Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Benjamin as Theologian

Introduction to Antiphilosophy by Boris Groys - review An electrifying set of essays on continental thinkers by Stuart Kelly in the Guardian Excerpt:- Two essays stand out. Groys writes beautifully about Walter Benjamin, and again proposes an eyebrow-raising idea: that Benjamin should be read as a theologian rather than as a philosopher. Benjamin certainly fits badly with a conventional version of philosophy, and Groys argues that the difference between philosophy and theology is the difference between the future and the past: the philosopher desires the truth which is just out of reach, while the theologian commemorates and repeats the transformative event which is becoming more and more distant. Groys even manages not to quote one of Benjamin's most famous observations: "This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet". If you close only one eye, the image could as easily be product upon product lavished on the feet of Capital.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Article from the Guardian

A lovely article in the Guardian recently by Elif Shafak My hero: Walter Benjamin by Elif Shafak 'One doesn't read him to feel better – one reads him to feel' Elif Shafak guardian.co.uk, Friday 27 April 2012 22.55 BST An alchemist with words: the essayist and critic Walter Benjamin. I was a student in college when I first starting reading Walter Benjamin. Literary critic, philosopher, essayist, he was a man of words. As a German Jew he had been born in turbulent times, at the end of the 19th century, and in the most dangerous of places, Berlin. While he was known only to a limited audience during his lifetime, his fame rocketed after his death. I remember waiting impatiently for the Turkish edition of the Arcades Project. The book travelled everywhere with me in my backpack; its pages torn on the edges, dotted with cigarette burns and coffee stains, and once, during a rock concert, soaked in the rain. Among all the books I read that year, fiction and non-fiction, no other was so tattered, so deeply loved. Benjamin was an alchemist of sorts, the most unusual of Marxist intellectuals, a black sheep in every flock. He merged literature with philosophy, the questions raised by religion with the answers provided by secularism, left-wing opposition with mysticism, German idealism with historical materialism, despair with creativity … He was an expert on Goethe, Proust, Kafka and Baudelaire, but he also wrote extensively on about the small, ordinary things in life. He was no philosopher of ivory towers. As you keep reading him you can almost watch him strolling the streets, listening to people, taking notes, making sketches, constantly collecting. One doesn't read him to feel better. One reads him to feel. In his universe nothing is as it appears to be and there is a vital need to go beyond surfaces and connect with humanity. To live is to walk upon a pile of rubble, listening to any signs of life coming from under the ruins. Melancholy constitutes an intrinsic part of his existence. One evening a nihilist boyfriend got drunk and yelled at Benjamin's photograph on the wall: "Smile Mr Walter! Don't need to carry the world on your shoulders. You are dead now, relax!" He then flung his wine glass at him, which he probably wanted to throw at me. I cleaned the mess with dishwashing soap, but a stain remained on Benjamin's glasses, making him see everything through a lens of red. God, progress, civilisation, there was nothing he could not doubt, least of all himself. He was so modestly uncertain, this man of towering intellect. Gershom Scholem, the fountainhead of Jewish mysticism, thought Benjamin was a most special soul but why on earth did he converse with those leftists? Brecht had a profound respect for him but never understood what he was doing around those mystics. And in between two worlds, translating the words of those who never spoke the same language, Benjamin stood on his own, beautiful in his loneliness. As the Nazis consolidated their power and humanity exchanged reason for madness, harmony for bigotry, he had to flee his homeland, this man who could not live away from his library. The journey across Europe was full of perils. On 26 September 1940, he committed suicide on the Franco-Spanish border while waiting for his visa to be granted. Suddenly he had decided to wait no more, doubt no more. • Elif Shafak's Honour is published this month by Viking.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Good old things

Writing on the 25th August 1934 Benjamin quotes from a conversation with Brecht: 'Dont start from the good old things but the bad new ones'

Friday, 23 March 2012

an affront to Goethe

isnt it an affront to Goethe to make a film of Faust, and isnt there a world of difference between the poem Faust and the film Faust? Yes, certainly. But, again, isnt there a whole world of difference between a bad film of Faust and a good one?
- arcades project

Sunday, 12 February 2012

MISTAKES I HAVE MADE

MISTAKES I HAVE MADE by Michael Allhouse – International Student Engagement Coordinator

Part 1. The list of phrases to never use again
I sometimes, quite innocently say the wrong thing. I sometimes, quite innocently say the wrong thing to international people and get myself in to terrible trouble. There are now quite a few phrases on my ‘List of phrases to never use again’. One such phrase is the quite innocent seeming, ‘See you later’. ‘See you later’ is a pretty standard way of saying ‘Goodbye’ in Yorkshire and I suspect elsewhere in the UK, however, I guess it can raise a few questions. This first came to my attention as a significant problem when I tried to help a young Japanese girl on her first day of arrival in Bradford. Having explained to her where Morrisons was, or how to open a bank account, or something like that, just as she was about to go off to class I said “See you later” only to see confusion and something close to terror cross her face. I could almost see her thinking:
“I’m seeing him later? How am I seeing him later? Did I somehow agree to do something with him later? What did I agree to? Is it ok? Is he weird? Did I give him the wrong impression by talking to him? Maybe there is an event later I should go to? Is he teaching a class later? What have I agreed to?”
Ofcourse, what I really saw on her face was confusion and a little bit of alarm, but thinking about it afterwards, I’m pretty sure that’s what was going through her mind. I realized then that saying ‘See you later’ to someone new in the country is not a good idea, and I now no longer say it.

Mistakes I have made. No.2

The list of phrases not to use: - ‘I’m such an idiot’
So, last summer during the Pre-sessional English Summer Course, when trying to explain something-or-other (registering with the police or procedure for opening a bank account – one of the many hoops international students have to jump through) to one of the newly arrived students, I realized that my explanation had been rubbish and I’d clearly made the whole thing more complicated that it needed to be. In order to start my explanation again I said “Sorry, I’m such an idiot, that’s not correct” and then began my explanation again. So intent was I on my explanation that I hadn’t noticed the shock which must have passed across the student’s face. I carried on with my explanation, the student left and I thought no more about it……until, the next day when I received a phone call from the International Office informing me there’d been a complaint made against me by a student. Horrified, I went off to the International Office to find out what I’d done; - turns out a student had complained that I’d insulted him and called him an idiot. Clearly the incident from the day before. I have now added the phrase “I’m such an idiot” to my list of phrases not to use.

