Tuesday, 30 September 2008
Monday, 29 September 2008
Was this the final fate of the manuscript in the briefcase?
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Louis Aragon, Les Paysan du Paris
"We shall prevail! To begin with, we shall destroy the civilization you set such store by, and in which you are petrified like fossils in schist. The western world is condemned to death. We are the defeatists....Laugh if you like, but we are the ones who will always offer our hand to the enemy."
Good people, harken to me, I get all my information straight from heaven.
The secrets of each of you, like those of language and love, are revealed to me each night, and there are nights in broad daylight. You pass close to me, your clothes fly away, your account books open at the page where the dissimulations and the frauds are to be found, the intimacies of your bedroom are revealed, and your heart! Your heart like a hawk-mouth in the sun, your heart like a ship on an atoll, your heart like a compass needle driven mad by a little piece of lead, like washing drying in the wind, like a whining of horses, like seed thrown to the birds, like an evening paper one has finished reading! Your heart is a charade that the whole world has guessed.Fear nothing, then, either for myself or for your reputation, and let me enter the handkerchief shop
Wednesday, 17 September 2008
Walter: “Is it? I don’t believe that it is. I don’t feel it can be. Anyway, it is better this way.”
Lomay: “Darling, relax, its OK, I will take care of you. I wont let anything bad happen, I promise.
Lomay: “Really. You are my one true love. I will treasure you forever. Now sleep baby, sleep.”
And Walter dies.
And the 8 page Issue Zero ends
Advance sales for issue number 1 were almost zero
Saturday December 16 2006
The Angel of Historyby Bruno Arpaia, translated by Minna Proctor344pp, Canongate, £10.99
I'm either the ideal reviewer for this novel or its reviewer from hell. Bruno Arpaia, an Italian writer of considerable talent, says openly in his acknowledgments to The Angel of History that he "'stole' a great deal" from my 1997 novel about Walter Benjamin, Benjamin's Crossing. Let me say, upfront, that he's more than welcome to whatever he could find there, and I'm delighted to see that he's written a finely textured novel on Benjamin, whose intellectual house is capacious enough to accept many callers.
Arpaia retells the Benjamin story in alternate chapters, in the third person, with counterpoint chapters in the first person by Laureano Mahojo, an anti-Franco Loyalist who spent most of his life in exile in Mexico. In the novel, Laureano meets Benjamin on the refugee trail as the writer limps into Port-Bou, the Spanish village where he committed suicide to avoid being sent to France by the border guards. Benjamin knew that, as a Marxist and Jew, as well as an outspoken critic of fascism, he would not have been greeted warmly by the Gestapo.
The last part of Benjamin's journey has always been wrapped in mystery, which is why it beckons novelists to imagine what might have happened. Laureano's narrative offers a lusty tale of sex and revolutionary fervour, with the rattle of gunfire always within earshot. "I hardly need to explain that we were fighting for a lost cause," Laureano explains to the interviewer who has come from Italy to hear his story. "Two thousand dead, fifteen thousand prisoners tortured." The old Spaniard returns, in memory, to the most vivid years of his life, and his gusto - embodied in fresh colloquial English by translator Minna Proctor - stands in dizzying contrast to the erudite meditations of Benjamin, who lived almost entirely in his head, an Old World intellectual cut from a mould that seems to have been tossed away.
Benjamin has been a cult figure since, in the late 60s, his work became widely available in English for the first time. A German Jew, raised in a middle-class family in Berlin, he led a sad, inadvertently peripatetic life. In a better world, he might have remained in Germany, becoming a professor of literature at a major university. Instead, he spent his short life on the run, the last decade or so in France, a country he adored. He became a denizen of the National Library, working for years on a huge project about the Parisian arcades in the 19th century - an unfinished work that has only recently appeared in English. He also wrote many seminal essays from a Marxist viewpoint with an overlay of Jewish mysticism, including studies of Baudelaire and Brecht.
Unfortunately, Benjamin lingered in Paris until the gate was nearly locked, and his final desperate attempt to evade the Nazis was painfully botched. Although only 42, he suffered from a weak heart, was pudgy and out of shape, short-sighted and ill-suited in every way for an adventurous escape from France over harsh mountain terrain.
The success of Arpaia's novel lies in his delicate evocations of everyday life for Benjamin during the Paris years, with the Nazi armies marching in the invisible distance. One can almost hear the boots on the pavement, the tanks lumbering towards the French border, as Benjamin idles in smoky cafés over a volume of poetry. He often meets with friends at the Deux Magots to play chess and talk about books: Arpaia has thoroughly absorbed the scene, the friends, the hot topics of discussion. The intellectual currents of the time wash through his prose, which in intriguing ways emulates the style of Benjamin himself, with its attention to detail, its fits and starts, its sentences that curl and buckle. At times the writing shimmers on the page with memorable images, as when Benjamin surveys the ruins of war: "Standing, or rather leaning against the door of his car on the train, Benjamin looked out on the docks and warehouses, the poor quarters, the periphery, the pitched battle of the telegraph poles and agaves, the barbed wire and the palms, the steps and stinky alleys against the green hills."
