Bruno Schulz’s X–ray Aesthetics: Anxiety, Titillation, Exposure

In a letter to his friend, Romana Halpern, in mid–February 1938, Polish–Jewish author Bruno Schulz tried to assuage her concerns about an unidentified sickness from which she was suffering: “I am worried by what you tell me about your illness. I hope the X–ray will show your fears were groundless.”[1] Signing off the letter, Schulz again assures Halpern that the X–ray procedure will reveal the reason behind her poor health, asking her to “let [him] know the diagnosis”—a recognition of the way the technology improved understandings of bodily function, safely revealing the interior of the body for the first time.[2] The discovery of X–rays by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895 revolutionized medical knowledge; Sara Danius argues the procedure could “explore and articulate physiological domains otherwise inaccessible to the human eye”, rationalizing the human form.[3] Through the X–ray, the body is made coherent, logical, decipherable. 

Yet, if Schulz’s letter to Halpern evokes the early twentieth–century “scientific, rationalizing world–view”, his short stories are less clear–cut.[4] Critics have long considered Schulz’s works to be predicated on unresolvable secrets: in his article on lawlessness in Schulz’s fiction, Rod Mengham argues Schulz creates a world “premised on the vitality of hidden life”, where “mere observation never reveals anything.”[5] But Mengham’s tidy dichotomy between observation and revelation glosses over a lot of the complexities in Schulz’s portrayal of optics and the acquisition of knowledge—particularly in reference to the body. For Schulz’s works are also preoccupied with the clarification of the human form: both short story collections, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, contain stories describing characters with internal bodily processes displayed on their skin, or hooked up to monitoring devices. Schulz’s essays similarly use somatic metaphors to describe his writing goals. In one, he likens his prose to the shedding of an “outer skin” which operates “at a point where value is still in statu nascendi”; an image at once suggestive of anatomical enquiry—an investigation into the flesh (or text) to expose hidden truths – but which also posits these hidden truths as embryonic and unstable.[6]

Though X–rays are not explicitly mentioned in Schulz’s stories, in this article, I propose his fiction is driven by an X–ray aesthetic, with indirect allusions to the technology raising pertinent questions about changing understandings of the body in the early twentieth century. For whilst X–rays provided diagnostic relief, so too was the procedure fraught with anxiety; coded in its very name (X meaning “unknown”). An X–ray takes place when the body is malfunctioning, and when the reasons behind this malfunction are unclear; it facilitates an improved—yet supra–human, and hence artificial—image of bodily function; it clarifies the workings of the body, but also yields concerns about the exposure, legibility and limits of the human form. When Schulz writes to Halpern that he “hope[s] the X–ray will show [her] fears were groundless”, his use of the word “hope” is flimsy enough to not only capture the possibility that her X–ray might reveal something unknown within her body, but also—and more ominously—suggests knowledge about the body might be arbitrary, speculative and uncertain. Through an analysis of Schulz’s literature and letters, I consider how Schulz’s allusions to X–rays contrast clarity with mystery, exposure with secrecy, and satisfaction with unease; demonstrating his interest in contemporary debates about the body, and the capabilities of human knowledge. Xrays matter in Schulz’s fiction, because they open up a potentially limitless understanding of the human bodyshowing how fears the human form might surpass our expectations are not so groundless after all.

Allusions to X–rays form an important part of “A Visitation” (1934), as a tool through which Schulz deals with the effects of illness on patients and other characters. Charting the increasingly debility of the father figure, “A Visitation” is visceral and confounding in equal measure, flitting from the perspective of the narrator, Joseph, to the father:

My father’s health began to fail […] I can see him in the light of a smoking lamp, squatting […] in the shadow of the lampshade that connected him with the great element of the city night beyond the window […] his thoughts had secretly been straying into the labyrinths of his own intestines.[7] 

The blend of first and third–person perspectives fits Peter Fifield’s understanding that the modernist tendency towards vivid depictions of illness “outstrip[s] the limited knowledge of a medical professional” and are hence not “documentary, or testimonial” but “distorting.”[8] Yet “A Visitation” is not a complete free–for–all; the father’s bewildering experience countered by the narrator’s attempts to determine his malaise. The narrative is in the past tense, and the father’s body in constant decline, but the narrator methodically tracks each symptom, with every successive stage of the father’s illness appearing immediate and strangely permanent: “I can see him.” Vital here is Schulz’s reference to sight; a tag to medical observation, which is first predicated on external signs of the father’s illness, and then on what lies beyond the human eye. 