More Benjamin comics - not from me this time

Benjamin and Klee

Dora Benjamin bought Walter (on his birthday in 1920) a water color by Paul Klee titled Presentation of the miracle. A second work by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, acquired by Benjamin the following year, played such an important emotional and intellectual role in his life that it has been anointed as Benjamin’s logo. Why has nothing been written by Benjamin or his friends about that Presentation of the miracle? It is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But how did it get there?

Who was Benjamin's son?

We seem to know so little about Benjamin's son; Stefan Benjamin, who died in London at age 54. He was married three times, his third wife a Chinese Buddhist.

Who was Benjamin's wife?

Dora Sophie (to differentiate her from Benjamin’s sister, Dora Benjamin) was born in 1890 in Vienna as the daughter of the Jewish Viennese Professor of English, Leon Kellner. Family life endowed her with a knowledge of English, which subsequently served her well; and she developed a passion for music while growing up. (Benjamin, in contrast, had only a rudimentary knowledge of the English language and almost none at all of music). At age 21, she married an affluent journalist and philosophical pedagogue, Max Pollack, who was a member of Benjamin’s circle in Berlin at the outbreak of World War I. Dora Sophie Pollack was so smitten by 22-year old Walter Benjamin’s inaugural speech as Chairman of the Free Students Union that she presented him with roses. A year later, they were traveling together, and after her divorce from Max Pollack, they married in 1917. During their marriage, Dora Sophie provided the bulk of their income, first as bilingual secretary, subsequently through journalistic work, later through editorship of the magazine Die praktische Berlinerin, and finally through fiction writing; her novel Gas gegen Gas appeared in 1930. Their only son, Stefan, was born in 1918, while Benjamin studied for his doctorate in Bern. As Dora Sophie wrote in a letter to Scholem, she wanted a partner who could give meaning to her life, while Walter needed protection from suicide. Neither motivation preserved their rocky marital relationship, which ended in 1930. The judicial record of their divorce proceeding presents a sordid melodrama full of sexual infidelities and quarrels over money. After Hitler’s rise to power, Dora Sophie Benjamin moved to Italy, where she first served as cook and later owner of the Hotel Miramare in San Remo. On several occasions she provided refuge to her penniless former husband at the hotel. In 1938, she undertook a marriage of convenience with a South African businessman, which enabled her to move in 1938 to London with her son Stefan. She died there in 1964.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Arcades project

An interesting article by Esther Leslie

The Arcades Project was an encyclopaedic project on which Walter Benjamin worked for thirteen years from 1927 until his death in 1940. The Arcades Project takes its name from a nineteenth century architectural form. It also borrows its structure from that same architectural form. Arcades were passages through blocks of buildings, lined with shops and other businesses. Montaged iron and glass constructions housed chaotic juxtapositions of shop-signs, window displays of commodities, mannequins and illuminations. As the nineteenth century gives way to the twentieth century, montage moves from being a prescript of construction in technology to art and literature: from the Eiffel Tower to Dada and surrealism to the city novels of Alfred Döblin, John Dos Passos, James Joyce and others. Montage construction treats its material elements as contrasting segments that must be bolted together for maximum impact. In architecture this might lead to a dramatic exoskeleton, a whole building built up from small parts whose connectedness is on display. In textual form this means fragments, apercus, swift shifts of thought, the establishment of relationship between disparate objects, across a whole environment. For the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin organised the thousands of index cards on which he transcribed quotations and notations into files, called Konvolute. He developed a system of cross-referencing. The files comprised a vast array of interlinked scraps. When Benjamin fled Paris he gave over his collected notes of the Arcades Project to Georges Bataille, librarian at the National Library in Paris. He hid them well. He might have hoped to return one day to complete his researches. But completion was itself an issue. Gretel Adorno once joked that Benjamin inhabited the ‘cavelike depths’ of the Arcades Project and did not want to complete it ‘because you feared having to leave what you built’. Indeed the endeavour remained uncompleted, interrupted by Benjamin’s death, and so his map of the nineteenth century was only partially drafted. And so the definite significance of each passage is impossible to guess. The only certain point is that the elements were selected from the books and archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale, but in final form they would have been organised in a way that remains only inferable. Perhaps they might always have remained as a montage of found materials interspersed with occasional comment. Benjamin states in his file on methodology:

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse - these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.

Such a method appears analogous to dream interpretation. What does the dream offer but images, vivid, fragmentary, intense but not understood, until later, until worked over, worked back into narrative and patterns of causation, then made useful. And Paris, home to the arcades, was an appropriate place, for it was a city most chiasmal, the capital of dreams and the dream of capital. Paris was the ‘most dreamed of’ object of the surrealists’. It was a locus where capital did its work most intensely, in comparison to which later the ‘American dream’ of wonder and abundance would seem a mere shadow. The arcades house the dreams of the nineteenth century masses and their masters The arcade houses a collective body, who wears it like an exoskeleton:

The dreaming collective sinks down in its inner life into the arcades, just as the sleeper receives messages from his inner bodily processes, noises, blood pressure etc translated and elucidated in dream pictures.

The arcades, Benjamin tells us, are fluid places, and there things strike us ‘like realities in a dream’, always in flux, always remoulded in meaning, montage-like, by what comes after, always delaying their full meaning. A dream logic then is the best we might expect from such a bundle of notes and fragments and images. This is appropriate enough, for the dream features everywhere in the project, as in Benjamin’s work as a whole. The dream, for Benjamin, is an index of freedom - our social dreams indicate our social utopias. Children’s whole existence is seen to be dreamlike, and so utopian. And yet, again, it is only in their interpretation that we can become conscious and fully understand them, and so, it is only upon awakening, shedding the dream’s grasp in favour of knowledge, drawn from the dream that freedom can be restored. Benjamin writes in his 1935 Exposé of the Arcades Project:

The arcades and interiors are residues of a dream world. The utilization of dream elements in waking is a textbook example of dialectical thought. Hence dialectical thought is the organ of historical awakening.

Historical awakening is an aim of the project as a whole. Benjamin writes: ‘The new, dialectical method of doing history teaches us to pass in spirit--with the rapidity and intensity of dreams--through what has been, in order to experience the present as a waking world, a world to which every dream at last refers.’ And then, elsewhere, ‘It is at this moment that the historian takes up ... the task of dream interpretation.’ The study of the nineteenth century would bring the historian and the reader to the threshold of the present, to the point of waking. Benjamin would be the wide-awake, and wide-eyed dream interpreter of history.

