is a smell of turf and tree rot; roots wander about, entwined, full with juices that rise as if sucked up by pumps. We are on the nether side, at the lining of things, in gloom stitched with phosphorescence. There is a lot of movement and traffic, pulp and rot, tribes and generations, a brood of bibles and iliads multiplied a thousand times! Wanderings and tumult, the tangle and hubbub of history!... We are here at the very bottom, in the dark foundations, among the Mothers... Here are the great breeding grounds of history, factories of plots, hazy smoking rooms of fables and tales.... Everything we have ever read, all the stories we have heard and those we have never heard before but have been dreaming since childhood?here and nowhere else is their home and their motherland. Where would writers find their ideas, how would they muster the courage for invention, had they not been aware of these reserves, this frozen capital, these funds salted away in the underworld? What a buzz of whispers, what persistent purr of the earth!
Rolando Perez digs around in that rooted turf Schulz describes; he grows his own books in that fecund loam of literature and history, dreams and ideas. His writing is often inspired by, or a response to, his reading, which is wide and deep. His next book, out in a couple of months, will be called The Divine Duty of Servants: A Book of Worship based on the artwork of Bruno Schulz.
Perez lives in Brooklyn, works as reference librarian at Hunter College, teaches some philosophy courses, writes at home at night. It took him three years to construct The Divine Duty of Servants. Like all his previous books?eight by his count?it's being published by a small press, Brooklyn's Cool Grove.
I first spoke with Perez in 1990, after liking his second book, The Odyssey. Although it took its name from Homer and had an epic, episodic sweep, from arctic to desert, everything about it was modernist, surrealist, fabulist. It was Homer's tale of a nameless wanderer ("I am No Man," Odysseus lied to Polyphemos) recast by a gifted writer late in the 20th century, an imbiber of Borges and Cortazar and Calvino, also a philosopher and close student of Nietzsche (he appeared as "Captain N, the Old Rope Walker"), of Deleuze and Guattari (his third book, On Anarchy & Schizoanalysis, published by Autonomedia/Semiotext(e) also in 1990, was a response to their Anti-Oedpius).
Perez and I didn't speak again until he contacted me recently and asked me to write an introduction to The Divine Duty of Servants. I said send me the ms. and if I like it as much as I remember liking The Odyssey it'll be my honor. But I'll have to cannibalize it for this column, because that's what my time's like lately. Just so you know.
Schulz was a Jew who lived all his half-century (1892-1942) in the Polish city of Drohobycz. He was a small, shy man who spent a great deal of time in his imagination, where he could grovel endlessly at the feet of the tall, slender, cool servant girls he adored. To put it bluntly, he seems always to have been a slave to somebody or something: a wage-slave (aren't we all?) in the classrooms where he unwillingly taught; a sexual submissive and masochist around women; and in the end, when Drohobycz was occupied by the German army, he became quite literally the slave of a Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, who had a taste for s&m images and bragged of keeping a Jew alive on soup and bread to draw them for him. One night in 1942, Schulz was shot dead in the street by another Gestapo officer, out of some nature of jealous rivalry with Landau (you have to suspect it was something sexual, but I've never seen it spelled out). Picture poor Schulz, scuttling like Kafka's Gregor (a figure he knew and was drawn to) down a darkened street?maybe carrying some erotic drawings under his arm, maybe on his way to deliver them to Landau?murdered by a bullet in the head, exploding into instant nothing that great imagination, all those tortured and torturing desires, those unmade images. A friend picked up the body and buried it at night.
He'd written two books of visionary genius?The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium?that wove intensely observed descriptions of his life in Drohobycz with dream logic, a surrealism that prefigured magical realism, and a personal mythology in which he played the abject worshipper to aloof goddesses. They were published, through the persistence of influential friends and admirers, in the 1930s. Since the end of World War II they've been widely translated, accepted as among the great works of Polish, and world, literature from the 20th century.
No one will ever know the true volume of Schulz's artistic output?drawings, paintings, etchings?since much of it was lost or destroyed, under both the Nazi occupation in the 1940s and the prudish Communist regime that came after. What has survived is more of a specialty taste than his literature, even though some of it was meant to illustrate the two books. Much of it's too erotic, too s&m to be quite respectable. (His one art show during his lifetime was condemned as obscene.) Not that the images are ever violent or pornographic?on the contrary, his was an elegant and rather sad, or at least wistful, expression of masochism, with thin, naked flappers seated at table or tea, using a groveling Schulz as worshipful human footstool; or he's crawling behind them on all fours, like an obedient Bruno-dog (a figure Perez evokes in his book).
Even though Schulz's art directly inspired Perez's book, you won't see any of it there: Schulz's estate refused to let him reproduce any. I'm told the estate, which is in London, has a reputation for being prickly about how and where the art is seen. If so, it helps explain why the two celebrated prose works are kept in continuous print now, while the last large U.S. volume of reproductions, published by Northwestern University in 1990, is out of print.
