“Are We All Monsters?”
Philip Schultz’s poetry often touches on family—his book Failure, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, centers around stories of his father’s repeated failed business schemes—Jewish history, identity, and aging. Given this palette of concerns, his new book, a novel in verse called The Wherewithal, has the feeling of a summing-up. It deals with all of these issues, along with several more that Schultz has struggled and, perhaps piquantly, failed to capture in writing—namely the Holocaust, poverty, and the upheavals of the late ’60s.
Set in San Francisco in 1967 and ’68, with the Zodiac killer on the loose and Vietnam fervor in the air, The Wherewithal tells the story of Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzykowski. A Polish Catholic émigré, Henryk saw his fellow Catholics in the village of Jedwabne massacre as many as 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors during the war. Only a child at the time, Henryk watched as his mother saved seven Jews by secretly hiding them in a pit in their barn. (The massacre and the woman are real—though the pogrom’s exact death toll remains disputed—but Henryk is an invention.) Now, hoping to avoid the draft while slumming in various odd jobs, including as a clerk in the basement of the city’s social services department, Henryk is busy translating his mother’s wartime diaries. Along the way, he dwells on the trauma of accidentally killing his Jewish friend, in Chicago, during a game of William Tell gone awry.
The Wherewithal is distinguished for its ability to braid together strands of narrative while leavening the story with unexpected bursts of humor. There are avuncular taxi dispatchers, half-crazed sailors returned from Vietnam, welfare clients teetering on the fulcrum between desperation and madness, and the Zodiac himself, stalking the city’s innocent. Like much of Schultz’s poetry, the book tends to be direct and precise in its emotional articulations, with lines such as “alone / at the intersection of luck and disgrace” ably capturing Henryk’s condition. Henryk spends most of his days among the closed-case files in the basement of the welfare office—a job that Schultz once had, when he too was hoping to avoid the draft. Whether by the weight of history, personal failings, or the specter of Vietnam, Henryk is imprisoned—a condition made vivid by the author’s decision to include some of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Prisons sketches in the book. The Wherewithal’s unspoken challenge might be whether Henryk has the strength, the wherewithal, to free himself from these bonds.
Schultz and I met on a slushy day in his Greenwich Village apartment. We talked over tea for more than an hour, before Schultz was to take a bus to return to his family in East Hampton. The author was in a buoyant mood, making clear that this book represents the satisfying culmination of decades of grappling with these topics and with his own history. One also got the sense that whatever symbolic achievement might be attributed to this long-gestating book, there is much work ahead. Schultz described a new group of poems reflecting on nature and time spent with his border collie Penelope, the mention of whom caused the poet to kvell like an overjoyed parent.
An edited, condensed version of our conversation follows.
How did this come to be a novel in verse?
I didn’t know I was writing a novel in verse—I was writing a poem that kept getting longer. I was 25 when I had this experience working in the inactive-files basement of a welfare building in San Francisco. I always knew it was wonderful material. I would read all these files. How could so much grief be compacted into this one space?
I tried to write novels about it for years, and I couldn’t. I had a character who was hiding from the Vietnam War, from the draft, in San Francisco, and he was down there. But I didn’t have a story; I wasn’t a novelist. I didn’t know what he [the character] was doing.
It wasn’t until 2001, when a book by Jan Gross, the historian, came out called Neighbors, about this pogrom in Jedwabne, a Polish town, where after the Germans took over Poland—well, they took over half of Poland and the Soviets the other half—the townspeople just took this as an opportunity, without being told, to kill half the population of the town, the Jewish population, and take their property. When I read it I was fascinated by it, because it was the secret that the Polish people denied. I got excited: after all those years—I was now in my 50s—I knew what my character was doing in that welfare office. I made notes. It was a Polish woman, a Polish Catholic woman, who saved the lives of the only seven Jewish survivors, at great danger and risk to herself. I was fascinated by her courage. How does someone do it? The only one there who didn’t join in the massacre.
I made my underground man, my character, her son. She did have a son, but I just invented him. I gave him a whole history now. He was without that kind of courage, and by writing about her wherewithal, in translating her diaries—there were no diaries, it was my way of integrating the massacre’s firsthand witness into the book—he was trying to gain some himself.
Is there much known about her?
She is enshrined at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, as righteous among nations—all those non-Jews who have saved Jews during the Holocaust. And she’s known for that. She’s not very well advertised in Poland. But there’s very little known—she did survive, she went to Chicago, she had a quiet life. Most of the Jews who she saved went to places like Argentina; they sent her a little money, she was beloved, they adored her. There’s one photo of her that I saw on the Internet, and [I wrote a] line near the end of the book: “I know now that mother is perhaps / the happiest person alive.” I’ve never seen [such] a smile—beatific. It was like she knew who she was. In the book I gave her, for symbolic reasons, Alzheimer’s, and so that’s the horrible part of her life. When you have Alzheimer’s, recent memory disappears and you live in the past, so she was ironically living her horror over.