The nineteenth century is, as the Surrealists say, the noises which intervene in our dreams and which we interpret when awake.

But what of the book that has now come to be in the absence of the project having been able to fulfill its aim. There are few signposts in its arcades of quotations. And yet, in fragment form or otherwise, Benjamin’s project hoped comprehensively to chart the arcades and the world in which they existed – a full history, and of course, as he noted in ‘Traumkitsch’, in 1925, ‘dreaming has a share in history’. The panoramic purview came about by collecting statements, analyses and responses from many perspectives. The various exposés and plans for the project perhaps provide a sort of guide for the purposes of orientation in the Arcades Project. The 1935 Exposé emphasises the architectural interest of the project. Its sections are named after a charged nineteenth century space and a figure who is closely associated with that space: Fourier or the Arcades; Daguerre or the Panoramas; Grandville or the World Exhibitions; Louis-Philippe or the Interieur; Baudelaire or the Streets of Paris; Haussmann or the Barricades. These section headings are like pharoses on a city plan, and they help to give shape to the city, the epoch and the project itself. So too do the chunks of commentary, of which the majority appear in the later stages of the Baudelaire file and the file N on the theory of progress and methodology. These are at least pointers through the aggregate of material. Just as the map of the past remained fragmentary, so too that past itself and its features - not least the arcades - fell into ruin. The project, then, had to take up into itself the fact of ruination. It charts a ruined or half-built or half-collapsed arcade. Perhaps a ruin of a building is not so far away from a solid structure. After all, Benjamin writes that it is possible to discern more about a great building from its plans or ruins than from the completed construct itself. For Benjamin the value of the ruin was, in part, the fact that it had passed through a history. It had the marks of a process on it. The political value of that history - fact, dreams, all of it - lies in its reconstruction and interpretation, to remove thought from the realm of mythology, remaining sensitive to its relevance in the present.

First of all, from 1927, Benjamin collected quotations and made notes on streets, department stores, panoramas, world exhibitions, types of lighting, fashion, advertisements, prostitution, collectors, flaneurs, Baudelaire, gamblers, boredom. From 1934 he added another set of themes, some of which were more directly political or economic. He did not abandon the former themes, and continued to collect notes on them. The later themes included the boulevard-building ‘Haussmannization’ of Paris, barricade battles, railways, conspiracies, social movements, the stock exchange, economic history, caricaturist Daumier, the Paris Commune, anthropological materialism, sects-history, the école polytechnic, Marx, Fourier, Saint-Simon, idleness, the Seine and antique Paris, lithography and reproductive techniques. Dissent, alternative histories, ‘creative destruction’ and utopian forecasts are as much in evidence as details of technological construction in iron, glass and lighting design or the organisation of wage labour, prostitution and literary life. The theme of the arcades had been there from the beginning. In 1927 Benjamin had planned to write a newspaper article on the arcades together with his flaneuring journalist friend Franz Hessel. This developed into another essay ‘Pariser Passagen’ in 1929. And out of that sprung the project, whose first file of quotations is ‘Arcades, Magasins de Nouveautés, Sales Clerks’. The arcade was the Ur-form, the originary form, of modernity, for it incubated modes of behaviour – distraction, seduction by the commodity spectacle, shopping as leisure activity, self-display - that would come to figure more prominently as the century passed into the next. The Paris arcades sheltered the first modern consumerism. These covered walkways with glass roofs had evolved out of the Galeries of the Palais Royal. With their jumble of diverse commodities from across the Empire, they turned shopping into an aesthetic event. They were perfect sites in which to linger and to learn how to window-shop and how to desire fantastic commodities. They were built, for the most part, in the decade and a half after 1822. A guide from 1852 describes each glass-roofed and marble-lined passageway as ‘a city, a world in miniature’. Such description attracted Benjamin, who had long harboured a fascination for the small, for worlds in miniature as in snow shakers or on stamps, or miniaturised bits of this world in the toys that he collected. And children interested him too, for they produce their own small world of things within the greater one. Parisian arcades are a miniature dramatization, importantly of the wider world, that is to say of the antinomies of capitalism.

Benjamin’s study of the arcades investigates the composition of an epoch; the age of Industrial Capitalism, as seen and theorized by producers and consumers, politicians and intellectuals, the socially powerful, the disenfranchised and the social resisters. As such it is a panoramic examination. For Benjamin, the arcades launch an exemplary environment in which the tenets of a modern perception and experience are elaborated: a mode of perceiving and a quality of experience that is both forged by and appropriate to the modern age. It is disorienting, dreamy, chock-a-block with stimuli. His Arcades Project records facets of a commodity society with its continual flow of goods, impressions, forms. Modern experience, he characterizes through his swift shifts of focus, as a string of Momentaufnahmen – records of the moment, snapshots. And what is snapped, snapped up, snapped onto, is product, commodities. These commodities are short-lived; their life spans reveal the tempo of capitalism. Their existences are correlated to fashion’s caprices. Benjamin reviews the facets of the commodity on display, where it becomes a dream-infested body of meaning. Everything desirable can be a commodity, a public display of fetishism. In the process of commodification, wish-images, the fragments of utopian potential, promised in the first flirtatious kisses of modern industrialism, congeal into fetish. Newness becomes a fetish. Transitoriness must ever outbid itself, in order to maximize profit. This means according to Benjamin’s schema of the dynamic of the modern, the novel rapidly becomes outmoded, it quickly becomes out-of-date fashion. Remaindering is the other side of this – history as bargain bin. And in this permanent move to built-in obsolescence, the commodities of the modern disclose secret connections to the mythological, that which is ancient and out of reach. This is the dialectic established at the core of the modern. It is a relay between the newest and the oldest. The novel is rapidly outmoded and always then, importantly for Benjamin, on the brink of becoming antiquated. That is to say, the new must contain itself antithesis – as possibility – dialectically inside itself. Any map of the modern, such as is the Arcades Project, whose object – the arcades, department stores, social movements against capitalism, world exhibitions and so on, all already aged by the 1920s – could at best trace the broken contours of now decrepit labyrinths. And so, a disrupted sense of time is conveyed in the fragments of the Arcades Project. Each moment, each short quote or comment appears only to disappear again back into the rubble of an unfinished book, an incomplete thought, an uncompleted, interrupted action. But this time of delay, of afterwards, an indication again of the method of interpretation – where meaning might come of the fragments of a dream, related upon awakening, in all its intensity.