One feels the world slipping away from Benjamin, and his death at the end comes almost with a sense of relief. The poor fellow cannot take it any more, nor should he have to endure further indignities. Exactly how the parallel story of Laureano works remains, for me, something of a puzzle. I do like the way the violence of the Spanish civil war brushes against the violence (much of it happening in the margins) that swirls around Benjamin and his friends. These were not entirely separate wars, of course - the Loyalists were battling fascism as well - but the crossing of paths between Laureano and Benjamin was brief, and Laureano can hardly believe that the interviewer should have travelled all the way from Italy to hear about "old Benjamin". "He must have really been someone," Laureano says.
Benjamin really was someone, and The Angel of History amplifies the ever-enlarging legend of a man whose literary and philosophical essays continue to inspire readers.
Since his death in September 1940, it has been believed that the German writer and critic - who posthumously became one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the twentieth century - killed himself while on the run.
His body was found in a hotel room in the Catalan town of Port Bou and it is generally thought he took a drug overdose. The myopic, weak-hearted, 48-year-old philosopher had just crossed the Pyrenees to Franco's Spain with other Jewish refugees, fleeing certain death in his adopted home of Paris.
But a new study suggests it is more likely that Benjamin, a renegade Marxist, was killed by Stalinist agents.
Obscure during his lifetime, Benjamin achieved posthumous success when his writings were published in the Sixties and Seventies. Essays such as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as well as studies of Kafka, Brecht and book-collecting, established him for many as a brilliant critic and social theorist.
Benjamin fled Berlin for Paris in 1933, but in 1940 Vichy France signed an armistice with the Third Reich and refugees, especially Jews, from Hitler's Germany were in danger of being sent to the death camps.
Fleeing to Marseille, Benjamin made an unsuccessful attempt at escape aboard a freighter bound for Ceylon. He was discovered and put ashore. Later he decided to walk across the Pyrenees to avoid border patrols. He had an American visa and hoped to join Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who had re-established the Frankfurt School in the US.
But soon after his arrival in Spain he was betrayed by the hotel owner. Fearing the Spanish would turn him over to the French border police, who would hand him to the Nazis, Benjamin is said to have taken his life.
'Benjamin's famous fate,' wrote Lesley Chamberlain in the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year, 'was to fall afoul of the Spanish police...who determined to put him on a train to France the next day. Ill, exhausted and hearing that he was beginning a rail journey that would surely lead to his death in a concentration camp, he overdosed on morphine.'
But this account is challenged by Stephen Schwartz, a Montenegro-based journalist and specialist in the study of communism and intellectuals in the Thirties. In an article entitled - The Mysterious Death of Walter Benjamin, Schwartz says that Stalinist agents were operating in the south of France and northern Spain during the early years of the war, when the Nazi-Soviet pact was still in operation. The result was that two of the most powerful secret police forces in Europe were working in close co-operation.
'Unquestionably the Soviet secret police was operating a chokepoint in southern France - sifting through the wave of fleeing exiles for targets of liquidation,' says Schwartz. Willi Münzenberg, a former Soviet agent who had organised front groups that wooed Western liberals during the Twenties and Thirties, was held in an internment camp, but after being released and walking away with two 'German socialists' he was found hanging from a tree near Grenoble. Thus the man who knew most about Russian disinformation operations was airbrushed from history.
'Walter Benjamin walked straight into this maelstrom of evil,' argues Schwartz. 'And, although his acolytes have chosen to ignore it, he was eminently qualified to appear on a Soviet hit list.'
A few months before he died, Benjamin wrote Theses on the Philosophy of History, one of the most insightful analyses of the failure of Marxism ever produced. He died at a time when many former Soviet loyalists were becoming disillusioned with Moscow because of the Hitler-Stalin pact. In response Stalinist agents, often recruited from socialist intellectuals - Schwartz called them 'killerati' - were carrying out assassinations.
Benjamin had, perhaps unwittingly, associated with Comintern agents as well as Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian writer and Soviet agent turned renegade. Schwartz says: 'Benjamin was part of a subculture honeycombed with dangerous people - it was known not to be safe.'
In the late Thirties, argues Schwartz, Stalinist agents in Spain were assigned to track down German-speaking anti-Stalinists and torture them into false confessions of betraying the Republic. 'Moscow wanted a parallel, outside Soviet borders, to the infamous purge trials, and the targets of attempts to realise such a judicial travesty included George Orwell,' he writes.
Schwartz argues in his article for the American magazine The Weekly Standard that the suicide theory is tenuous. Documentation by a Spanish judge shows no evidence of the presence of drugs. A doctor's report states that a cerebral haemorrhage, perhaps aggravated by the exertion of crossing the Pyrenees, killed him.
