Posts Tagged ‘Walter Benjamin’

The hidden Walter Benjamin

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Portrait of the artist as a jerk.

“It’s always disconcerting to discover a favorite writer was kind of a jerk. How does this realization affect our understanding of Walter Benjamin’s work?” Book Haven friend and writer Morgan Meis considers Howard Eiland‘s and Michael W. Jennings‘s new biography published by Harvard University Press, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

The resulting essay about the influential German essayist and critic in The Smart Set“Jerk Reaction,” is bound to raise hackles.  He begins:

It is hard to write a biography about a person who hides. Walter Benjamin really hid. The great critic and philosopher hid, often enough, right there in his writings. They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.

Read the rest here.

Hannah Arendt on times “when there was only wrong and no outrage”

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Light-seeking missile

One of the joys of having office space in a major university library is that, well, you never have to go to the library.  You are already there.

On my way to the stairs I passed a book I had seen footnoted or recommended, somewhere – Hannah Arendt‘s Men in Dark Times.  It seemed to jump out at me from the shelves – so I grabbed the volume and continued on my way.

To posterity

Arendt lived in the long afterglow of the German Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that this collection of essays, written from about 1955 to 1968 for various publications and occasions, should favor Germans – Lessing, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht.  But there are some surprises, too – her friend Randall Jarrell, Isak Dineson, and Pope John XXIII, among others.

Why the title with its reference to “dark times”? She explains:

“I borrow the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns.

No surprise.

When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Let there be light.

…even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn.  Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of the blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter or secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”


“Fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will…”

Monday, February 20th, 2012

A shocking moment in a recent conversation:  A professor of my acquaintance said that he’d gotten rid of almost all his books.  Why books, he said, when there’s Kindle?


Randall Jarrell voiced his misgivings this way: “Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see – otherwise I’d die – a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.”

I can’t help but feel, still, that Kindle is only one step away from a computer screen, which is one step away from a television screen. In fact, perhaps Kindle may be  closer to the television screen to begin with, since both reading a book and watching TV are essentially passive activities.  So … why does the tactile quality of the book, which at least offers the interactivity of turning the pages, seem so much less deadening than staring at a screen, any screen?  Why does it seem so quietly redeeming?

And why does book addiction seem the most forgivable of compulsions?  Gabe Habash describes his own habit in Publishers Weekly‘s “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books“:

If book buying addiction wasn’t a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn’t exist, and searching for “book clutter” on Google wouldn’t turn up 18 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying “enough” and resolving to trim the fat, these being, more often than not, the library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.

My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called “You’re Never Going to Read That,” which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. “I think I have too many books,” I said once, and he said, “Okay I’ll help you out,” and quickly reached for House of Leaves.

Well, we’ve written about bookshelf porn before, and featured book furniture here and here. The craving for more books links inevitably  to the need for a space to put them in.  So Habash raises a bigger, more philosophical issue, apart from needing more understanding friends than Matt & co.:

But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I’m not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven’t read (I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

Sevres stayed in cupboard

I couldn’t agree more.  Why would you want to have in your library only books you have read?  Isn’t the whole point of a library to provide objects for contemplation in your solitary hours, the thrill of new discoveries on an otherwise humdrum rainy day?  And for the writer, a book collection is a research library on Sundays, holidays, and at 3 a.m., and more comprehensive than what scattershot google searches can ever offer. How many sleepless hours have been devoted to thoughtful book browsing!

And should the Big One strike, and the earth shake my shelves around my ears … I die happy.  Until the last battery dies within my flashlight while I hunker in the cave of books, I would contentedly read all those volumes I bought and never got round to finishing – William Anderson‘s Dante: The Maker comes immediately to mind, or Aleksander Wat‘s My Century. But so do many other books that I never even started.  Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote, for example.


As Winston Churchill said: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”

Perhaps I could even finish his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1.

Parisian rain check…

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Home away from home – rue de Richelieu

So much to say, so little time to say it.  I have been to the Kultura offices in Maissons Laffitte – that’s the émigré publishing house and journal that indefatigably championed Polish literature-in-exile during the Communist years.  I have had a long conversation with the Antoine Jaccottet, founder of the remarkable Le Bruit du Temps éditions … well, he’s a little remarkable himself.

But it will have to wait. My last online hour is being spent at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Richelieu (I finally found out the reason for all the reconstruction and commotion – the BNF ‘splains it here).  Then, for my offline hours I am joining a few confrères from the American University for my last night in Paris.

Tomorrow, back to springtime and California … and all will be told.

Postscript 2/16 from Elena Danielson:

I love your posts from Paris!