I propose “A Visitation” thus traces changes in perceptions of the body in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. Moving between the father’s exterior to how his body operates beneath the skin—implied in that gruesome juxtaposition between “squatting” and “intestines”—Schulz evokes shifts in medical perspectives, from seeing the body as a boundary, to the body as “penetra[ble] by a barrage of devices.”[9] Particularly interesting is that this shift is accompanied by references to a lamplight which “connect[s] [the father] with the great element of the city night beyond the window.” The lamplight collapses the distance between the father and narrator in the same way that X–ray machines, as Danius writes, are a network “link[ing] persons to persons.”[10] For Danius, the X–ray procedure thus questioned “previous parameters of truth”—and “A Visitation” captures the capacity of X–rays to upend existing knowledge.[11] This resurfaces later in the story: “In the brightness of a lightning flash I caught sight of my father […] as he, with a terrifying curse, poured out the contents of his chamber pot through the window.”[12] The “lightning flash” is an X–ray moment of capture, but visible here is only the emptying of a chamber pot; a repugnant exteriorising of the father’s internal matter. With the excrement suspended mid–flow as it pours “through the window”, Schulz toys with light and darkness, and the bodily exterior and interior, to parody the X–ray procedure. If X–rays “link persons to persons”, they also, as Abbie Garrington notes, had an “uncertain scope”; less epistemologically satisfying, and more unruly.[13]

Bruno Schulz, Self-portrait, 1920-22.

In his description of the collection in which “A Visitation” was printed, Cinnamon Shops, Schulz also uses X–ray–esque imagery to describe his writing style: “That aura which condenses around every family history and illuminates it, as it were, with mythic flashes […] is the poet’s way of glimpsing that history’s other face, its profounder gestalt.”[14] Schulz adds that his approach provides a deeper—if indeterminate—approach to the human form than focusing on “the external curriculum vitae” or “psychological analysis.”[15] Schulz’s stories are by no means an easy read: John Updike argues his prose “never […] propels us onward but instead seems constantly to ask that we stop and reread”; Schulz’s depiction of the “lightning flash” in “A Visitation” similarly raises the possibility of bodily elucidation, only to disappoint.[16] Segueing into the following section, where the father is described as “slowly disappearing, withering before our eyes”, this allusion to X–rays is marked by bathos, the father’s illness becoming more confusing. Yet the word Schulz uses hereujrzałem ojca mego” (I caught sight of my father)does imply his body has been successfully, if temporarily, apprehended; an ephemeral clarity which resurfaces in the depiction of a “lightning flash” and “mythic flashes.” Drawing on David Trotter’s analysis of the flicker in modernist cinema, Robert McParland argues X–rays evoke an “incomplete schism between the seer and the seen”the X–ray flash in “A Visitation” similarly offers only “nervous negotiations” with the father’s body, rather than any stable circumscription of his form.[17] Schulz thus suggests clarification is not the organising principle of X–ray procedures; the focus is instead on Joseph’s adjustment to his father’s changing body. Rereading can also be considered a form of flickering, which “propels [us] onward” in a more emancipatory sense. As X–rays expanded understandings of the bodily interior, the human form was seen to have acquired “a new, unaccustomed finitude”—through the lightning flash, we see this reconfiguration of the body play out in real time.[18] Following the flash, the second section of the story depicts the family no longer “paying attention to [the father’s] eccentricities”: his illness has become the new normal.[19] 

Another story from Cinnamon Shops, “Mannequins,” also uses X–ray imagery to imagine the human body as a site of endless fascination:

He took a couple of steps closer and walked around the girls, illuminating them with a lamp he held in his hand. A draft from the open door lifted the curtains […] the girls allowed themselves to be examined, twisting at the hips […] my father gazed attentively […] ‘Genus avium… if I’m not mistaken…scansores or psitacci…’[20]