Henny Gurland, one of the refugees who accompanied Benjamin across the Pyrenees, claimed that he gave her two suicide letters which she later destroyed. She then reconstructed the notes, which were published in The Complete Correspondence of Adorno and Benjamin two years ago.
Schwartz suggests this is not authentic, not least because Benjamin wrote in German, not French, and because Port Bou is not a village but a seaside town.
One further mystery remains. As Benjamin fled he was hugging a manuscript. The American writer Jay Parini has suggested this was the masterwork he had been working on in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. But the briefcase was entrusted to a fellow refugee who lost it on a train from Barcelona to Madrid.
It is, however, a slightly odd work. The "Arcades" of the title are Paris's first shopping arcades. Many of these still exist, though they are on a small scale compared to modern malls. They were built in the mid-19th century when advances in the technology of construction (glass and cast iron) and of lighting (gas) first made such developments possible. They became the setting for displays of luxury goods, for the self-display of the fashionable and eccentric, and for the pursuit of thrills like sex and gambling.
For Benjamin, the intriguing aspect of the arcades is the extent to which they were linked with social history and the manifestations of the collective unconscious of the time. They formed, he argues, a "threshold" between two worlds. One is the world of trade and business, in which the arcades perform their overt function as markets for the transmission of commodities. The other is the deeper world of the psyche.
Entering the arcades, the various figures of bourgeois Paris - the shopper, the dandy, the punter, the gambler - slip into a subterranean world illuminated by the flickering flames of the gas. They encounter a world of dreams and of ecstatic depersonalisation. In sensuous interaction with the objects they desire, would-be consumers are themselves transformed into objects. They cease to be agents guided by the deliberate rationality of operators in the market, and slide into a picture in which people become things and things become animated displays charged with arcane significance.
At the same time, however, the Parisians were uneasy in their dream. In it, they imagined their awakening from their thing-like condition. They fight back against the shocks and indignities of their condition by acquiring fantasy identities as street-fighters, detectives and other desperadoes. The figure of the conspirator, as exemplified by Auguste Blanqui, was particularly enthralling. Even these fantastical role-models, however, could not seriously engage with reality; like the avatars in modern internet games, they stayed strictly virtual. Conspiracy, though ostensibly realpolitik enacted by tight-lipped ascetics, in the end itself froze back into the posture and the mask.
Underlying all this was a sense of decline and of the loss of contact with nature. Every age thinks it is the first to face this; but in fact, as Benjamin shows, this loss - of grip, of purpose, of belonging - is certainly prolonged, and possibly recurrent. The relentless march of the international market, today's "globalisation", and our fear of it, are nothing new. Not only in Benjamin's day, but even in the mid-19th century (if commentators like Engels were to be believed), the top-hatted mill-owner had already long been submerged in the anonymity of the public stock market with its institutional investors.
The reactions Benjamin perceives in the arcades are all part of the "fetishism" which, in his argument, manifests this fear of decline. Sexuality is reduced to morbid exhibitionism. Prostitution, as Benjamin illustrates, reaches enormous proportions; widespread child prostitution becomes a fact of city life.
In the fetid interieur of the arcades, provocative dress becomes a standard feature. "Obscene" dancing (the cancan, for example) becomes epidemic and has to be supervised by the constabulary. Naturalness in all forms becomes unfashionable. Prostitutes reduce even pregnancy to a role played by occasionally bearing a child for two or three months before aborting it. The disregard for "natural" procreation creates worries that some alternative means of producing children will have to be invented. Sexuality, Freud surmises, is becoming redundant for human beings.
Up to this point, Benjamin's depiction could pass as an essay in slow-moving psycho-history, if not from the "Annales" school then perhaps as a melancholic version of Simon Schama. There is some suggestion from the packaging of the English translation that this is what the publishers hope. A reader expecting such a narrative, however, will be startled, partly by the superabundance of learning and loose ends (the "Arcades Project" is, after all, mainly a preparatory compendium of quotations), but mainly by the strong argumentative position which emerges in those sections where Benjamin does start to display his own position.
This has two aspects. One is political. Benjamin was a declared Marxist. Commentators often gloss over this, but it has a clear structuring role in The Arcades. Not only is Benjamin's diagnosis of the ills of the age (theirs and his) Marxist. The dream that so fascinates him is the dream of commodity fetishism from the early chapters of Das Kapital; what this fetishism conceals is the commodification, under capitalism, of human individuality.
The dynamics of what follows are also Marxist. The dreamers of the Arcades are the proletarianised bourgeois. Their weakness is their historic failure to understand that they too are caught up in the class struggle. Gloom at the disappearance of nature is directed at all the world; but, as Benjamin remarks about the supposed redundancy of human sexuality, it is typical of the bourgeoisie to represent its own condition as that of humanity in general. The bourgeoisie, specifically, may be in decline; humanity generally is not.
In the phantasmagoric arcades Parisians see themselves as they "really" are - as reified commodities on the labour market. They are not the subjects of the market, they are its objects; the dreams of the arcades destroy all the illusions a waking consciousness tries to retain.