The first arcades were built in Paris for Napoleon’s return from the Egyptian campaign. War is often, for Benjamin, the other face of industrial expansion. The dialectic assets itself, here in the couplet production/destruction. One of the ideas Benjamin pulls out from the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale points to the fluidity of connections between the later palaces of industrial innovation and display and the ordering and drilling of the battleground. And the arcades were swallowed up in the Haussmannization of Paris, when broad boulevards were cut through in a militarization of city space designed to deter barricade-building and to enable the swift passage of state vehicles. As Benjamin writes, arcing between past and present: ‘Haussmann’s work is accomplished today, as the Spanish war makes clear by quite other means’. Haussmann was appointed by Louis Napoléon as the prefect of the Seine between 1853 and the Emperor’s fall in 1870. His replanning moved the working classes and the poor out of the city centre to the East and remodelled the West for the bourgeoisie. The arcades, places of chance encounter, niches and unpredictability, fell victim to this city tidy-up, described by Marx, in The Civil War in France, as ‘razing historic Paris to make place for the Paris of the sightseer!’. Paris turned into a place of touristic contemplation, away from the action of class struggle. By the time of writing, Benjamin’s object of study has already become unfashionable, or at least under threat, which makes his project a piece of history writing in the sense which he loves best: writing an obituary to the recent past, which, echoing still in dimming childhood memories, is his pre-history, an understanding of which casts direct light upon the now.

These arcades were products of the first international style of architecture. They were trademarks of the modern metropolis, its wealth (only for some) and its imperial domination. They were crammed with colonial plunder. The empire had provided the impulse for an expansion in commodity production, in terms of new sources of raw materials, which could be worked over and sold off in the newly established markets and zones of influence. But the effects of Empire also reflect back on the Imperialist nations, not least by providing the raw materials of a burgeoning commodity market. Imperialism grasped the world as totality, a total market and exploitable productive source. Imperialism had begun the process of unifying the world – in trade. It completed the reversal of the task in human terms: more divisions, more competition, more nationalistic hatreds. Boundaries dissolve, in a way, in trade: but only for the traders. In describing how Victor Hugo publishes a manifesto to all the people of Europe to mark the world exhibition of 1867, Benjamin notes how the motives displayed spin off into a fantasy of actual unification of peoples, attributing a common language and will. For the international workers’ associations, internationalism remains a dream, from which the First World War rudely disturbs them. Equality proves to be a chimera. The world exhibitions had shown that too, anyway, along the dividing lines of class and nation. They promised to be places where everyone could rub shoulders democratically and where status was relocated in objects themselves and not persons. Benjamin quotes Rjazanov to point out how isolated from actuality this fantasy was:

In 1855 the second world exhibition took place, this time in Paris. Workers’ delegations from the capital as well as from the provinces were now totally barred. It was feared that they gave workers an opportunity for organizing.

The new modes of consumerism were to colonialise consciousness. The fact of consumerism, of the priority of the commodity, dominated any relation to the world, even the unconscious world. For Benjamin this was a consciousness invaded by the petrifying and fantastic workings of commodity fetishism and reification. The arcades are stocked high with the cultural by-products, specious clusters of projected fantasies and congealed monuments to the days of their production and all that has recently been ‘forgotten’ called the Moderne, modernity. They collaborate briefly with fashion – die Mode, the modish. But Benjamin is ever-keen to stress the dialectical switch involved. At the same time as consciousness is colonised by the commodity, consciousness responds to the utopian side of commodity production, holding open a space for genuine response to the presentations of commodified desires. The impulse for accepting the commodity is the actual wish to see dreams fulfilled. The arcade substitutes, in Benjamin’s analysis, for the world or the dream of the world. Marx’s work hoped, from the outset, to ‘reform consciousness’ as he wrote to Alfred Ruge in 1843, and such reformation ‘consists entirely in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it’. Arcades are a form of consciousness, and simply an architecture. They are house rows or corridors that have no exterior, no external existence. This Benjamin aligns with the structure of the dream: ‘Arcades are houses or passages having no outside – like the dream’. They share the characteristic of self-containment with the optical amusements - panoramas, myrioramas - that they house.

The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass. The play of colors among deep-sea fauna cannot be more fiery.

The arcades and the panoramas are like monadic, perfect worlds in miniature, glass bauble snow- shakers. This self-containment is their ‘truth’.

The true has no windows. Nowhere does the true look out to the universe. And the interest of the panorama is in seeing the true city - ‘The city in the bottle’, - the city indoors. What is found within the windowless house is the true. One such windowless house is the theater; hence the eternal pleasure it affords. Hence also the pleasure taken in those windowless rotundas, the panoramas. … Those passing through arcades are, in a certain sense, inhabitants of a panorama. The arcade is a windowless house as well. The windows of this house open out on them. They can be seen out these windows but cannot themselves look in

Phantasmagoria and panoramas and the arcades that nestled there represented, in Benjamin’s schema, a certain way of seeing, a universalism. Living in a panorama, that is how total the event in consumer-based society has become. Mass consumers are on display. Capitalism is a drama in which they participate. Consumers occupy the space of the display itself, and thus become an integral part of it. The significance of windowlessness goes further than this. As windowless truth the arcades and the panoramas adopt the form of the monad, a figure that recurs in Benjamin’s writing s and is adapted from the philosopher Leibniz. A monad is an object blasted free of time for the purposes of analysis – it is concentrated time, pre-history, the present, and post-history are crushed together there. It is a good site for investigation into modernity. It is an important moment of the past that can explain the present and the possibilities of the future. An image of a greater totality - the experience of an historical era - can be found there. It is a threshold. The arcades give way to another form, the department store. It is here than a modern mass is forged, and this is a mass that will eventually enter the stage of history not as a revolutionary subject, but as the mass of mass politics, the politics of totalitarianism. .

For the first time in history, with the establishment of department stores, consumers begin to consider themselves a mass. (Earlier it was only scarcity that taught them that) Hence, the circus-like and theatrical element of commerce is quite extraordinarily heightened.

Consumers emerge blinking from the arcades and enter a new buying zone – the department store, where the rules are different, where the victory of scale is obvious. The mass of mass society, identified as the swelling ranks of customers, audience, producers, visible from the late nineteenth century, is the potential site, argues Benjamin, for politicization, because the idea of the mass and consumerism necessarily plays with the supplying of collective demands and the promise of fulfillment of utopias. Benjamin locates this mass in the department store, at the sites of consumption. It gains a certain self-consciousness, as a mass an sich, a mass of consumers, made equal [to each other, to the commodity] in the fact of exchange.