Wittgenstein is mentioned throughout the book, especially in relation to Henryk’s failure as a philosophy student. Where does your interest in him come from?
Well, I’ve always loved him. Wittgenstein and his philosophy, both as a combination of wonderful mysticism, an involvement in language, seeing language as having a separate reality in itself, positivist, seeing like Piranesi—[was] more armor. So I made my character a somewhat failed philosophy graduate student. He was using Wittgenstein as a prism through which to view the Holocaust—the way as a writer I was doing it. I had to do it, when things would get to me and it would get to be too much. If you’re really dealing with this stuff, you’re really dealing with it, you’re living in it and it’s hard.
Wittgenstein and Piranesi served as filters. I used their reality, and how they saw the world, to protect myself from what I was emotionally dealing with. I did it deliberately, I knew what I was doing.
You've described the poor as a kind of minority. Can you explain that?
I saw them denigrated, demeaned—to kick, to put down, it serves a human function. The people in Jedwabne were down and out in many ways. They were barely surviving. In some cases, they lived for 500 years with the Jews and worked for them. The Jews were shocked that the people that worked for them, that they traded labor with, said hello to on the road, suddenly would hate them to this extent. It was one thing in Russia, where there were always pogroms and hatred, but this had been buried.
Does this come partly out of identification, your interest in the poor?
Well, I grew up in a family where there was a lot of struggle, and there were times we were hungry. I wrote about that in the book Failure. We were living with my grandmother and being a freeloader in her house and trying to make do and having various businesses that all failed. It was a rough neighborhood. Lots of friends that I had, Jewish and not Jewish, their fathers drank. I was a street kid, and the reality on the street was that no matter how harsh things were, they were better than what was going on in the houses.
Also, I was struggling. I and many others who didn’t want to go off and fight in Vietnam, for very good reasons, couldn’t find jobs. We were hungry and we’re not freeloaders, but if we didn’t take food stamps, we’d have a hard time making do. So of course I identified with them. Also, I saw firsthand that it wasn’t their fault. Now, there’s this puritan ethic, this Republican ethic, about it’s the fault of the poor; you blame the poor for their own situation. Out of human selfishness and greed, we don’t want to share; we don’t want to share what we work for.
If I were on a date, and I mentioned that there was a time in my life [when I was on food stamps], I would get a look. I knew that there wasn’t going to be a second date. I recognized that the poor were disenfranchised, looked down upon—in a certain way not dissimilar from the purpose that the Jews play in certain countries and societies. They were despised, the untouchables. And then I had the situation where the guy had the past he’s writing about, and he’s something of an anti-Semite himself, my character.
He certainly has his own guilt and self-loathing that he’s dealing with, from being a helpless bystander in Poland—at least from how I read it. He was rather young, and he could only watch what his mother was doing. But then he has the guilt from accidentally killing his friend.
The son of a Jewish survivor.
Right, that was interesting to me because it’s almost like he becomes a murderer—like his Polish neighbors—after the fact. He takes on that identity; he can’t help it.
And he doesn’t know why. He’s down there trying to figure it out. There are all kinds of jealousy. It would be natural for a kid to resent and envy these people that his mother was endangering all of them for.
There was one line asked by Henryk: “Potentially are we all monsters?” I was wondering, what do you think of that question? That’s certainly the type of question that recurs in Holocaust studies. Is that something you believe?
I wish I could reduce it to that black-and-white, but it was important to me in writing the book to understand that it wasn’t us and them.
Yes, I’m questioning human nature—how an ordinary person could be turned into a monster. That’s why I made my character a killer. It was a game, a game of chicken, of two boys, and the guy killed was his best friend who adored him, looked up to him. I wanted him to try to understand in himself where that came from. The guilt has chased him down into this basement. I wanted to make him as complicated as the situation he was exploring and examining. I guess I say at the end there’s something despicable about human beings and what we’re capable of—all of us, not just them. It’s something magnificent, and they seemed to sometimes come in similar places.
It was quite an examination. I had to look at my own self. I never killed anyone. There was a friend of mine in my neighborhood whose older brother killed his best friend in a game like that. It was a pivotal point in my childhood. He was an artist; he taught me how to draw. (I wanted to be an artist before a writer.) I could see what it had done to him, how it took someone who was a shining star and turned him into a pariah. He never forgave himself.
Were you in San Francisco during the Zodiac killings?