I'm sure it threw Perez and Cool Grove into a tizzy to be refused, but isn't it fitting? The disciplining, the withholding, even at this late date? Maybe Perez should have groveled more, played the Bruno-dog more avidly. But then, that the book survives despite this limitation, this gross restriction?can we call it bondage??is an appropriate triumph.
If Schulz's artwork was more explicitly s&m than his writing, there are still moments. There's a scene in Sanatorium where the young Schulz-narrator and his reprobate friend Shloma?both of them being what we, in a frank and clinical age, would call foot fetishists?have sneaked into the room of the pretty servant girl Adela and are adoring one of her shoes.
"The six days of Creation were divine and bright," Shloma says. "But on the seventh day God broke down. On the seventh day he felt an unknown texture under his fingers, and frightened, he withdrew his hands from the world, although his creative fervor might have lasted for many more days and nights. Oh, Joseph, beware the seventh day..."
Then, holding the worshipped shoe aloft in trembling fingers, Shloma intones:
"Do you understand the horrible cynicism of this symbol on a woman's foot, the provocation of her licentious walk on such elaborate heels? How can I leave you under the sway of that symbol? God forbid that I should do it..."
And then, in a nice comic gesture, he stuffs the shoe into his clothes and makes off with it.
Then there's the chapter in The Street of Crocodiles (1934) where Schulz is describing the sleazier end of town:
The old established inhabitants of the city kept away from that area where the scum, the lowest orders had settled?creatures without character, without background, moral dregs, that inferior species of human being which is born in such ephemeral communities. But on days of defeat, in hours of moral weakness, it would happen that one or another of the city dwellers would venture half by chance into that dubious district. The best among them were not entirely free from the temptation of voluntary degradation, of breaking down the barriers of hierarchy, of immersion in that shallow mud of companionship, of easy intimacy, of dirty intermingling.
You can't help but think it's a metaphor for his own work and how it was received?or rather, not?by respectable society. Perez cites Bataille's description of sadomasochism: "the pleasures condemned by pure and superficial men."
Perez, 42, was born and raised in Camagüey, in central Cuba, where his father was a pediatrician. Growing up in Castro's Cuba may have marked him with an inkling of the power politics, the politics of coercion and submission, that as an adult would intrigue him about s&m.
"Even as a child, there were things I could do or say, or not do or say, that could get me in trouble," he tells me. He remembers that Communist Party members would come to schools to give classroom speeches on "the wonders of the Party, economic growth, how the Party was thriving. After this incredibly long harangue from this Party member, we were supposed to get up and applaud. On one of those occasions, I didn't applaud. I don't know if I didn't applaud because I was being rebellious. I just didn't applaud. By the time I got home, they had called my parents and explained to them that it would be in their best interest to have me applaud next time."
Kids were also pressured to join a youth organization called Pioneers of the Revolution. "You wore a uniform that didn't look too far from the Hitler Youth one?brown pants, brown shirt and a little red tie... If I had joined, then my parents would not have been able to leave the country," because the Party wouldn't have let them take away a good Son of the Revolution.
In 1967 the family was allowed to leave Cuba and emigrate to Madrid. They came to New York the following year. Rolando was 11 and spoke no English. For the first six months the family lived in Hasidic Williamsburg. "I didn't see much of the streets or the neighborhood for the first couple of months, and didn't go to school for almost a year," he recalls. After that the family moved again, to New Jersey, where he finished high school and college, majoring in philosophy. He'd discovered Nietzsche as a teenager. "I'm 17, I'm going through all the religious doubts kids go through at that age, begin to question the world, and here was someone questioning the world in a very forthright manner. To come across someone like that is powerful." He went on to Stony Brook to pursue a PhD in philosophy, but never completed it.
In 1988, his first book, a monograph critical of the postmodernist nihilism of Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, was published by the University Press of America. The Odyssey and On Anarchy came out in 1990. The Electric Comedy, which will be published by Autonomedia, he describes as experimental fiction welding The Divine Comedy to information theory. The Lining of Our Souls is a book of prose/poems based on selected Hopper paintings. He's also published and produced some one-act plays.
He was in a bookstore when he first saw that Northwestern book of Schulz's drawings. There was something about them?their almost Goya darkness, their inherent sadness maybe?that drew him as powerfully into them as Hopper's paintings had. He's not personally into s&m as a sexual practice, however, and expresses ambivalence about it.
"There's an eroticism to it that's quite exciting," he tells me, "but there's also an eroticism to it that can be quite dangerous."
