Short Takes

Matter, Style, Kitsch

You hold in your hand one of the Hostess Company’s signature snacks—a Ding-Dong, say. Or a Ho-Ho, or a Suzy-Q. You are seized by a primitive conflict, drawn to the overpowering seductiveness of so much sugar, but at the same time repulsed by the sordid and shameless nature of the treat’s appeal, its utter lack of conscience. Something more than shamelessness is involved, however; there is a deeper perversion at work. The Ding-Dong takes delicious natural things—cake, cream, icing—and draws out from these blameless ingredients a terrible artifice. Both the sensual payload and what we might call the idea of a cake have been deformed, pushed into a zone of irretrievable excess. The Ding-Dong is a kitsch cake.

Bruno Schulz astonishes a reader almost constantly. His fabrications are so inventive, so unexpected, that you just keep reading to see what he comes up with next. He is especially magical in his treatment of light, season, mood. The world he presents is at once spiritually dead—Schulz never strayed far from the provincial Ukrainian town where he was born, and where he was eventually murdered—and rippling with bizarre energies. You keep reading: it’s amazing how delicious this Ding-Dong is! Over the top, yes, completely excessive, but also astonishingly accomplished, a real pleasure machine. Until it becomes cloying. Schulz wrote short texts for a reason.

I am not claiming that Schulz wrote kitsch. But his fiction develops an unusually complex idea about kitsch (a word he never uses), one which does not exempt his own writing.

For the most part, Schulz puts his ideas about art and nature in the mouth of his surpassingly strange father, “the great Heresiarch.” It all begins with a vision of matter itself as a scene of fermentation: “There is no dead matter,” the father pronounces. “Lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life.” Schulz’s father polemicizes against the “Demiurge”: “We have lived for too long under the terror of the matchless perfection of the Demiurge. For too long the perfection of his creation has paralyzed our own creative instinct.” But the answer to this burdensome perfection is not to destroy it, but merely to let it rot, ferment, and thereby reveal the immanent tendencies of life to overreach, to degrade itself: “my father began to set before our eyes the picture of … a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of a fantastic fermentation of matter.”

We have lived for too long under the terror of the matchless perfection of the Demiurge. For too long the perfection of his creation has paralyzed our own creative instinct.

In this way a theory of matter becomes a hymn to kitsch: ““The Demiuge 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. […] We… 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.” The “shabbiness” and “clumsiness” is only “half organic.” The other half is made up by the detritus of human culture, what’s found in “old apartments saturated with the emanations of numerous existences and events; used-up atmospheres, rich in the specific ingredients of human dreams; rubbish heaps, abounding in the humus of memories, of nostalgia, and of sterile boredom. On such a soil, this pseudovegetation sprouted abundantly yet ephemerally, brought forth short-lived generations which flourished suddenly and splendidly, only to wilt and perish.”

In Sanatorium Under the Sign of an Hourglass, the “great Heresiarch” writes a meteorological treatise, Outline of General Systematics of the Fall, which offers an explanation of what call “Indian summer” and the good people in Ukraine apparently called “Chinese summer”:

My father… explain[ed] the secondary, derivative character of that late season, which is nothing other than the result of our climate having been poisoned by the miasmas exuded by degenerate specimens of baroque art crowded in our museums. That museum art, rotting in boredom and oblivion and shut in without an outlet, ferments like old preserves, oversugars our climate, and is the cause of this beautiful malarial fever, this extraordinary delirium, to which our prolonged fall is so agonizingly prone. For beauty is a disease, as my father maintained; it is the result of a mysterious infection, a dark forerunner of decomposition, which rises from the depth of perfection and is saluted by perfection with signs of the deepest bliss.

It’s important that I provide generous quotations from Schulz so that we can see how her “oversugars” his own prose, producing a “beautiful malarial fever” with his diction. There is something both ravishing and a bit “off” about his writing, and he knows it, and pursues it. Beauty names the progress of a disease in which perfection goes too far. Armed with our Platonic ideal of the perfect cake, we salute the Ding-Dong “with signs of deepest bliss.” True, the Ding-Dong is a kind of “mysterious infection,” but is also in its way without rival. It tells us a truth about the aesthetic: there is no perfection without its germ of degradation, no Art without its degenerate cousin, Kitsch.