Specifics of the department store: the customers perceive themselves as a mass; they are confronted with an assortment of commodities; they take in all the floors at a glance; they pay fixed prices; they can make exchanges.

It is an ambiguous consciousness that Benjamin is eager to map out in the Arcades Project, in order to establish the political actuality and potential of this mass. Consciousness might turn out to be catastrophic. Or it might become a consciousness of the catastrophe, combined with the will to interrupt the endless flow of the novel as the ever-same. This is the dialectic that grounds modernity, a myth of progress unmasked as the eternal return of the ever-same. It has its banal commodity face.

Dialectic of commodity production: the novelty of the product attains (as a stimulation to demand) a hitherto unknown significance; the ever-again the same appears for the first time manifestly in mass production.

It has its philosophic spin-off. One file of the Arcades Project is called ‘Boredom and Eternal Return’. The old is inherent in the new, it is a return. This represents the Janus face of progress, pulling in two directions at once. It is a dialectic of progress, whose actual stakes are social regress, under the aegis of a certain technological progress, as opposed to human progress. Progress, in Benjamin’s view of modernity, connects to the catastrophe. Hell has already happened. Precisely this capitalist technological idea of progress ushers in catastrophe. The vision of eternal return and catastrophe was practiced in the panoramas, given its big debut in First World War, which then becomes a simple dress rehearsal compared to what we have come to know as the holocaustic calamity of World War Two. The repetition compulsion is set in motion by the structures of commodity production, the eternal return of the ever-same. This is catastrophic experience. War has started, for it never really finishes. The ruins are blasting into focus. The nineteenth century is falling down. Its ruins were already contained in its plans. In his 1935 Exposé Benjamin writes that it was Balzac who first spoke of the ruins of the bourgeoisie, but it was Surrealism that first allowed its gaze to wander uninhibitedly across the field of rubble that the capitalist development of the productive forces had left in its wake. Balzac could see the ruination contained in that order - immanent to it - but it takes time and a liberated consciousness (or rather the fall into unconsciousness and then awakening) to cash this out fully. Now, in Benjamin’s moment of writing, 1930s, there was no doubt. The ruins of past promises were visible, and behind - or in front of - the broken promises lay even more devastation. Ruin and devastation recur, as motif, as also historical fact. Ruin is a natural phenomenon and a social one. The Arcades Project moves fluidly between two types of ruin. One of the striking aspects of nineteenth-century capitalism, as represented in Benjamin’s harvest of quotations, is its simultaneous naturalisation and mythologisation of social and historical forces. This took on various forms: Grandville’s lithographs of over-lively commodities; the fetishistic language of stocks and shares and misconceptions of the value-form; the re-iterated ideological succumbing to fate; the countless images of Paris poised on the eve of destruction. References to Pompei’s volcano are several in the Arcades Project, and in a children’s radio lecture on the demise of Herculanum and Pompei, Benjamin speaks of the ashes which ‘nested in the creases of garments’, the curves of ears, between fingers, shafts of hair and lips’, and these ‘solidified before the bodies decomposed, so that we possess today a series of faithful imprints of individuals’. The volcano is a particular mode of destruction. It petrifies. It acts like a snapshot of an otherwise ungraspable history. Volcanic ruin models memory become history for Benjamin. In the autobiographical snapshots of ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, which Adorno identified as the subjective counterpart of the Arcades Project, Benjamin finds in his memory of school

… rigidly fixed words, expressions, verses that., like a malleable mass that has cooled and hardened preserve in me the imprint of the collision between a larger collective and myself. Just as a certain kind of significant dream survives awakening in the form of words when all the rest of the dream content has vanished, here isolated words have remained in place as marks of catastrophic encounters.

Into this petrified landscape, the proletariat, in conjunction with technologies, should have erupted a second time, in an already volcanic landscape, to cash in the promises of their masters. But they failed to become the final agents of destruction. The naturalising, mythical effects of capitalism won out, even when the proletariat’s own representatives enthusiastically embraced the natural and automatic role that it and the productive forces should play in the script of emancipation.

Haussmann had obliterated history when he cut the boulevards through old Paris. Into the evacuated space of historical consciousness descended the mists of fetishism and phantasmagoria. Or the phantom solidified like lava, as Benjamin indicates when he writes: ‘With the Haussmannization of Paris, the phantasmagoria was rendered in stone’. Fetishism and the phantasmagoria were cultivated in the world exhibitions, out of which crawled the modern entertainment industry and the consumer’s dreamy disposition with its attitude of ‘pure reaction’. If Benjamin’s synopses allow some coherent ordering of the material, then it seems that the fragments direct Benjamin to unearth things, impulses, objects, matter that has decayed. First, in the earliest attempt, in 1927, to present his interest, Benjamin follows the Surrealist procedure to the letter.

In the crowded arcades of the boulevards, as in the semi-deserted arcades of the Rue Saint-Denis, umbrellas and canes are displayed in serried ranks: a phalanx of colorful crooks. Many are the institutes of hygiene, where gladiators are wearing orthopedic belts and bandages wind round the white bellies of mannequins. In the windows of the hairdressers, one sees the last women with long hair; they sport richly undulating masses, petrified coiffures. How brittle appears the stonework of the walls beside them and above: crumbling papiermache ‘souvenirs’ and bibelots take on a hideous aspect; the odalisque lies in wait next to the inkwell; priestesses in knitted jackets raise aloft ashtrays like vessels of holy water.... Over stamps and letterboxes roll balls of string and of silk. Naked puppet bodies with bald heads wait for hairpieces and attire. Combs swim about, frog-green and coral-red, as in an aquarium; trumpets turn to conches, ocarinas to umbrella handles; and lying in the fixative pans from a photographer's darkroom is birdseed.

This is the same uncanny jumble of outmodedness that attracted the Surrealists. But Benjamin develops a more critical aspect. Untimeliness is a political-economic category. Capitalism itself becomes outmoded, yet still present in the nineteenth century. This is evidenced in the setbacks and repeated uptakes of revolutionary struggle. Paris is the capital of the nineteenth century because the echoes of the French Revolution – a revolution on behalf of the universe – reverberate through it in revolutionary wave after wave. Paris in the nineteenth century was an Ur-place, a site to mine in order to find out about the mechanisms of bourgeois rule and the renewed attempts to oppose it. It is there that the contradictions of bourgeois class rule are most spectacular, as class alliances are formed and broken. Consolidated is the rule of capital alone. Benjamin’s 1935 and 1939 synopses of the project ascend to the revolutionary climax of class struggle. The Communards burn down the Paris that the ‘artist-demolitionist’ Baron Haussmann had built in his ‘financial’ and ‘military’ re-planning of the city. But this negation of his negation is not sustained, and the class fighters allowed themselves to be, once again, misled by the bourgeoisie.

