Sunday, September 16, 2007
Benjamin on the Road
Maybe the most beautiful pages in Benjamin’s 1931-1934 writings are the ones that have least connection to a genre or commission, and don’t even constellate into a “thought figure” with a title. In the English Selected Writings Vol. 2, which I read in Kauai last week, my favorite item was the untitled pages dated May-June 1931. Some of these notes wind up in published writings on Kafka and the thought figure “The Good Writer” (on Hemingway); the comparison between the notes and the publications is interesting. If you read the notes first, you feel as a loss the excision of Benjamin’s jottings about time and circumstance (Juan-les-Pins; May or June; morning or evening; after “[lying around] with Gert and Egon,” or “a very cold wind is blowing”). Benjamin is affected by his conversations with people, in these pages especially Brecht, but not just when the exchange is with someone forceful such as Brecht; also when it’s a matter of gossip (June 10) or of “the most diverse topics” in a largish group (June 3). Benjamin’s ideas seem only all the more his “own” for refracting others’, in comparison to the effect of contextless encounter with them, and the same is true for the effect of their presentation alongside the vicissitudes of his bodily life. Roland Barthes captures a lot of this effect intentionally in his forms of writing, by referring his ideas to his rhythms. But I don’t think the effect is automatic, something you could get just by always noting your circumstances. The writer needs to be enough of a magical thinker—or maybe just enough of a good Freudian—
to believe in the permeability and transformation of, for example, weather and words. The disparate entries of May-June 1931 seem connected, if enigmatically, and finished in the way they are unfinished.
The aborted journal starts out by noting that Benjamin feels suicidal in both an exhausted and in a satiated way, not “conceivable without my feeling of having lived a life whose dearest wishes had been granted” (“May 4, 12:45 in the morning”). One’s “dearest wishes,” though, are unconscious ones, so life is like a gnome in a fairy tale whose wish-granting power you have to watch out for. The anti-structure of these pages is framed by Benjamin’s naming one of his wishes in the first entry (for “distant and, above all, long journeys”), promising to name the other two, and never doing so. Rather, “before continuing with my three wishes, I want to write down my thoughts about Hemingway” (“May 5, in the morning”). Why? No reason is given, but it turns out that what’s important about Hemingway is that he never says “more than he thinks.” Because of that, “the whole power of his writing redounds to the benefit of what he really thinks.” So what one thinks, and what one "really thinks," echoes the notion of what one wishes, versus what one really wishes, and the echo underlines the power of keeping silent at almost magical times, of not covering up with discourse what will expose itself by itself. The reflection on Hemingway ends and there follows, without transition (and what I'm really invested in here is the freedom of this transitionlessness), a paragraph on returning “dead tired, from the Casino de la Lotée in Nice to Juan-les-Pins by bus on the night of May 5,” when it occurs to Benjamin that the French word allure stresses the process of walking while the German word Haltung supposedly means the same thing but stresses the gaps. So there is a further connection between silence stopping the train (or bus) of thought, between stopping at each stop and perhaps never reaching a destination, as Benjamin so often did as a writer, and the traveller as hyper-flaneur, whose “above all, long journeys” are another name for homelessness. Benjamin never returns to the other two wishes, but he does remark that he has “come to know three different women in the course of my life, and three different men in myself” (“May 6, evening”), which he again immediately attaches to the possible writing of his life as the narrative of the sequence of lovers. So it’s appropriate and even inevitable-seeming that nothing is finished, that the diary breaks off and ends, in fact, with a description of looking up into the branches of a tree that Benjamin encounters somewhere on the road between Marseilles and Paris: “it suddenly occurred to me how many images and metaphors are nesting in a single tree. The branches and the treetop sway up and down reflectively, and bend away in rejection; the boughs, depending on the way the wind is blowing, lean toward you or fly upward . . . and one leaf casts a shadow on another” (June 17). This sort of organicity is accomplished only by writing never meant for publication: genreless writings willing to name names, gossip and irrelevancies, to register facts that may never be of general interest, and to let things be lost to and in connection—to get lost in time or let time remain lost.