One of my heroes (and there are not too many) is archivist-scholar Georges Bataille who hid Walter Benjamin‘s fragmentary manuscript of the Arcades Project in a restricted collection in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France when Benjamin fled the Nazi invasion and occupation.  What better hiding place? Benjamin perished on the border of France and Spain in 1940. The collected manuscript shards were finally published in the original German in 1982, and did not get fully translated into English until 1999. The unfinished nature of the work would not have bothered him since he preferred aura of  the scholar’s shoebox of notecards to the finished bound work. As he put it in the 1930s: “Today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated medium between two different filing systems.” I’m not sure whether I entirely agree with him on this point, but the world is going in this direction. He was among the first to see it…I felt that aura of Benjamin’s notes and Bataille’s preservation work in the reading room of the BnF…

Carl Djerassi at 88: hitting the road – with champagne, too

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Not slowing down ... not much, anyway (Photo: Isabella Gregor)

Stanford celebrated its 120th anniversary last Thursday in Paris, at the Hôtel de Talleyrand overlooking the Place de la Concorde.  The 18th century hotel, purchased by the U.S. after the war, was the site of the administration of the Marshall Plan.

Normally, I wouldn’t know or note such an occasion – except that the weekend gala featured champagne (always a topic of interest), but more importantly, it spotlighted noted chemist and writer Carl Djerassi, one of my correspondents.

The man known as “the father of the pill” (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?) participated on a panel, “At the Cutting Edge of Thinking.”  Following that – a champagne tasting from the latest crus of my favorite Veuve Clicquot.  The artist Kristin Eager Killion was scheduled to speak on “What are the links between Art, Sustainability and Champagne?”

Home of the Marshall Plan

That’s to the point:  the evening hosted a reading of Carl’s newest play, Insufficiency – on the subject of (you guessed it) champagne.  Or rather the chemical makeup of champagne and its bubbles, with a few digs along the way at the foibles of academic publishing, academic snobbery, and academic tenure.  A pleasant coincidence for Carl that the subject of his “play in nine scenes” matched the bubbly theme of the event.  (Karol Berger and Laurence Yansouni were slated to be the actors for the reading.)

Carl has been in the news lately, for several other reasons.  Le Monde wrote a lengthy profile last month, opening him with these words:


“A shoe with a luminous red heel, bright as desire or a flash of wit, holds open the door to the living room in Carl Djerassi’s Vienna apartment. This is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in the home of an internationally renowned chemist, the author of 1,245 articles in scientific journals, and one of the world’s leading experts on steroids, who synthesized the cortisone and progesterone, thus contributing to a crucial invention for women: the contraceptive pill.”

“But Djerassi isn’t a chemist like others. Little known in France, except by his scientific peers, the naturalized American is the incarnation of the cultured man who once was the European ideal from the Renaissance to the twentieth century: scientist, musician and music lover, collector and arts patron, sports enthusiast. Finally he is a writer, the ultimate self-conquest in a workaholic who admitted that ‘the pressure of ambition can be a poison.’ He nevertheless manages, at 87 years old, a cosmopolitan existence between San Francisco, Vienna and London, at a pace that would exhaust many people in their forties.”

Les Lavoisiers (par Jacques-Louis David)

The article explains that Carl has renewed the tradition of Wednesday soirees in his apartment, as Sigmund Freud once did in his own apartment in the Berggasse (now a museum – we wrote about that here).  The controversial theme of one of Carl’s evening discussions: Can literary self-analysis replace psychoanalysis?

The evening was, of course, a pretext to bring in a reading of another of his plays, Foreplay, based on the letters of chemist Gretel Adorno, her husband, philosopher Theodore Adorno, and writer Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis.

Recent events picked up scenes from Carl’s own life:  he attended the same high school as Freud, and also fled the Nazis with his mother, arriving nearly penniless in New York City in 1939.

Kind of a classmate

Foreplay continues an earlier theme, in his play Oxygen, which described the role of women in the history of science through the prickly personality of chemist Madame Lavoisier.

It’s true that Carl is still going strong – when I saw him at the dedication of the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence last month, he had just arrived back from somewhere in Europe – London, perhaps.  He was using a cane to walk – he assured me that it was the result of a sports injury, not infirmity.

In any case, he’s off next week to the 14th century University of Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university, for an honorary doctorate, and an encore of his Insufficiency, which he will read with the president of the Humboldt Foundation.  The week after that he heads for the University of Porto, which is celebrating its 100th birthday.  The university is giving Carl an honorary doctorate, and premiering his play, Phallacy, in Portuguese.  It will be just in time for Carl’s 88th, too, on October 29.