The Arcades Project repeats these attempted historic gestures too, in recovering them, and also in its imagination that there re-presentation might, in itself, elicit historical activity:

We can speak of two directions in this work: one which goes from the past into the present and shows the arcades, and all the rest, as precursors, and one which goes from the present into the past so as to have the revolutionary potential of these ‘precursors’ explode in the present. And this direction comprehends as well the spellbound elegiac consideration of the recent past, in the form of its revolutionary explosion.

But the dream of nineteenth century abundance and/or revolutionary transformation has shifted to anticipation of the catastrophe. The optical bedazzlements of the nineteenth century - new gas lighting, new colour dyes, new modes of harnessing energy - turn into the colourful infernos of the First World War and then intensify in the holocaustic fire terror of the Second World War. I.G. Farben was there all the way. The ruins of the twentieth century were the part- ruins of the nineteenth century, exploded yet again by a Technik gone wild. Technological advance is not progress but a continuous strip without beginning and end, whose fateful destructive/productive dynamic can ultimately only be ripped apart by the simultaneously sober and intoxicated proletariat, but it is in ruins too, now.

The Arcades Project was originally to be called a ‘dialektische Feen’, a dialectical fairy scene. Benjamin’s first conception was the telling of a politicized version of the Sleeping Beauty story as a fairy- tale of awakening (from this myth of permanent progress and human submission to destiny). In Pariser Passagen<1>, an early collection of notes for the Arcades Project, he refers to youth as fulfilling that role of the sleeping princess, possessing an experience akin to the experience of dreaming. The twentieth century would need to awaken from the objects of the nineteenth, from the promises of abundance, from the seductive objects in the park of attractions. The dream takes place in the new architectural sites of modernity.

Dream houses of the collective: arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railroad stations.

The Arcades Project was to be some sort of Marxian retelling of a fairy-tale, in which the Sleeping Beauty is awoken from the nightmare-dream sleep of capitalism’s commodity phantasmagoria. Walter Benjamin wrote to Adorno in June 1935 to ask if he knew of any psychoanalytic study of awakening. Adorno, for his part, thought that Benjamin’s project did not get to the point of awakening and in fact was continuous with bourgeois psychology, whereby bourgeois society privileges dream and the subjective interior as prime mediator of social reality. To maintain such a historically specific model of self is to fall under the ‘spell of bourgeois psychology’.

For Benjamin, though, the spell can be broken through a ‘Technik des Erwachens’, ‘technique of awakening’. For Benjamin. biographically, the first stage of awakening had been historically specific. It had been the First World War blasting his consciousness into a sort of shell-shock. It is this experience which he reworks as a social experience in the 1920s and 1930s, aided by an approach that is historical-materialist (of sorts). Benjamin analyses a social shell shock. The critic turns therapist. There is a play-off then in Benjamin’s work between the representation of the dream, given in fragments and quotes, speaking for itself with all its confusion, and the tentatively begun labour of analysis – social-psychoanalysis. Benjamin wished to portray the Paris of the Second Empire as a prototype, the origin of capitalist bourgeois civilization. The politically current relevance of his historiography is found in that civilization’s vanishing point in his here and now. Benjamin looks back at the dream of the past, engaging in a sort of mock-predictive historicizing. Historical materialism becomes a critical exercise in a time of crisis.

The materialist presentation of history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state.

The mixing of time points, of cause and effect, fused in a melange of multiple historical determinations, is a methodological feature of the Arcades Project. Historical progress is dispensed with, but, at the same time, all events are seen as interconnected, implicated in each other. Critical analysis will reveal the events’ permanently current germaneness, just as the unconscious knows no time, but time is needed to present a diagnosis. The work on the Arcades Project takes place through a period of political intensity – and only appears to be a backward looking archaeology. The ruins of history spike the present. Benjamin sees his work as a contribution to the crisis of new historical thinking in the intellectual civil-war of the 1920s. The Arcades Project participates in this same sense of a connection between social crisis and intellectual crisis, a sense of necessary social revolution and critical-intellectual revolution as concomitant. Benjamin’s point is the Marxist recognition of the necessity of historicizing that which appears natural. The central core of the project fragments expounds and details how modern reality, this only an appearance of modern reality, might be experienced, if it is not penetrated by analysis, as a dream world stoked by myth.

Capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces.

Just as the Surrealists argued, Benjamin stated that under conditions of capitalist productive expansion, industrialization had brought about a re-enchantment of the social world. A deep complexity of social arrangement was evolving. Modern experience took place in a mass society organized around great institutions of shopping, schooling, bureaucracy, welfare and total warfare. Yet underneath the surface appearance of accelerating rationalization of the system, there was the flip-side, a world of myth, a contradictory formation, modernity as mythology. These myths found form in entertainment, advertisements, commodity promises. Myth is wedded to consumerism and its self-publicity. In the modern metropolis, the ‘threatening and alluring face’ of myth gleamed. Characters from new capitalist myths beamed down from hoardings on street walls that advertised ‘toothpaste for giants’, as Benjamin noted in One Way Street. The advertisement is one method whereby the commodity infiltrates the dream-world of the consumer. It blurs over the commodity character of things. The Surrealists would envelop these dream signs from advertising and the appealing products of industrial fantasy into their poetry, in order to recreate a modern aesthetic of the new city. Benjamin feared that the Surrealists were too entranced by the mythology of the modern to ever break from it fully. They preferred to keep sleeping, for that is when their best ideas stole upon them. They were not unlike their ancestors of the previous century, the one that so ensnared them.

The nineteenth century; a spacetime ‘Zeitraum’ (a dreamtime ‘Zeit-traum’) in which the individual consciousness more and more secures itself in reflecting, while the collective consciousness sinks into ever deeper sleep. But just as the sleeper - in this respect like the madman - sets out on the macrocosmic journey through his own body, and the noises and feelings of his insides, such as blood pressure, intestinal churn, heartbeat, and muscle sensations (which for the waking and salubrious individual converge in a steady surge of health) generate, in the extravagantly heightened inner awareness of the sleeper, illusion or dream imagery which translates and accounts for them, so likewise for the dreaming collective, which, through the arcades, communes with its own insides. We must follow in its wake so as to expound the nineteenth century - in fashion and advertising, in buildings and politics - as the outcome of its dream visions.