The woman with the expensive attire and the 19th-century equivalent of the Wonderbra is, in reality, bearing her body to market as a prostitute. The "creative author" is a wage-slave toiling in the anonymous sweat-shops that serviced the mass market for penny dreadfuls. The flâneur scandalising his contemporaries with the tortoise he takes for walks on a lead is, in the end, only accentuating his own superfluity in the real world of the labour market. In the end, they are all no different from the wage slaves from the factories, however much these latter may be excluded from the palaces of consumption with their dreams and marvels.
The second aspect of Benjamin's position is philosophical. This revolves around the difficult and only very indirectly "Marxist" topic of time. Each age, Benjamin says, has a longing to "awaken". This, despite Benjamin's "messianic" comments, is something to which he tries to give secular form. Awakening, for Benjamin, is a matter of breaking free from an administered continuity, and of recognising that the momentary now is, in relation to what comes before or after, the only true reality.
One of the activities in which this insight is implicit is gambling. Gambling, though on one level futile and irrational, is on another the refusal to accept the tyranny of continuous time and the petty pace, among other things by collapsing whole segments of merely administered life into the one momentous decision of chance.
Gambling, of course, remains imprisoned within the dream. It flirts with freedom, but never finally achieves it. Gambling, says Benjamin, is like never quite getting a woman to reach orgasm. What, then, is real awakening? In Benjamin's work, the answer to this remains elusive. Adorno, asking the same question, eventually concluded that awakening could never happen adequately in this world. Benjamin certainly did not subscribe to that view; though by the time of his death he probably retained little faith that orthodox socialism would bring about awakening either. So can we hope for a non-religious "awakening"? The question remains open.
• Julian Roberts is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich.
The Arcades Project
"This piece, which is about the Paris Arcades, was begun under a clear sky of cloudless blue, which formed a dome above the foliage but was made dusty by the millions of pages with which the fresh breeze of industriousness, the heavy breath of research, the storm of youthful eagerness and the lazy gust of curiosity had been covered, The painted summer sky which looks down from the arcades into the reading room of the Bibliothéque Nationale, in Paris, has cast its dreamy lightless blanket ceiling over the first-born of its sources of understanding."
• Walter Benjamin, quoted in Walter Benjamin: A Biography, by Momme Brodersen (Verso).
"Preformed in the figure of the fâlneur is that of the detective. The flâneur required a social legitimation of his habitus. It suited him very well to see his indolence presented as a plausible front, behind which, in reality, hides the riveted attention of an observer who will not let the unsuspecting malefactor out of his sight."
"The sandwich-man is the last incarnation of the flâneur".
"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."
"Just as Proust begins the story of his life with an awakening, so must every presentation of history begin with awakening; in fact it should treat of nothing else. This one, accordingly, deals with the awakening of the 19th century."
• From The Arcades Project
'These fragments I have shored against my ruin,' says a nameless voice in TS Eliot's The Waste Land. The fragments are a collage of quotations, jumbled mementos of a lost world. For Walter Benjamin, this might have been the motive of cultural history: he, too, salvaged scraps from the wreckage of culture, anthologising quotes in the hope of reconstructing a past that he knew to be irretrievable. Having fled from Germany after the Nazi putsch, he tenderly reassembled memories of his Berlin childhood in a short, episodic autobiography that is also a tour of the city during the days of the Weimar Republic. In his Parisian exile, he conjured up the vanished Paris of the 19th century.
Whereas Proust's evocation of the blissful past was as easy as eating a cake, Benjamin likened himself to 'a man digging'. Proust's enchanted reveries typically happened in a cafe or a park. Benjamin, however, was working in a graveyard and his 'spade probing in the dark loam' was likely to encounter a cadaver. Unlike Proust, he did not have the luxury of completing his mnemonic research. He had to quit Paris after the fall of France. His archive, patchily pieced together in this book, which derives from an exhibition in Berlin, was dispersed among friends and in part destroyed.
He died in the Pyrenees in 1940, probably killing himself with an overdose of morphine: he had despaired of being allowed to cross into Spain and then into neutral Portugal, from where he could have sailed to safety in America. He was only 48. The manuscripts in the briefcase Benjamin was carrying vanished. All that mattered to the authorities was his meagre bankroll, used to settle his hotel bill and the cost of his funeral. He might have been sourly or sadly amused by the fate of his treasured meditation 'On the Concept of History', which was, no doubt, binned when the room occupied by this dead transient was cleaned out.
Benjamin relished Baudelaire's description of the poet as a ragpicker, cataloguing and collating the refuse of the city and he applied the same image to his method as a cultural historian. He was a connoisseur of ephemera, like advertisements for the defunct products once sold in Paris's empty, obsolete arcades.
