Friday, September 11, 2009


by Walter Benjamin

translated by Harry Zohn

edited w. an introduction by Hannah Arendt

preface by Leon Wieseltier

And we travel from here to there. ‘Here’ can be the Morgan stop off the L in Brooklyn. ‘There’ can be the Rockefeller Center stop off the F, right in midtown Manhattan. These are places, fixed physical locations in space. But each is also anchored to a specific time. We move from here to there, but our conception of each lies with particulars. Geography has the tendency of slipping away. Where does it go? The immovable flickers, as inconsistent as it is incandescent. Sure, you can find first-century Gaul on a map, but can you go there? I still remember how to get to the two-floor apartment I shared with my friend Connor while living in Baltimore over three years ago. But I can’t go there. We must expand our idea of topography. Is memory another type of place? Or is it simply another place? Additional locations. Layers? Is it an arcade down which we wander - aimless flaneurs in phantom cities? Memory allows us to investigate time from a privileged perspective – the nonlinear swervings of its actuality.

Now, to focus. In his epic sequence, ‘the Maximus Poems,’ the great Charles Olson charts a geography of place and position utilizing both memory and utterance. Voice becomes a means of measurement. Space, its tactile heft, is carved out of remembrance and mind. Olson wrangles this accumulative memory out of the very terrain, the poplars off the path, the smell of seasalt. What he illuminates here is vastly different from the homogeny of a more familiar idea of the Jungian collective memory. This is something else. Olson reveals to us a transfluence of contradictory and aleatory elements. Don’t imagine a common core from which all disparities emanate, no one single wellspring. It is more beneficial to envision each disparity contributing to a brilliant polyglot. A group effort becomes a group identity. Olson is the pioneer of the lived moment, the communal moment; he unearths a totalizing past and activates it in the continuous now.

The German cultural theorist and critic, Walter Benjamin must also be understood as a writer inhabiting, and perhaps actualizing, a topography. But we should remember the diversity in both writers’ modes of thought. Benjamin wrote beneath the burdensome aegis of history, which loomed over 20th century Europe in a decidedly different fashion than it did Olson’s America. Hegel is an active figure for Benjamin to both react to and against. As we further engage these startling essays spanning the tragically short literary life of Walter Benjamin, we find ourselves in a place both weighted down and liberated by the text.

Benjamin’s essays, his fragments and aphorisms, even his casual sketches, construct a metropolitan throughway. Benjamin loved the cities of the 20th century. They created him as much as he helped to define them. The essays of Walter Benjamin beg to be wandered through much like a lonesome metropolitan district, with a concentrated aimlessness and an attentive eye to innocuous detail. He found a kindred spirit in Baudelaire’s flaneur and in the Surrealist’s whimsical urban rambling. To focus upon a single essay of Benjamin’s would be to miss the point. We must appreciate each essay as just one stop on a vast, subterranean subway system. Along the way, we transfer from line to line, linger at particular stops, and move in multiple directions at once. Always moving.

Hannah Arendt compiled ‘Illuminations’ as an English-language introduction to the works of Benjamin. Leon Wieseltier writes in his preface how “it is hard to imagine a time when Walter Benjamin was not a god (or an idol) of criticism, but I can remember when, in my own student days, not so long ago, he was only an exciting rumor. It was the publication of ‘Illuminations,’ and then a few years later of ‘Reflections,’ these lovingly assembled and beautifully translated volumes, that confirmed the rumor. These were the books that brought the news.” It is no longer necessary, fifty-one years hence, for anyone to make the case for Walter Benjamin, but these two handy collections remain extraordinary travel guides for further exploration. ‘Illuminations’ begins with Benjamin’s introduction to a German translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens.’ As such, he not only investigates ‘the Task of the Translator,’ but also questions what it means to translate a text. And what exactly is a text? As Benjamin repeatedly reminds us in his writings, we must not restrict our readings to the page, but look outward to the widening possibility of texts. And Benjamin excelled, like Barthes after him, at reading the world around him as a text.

One cannot help be impressed by the swift movement of Benjamin’s thinking. That is, we must remember here that translation is a matter of transference. But what is being transferred? He writes“…any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations. But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information – as even a poor translator will admit- the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?” It is no coincidence that Benjamin has, like Wittgenstein, found so many devotees amongst poets.

He operates best as a poetic thinker, in that he lives within those cognitive leaps poetry enables. These seemingly inconsolable leaps are reconciled in a manifestation of a Hegelian transcendence. Therefore, “all purposeful manifestations of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis have their end not in life, but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance. Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages.” Each language possesses a hidden relationship to another, not because each is an emanation of some higher ur-language, but rather because “languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.”

This discussion of translation inevitably leads to a further consideration of authenticity. On the subject of reproduction and authenticity, I direct any curious reader to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which I will not attempt to tackle here, but remains a revelatory text. A translation, Benjamin argues, does not simply transfer a piece of information from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ instead it concerns itself with distinct auras. What is the relationship between an original and translation? He insists it “…requires an investigation analogous to the argumentation by which a critique of cognition would have to prove the impossibility of an image theory.” Translating is not, then, a hermetic instance of a = a. Cognition is not objective, therefore “…it can be demonstrated that no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.” And “while a poet’s words endure in his own language, even the greatest translation is destined to become part of the growth of its own language and eventually to be absorbed by its renewal.” Translation is not the communication of information, but a communication about information.

Consider the poetry of Baudelaire and Poe. Both writers enacted enormous change within their respective spheres, Baudelaire in the French tradition and Poe in regard to the development of a distinct American poetic lineage. But each poet has also had enormous influence outside of the limits of their own language. Then, “translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.” Baudelaire, and in particular his mastery of the urban prose poem, have unquestionably altered how we all approach poetry, but we are not only engaged with the French-language text, we engage in a discourse on Baudelaire, which we carry on in our respective languages. We approach Baudelaire through possible translations, and how we understand writers in foreign languages, like Benjamin, is through interpretation. This privileges diversity; it privileges potentiality. A translation can, then, conceivably be called a discourse rather than a transference, and “it stands to reason that kinship does not necessarily involve likeness.”

Charles Olson uses diverse histories and voices in his “Maximus Poems” in order to build an accumulation- something akin to a seabed, in which sediment and organic matter over an immense period of time coheres into new configurations. Or, perhaps we should think of language as a coral reef? Both Olson and Benjamin plumb the resources of diversity, since “while all individual elements of foreign languages – words, sentences, structure- are mutually exclusive, these languages supplement one another in their intentions.” For instance, “the words Brot and pain ‘intend’ the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same.” It is to Benjamin’s credit that he does not attribute a sacred essence to each word. He admits a functional link between languages as “…intention and object of intention complement each of the two languages from which they are derived…” But unlike the Kabbalists, Benjamin is not mislead by the mystical fallacy of each object’s intrinsically ‘true’ name. His mode of thinking does not lead to such reductive a narrowing.

Translation can best serve us as a tool for plumbing the potentialities of language, “for to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings.” As we read Benjamin, we are never far from the city, from the boundless potential of the streets and the crowds. Language, and by extension cognition, offer us a common space of discovery and travel. Speaking of Proust, memory, and his Byzantine sentences, Walter Benjamin evokes “...the Nile of language, which her overflows and fructifies the regions of truth…” Language is here a place wherein we may build our community. It is the river on which we travel, and it is the wellspring of our sustenance. Language, that unknowable yet known Nile, is the agent of our transcendence, as well as the sum of the banal and everyday – all around us and at the edges.

NEXT: Death in Venice & Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann.

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