Yes. You know, here’s where memory plays tricks. I would go to the docks and try to get a job, a temporary job, because that was how I survived. I’d go every morning at 6, and maybe one morning a week or one morning every two weeks I’d get hired and make $50, and that would have to feed me for the week. I’d go down to Yellow [taxi headquarters] and they almost never hired me. One day I went down to Yellow and they hired me, and I realized that I was the only cab on the street. I didn’t own a TV; I didn’t read newspapers. I heard about the Zodiac killer, but I didn’t understand that he had said the night before he was going to kill a cabbie next. He said the week before a cop, and he killed a cop, a teacher, a fireman, and now he said a cabbie. I can’t tell you in all certainty, trying to remember back that far, if it was the same night or the day after, but I gave my character where he’s the only cab on the streets.
I’m using the Zodiac to really look at Hitler. If you gave the Zodiac, who killed, the biggest, most powerful army on the face of the earth and made him a dictator, what havoc would he wreak?
Boy, it sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?
It’s funny that you said it because there’s still so much humor in the book. Even when he’s a cab driver, the character, he ends up being taken around by these guys who are committing crimes.
The Black Panthers. They were smuggling guns.
I love this line from one of the guys that says, “I got the gun and I’m scared!”
This book wouldn’t be readable if it didn’t have that humor, if it didn’t have the humor of circumstance and error. I needed that. I needed to write it, and I know that the reader needed to read it.
Did you have a low draft number? Were you were worried about being drafted?
I had a deferment because I was a graduate student. And then I had enough of studying, and I left. I went back to San Francisco, and I was suddenly vulnerable. I lived basically like a lot of young men, with a suitcase under my bed. I knew I wasn’t going to go. I didn’t know whether I was going to take off and go to Canada or where. But because of the uncertainty of that situation, no one would hire me for a real job, because I could be gone the next day. It was a situation everyone was very aware of. No one was going to hire me—I was educated and had a year, almost, of graduate studies—but they weren’t going to hire me for a teaching job knowing that I could be called up the following week. You subsisted on part-time work. There were so many of us in that Bay Area trying to do the same thing. There weren’t enough jobs to go around. I had a friend who lived off of stealing steaks from the IGA. He let me know all the different techniques he had. People were hungry. It was a real situation. There was a desperation.
So your number never got called? You never had to take the suitcase?
No, I did everything. I even wrote letters to my draft board in Rochester, saying, “It’s outrageous, this war, and even if you call me . . .” Crazy things, but no. Never. Then I went back to school and for the last year, until I was 26, then I was out of it. And then it was over! Then it was over.
You mentioned that in the past, especially when you were in your 20s, you tried to write novels and struggled and perhaps failed at times. Do you feel like you’ve written a novel now? Would you call yourself a novelist?
That is a great question. I am struggling with that. I’m getting a kick out of the fact that through no ambitions or desires of my own this is being called a novel in verse. I guess there is such a thing as a novel in verse. When I wrote “The Wandering Wingless,” in Failure, it was a long poem. I used all the techniques I had learned in the failed novels. I knew how to tell a long story; I did learn something. And by writing that poem, I taught myself things that I used in writing this, so they are most certainly novelistic techniques, fictional techniques, which I always wanted to use. So in that sense, yes, it is that. I would not have been able to write a 180-page story, complicated, with 15 different stories, with 15 different characters. You know, the poetry is so worked on, so scanned, so deliberate that I felt at first that calling it prose is insulting to the poet. But I see now without that I would not have been able to balance and juggle so many narratives in the air.
I’m curious also about the title The Wherewithal. It appears quite early in the book a couple times, and I think there might be one instance later; did you always know that this is what you were going to call it?
For some reason a phrase has occurred to me, like now in the last year or so, the phrase “something or other.” Whenever I’m at some kind of emotional crossroads or struggling to understand something, the phrase “something or other” comes about, and I latch onto it, hold onto it like a life preserver. I don’t know what it means, but I know that it has resonance for me. “The Wherewithal” was doing that even before I immersed myself in this material. I didn’t know why, and then when I decided to commit myself to writing—and it’s a quite a commitment, given the long history of failure already on at least half the material—I knew immediately that the book would be called The Wherewithal. And somewhat mysterious. I mean, I didn’t know what it meant literally at all, I didn’t know why I was so fascinated by the word, that term.
Then when I was writing the book, I understood it. Where do people find it when they don’t have it? As a teacher I have a method of teaching, and I have a school that’s based on it, and I find that I’m struggling to help others find the wherewithal to write their poems and stories and novels—that sometimes that’s the difference between success and failure, having the courage to do it and finding it within yourself, because there’s all these negative forces that prevent us.
“Are We All Monsters?”