Garrington notes that X–rays were seen as an “extreme form of striptease” which provided “access to previously impenetrable layers” of the human form; in this passage, the panopticon illumination of the girls is strangely concurrent with the gust of wind which physically peels away their clothing, the portability of the lamp augmenting its penetrative prowess.[21] On one hand, “Mannequins” thus limns the legibility of the body: the father’s “attentive[ness]” to “the structure of [the girls’] slim, tawdry bodies […] the compact and noble structure of the joint” understands the body as containing a coherent design, predicated on the bones.[22] Yet, for all his dedication, the father misinterprets the girls twice over; he not only wrongly identifies their bodies as birds, but also flunks any classification at all, lapsing into aposiopetic ellipses: “genus avium…if I’m not mistaken…scansores or psitacci.” Schulz thus registers the difficulties of extracting meaning from the human form, a point amplified later in the story: “Slipping a stocking off Paulina’s knee […] at the instant when his hand slipped the tether of the stocking from Paulina’s white calf…”[23] The mention of the father’s hand evokes the earlier “lamp he held in his hand”; drawing on Aristotle’s understanding of touch as “a scaffold on which the other senses are built”, Garrington suggests tactility became a prominent form of sensory knowledge for modernist literature, with portrayals of X–rays positing the procedure as “a haptic technology.”[24] But the striptease–style mechanism of the X–ray also problematises the equation of touch with epistemological certainty. In the striptease, touch denotes palpation as much as theatricality, flamboyance and misdirection; the first striptease involved a woman removing her clothes to search for a flea on her body.[25] “Mannequins” toys with the imagined scrupulousness of subcutaneous investigation: the haptic motions of “odsuwając” (slipping) and “wyłuskiwała” (stripping, or peeling)—compounded by the loss of a “tether”—are more uncontrollable than meticulous, and whilst the father fulfils his task with “dignity and refinement”, the encounter is marred by pervasive jeopardy, with the “most risky points” occurring as he unlaces the girls’ clothing.[26] In the original Polish, the term “risky” (najryzykowniejszym) indicates both the salacious overlap between scientific diligence and pornography, and the possibility of uncertainty or error. Tentative and fallible, Schulz’s X–ray–cum–striptease is a messily erotic counterpart to scientific desquamation

Indeed, whilst the description of Paulina’s “white calf” in this scene is bone–like, it also attributes an absolute quality of diaphanous shine to her figure; a luminosity carried over into another striptease in the following story, “A Treatise on Mannequins, or The Second Book of Genesis”: “Adela’s outstretched slipper trembled slightly and glistened […] my father rose slowly, his eyes downcast […] the lamp hissed in the silence…”[27]The reflexive verb Schulz uses for “glistened”“błyszczał”posits Adela’s foot as both a subject and an object; a reminder that sheen implies an external shine and an intrinsic quality. The lamp is not doing all the illuminating here: instead, Adela’s leg also glistens of its own accord, overlapping the medium of vision with the object under view itself. Sheen, as Anne Anlin Cheng notes, was a much–loved material property of the early twentieth century, which “attracts and repels vision, plays hide–and–seek with visual satisfaction.”[28] The X–ray procedure had arguably similar “hide–and–seek” qualities: though its capacity to expose the bodily interior was much admired, with images of the skeleton mass–produced and fetishized, the technology was also seen to work in perplexing ways.[29] On one hand, Adela’s “glisten[ing]” foot appears a highly sexualised version of the “mysterious fluorescence” of X–rays, but her body is neither fully gratifying as a scientific specimen, nor as a fetish; the father’s response is only to turn his “eyes downcast.”[30] 

And more crucially, intimations of sheen also evoke Schulz’s cliché–verre drawings, which feature women tantalising male inspectors with glimpses of body parts. Whilst his chiaroscuro depictions of bodies do not glisten as such, their radiant yet fuzzily–edged limbs are tantalisingly similar to those depicted on X–ray images; the joints of legs and the poise of the body appearing a particular source of fascination for the assembled public. In a letter, too, Schulz compared the cliché–verre process to “a photographic negative […] printed in a photographic copying frame onto light–sensitive paper, developed, fixed, and rinsed”; a form of pictorial capture which also evokes the X–ray procedure.[31] Yet, in the same letter, Schulz also described the style as “not a technique for mass production”; whilst his gleaming bodies go some way towards the revelation of X–rays, fantasies of capture and exposure are left frustratingly incomplete, the impassibility of the skin reimposed in unassailable radiance.

