Monday, August 6, 2007

No Room for Breakfast

There's a sentence in Benjamin's One-Way Street that I keep remembering as: “He who cannot eat breakfast is afraid of his fellow men.” It actually goes, “He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast” (One-Way Street [1928], trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings Vol. 1, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings [Harvard UP, 1996], 444-445). In the rest of the piece, which is entitled “Breakfast Room” and comes second at the beginning of the volume, fear of fellow men is left behind, in favor of the point that you should make a clear demarcation between night and day to protect yourself from your own dream life. (Its early placement in the book makes sense, since at the beginning of the book, as at the beginning of the day, Benjamin is considering what it means to become articulate.) He continues,

He [the non-breakfast eater] thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds--a precaution justified only by the combustion of the dream in a concentrated morning's work, if not in prayer; otherwise this avoidance can be a source of confusion between vital rhythms. In this condition, the narration of dreams can bring calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and must incur its revenge. To express this in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naïveté, and in laying hands on his dream visages without thinking, he surrenders himself. For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be addressed from the superior vantage of memory. This further side of the dream is attainable only through a cleansing analogous to washing, yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep. (444-445)

The person who “disdains his breakfast” can't eat because he's full of dream--a sort of Kleinian interpretation, recalling her crowded inner world of jostling psychic objects that need digestion. We should eat, by this logic, to hasten that process, replacing the internal phantom with real food for ourselves. (D.W. Winnicott calls this “getting fat.”) Benjamin also seems to suggest that we need to wake up fully in order to dream better. The “confusion” of dream and waking life sounds a bit like Adorno's caution about the aestheticization of philosophy: “if art is not an idea separate from philosophy and guiding it as a prototype, if philosophy as such wants to accomplish what is not accomplished in art, as illusion, then the philosophical totality thereby becomes aesthetic, an arena for the semblance of absolute identity” (Hegel: Three Studies [1963], trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen [MIT, 1993], 137). Part of rationality, though, may be forgotten when “fellow men” are dismissively left behind, since you can fear yourself and the people and society you know, but phantasmatic internal objects are only representations, not sources, of fear. Instead of following the reference to empirical others, Benjamin brings in an atavistic fantasy, the idea that, awake but without having fulfilled the ritual of commitment to the day, the former dreamer is exposed and as it were stateless--no longer sheltered by the supposed “naïveté,” i.e., the excuse of being asleep, but not yet protected by “broad daylight” and "thinking." To speak dream thoughts and emotions then would be to do violence to ("[lay] hands" on) them, another Kleinian moment in that the thought of doing something aggressive immediately registers as the fantasy that the internal objects will retaliate. “Breakfast Room” seems to have been written asleep when it wanders into this animism of "revenge” at the hands of dream images, as though what was dangerous about waking was that then nightmares could come true. With the interesting idea that dreaming is a naïveté that the censorship partly respects (or indulges?), though, Benjamin opens up the possibility that all dreaming is pretending to be asleep in order to have dreams . . . .

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