Eliot's poem was artificially fragmented by Ezra Pound. Benjamin did not have to pretend to be fabricating a ruin. Hustled by history and menaced by poverty, he scribbled his most brilliant perceptions on scraps of paper, some of which are reproduced in the Archive. Any tattered or expendable sheet would do: an opened envelope, train tickets, request forms from libraries, a prescription pad thrown away by a friendly doctor. Intriguingly, a note on the idea of aura - crucial to Benjamin's great essay on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', his elegy for the idiosyncrasy that has been expunged from our mass-produced society - is scrawled on an advertisement for San Pellegrino mineral water. In Italian, water is 'acqua'. Immediately beneath the commercial logo, Benjamin asks: 'Wass ist Aura?' A Proustian moment, perhaps: did the question fizz up in his brain as the result of a punning leap across the border between Italian and German?
To explore the submerged cultures of Berlin or Paris, Benjamin had to cram a library in his voluminous brain. He could not take his books with him when he left the Third Reich or Vichy France; the way to manage the feat was to reduce elaborate theses to abbreviated jottings. He found the same miniaturisation in the arcades. They offered customers a city scaled down, where a universe of arcane commodities - orthopaedic corsets and seed pearls, kitchen utensils and prosthetic limbs - was compartmentalised and kept in storage. Benjamin mimicked this Lilliputian economy in his efforts to save paper. His handwriting was tiny, like the refined and tremulous web of a spider. He never found a pen with a point small enough to satisfy him and often wrote with the nib upside down. He also crisscrossed pages with script, creating a palimpsest of superimposed layers. He was fascinated by labyrinths and his manuscripts often look like madly convoluted mazes.
Benjamin's ambition was to squeeze 100 lines of crabbed, compressed thinking on to a single page of notepaper. Though he never managed it, the result would have been, like The Waste Land, an epic seen through the wrong end of the telescope. His model for this imploded infinitude was two grains of wheat in the Cluny Museum, on which a believer had inscribed a Talmudic prayer. The fragmentation of Benjamin's texts was a tragic precaution. Though he preferred to use waste paper picked up along the way, he always carried a notebook. 'Let no thought pass incognito,' he counselled, adding that stray ideas should be tagged 'as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens'. The metaphor chillingly alludes to his own difficulties and boldly co-opts the inimical role of the border guard: the mind must trap thoughts as they slip like fugitives across the barrier between dream and waking.
The same pardonable paranoia made Benjamin experiment with encryption. When the secret police had his friend Gershom Scholem under surveillance, Benjamin proposed that they should exchange letters in code. He devised a cypher for himself and hoped to guard his anonymity by signing the works he wrote in exile as OE Tal: the pseudonym scrambles the Latin word 'lateo', meaning 'I am hidden'. The subterfuge was excellent training. Literary criticism, after all, is about deciphering texts, cracking their code in order to drag absconded and perhaps illicit meanings into view.
Given the morbidity of Benjamin's historical task and the guilt-ridden panic of his critical procedure, it is a relief to find him, in one section of the Archive, succumbing to childishness. He collected toys and delighted in the ingenious absurdity of a wooden sewing machine. He also lovingly recorded the mental growth of his son Stefan, whose garbling of polysyllabic words seemed like Joycean inspirations. Being a parent enabled Benjamin to restore his own childhood, which meant regaining paradise.
Yet the precocious Stefan was impatient for the fall. As his father's son, he could hardly wait to advance from playful innocence to the doomy, care-laden world of adult consciousness. One day, the boy asked his mother why people have heads. Exhausted by his interrogation, she was unable to reply. Benjamin might have been able to answer him. The head's purpose, surely, is to contain the past. It is our travelling archive, indexing our experience and also preserving the smudged traces of the fading world into which we were born.
It's a shame the editors of the Archive have not made access to Benjamin's cranial filing system easier: the translation is clumsy, the annotation shoddy. But there are rewards, since the plates allow us to look over Benjamin's shoulder as he scribbles nonsense verse during a mescaline trip or makes lists of the works he did not live to complete. These frayed leavings testify to the nobility of his undertaking: a lone mind battles against the death of culture and, in the process, almost forgets to fend off its own extinction.
Monday, 15 September 2008
Benjamin was buried under a different name. It is understandable that, given that Benjamin is a common first name in Spain, the great writer was buried as Benjamin Walter! A local police document describes in detail the death of "Don Benjamin Walter", and refers to thecontents of the famous briefcase .
Thursday, 11 September 2008
CROCODILE Imitates the cry of a child to lure people.
DOLPHIN Carries children on its back.
ELEPHANTS Noted for their memories, and worship the sun.
HARE Sleeps with its eyes open.
OSTRICH Can digest stones.
PALFREY A white animal of the Middle Ages whose breed is extinct.
PELICAN Tears its breast to feed its young. Symbol of the paterfamilias.
SWAN Sings just before it dies.