A later story in Cinnamon Shops, “A Treatise on Mannequins, Conclusion,” returns to archetypal X–ray imagery, describing the father’s fascination with “boundary forms”, creatures likened to bone–bearing “vertebrates, crustaceans, arthropods.”[32] But if these bodies appear ripe for penetration and corroboration, what is revealed is the very opposite: “This appearance was deceptive. They were, in fact, amorphous beings without an internal structure.”[33] This contrast between living creatures and objects, medical investigation and futility, is evocative of the first ever successful Polish X–ray, an imageor, rather, silhouetteof a lizard–shaped metal paperweight.[34] X–rays might have been lauded for their medical usefulness, but Schulz approaches the technology from a more ambiguous standpoint: juxtaposing the revelation of the bodily interior with its concealment, and depicting X–ray–esque imagery in registers which are alternatively scientific and fancifully pornographic, he questions whether X–rays can conclusively establish the workings of the body at all. As Danius notes, X–rays “relegate[d] the medical gaze to the realm of merely subjective, nonobjective, or not–yet–objective knowledge”; the Schulzian X–ray is never far from exposing the human body as a site of deception, rather than clarification.[35] Allusions to X–rays in Schulz’s fiction thus open up the notion that “mere observation never reveals anything” in his stories. Instead, X–ray imagery highlights the dysfunctionality of the body, problematising the illusion that bodies can be made meaningful; it also expands readings of Schulz’s complex narratives, situating his stories within contemporary scientific debates. In Schulz’s X–ray aesthetics, the modern body remains a bone of contention.


Juliette Bretan (she/her) is a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Cambridge. Her work examines portrayals of Polish characters in Anglophone and Polish modernism, as well as cross-cultural collaborations between Britain and Poland in the early 20 th century. Her other research interests include modernist objects; interwar popular culture, music and dance; literary depictions of sensory modalities; and the influence of scientific and technological developments on modernism. Her research and journalism has featured in The Sunday TimesThe New Statesman’s CityMetric, The European Literature Network, New Eastern Europe, and on the BBC World Service, among others.


References

  1. I am deeply grateful to Dr Leo Mellor for offering several insightful suggestions on an early draft of this article—and for being a constant source of encouragement, inspiration and mentorship in my research. Bruno Schulz to Romana Halpern, mid–February, 1938, in Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz, ed. Jerzy Ficowski (New York: Fromm International, 1990), 170–72 (170).
  2. Schulz to Halpern, 172.
  3. Sara Danius, The Senses of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 56.
  4. Tim Armstrong, Modernism, Technology and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 5.
  5. Rod Mengham, ‘The Folding Telescope and Many Other Virtues of Bruno Schulz’, in The Kenyon Review, 33 (2011), 153–66 (154–55).
  6. Schulz, ‘An Essay for S. I. Witkiewicz’, in Letters and Drawings, 110–14 (113).
  7. Schulz, ‘A Visitation’, in Collected Stories, trans. by Madeline G. Levine (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 10–15 (11–12).
  8. Peter Fifield, Modernism and Physical Illness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 3.
  9. Armstrong, Modernism, Technology and the Body, 2.
  10. Danius, The Senses of Modernism, 75.
  11. Ibid., 74.
  12. Schulz, “A Visitation,” 13.
  13. Abbie Garrington, Haptic Modernism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 95.
  14.  Schulz, “A Description of the Book Cinnamon Shops” in Letters and Drawings, 153–155 (153).
  15. Ibid., 153. 
  16. John Updike, quoted in Russell E. Brown, ‘Bruno Schulz and World Literature’, in The Slavic and East European Journal, 34 (1990), 224–246 (227).
  17. Robert McParland, Film and Literary Modernism (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 102–3.
  18. Armstrong, Modernism, Technology and the Body, 3.
  19. Schulz, “A Visitation,” 14.
  20. Schulz, “Mannequins,” in Collected Stories, 20–24 (23).
  21. Garrington, Haptic Modernism, 97.
  22. Schulz, “Mannequins,” 24.
  23. Ibid. 
  24. Garrington, Haptic Modernism, 97.
  25. Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 37.
  26. Schulz, “Mannequins,” 24.
  27. Schulz, “A Treatise on Mannequins, or The Second Book of Genesis” in Collected Stories, 25–28 (28).
  28. Cheng, Second Skin, 37.
  29. Danius, Senses of Modernism, 57, 64.
  30. Ibid., 75.
  31. Schulz to Zenon Wasniewski, 24 April 1934, in Letters and Drawings, 72–73 (73).
  32. Schulz, “A Treatise on Mannequins, Conclusion,” in Collected Stories, 31–34 (31).
  33. Ibid., 31.
  34. Andrzej Urbanik, Monika Urbanik, Ewa Wyka, ‘Początki radiologii w Polsce w świetle dokumentów i eksponatów znajdujących się w zbiorach Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego’, in Opuscula Musealia, 24 (2016), 173–186 (176).
  35. Danius, Senses of Modernism, 74.

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