In a dream-sleep the world and its business pass as in a phantasmagoria, a metaphor that Benjamin uses in order to instigate a series of cross-references between modern experience and contemporaneous optical devices, the gadgetry of entertainment and early film and photography. Examples abound of phantasmagoria fascination, such as this quoted by Humphrey Jennings in his 1938 quotation-patchwork study of the fantasies and fears of industrialisation, Pandaemonium.

A common form of vision is a phantasmagoria, or the appearance of a crowd of phantoms, sometimes hurrying past like men in a street. It is occasionally seen in broad daylight, much more often in the dark; it may be at the instant of putting out the candle, but it generally comes on when the person is in bed, preparing to sleep, but by no means yet asleep. I know no less than three men, eminent in the scientific world, who have seen these phantasmagoria in one form or another. It will seem curious, but it is a fact that I know of no less than five editors of very influential newspapers who experience these night visitations in a vivid form.,

The phantasmagoria, then, is the counterpart of awakening, it is the time of falling asleep, the images that flood the mind, as the rational self slips into dreaming. The phantasmagoria was a popular late nineteenth century theme – but Benjamin revamps - or overhauls - the technologies of the past century in order to approach that century, or rather mediate it. In Konvolut N, theoretical centre of the Arcades Project he borrows words from Rudolph Borchardt’s writings on Dante:

Pedagogic side of this undertaking: ‘To educate the image-making medium within us, raising it to a stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows’

We make images, just as we make dreams, and just as Benjamin gathers up images and vivid moments of the 19th century. This is our condition, but we need to turn it to liberatory ends. We need to escape the phantasmatic presentations, a dim and befuddled consciousness of events, in favour of a dialectical seeing, that investigates, from an enlightened perspective, social relations. But that involves an education of that image-making technology within, teaching it how to read the ruins, the fragments, the traces and half-echoes. It needs to be sent into reverse, to become the tool of awakening, not a symptom of the fall into sleep.

The Arcades Project asks how a mythic dream consciousness, such as the longing for dream fulfillment in the commodity or the idea of love satisfied in prostitution or the desire for human union through imperialism, can be rattled, forced to wake up from the wishful thinking it indulges. Perhaps assertion simply of the actuality of commercial brutality would suffice. Perhaps boredom in the end would finally force a change, through being unsustainable. Marx had characterised Second Empire history in France, in Hegel’s terms, as ‘grey on grey’: history without events; development whose sole driving force seems to be the calendar. But boredom also induces sleep. The yawn is the gesture of both. Strangely, the dreaming collective is realised between 1917 and 1927 in the post- encephalitic wave of dream- sleeping sickness which swept Europe, sending its victims into Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard comas.

From 1934, while Benjamin is making notes for the Arcades Project, his own dreams, he claims, become ever more politicized. Conceiving of history as a territory, a series of spaces and spatial relationships, he writes to Scholem that his dreams and the historical traces he perceives in them ‘represent an illustrated atlas of the secret history of National Socialism’. Echoing Joyce’s ‘history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake’, Benjamin wants to wake up from his dreams turned historical nightmare. The imperialist mentality is turned in on itself, into the self. Space – the spacetime, the time of dreams - has become a map of Lebensraum, the living space that Hitler’s army set out to conquer in the East. While the Nazis pushed one way, Benjamin’s moved in the opposite direction. from country to country, stumbling finally to ground on stretch of no-mans-land between Spain and France. These are bad dreams. The collective has succumbed to the spectacle. The mass finds a home in the totalitarian states, where Gleichshaltung, conformity, co-ordination, is an effort to produce a stunningly homogenous social receptacle. Benjamin brings the phantasmagoric consciousness and its glossing over of the reality of class difference into connection with both commodity fetishism and totalitarianism, forming a span between his study of nineteenth century Paris and his meditations on nazi Germany.

The circumstance of the new is perhaps nowhere better illuminated than in the figure of the flaneur. His thirst for the new is quenched by the crowd, which appears self-impelled and endowed with a soul of its own. In fact, this collective is nothing but appearance. This ‘crowd,’ in which the flaneur takes delight, is just the empty mold with which, seventy years later, the Volksgemeinschaft ‘people’s community’ was cast. The flaneur who so prides himself on his alertness, on his nonconformity, was in this respect also ahead of his contemporaries: he was the first to fall victim to an ignis fatuus that since that time has blinded many millions..

Dreams might be able to be read, which is to say interpreted as wish-symbols which, made conscious, could then be striven after in reality. However, dreams can also be too seductive, countering activity. Doesn’t Freud say that the dream is a trick to keep us sleeping? And Benjamin knows their dangers:

Motif of dream time: atmosphere of aquariums. Water slackening resistance.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Walter and Linguistics

Walter Benjamin & The Religion of Translation

by Sarah Dudek



In his essay “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin elevates translation to a level of the sublime that it has probably never since reached. This extraordinary piece, published as a preface to his own translations of Baudelaire’s “Tableaux Parisiens” in 1923, has highly influenced the theory of translation. Its enigmatic and mystical character launches a religion setting translation into a crucial position.

The topic of translation and the figure of the translator always struggle with the marginalization they are driven to within the literary scene. Translation is widely considered a secondary phenomenon, with the translator mostly hidden behind the predominant author. This might be an explanation for the fascination Benjamin’s uncommon and esoteric thoughts have.

For Benjamin translation is a means to aspire to “pure language”. He regards a process of supplement of languages as taking place through translation because of the difference between source and target language. This inadequacy is in itself the source of an enrichment of the target language: foreign, untranslatable concepts and structures are brought into a language and take part in the process of an ongoing complement of languages with its climax in “pure language”.

Benjamin’s thoughts cannot be understood without having a closer look at his concept of language—“pure language” seems a rather vague term. His whole project is so remarkable because it has an all-embracing notion of language as its basis: the world is made of language and the final aim is to understand this “textus” of the world, to achieve harmony between the inadequate human languages and the language of God. This thought is highly influenced by Jewish mysticism mainly bequeathed in the Cabbala and made more accessible to a broader public amongst others by Walter Benjamin’s close friend Gershom Scholem, a German Jew and later professor at the University of Jerusalem.