But then, we're all slaves sometimes, dominant others. Like a lot of nonpracticing outsiders, Perez finds s&m literature fascinating as political discourse. S&m is complex, he says: it can either be a subversive parody of political/social power, or it can be complicit with, a tool of, that power. He echoes what Mistress Ruby and other professional dominatrices will tell you about their paying clients: that many of them are rich or at least powerful male figures?captains of industry, lawyers, wealthy merchants?who may, say, lay off 1000 workers during business hours, then go pay the dominatrix to punish them for it. "It's your penance," Perez says, but it's also your get-off-free card, because it lets you go back to the office the next day and do some more damage.
Much like The Odyssey, The Divine Duty of Servants is a bricolage of beautifully reimagined myths, legends, fairy tales, literary and historical references?all reflecting and refracting Schulz's masochistic eroticism. Schulz's dominating women figures Undula and Adela make appearances, as does a fictional version of Bruno himself. Perez lifted the term "a Book of Worship" straight from Schulz. Kafka's Gregor is there, and the cruel Hindu goddess Kali.
If Cinderella was an obvious choice for one of Perez's reworked fairy tales, then putting her in a modern shoe store, making her prince a wealthy fetishist and weaving in references to Mirbeau's Celestine were not. "So you see, Cinderella," Celestine instructs her charge, "the rich are very pathetic: they have these little obsessions because they're incapable of loving anyone. Imagine, to worship a shoe! The shoe of a servant! Oh, Cinderella, we must use these people as best we can."
Perez-Bruno's comic retelling of Snow White's tale is even more elaborate. Snow White becomes an icy mistress reveling in the slavish devotion of her seven little foot-worshipping dwarves:
"How can we serve you, Snow-White, how can we serve you, my Mistress?"
"How can we show you our love?"
"Let me think a second," said Snow-White, looking at Severin on her big toe. "Do you like feet, Severin?"
"I love your feet more than anything else in the world," responded Severin. "All I want to do is worship them. We all love your feet. Don't we?"
The dwarfs nodded approval.
"Then, good. My feet need washing, they are dirty from all my walking in the forest. I want you to clean them!"
"Water!" Severin called out to the other dwarfs.
"No, no water," said Snow-White. "If you really love me you will wash them with your tongue."
"Oh, yes, at your orders!" Severin said, very excited; and started to lick her toes with his tiny tongue. Severin was in his glory.
All the other dwarfs happily join in. "This was the beginning of their service to Snow-White," Bruno the Dog concludes, "and the beginning of one of the happiest stories ever told."
Perez returns to The Odyssey to recast the story of Circe and Odysseus in s&m terms. In Homer's version, Circe is punishing Odysseus and his men when she traps them in the bodies of swine, "though minds were still unchanged" (Robert Fitzgerald's 1961 translation). Bruno the Dog's version uncovers the latent sadomasochism in this relationship: he tells it from the pig-man's worshipful point of view, down low, below her feet. They couldn't be happier down there. Perez-Bruno bewitches these men just as successfully as Circe did: he transforms them all into fetishists. Their minds don't need changing. They're loving it down there:
Down on the floor we all went
to taste of Circe's honeyed feet,
with pleasure and ecstasy, licking
her perfect soles, her toes;
tasting of Circe's feet
we all became like pigs
under Circe's spell and whip.
Paralyzed forever, doomed to remain her
slaves, the pigs in her circus,
we did not want the upright stand
of man again,
vacant of the worship of Circe's feet.
I have to ask Perez: If you're not into s&m yourself, how is it you're so good at imagining yourself into the mind of a sexual slave? He says he's read his Venus in Furs and Krafft-Ebing, once taught Story of O and Sade, but more to the point, "I think we're put in positions in society where we're all slaves to something or somebody. S&m deals with relations of power in a sexual way, but there are many other relations of power."
To fill in for the withheld Schulz drawings, Perez hired models and took his own fetishy photos. Drawings by the late Malcolm McKesson will also stand in. It's a good choice. For 40-odd years, in the seclusion of his rooms in a Manhattan residency hotel, McKesson wrote about and illustrated an elegant, delicate fantasy world of bondage, slavery and submission. When I interviewed him in 1997 he was 87 years old and his book, Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage, was about to be published by Katherine Gates' art press, Gates of Heck.
Although they lived extremely different lives, there's a tantalizing suggestion that one of history's weird filaments of chance may have connected McKesson and Schulz. When asked about what inspired him to start making his s&m drawings, McKesson told me (as he told anyone who asked) that it went back to when he was an MP in the U.S. Army at the end of WWI. In the German city of Ansbach, local police showed him "a stack of masochistic magazines published during the war. Very intense drawings, beautiful drawings, all about being bound and punished... The artist was probably Hungarian. They were well done, very intense. And I studied these. So I got some ideas."
Perez offers the fascinating speculation that McKesson's "Hungarian" artist may in fact have been Schulz, and the drawings those he'd done for Landau.
