Sunday, November 8, 2009
by Walter Benjamin
translated by Edmund Jephcott
Edited & w. an introduction by Peter Demetz
Preface by Leon Wieseltier
The writings of Walter Benjamin circumnavigate a vast and enigmatic continent – that of Benjamin himself. Or, a transverse hesitancy. Benjamin writes around the possibility of writing thought’s definition. This is a task even the great minds, and especially the great minds such as Benjamin, must attempt while never actually succeeding. This futility is integral to such a process. Benjamin writes in “A Berlin Chronicle” that “it is likely that no one ever masters anything in which he has not known impotence.” The struggle is itself a futility, and “…if you agree you will also see that this impotence comes not at the beginning of or before the struggle with the subject, but in the heart of it.” Or, it is the very heart of it. “Reflections,” a Peter Demetz-edited collection of assorted Benjamin writings makes good upon such a struggle. When philosopher Hannah Arendt compiled the earlier “Illuminations,” she provided an early entrance for English-speaking intellectual circles into the writings of the famed Frankfurt school thinker. And “Illuminations” is for the most part an easy entry-point, beginning with the affable “Unpacking My Library” and culminating in the brilliant “the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a text which even today we must contend with, both in its acuteness and its inaccuracies, to this day. This volume continues such a project, while admirably complicating it as well.
Both “Illuminations” and the considerably thicker “Reflections” include the same preface, written by Leon Wieseltier, who remembers “…in my own student days, not so long ago, [when Benjamin] 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 rumors. These were the books that brought the news.” And it is hard not to read a superstructure both within each individual volume and between the two. The lucid intelligence of “Illuminations” introduces us to a trenchantly relevant thinker, one who in both writing and in his life can be seen as both the last Romantic and an early vanguard of Modernism. The Benjamin of “Reflections” is much more difficult affair, composed of mystifying literary criticism along the lines of “Karl Kraus,” of which Kraus admits to not having understood what Benjamin had written about him, to the philosophical acumen and political vehemence of the “Critique of Violence,” and onto the vivid junctures of place and memory in “A Berlin Chronicle.” While “Illuminations” introduced the English reader to a series of well-light streets, “Reflections” takes us into the sprawl of alleyways and arcades beyond.
“A Berlin Chronicle” negotiates the shifting junctures between geography, memory and writing. Benjamin concedes to the sense of impotence in the face of memory’s attendant sprawl. The ‘Lived Berlin’ he writes towards is as much place as experience. He details “…the middle period of my life in Berlin, extending from the whole of my later childhood to my entrance to the university: a period of impotence before the city.” Benjamin celebrates his “…very poor sense of direction…,” an almost willful ignorance of the difference between left and right. But this apparent ineptitude to perform even the basic functions of walking uncovers the digressive wonder of Benjamin’s writing. Isn’t he telling us here the manner in which to read him? That we must proceed as Benjamin the flaneur does through Berlin? Aimless, yet rapt? He confides that “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life – bios- geographically on a map.” A map, like memory itself, is a transitional thing, existing only as a fluctuation, and any attempt to capture it, to set it down on paper, provides us failed glimpses at a possible past. Cartographers do not make maps of Europe. They craft images of a European moment in history.
Benjamin considers the map as both a site of experience and of possibility, as he writes, “I have evolved a system of signs, and on the gray background of such maps they would make a colorful show if I clearly marked in the houses of my friends and girl friends, the assembly halls of various collectives, from the ‘debating chambers’ of the Youth Movement to the gathering places of the Communist youth, the hotel and brothel rooms that I knew for one night, the decisive benches in the Tiergarten, the ways to different schools and the graves that I saw filled, the sites of prestigious cafes whose long-forgotten names daily crossed our lips…” This rolling, geographic recollection blurs both the private and the public spheres. We see a map as a potentiality – a series of maps laid on top of each other, intersecting and erasing each other as they are laid over one another. But how do we separate the debating chambers of the Youth Movement from the brothels Benjamin remembers from lost sexual escapades? Perhaps such a vision hints at the political nature of pedestrian life, just as it outlines the sexual proclivity in political action.
The endless flaneries of Benjamin, his aimless treks through Berlin’s streets, approach the veracity of how we experience memory – not because these walks explicate memory, but precisely because they mirror memory’s mystery. We become lost in both – as we must. Doesn’t this sound like William Bennett’s exhortation at the end of Whitehouse’s “Dumping the Fucking Rubbish” to become “…willing/ to feel that out of control…?” Losing oneself is contingent upon the apparent endlessness, both of the city and of memory. Benjamin points, as he so often does, especially in his more personal texts, to Proust. We are presented with an image of a fan, as “he who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments; no image satisfies him, for he has seen that it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside; that image, that taste, that touch… from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier.” Benjamin isn’t pleading us to stop to take in all the details, like some sentimental cliché, instead, he admits the overwhelming infinitude of these details.
We must be open to the flood of details, due to their sheer immensity, as Benjamin writes “…of a space, of moments and discontinuities.” These moments are frontiers of experience. It is, ultimately, these frontiers, entire landscapes of boundaries, that Benjamin enters through his experience both as a flaneur, and perhaps more importantly, his writings about the flaneur. One is reminded not only of such obvious forbears as Baudelaire, but also of the Bruno Schultz of “the Street of Crocodiles,” who transforms the Polish city of Drogobych into a dream territory.
Benjamin sees linguistics as the encompassing entrance into such dreamlike borderlands. He notes “…the unfathomable mystery that certain words from the language of adults possess for children.” The intersection of linguistic wonder with geographic mystery enchants Benjamin as he remembers the garden on the Brauhausberg, because “to approach what it enfolds is almost impossible. These words that exist on the frontier between two linguistic regions, of children and of adults, are comparable to those of Mallarme’s poems, which the conflict between the poetic and profane word has as it were consumed and made evanescent, airy.” The city becomes a dictionary, not only as it is composed of both street signs and place names, but also as we must define it through our words. It becomes, then, the possibility of a sentence, as much as a possibility of a street or a shop.
Elsewhere in “Reflections,” Benjamin considers “the Destructive Character,” of which it is difficult not to draw analogies to the writer himself. Remember the shift inherent to the nexus of geography and memory in the earlier “A Berlin Chronicle.” Benjamin here tells us that “the destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. The tactics of the flaneur should also be applied to the consummate thinker in the 20th century, and which bears relevance as we enter a new century. Because “where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring.” The privileging of the moment again reminds me of my earlier post on William Bennett and Whitehouse. Bennett denies that Whitehouse seeks to “raise questions,” as he believes this is a flaccid concern of a hoary art establishment. The destructive character, likewise, does not necessarily annihilate so that something new may come, instead “what exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.” We must map the city because such a map reminds us that such a space cannot be charted. But to not even attempt to do so reduces the world to the vagrancies of a windowless room, smelling of urine and stale coffee.