Hashish, by granting a vision of this redemption in such a compromised and transient form, forces us to confront the likelihood that it was never anything more than a fantasy. If Benjamin discovered a mystic language in his hashish trance, it is because he so fervently wanted to discover it. And something similar holds true for all his messianic speculations. The beguiling complexity of his work, built out of profound insights into language, thought, art, and society, makes it tempting to ignore the difficulty of actually dwelling inside it. After all, if the world is not a text because it does not have an author, then Benjamin is not an interpreter but a poet, creating meanings rather than perceiving them. Ultimately, his strange, beautiful works are best read as fragments of a great poem—the poem of a longing that no world, and Benjamin’s least of all, could possibly satisfy.
But what Benjamin called “the great hope, desire, yearning to reach—in a state of intoxication—the new, the untouched” remained elusive. When the effects of the drugs wore off, so did the feeling of “having suddenly penetrated, with their help, that most hidden, generally most inaccessible world of surfaces.” All that remained was the cryptic comments and gestures recorded in the protocols, the ludicrous corpses of what had seemed vital insights. In a session on April 18, 1931, Fritz Fränkel, a doctor who administered the drug to Benjamin, noted, “Arm and index finger are raised high in the air, without support. The raising of the arm is ‘the birth of the kingdom of Armenia.’ ” During another trance, Benjamin was very excited to have come up with the phrase “Wellen schwappen—Wappen schwellen” (“Waves splash—armorial bearings swell”), claiming that the rhyming words held the clue to a deep structural connection between waves and the designs used in heraldry. “The subject holds forth in learned fashion,” Fränkel noted. “ ‘Quod in imaginibus, est in lingua.’ ” Fränkel may have known the meaning of the Latin phrase—“Insofar as it is in images, it is in language”—but he could not have recognized how crucial the notion was to Benjamin’s thought, or how tremendously significant the nonsense phrase must have appeared to him. Under the influence of hashish, he felt that names and things belonged together, that a rhyme had revealed a reality.
The tragedy, or perhaps the comedy, was that this insight, the crown of Benjamin’s philosophical labor, could not survive the trance that fathered it. In the cold light of the morning after, Wellen schwappen—Wappen schwellen is a meaningless jingle, and the raising of an arm has no perceptible connection to the kingdom of Armenia. “What we are on the verge of talking about seems infinitely alluring,” Benjamin wrote resignedly. “We stretch out our arms full of love, eager to embrace what we have in mind. Scarcely have we touched it, however, than it disillusions us completely. The object of our attention suddenly fades at the touch of language.” Hashish, like an evil genie in a fairy tale, granted Benjamin’s wish, but guaranteed that he couldn’t enjoy it.
But when Benjamin started to put “The Arcades Project” in something like publishable form, sending Theodor Adorno an essay titled “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” he was in for a shock. Although he was eager to embrace Marxist terminology, his use of it proved far too clumsy for a subtle theorist like Adorno. Instead of sharpening his vision of Paris, Marxism had settled over it like a fog, reducing Benjamin to crude clichés. (For instance, he interpreted Baudelaire’s great poem about drunkenness, “The Ragpickers’ Wine,” as a response to the wine tax.) In a devastating letter, Adorno said that, by using “materialist categories,” Benjamin had “denied yourself your boldest and most productive thoughts in a kind of precensorship.” Adorno’s judgment echoed Scholem’s: Benjamin’s Marxist vocabulary had betrayed his true insights.
This rejection, coming from a representative of Benjamin’s last remaining sponsor, was a terrible blow. The timing made it even worse: he had worked through the fall of 1938 to finish the essay, believing that war could break out at any moment. “I was in a race against the war,” he told Adorno, who was then living in New York, “and in spite of all my choking fear, I felt a feeling of triumph on the day I wrapped up . . . before the end of the world (the fragility of a manuscript!).” Now he was being told that the triumph was illusory, that the Arcades Project could not be written on the terms he proposed. Even if Benjamin had lived long enough, it is doubtful that he could have completed it. The intellectual and ideological basis of the work was in ruins.
In any case, history was not to give him the chance. Despite his friends’ attempts to persuade him to emigrate to England or America, Benjamin was still in Paris in the summer of 1940, when the evil he had fled in Berlin caught up with him. The fall of France set the stage for a secular martyrdom that is a large part of his legend. The exact details are disputed, but it seems that, on September 26, 1940, Benjamin was part of a group of refugees trying to cross the Franco-Spanish border at Port Bou. But the Spanish border guards, perhaps out of deference to the Gestapo, did not honor their visas and turned them back. In despair and exhaustion, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine. The next morning, the guards relented, and the rest of the party escaped over the border. Only Benjamin, buried in the cemetery at Port Bou, remained as an exemplary victim—a reproach to a Europe intent on murdering its Jews, its radicals, and its best minds.
Where does hashish fit into this parable of persecuted genius? A reader who turns to “On Hashish” for a clear answer may be disappointed. Like a small-scale version of “The Arcades Project,” it is the placeholder for a book he could never finish, a ruin occupying the site where he planned a monument, and, as such, it has to be carefully interpreted. This is entirely fitting, since Benjamin himself believed that “all human knowledge, if it can be justified, must take on no other form than that of interpretation.”