In order to reflect on the significance of translation it is a presupposition to ponder on the theory of language, which is necessary background for any concept of translation and translatability. Seven years before publishing his essay on translation, Benjamin had written the even more metaphysical “On Language as Such and the Language of Man”, in which he develops his idea of a distinction between the intellectual and the linguistic parts of the human being. Benjamin posited a universal sphere of concepts, which he called the “intellectual part”, totally self-sufficient and distinguished from the “linguistic part”. The two components of the human being are connected to some extent, but the linguistic part never covers the whole conceptual sphere. Thus it is not possible to articulate the totality of existing concepts: the various languages are inadequate, extending only over parts of the conceptual sphere, but varying in this extent and in the concepts of the intellectual sphere they cover—every particular language is able to articulate different intellectual content. The biblical idea of a once existing complete language in paradise disintegrated by God after the Tower of Babel grounds Benjamin’s theory of language. The particular languages are thus only incomplete pieces of the pure original. It is this idea which leads to the understanding of language as not only a communicative tool between humans, but moreover the realm of hidden divine truth, of something enigmatic which is totally free of meaning and resonating in the human languages. Benjamin builds his teleology on the basis of this mystical idea: the final aim is to approach divine language, in which all truth is hidden, but which is at the same time no longer communicative, but rather totally free of meaning. Translation is the decisive means to reach the final end: it completes languages, puts together the disintegrated “modes of intention”—as Benjamin calls the sphere in semiotics termed “signifier”—and works towards the perfection of the original, which can be considered incomplete, requiring translation: “Thus translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more definitive linguistic realm”, Benjamin states.

The right way of translating is important. Due to the characteristic of the final goal, the divine language—a language without any meaning—Benjamin focuses totally on the mode of expression, on language without content. According to him translations should not try to transfer meaning, but rather translate as close to the original as possible, by transferring its syntax and also its way of expressing concepts to the target language: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” Thus the extraordinary task the translator receives in Benjamin’s theory tends to reverse to an exceedingly binding restriction imposed on the translator lacking any granted creativity.

How can a theory that is so enigmatic, mystical and restrictive at the same time exert such an influence on the theory of translation? An impressive number of essays referring to Benjamin’s theory of translation have been written by renowned authors such as Peter Szondi, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and many others. Among other things the space of interpretation Benjamin leaves open might attract, but moreover it is the strength translation gains through this process which proves fascinating and unique within the theory of translation.

It is remarkable and bound to the effect “The Task of the Translator” has had that Benjamin does not consider the reader. In the very beginning of the essay, one reads: “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. […] No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener. Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original? Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations.” The end of any consideration for the reader of a translation provides freedom to the translator. The transmission of content is superfluous: if there is not receiver there is no demand for information. It is possible to focus only on aesthetics—as incomprehensible as the result might prove to be. Such a stance on translation justifies the existence and esoteric character of the society of translators inquiring the works of each other as well as their isolation from the widely ignorant sphere of readers. If the world is understood as language then it follows that aesthetics is the only thing that makes sense. To go with the early Nietzsche one can state that the world is only justified if considered an aesthetic phenomenon.

It might be for the abstract character of these thoughts that Benjamin’s essay was widely considered a theory of untranslatablity. This view is often taken by referring to the ambiguity of the title: the German title “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” could also be translated as “The Surrender of the Translator”. But this is not contradictory to Benjamin’s belief in translatability: the above-mentioned inadequacy of every translation is re-valued by Benjamin and positively predicated with reference to the transparency for pure language. In addition, the essay was written as an introduction to Benjamin’s own translations of pieces out of Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”. Certainly there is some truth in Stefan Zweig’s review on Benjamin’s translations from 1924, when he states that it is an “icy, unsensual and dead German way” of translating Baudelaire, freezing the original and depriving it of all sensual melody. It is true that Benjamin’s translations do not work for somebody reading Baudelaire in translation for the first time. Very little of the magic and the content of the poems are conveyed, due to the abstractions Benjamin condenses out of Baudelaire’s more descriptive verses.

With reference to the above-mentioned rejection of consideration for the reader Benjamin’s way of translating might make sense. To ask for whom he translates becomes a profane question—it is not applicable as a critique regarding Benjamin’s system. A more appropriate critique is the following: if translation is taken as a means to the end of pure language, it has to face the danger of losing its aesthetics due to a lack of independence. Opposing the concept of “l’art pour l’art”, it has a function in a teleological and religious process. In Benjamin’s theory decisions concerning aesthetics of translation have to consider the exposing of pure language beside mere aesthetic judgments. A language can certainly be enriched by other languages, but a coherent melody can hardly be found if the loyalty of the translation goes as far as imitating even the syntax of the source language. In this context Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz, one of the disciples of Stefan George, himself a translator of Baudelaire, as well as a predominant cultural figure and poet: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. […] The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.” Inspiration by a foreign language sounds like a reasonable enterprise, but giving up aesthetic feeling in order to translate as loyally as possible has an effect on translation which reverses the whole project of Benjamin to its opposite: it makes translation a mere means, a tool without any independence, whereas the original would still have more freedom and thus the poet more concessions of creativity.

The ambiguity of Benjamin’s view becomes obvious when the relation between original and translation becomes topical: an imitation of the original does not make any sense for him because of the inadequacy of source and target language, but his demand for loyalty is not to ignore. The independence of the original can also be cast into doubt by his remark that the original demands a translation, that translatability is something inherent to it, as well as—with regard to the “messianic end of history”—considering Benjamin’s underlying teleology.

It is remarkable that in the English translation of “The Task of the Translator” by Harry Zorn the religious connotation of Benjamin’s terms is sometimes less obvious than in the German original. It might be the alienation one has towards such a mystical way of thinking and towards the ambiguity of Benjamin’s style of writing. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s theory of translation can only be understood in religious terms. It is bound to the Cabbalistic tradition, which is in itself enigmatic and contradictory—and so is Benjamin’s essay. Its magic is evoked by its ambiguity and its holistic aesthetics. In it, translation can live in its extraordinariness. Although it is not a theory of untranslatability, it is hard to think of its practical influence on translators. As mentioned before: the presupposition of his theory of translation is his “messianic” theory of language. It is hard to think of seriously accompanying Benjamin in looking to language for such a messiah.

The Angel of History

Beautiful Things

What seems paradoxical about everything that is justly called beautiful is the fact that it appears.
Benjamin, Schriften I, 349 (via allenjunior)