Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Archivist is Born (Books - Walter Benjamin by Esther Leslie)

In 1912 Benjamin began to travel in earnest. A trip to Italy at Whitsun, with two friends, was a 'Bildungsreise,' the sentimental journey undertaken by a good bourgeouis son at the beginning of his studies. The friends travelled to Lucerne, St Gotthard, Milan, Verona, Vicenza and Venice. Benjamin wrote to his friend Herbert Blumenthal that the holiday proper would take place only once back in Freiburg, once it was written up. The resulting journal was written in June or July 1912. The journey was in the retrospection, the writing up of experience.

And so an archivist is born. My first thought in reading that passage was 'how sad to never experience anything in the moment.' There he is with friends in beautiful places and he doesn't feel as though he has had his holiday until he can record and change it. But it made me reflect on my research with people on the autistic spectrum - many of us (on and off the spectrum) have difficulty taking in the amount of information that comes at us in real time time from our environment and we find ways either to slow down the rate at which is comes in or the amount that is coming in. In a sense, Benjamin appears to be filtering information so that he can experience it.

The remainder of the chapter on his youth focuses on his relationship to his Judaism. This is German in the late 19th century until 1916. Many of Germany's Jews were highly secularized, unlike those living in Eastern European shtetels, they were 'Germans first.' Benjamin mused in a letter written in 1912
that he and others do indeed possess a 'two-sidedness,' the Jewish and the German side
Benjamin did not advocate for a territorial brand of Zionism, but rather for a cultural one, a preserving of "Jewish culture in the face of assimilation through an organization of Jewish intellectual life, " as Leslie puts it. I found his wrestling with this idea interesting as it seemed to embody in an individual the dichotomy that was later exploited and taken to such a fanatical extreme in German. Later the philosopher Martin Buber invited the college-age Benjamin to write for Der Jude, a German-Jewish journal, which Benjamin declined because he did not approve of employing writing for political ends. He asserts that:

the genuine relationship between word and effective actions was attainable only in the expression of the ineffable. Language's interest lay not in the communication of content, but rather in the disclosure of magical effects, in its mystery...

Benjamin pondered the role of writing and critique. He informed Blumenthal at the end of 1916 that true criticism was like a chemical element that affected something only in the sense that it revealed, through disassembling, its inner nature. It did not destroy or go against its object. The suprachemical element that affects intellectual things in such a way is light. In the midst of war, Benjamin and friends were stranded deep in the darkest of nights. Once he had tried to fight the night using words. He realized that to vanquish night it was necessary to let light flood in. But light did not appear in language. Language could not illuminate. Criticism illuminated. Benjamin defined criticism as the differentiation of the genuine from the non-genuine, and again this was not the commission of language, except perhaps in humour.

I wonder what he does suggest to communicate political ideas if not language, telepathy? I'm a few chapters into Esther Leslie's biography of Walter Benjamin and find it frequently takes this high-flown tone . I look at a passage like this and my first inclination is to laugh at the thoughts as both beautiful and naive, but the book leaves me wondering whether this was an adolescent flight of fancy, or the formation of Benjamin's life-long outlook on the function of writing. I could use a little perspective here, but Leslie doesn't step back from her subject. I find that the fanciful tone of this book makes me forget whether it is the author's voice I am reading or Benjamin's.

From his own remembered childhood Benjamin extrapolated that a child's senses are receptive, as a child's world is new. The child receives the world so fully that the world forms the child. The world imprints itself, just as bodies do on the chemistry of photographs. The child is embedded in the materiality of its world...

The language has a quasi-biblical fanciness to it that bugs me. Clearly Leslie is taken with her subject. She seems to find intellectual points in common with Benjamin (another of her books is entitled Art and the Chemical Industry) but the writing feels lacking in straightforwardness, reverent, and uncritical. However the subject is interesting and she is well informed and passionate about it so I will push on.

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