The most common kind of interpretation, of course, is reading. So deeply ingrained is our association of the two that reading provides a metaphor for many activities that have nothing to do with written texts: the fortune-teller “reads” palms, the astrologer “reads” the stars. The intellectual quest that defined Benjamin’s work—at times, it seems, the dare that he set himself—was to find out how much of the world could be “read” in this way. In “The Arcades Project,” he made lengthy catalogues of ephemera—advertising posters, shop-window displays, clothing fashions—commenting, “Whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions.”
The suspicion that everything in the world carries a hidden message seems to have come to Benjamin at a very young age. “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” is organized as a series of vignettes, each devoted to a thing or a place from his childhood: “The Telephone,” “The Sock,” “At the Corner of Steglitzer and Genthiner.” The result is an eerily depopulated memoir, in which Benjamin’s parents are mute presences, and friends are almost entirely absent. Benjamin told Scholem that the project contained “the most precise portrait I shall ever be able to give of myself,” and yet it is a portrait in which the sitter never appears, his place taken by the objects that surround him. The effect is not just to make Benjamin seem like a lonely, wary child, though he undoubtedly was. Rather, if Benjamin luxuriates in memories of solitude, sleepiness, and sickness, it is because these unguarded states allowed him to communicate most intimately with the objects around him. “Everything in the courtyard became a sign or hint to me,” he writes in the section titled “Loggias.” “Many were the messages embedded in the skirmishing of the green roller blinds drawn up high, and many the ominous dispatches that I prudently left unopened in the rattling of the roll-up shutters that came thundering down at dusk.”
Surprisingly, Benjamin welcomed the idea of art without aura. He reasoned that aura was a kind of aristocratic mystery, and that its disappearance should herald a new, more democratic art: “The social significance of film, even—and especially—in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage.” This rhetoric, with its enthusiasm for “destruction” and “liquidation,” sounds distinctly odd coming from Benjamin. How, the reader wonders, did the great champion of Proust and Kafka end up decrying uniqueness and originality? How could the man who compared “In Search of Lost Time” to the Sistine Chapel ceiling also believe that “contemplative immersion” in a work of art was “a breeding ground for asocial behavior”?
The answer lies in Benjamin’s exceedingly awkward embrace of Marxism. Like many other intellectuals of the time, he came to feel that only Communism could save Europe from war, depression, and Fascism. He visited the Soviet Union in 1926, and clung to the hope that Communism would provide better for writers than capitalism had managed to do. Benjamin’s personal circumstances only reinforced this judgment. Literary journalism, never a lucrative career, was an almost heroically futile one in Weimar Germany. By 1931, Benjamin confessed that “material circumstances . . . have made my existence—with no property and no steady income—a paradox, in view of which even I sometimes fall into a stupor of amazement.” And when Hitler seized power, Benjamin lost what remained of his livelihood. In March, 1933, he fled Germany for France, never to return. For the rest of his life, he lived on the brink of destitution. A subsidy provided by the Institute for Social Research, itself in exile from its original base, in Frankfurt, helped him scrape by. “My Communism,” Benjamin said, “is a drastic, not infertile expression of the fact that the present intellectual industry finds it impossible to make room for my thinking, just as the present economic order finds it impossible to accommodate my life.”
Benjamin’s Marxist turn was welcomed by friends like Brecht, who regretted only that he hadn’t gone far enough. Scholem, on the other hand, kept up a stream of reproaches in his letters from Palestine, thinking it nothing more than a fashionable disguise: “There is a disconcerting alienation and disjuncture between your true and alleged way of thinking.” And he was infuriated by Benjamin’s refusal to acknowledge how far his idiosyncratic understanding of Communism deviated from Party orthodoxy. “The complete certainty I have about what would happen to your writing if it occurred to you to present it within the Communist Party is quite depressing,” Scholem wrote.
Benjamin never did join the Party, though he agonized over it, just as he continually postponed his often declared plans to learn Hebrew and move to Palestine. But his limited and private adherence to Marxist principles had significant effects on his work—effects that tended to bear out Scholem’s pessimism. “The Work of Art” could not have been written without Benjamin’s newfound interest in the material conditions of cultural production. Yet his masochistic insistence on putting his work at the service of the class struggle also accounts for the forced belligerence and brutalism of that essay.
The most significant casualty of Benjamin’s Marxism was “The Arcades Project,” which today enjoys a reputation as one of the most famous books never written. It was the white whale of Benjamin’s last years, a magnum opus of stupendous scope and originality that he found himself perpetually unable to finish. The Passagenwerk, as Benjamin referred to it, took its name from the passages, or arcades, that adorned Paris in the age of Baudelaire. These were glass-covered promenades set aside for shopping and strolling, which helped to give the city its reputation as a paradise for flâneurs. In the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, Benjamin believed he had found the omphalos of the modern city, with its erotic anonymity, its phantasmagoria of fashions, its mixture of banality and enchantment.
