Thursday, 8 April 2010

A month with Walter Benjamin

Few things give me greater pleasure than immersing myself in the oeuvre of a single author. Each year my reading tends to cluster around one or two main writers. Some time ago I spent several months working through nearly all of Foucault. I once spent nine months reading nothing but Augustine. When I first discovered Karl Barth, I read him every day for two years (and barely understood a word of it for the first year). And as an undergraduate I remember skipping classes so that I could sit at the beach reading volume after volume of Virginia Woolf, listening to the sea and the crying gulls while she laid my soul bare.

Anyway, over the recent Christmas break I devoted a very happy month to Walter Benjamin. Previously I had only ever read him in bits and pieces, so it was a joy to work through the five paperback volumes of his Selected Writings (Harvard UP 1996-2003), plus an assortment of other volumes – Gershom Scholem's account of their friendship, Terry Eagleton's book on Benjamin, the weirdly insightful little collection On Hashish. I had hoped also to read the huge edition of Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project (Harvard UP 2002), plus Susan Buck-Morss’s huge study of the same: but these will have to wait for another day. It was a great pleasure though to flick through the lavish edition – more an exhibition than a book – of Walter Benjamin's Archive (Verso 2007). Here you can examine all manner of texts and artefacts from Benjamin’s archive: index cards, catalogues, notebooks, word games, photos of his toy collection, samples of his incredibly small handwriting (one of his life ambitions was to fit 100 lines of writing on a normal sheet of paper). In one notebook, he scrupulously records the language and games of his son Stefan – a tender and very beautiful archive of the way a child experiences the world. (Benjamin was an astonishingly keen observer of children; some of his most remarkable texts explore the imaginative landscapes of childhood.)

Walter Benjamin encounters the world with an unbounded curiosity and attentiveness. He brings extraordinary insight to a bewildering variety of themes and topics: art, literature, theatre, politics, children’s books and toys, gambling, writing, food, cities, brothels, Charlie Chaplin (“Chaplin never allows the audience to smile while watching him. They must either double up laughing or be very sad”), memory, history, technology, pedagogy, theology, astrology, photography, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Naturally I was especially interested in his theological insights (familiar to anyone who has read his theses on history). Here’s a few passages that I marked as I was reading the Selected Writings:

“In order to struggle against retribution, forgiveness finds its powerful ally in time. For time, in which Ate [the daughter of Zeus] pursues the evildoer, is not the lonely calm of fear but the tempestuous storm of forgiveness which precedes the onrush of the Last Judgment and against which she cannot advance. The storm is not only the voice in which the evildoer’s cry of terror is drowned; it is also the hand that obliterates the traces of his misdeeds, even if it must lay waste to the world in the process.” (1:286-7)

“The profoundest antithesis to ‘world’ is not ‘time’ but ‘the world to come’.” (1:226)

“The killing of a criminal can be moral – but never its legitimation.” (1:481)

“Only the Messiah himself completes all history…. For this reason, nothing that is historical can relate itself, from its own ground, to anything messianic. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic; it cannot be established as a goal. From the standpoint of history, it is not the goal but the terminus…. Nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive for such a passing away – even the passing away of those stages of man that are nature – is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.” (3:305-6)
In Volume 4 of the Selected Writings (Benjamin’s last writings before his suicide), the editors have entitled the final section “Materialist Theology”. This includes his explosive theses on the concept of history:
“The soothsayers who queried time and learned what it had in store certainly did not experience it as either homogenous or empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance – namely, in just this way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from inquiring into the future: the Torah and the prayers instructed them in remembrance. This disenchanted the future, which holds sway over all those who turn to soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future became homogenous, empty time. For every second was the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter.” (4:397)
For me, another highlight is Benjamin’s reflections on writing. He was a writer of enormous power and acuity, and he thought a great deal about the writing process, including the importance of its material conditions (the paper, pens, and so forth). If I don’t forget, I’ll try to post on this some time soon. Finally though, I leave you with a very charming, typically Benjaminian metaphor about books:
“Books, too, begin like the week – with a day of rest in memory of their creation. The preface is their Sunday” (2:287).

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