Hardly a Person at all . . .

‘Just as [Walter] Benjamin’s thinking constitutes the antithesis of the existential concept of the person, he seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, to language.’

‘It is doubtful whether anyone else ever succeeded in making his own neurosis–if indeed it was a neurosis–so productive.’

‘In himself and his relations with others he insisted unreservedly upon the primacy of the mind; which, in lieu of immediacy, became for him immediate.’

‘In the letters this ritual element extends to the graphic image, indeed even to the selection of writing paper, about which he was uncommonly particular . . .’

‘Benjamin experienced the present moment in the “prismatic splendour” of reflection; but he was granted power over the past.’

‘The letter form is an anachronism and was already becoming one in Benjamin’s lifetime; his own letters are not thereby impugned.’

‘In a total constitution of society that demotes every individual to a function, no one is now entitled to give an account of himself in a letter as though he were still the uncomprehended individual, which is what the letter claims; the “I” in a letter has something about it of the merely apparent.’

‘His own letters, by virtue of not at all resembling the ephemeral utterances of life, develop their objective force: that of formulation and nuance indeed worthy of a human being. Here the eye, grieving for the losses about to overtake it, still lingers over things with a patient intensity that itself needs to be restored as a possibility.’

Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, editors, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910 – 1940, Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson

Theodor Adorno’s opening essay, Benjamin the Letter Writer, five pages of it, is by far the best of this 651 page book. It is no surprise to read Michael Rosen’s comment that, “the Jacobsons’ translation is stiff and unidiomatic to the point of unintelligibility at times.” The Benjamin/Scholem correspondence, translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere is altogether more rewarding, in large part because it provides both parts of the exchange of letters.

The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

Narrating War

“Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World War] that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? . . . A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn street car now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remain unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny fragile human body.”

Benjamin, The Storyteller.

A poignant text, of course. Something of the reality of mechanised warfare silences the storyteller. A particular relationship between the breaking of narrative frames and the shattering of the world. Sebald, Semprun push the same questions. Just a few notes, maybe something more another time.

Sebald, Benjamin – Life-Bio-Mapping

In Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle,  he wrote, “Memories, even when they go into great breadth, do not always represent an autobiography.” Memories may appear as text in Benjamin’s fragmentary reminiscences of Berlin, but his explorations go deeper than memoir, in a form that dissolves genre, and widens its reach to embrace philosophical and political concerns.

Adorno wrote, it “was as if [Benjamin] had paid a horrible price for the metaphysical power of what he saw and what he attempted to express in infallible words; as if he spoke as a dead man in return for his ability to recognise, with sobriety and calm, things which the living are not normally capable of recognising.” The same observation could so easily have been made of Sebald. Both Adorno and Benjamin were important influences on Sebald’s thought and writing, their books filled his library more than any other writers.

Since reading Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz six years ago I’ve been accumulating Sebald’s other published works. I’d mentally categorised the four ‘prose fictions’ (Sebald’s preferred term) as the great works, and fully expected the poems and literary essays to be minor augmentations. After reading After Nature and A Place in the Country, I now see that Sebald defies this sort of canonical classification.

His books, regardless of form, are one vast symbiotic composition; the form changes but the labyrinth assembly of memory, places, personalities, images and recollections is undeviating across all the work. In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote, “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life-bios-graphically on a map.” In his mapping of subjective histories, Sebald completes what Benjamin began.

Resisting Translation

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”

Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1

Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Ten Outstanding Books That Combine Walking and Thinking

Inspired by Verso Books’ excellent Guide to Political Walking, below is my guide to books that effortlessly combine walking, with musing about culture, literature, politics and geography, a form of exercise that I endorse.

  1. Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
  2. A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor
  3. Wildwood – Roger Deakin
  4. The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
  5. The Arcades Project – Walter Benjamin
  6. London Orbital – Iain Sinclair
  7. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways – Phil Smith
  8. A Field Guide to Getting Lost  – Rebecca Solnit
  9. Psychogeography by Will Self
  10. The Lost Art of Walking – Geoff Nicholson

I’ll also point you to Paul K. Lyons’ compelling straight line walk across London, which some enterprising publisher ought to pick up.

Please make suggestions of any books that ought to expand this list.

Unburdening and Unpacking

Throughout packing to move to a new house on Friday, my recurring thought was: when and why did I acquire so much stuff? I’m not alluding to the two thousand books that were carefully, lovingly boxed up for the relocation. I can rationalise the books, satisfactorily at least to my wife and daughter, who more than share my passion for reading. It was the other stuff that made me feel bilious: casual (mostly minor) purchases, gifts, evidence of complacent consumption. In theory, I am revolted by the seduction of consumerism, shopping turned into a pastime rather than the acquisition of needed goods. In practise, I have been seduced into a near-bovine acquisition of needless baubles.

Resolved, I partly alleviated my biliousness by making several expeditions to charity shops and the local dump. Unpacking items, in the same disposition, has lead to further similar journeys, and a sincere intention to continue to unencumber myself of under-used possessions. I am resolved to build a stronger resistance to the allure of the market-place

Last night I began to unbox my books, and shelve them in what I have pompously termed ‘the library’. Is it conceivable to unpack a library without recalling Walter Benjamin’s admirable essay? Although the boxes of books are meticulously labelled, alphabetically by writer’s surname, I am shelving them unsystematically, with no attempt of sorting the books by name, genre, colour or any other classification; they are being shelved as randomly as is humanly possible. Am I nuts? How will I ever find the book I am seeking?

I want fortuitous discovery; to enter the library seeking a particular book and be waylaid, hijacked by an author I haven’t read for ages or perhaps at all (such examples are all too abundant in my collection of books). The randomness may drive me nuts and find me within a month staying up into the small hours to impose order. Already I am enjoying the juxtapositions thrown up by a lack of order: would Edward Said enjoy being nestled up to Hannah Arendt? Perhaps not, but it brings a smile to my lips.