The passages appealed to him, above all, because by his own day they were already extinct, made obsolete by the department store. This gave them the charm that Benjamin found in everything discarded and superseded, all the detritus on which civilization imprints its deepest secrets. “To someone looking through piles of old letters,” he wrote, “a stamp that has long been out of circulation on a torn envelope often says more than a reading of dozens of pages.” In just this way, Benjamin dreamed of using the arcades to write the hidden history of the city he called, in one essay, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” He initially meant his arcades essay to be brief, allusive, and literary—“a fairy-play,” he called it in 1928. “In any case,” he assured Scholem, “it is a project that will just take a few weeks.”
Friday, 5 September 2008
ADMIRAL Always brave.
GENERAL Always 'brave'.
NAVIGATOR Always 'intrepid'.
STALLION Always 'fiery'.
BANDITS Always 'ferocious'.
CRIMINAL Always 'vile' (criminel odieux).
MOUNTEBANK Always preceded by 'cheap'.
MURDERER Always 'cowardly'
CRITIC Always 'eminent'.
DOCTOR Always preceded by 'the good'.
IMPRESARIO Always preceded by 'clever'.
PROFESSOR Always 'the learned'.
TRAVELLER Always 'dauntless'.
GERMANS Always preceded by 'blond', 'dreamy'.
HUSSAR Always preceded by 'handsome' or 'dashing'.
ALBION Always 'white', 'perfidious' or 'positivist'.
AMBITION Always 'insane' unless it is 'noble'.
APLOMB Always 'perfect' or 'diabolical'.
BALDNESS Always 'premature'.
OLD Always 'prematurely'.
CANDOUR Always 'disarming'.
GAIETY Always preceded by 'frantic'.
JEALOUSY Always preceded by 'frantic'.
INTOXICATION Always preceded by 'mad'.
IMAGINATION Always 'lively'.
INCOMPETENCE Always 'utter'.
LAUGHTER Always 'Homeric'.
SANGFROID Always preceded by 'imperturbable'.
THRIFT Always preceded by 'honest'.
WIT Always preceded by 'sparkling'.
ACCIDENT Always 'regrettable' or unfortunate'
CONGRATULATIONS Always 'hearty', 'sincere', etc.
REGARDS Always 'kind'.
DISTINCTION Always preceded by 'rare'.
FELICITY Always 'perfect'.
HYPOTHESIS Often 'dangerous', always 'daring'.
INNOVATION Always 'dangerous'.
PRINCIPLES Always 'fundamental'.
PROGRESS Always 'headlong' and 'ill-advised'
STRENGTH Always 'Herculean'.
STRONG As a horse, an ox, a Turk, Hercules. 'That fellow should be strong, he's all sinew.'
BANQUET Always 'a festive occasion'.
BASILICA Always 'imposing'.
BATTLE Always 'bloody'
DORMITORIES Always 'spacious and airy'.
FOOD In boarding-schools, always 'wholesome and plentiful'.
DOCUMENT Invariably 'of the highest importance'.
DUNGEON Always horrible.
FANFARE Always 'loud'.
HARD Invariably add 'as iron'. True, there is also 'hard as a diamond', but that is much less forceful.
HEAT Always 'unbearable'.
INSCRIPTION Always 'cuneiform'.
INSTRUMENT If it has been used to commit a crime, it is always 'blunt', unless it happens to be sharp.
SEALED Always preceded by 'hermetically'.
STEADY Always followed by 'as a rock'.
STIFF Always followed by 'and unbending'.
THICKET Always 'dark and impenetrable'.
BLACK Always followed by 'as ebony' or preceded by 'jet'.
GOG Always goes with Magog.
ILIAD Always followed by the Odyssey.
RAFT Always 'of the Medusa'.
SUMMER Always 'unusual'. (See WINTER.)
WINTER Always 'unusual'. (See SUMMER.)
Tuesday, 2 September 2008
POETRY Completely useless and out of date.
POET Flattering (noble) synonym for fool, dreamer.
PROSE Easier to write than verse.
TIME (OUR) Deplore the fact that there is nothing poetic about it.
IMAGES There are always too many in poetry.
SITE Place for writing poetry.
INSPIRATION (POETIC) Aroused by: the sight of the sea, love, women, etc.
RUINS Induce reverie; make a landscape poetic.
WOODS Induce reverie. Well suited for the composition of verse. In the autumn, when walking through them, say: 'There is a pleasure in the pathless woods.'
BIRD Wish you were one, saying with a sigh: 'Oh, for a pair of wings!' This shows a poetic soul.
SWALLOWS Never call them anything but 'harbingers of Spring'. Since nobody knows where they come from, say it is 'a distant shore' (this is poetic).
CRIMSON (POURPRE) Nobler word than red.
MISSIVE (MESSAGE) Nobler than 'letter'.
HAMLET A touching noun, which is very effective in poetry.
SASH (ECHARPE) [scarf] Poetic.
PONSARD The only poet with any common sense.
SOUTHERNERS [southern France, esp Provence] All poets.