Perez cites Wilhelm Reich on the mass appeal of Hitler. Everyone asks how is it that Hitler could have duped the whole German nation, Reich said, but that's the wrong way to look at the problem. A better question is, what is it in the structure of our psychology that makes a Hitler possible? Why did the underclass, who were oppressed by the very ideas Hitler spouted, support him? Why do we love the master?
McKesson spent years mulling over exactly these questions. Asked to explain the concept of "freedom in bondage," he spoke in terms that made masochism sound like a sexual religion, a kind of monastic asceticism. Within submission, he said, within the perfect servitude of the totally obedient slave, is freedom. "That's the point. You are freed from freedom. You are freed from choices. You are freed from confusion. Your life is simple. It is a kind of spiritual freedom... You know your station in life. You don't aspire to anything but to be perfect at what you're doing."
The hideous irony is that it was Hitler's perfectly obedient servants who murdered Schulz and millions of other "slaves." There's a scene in Homer's Odyssey where Odysseus' faithful servant Eumaios is mourning his master's loss, years after Odysseus and his crew disappeared from Troy. He should have had a hero's funeral and monuments, Eumaios says, but "Stormwinds made off with him" and he's died somewhere far off, unknown and unmourned. Schulz was swept away in another kind of storm, but at least he's remembered, both for his own work and in the work he inspires.
Afterwords Trifecta Man. When I met Michael Randall, also in 1990, he was writing funny, unpretentious poems and putting out a no-budget poetry zine called Big Cigars. A few years later he decided he was Ed Wood and made the sweet, likable no-budget B-movie Girlquake! Now it turns out he's a painter, too. Through Oct. 16, the Chelsea gallery @304.art is showing a bunch of his paintings. They're also funny, unpretentious and likable?bright, jazzy, cartoony things with bulbous organic shapes flexing and pinching each other over patterns that look like 50s kitchen wallpaper. It's Ren & Stimpy go to MOMA. They're priced to sell, too?must be his Baltimore roots showing. Samples are on the gallery's website, www.304art.com. Next he builds a rocketship to the Moon. (526 W. 26th St., #304; 414-1715.)
Rall's Bawls Update. Ted Rall's latest action in his lawsuit war against fellow cartoonist Danny Hellman came last Friday, when his lawyer Paul R. Levenson, of Kaplan Gottbetter & Levenson, e-mailed Mike Speranza, a Long Island cartoonist who's been maintaining a "Free Dirty Danny" website . "I am writing on Mr. Rall's behalf to bring to your attention, and note his objection to, certain inaccuracies in your 'Free Dirty Danny' website," Levenson writes, "and to demand their immediate correction." He notes the language his client doesn't like?a paragraph referring to Rall as "a jealous, self-aggrandizing careerist"?and then drops the hammer:
Demand is hereby made for an immediate retraction of the foregoing statement, to be placed prominently at the top of the Free Dirty Danny website, in large and bold font, and transmitted to all parties to whom the site has been published. Proof of compliance with this demand must be supplied to me no later than the close of business on Tuesday, September 28, 1999.
I first heard about this website Monday morning, and when I tried to log on to see what else it had to say about Rall, it was, not surprisingly, down.
Fade to Hack. I spoke to Harmony Korine last week the day after Janet Maslin's "retirement" as The New York Times' lead film critic was announced. (He contacted me because his publicity people were being ass-pains, as celebrity publicists like to be, about the great interview he gave Adam Heimlich for this week's paper.) He said he wanted to dance when he heard the news about Maslin (see the interview about him and dancing) and only sounded sorry she didn't go a lot sooner. In 1997, you may recall, she declared Gummo the worst movie of the year. That was the year she declared Titanic the best movie. Clearly her departure has been long overdue.
So far the weakest commentary on it I've read was young Carl Swanson's interview with her in last week's Observer. He must have been smitten by the Maslin charm; his column was a marshmallow. He wrote some silliness about how "tart" her writing could be, then forwarded at face value her boilerplate explanation of why, at 50, she's retiring from one of the most powerful culture-commentary gigs in the country?she's burned out, fed up with boffo, overworked and her dad died. He didn't mention either the reputed million dollars she inherited or the rumors that she was being gently pushed out of Fortress Sulzberger because of her increasingly lightweight writing and ditzy opinions.
At Slate, Judith Shulevitz's "Culturebox" commentary was funny and sarcastic, and it's linked to a now-prescient-looking piece by Sarah Kerr from last June wondering why Maslin's opinions were so damn wishy-washy.
At NYPress, surprisingly, only Matt Seitz has weighed in on the topic as of this issue. Godfrey's probably too politic to speak up, but I'm surprised Armond had nothing to say; unless I'm mistaken, he's despised Maslin's puffy writing longer and more bitterly than you or I have.