Notes on Walter Benjamin

(I started reading Walter Benjamin when I was 19, and lived in California, where many of his friends emigrated during the Second World War. Now I’m 30, and live in New York, the city to which he almost emigrated. Most every day in the intervening years I’ve thought of some part of his work. Here, then, for your use, are a decade-plus of notes, quotes and excerpts from his writing, plus the work of others — primarily Esther Leslie — and some of my own. (There are three very long, unfinished pieces here, elements of a book about Benjamin and technology that I will probably never complete: “Missing Person”, “Expressionless” and “The Click”.) Inspired by the “agitational montage” of his quotations, piling text up like lumber and cobblestones into barricades, and the labyrinths he drew and made of his life, I have tried to make this a mix of hasty wall and patient maze. — FB)

Staying in Capri, spring 1924, where he met Asja, he hung out in the beerhouse for German ex-pats Zum Kater Hiddigeigei, the Tom Cat Hiddigeigei.

On his last night alive, he made four phone calls from the hotel, Fonda de Francia (bill 8.80 pesetas)

On Benjamin, Scheerbart and Kubin: “Missing Person”

“Sad Poem (1933)”

Notes on the Arcades Project

“The eternal, in any case, is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea.”

On the Rastelli story

In Paris, 1933, fleeing: stayed at the Hotel Istria at 29, rue Campagne-Première.

“In Moscow I lived in a hotel in which almost all the rooms were occupied by Tibetan lamas who had come to Moscow for a congress of Buddhist churches. I was struck by the number of doors in the corridors that were always left ajar. What had at first seemed accidental began to be disturbing. I found out that in these rooms lived members of a sect who had sworn never to occupy closed rooms.”

“History to be presented as a trial. Man as advocate of nature brings suit against the cosmos, for the absence of the Messiah. The cosmos calls witnesses for the future: the poet, artist, etc. The court cannot arrive at a conclusion. The benches are full of the living. Things persist endlessly. Eventually the juries flee, the witness and the plaintiff are all that are left.”

His procedure “resembles Thorstein Veblen’s quip, that he studied foreign languages by staring at each word until he knew what it meant.”

(The title of his Baudelaire notes, “Central Park,” was picked because his mind was on the possibility of a move to New York to join Adorno.)

So much of his later life is just a search for quiet: away from rattling elevators and trucks and whistling painters.

On Benjamin as friend: Adorno

“Only for the sake of the hopeless have we been given hope.”

Pseudonyms

  • Detlef Holz
  • K. A. Stempflinger
  • C. Conrad

Unfinished “The Click” (on technology and gesture)

Unfoldings (socks, parables)

Short Shadows. Toward noon, shadows are no more than the sharp, black edges at the feet of things, preparing to retreat silently, unnoticed, into their burrow, into their secret. Then, in its compressed, cowering fullness, comes the hour of Zarathustra — the thinker in ‘the noon of life,’ in ‘the summer garden.’ For it is knowledge that gives objects their sharpest outline, like the sun at its zenith.” [2, 272]

“If the theory is correct that feeling is not located in the head, that we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but rather in the place where we see it, then we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves. But in a torment of tension and ravishment. Our feeling, dazzled, flutters like a flock of birds in the woman's radiance. And as birds seek refuge in the leafy recesses of a tree, feelings escape into the shaded wrinkles, the awkward movements and inconspicuous blemishes of the body we love, where they can lie low in safety. And no passer-by would guess that it is just here, in what is defective and censurable, that the fleeting darts of adoration nestle.” (from the Einbahnstraße, 1928, for Asja Lacis})

Dream, 1932: “The Initiate”

Two dreams from 1938.

Internment at Vernuche: Roughly 300 men aged between 17 and 50, of the most differing social, “racial,” occupational and intellectual backgrounds arrived on that September evening at the empty premises of a former furniture factory. Upon their arrival, each of them had to find his own way of coping with the general chaos. In particular the inmates lacked even the “most rudimentary comforts”: bales of straw for bedding, for instance, only arrived several days later. Gradually a proper camp “society” developed … “Normal” economic aspects were mirrored, for instance, in currency (cigarettes, nails, pencils and buttons), “entrepreneurship” and the service sector (construction of sanitary installations, water and mains supplies, production of crockery from empty cans, the establishment of a postal service, etc.). And the less respectable side of society was represented by the semi-legal or criminal activities of the camp’s speculators, thieves and confidence tricksters. Even culture was not neglected. Lectures (“comparing Freud and Jung, Einstein and Trotsky”) and literary matinées (with recitations of Sahl’s poems — “Elegy to the Year 1939” — and talks by Benjamin — “On the Concept of Guilt”), a choir (“The Voice of the Granary”), and a survey of the internees’ reading interests and the “stock of books” in the camp all bear witness to the hive of activity that developed in this quarter.

Unfinished: “Expressionless” (on mimesis, semblance, similarity, writing)

GS I, p. 568: “Stamps are stiff with little numbers, tiny letters, little leaves and eyes. They are cellular tissue in graphic form. It all swarms about, and, like lower animals, lives even when cut in pieces. This is why one can make such effective images out of little pieces of stamps that one glues together. But life always has a little mark of decomposition on them, as a sign that it is made up of things that have died off. Their portraits and obscene groupings are full of bodily remains and masses of worms.”

He hopes his work on radio effect listeners like the visual effect of inlay work or parquetry, „Intarsein“.

When living on Ibiza, May 1932, he established an abstemious routine, up at 7 to swim and get some sun, then writing. Reading Trotsky. No butter, electric light, brandy or running water, flirting or newspapers!

Benjamin had a hashish fantasy of a house full of tiny, waxen figures: by changing the lighting and decor he would produce a history of the interior.

He loved snow globes: miniatures objects which can be shaken back into renewed life, as he did with his memories, and with the 19th century.

Concerning primal acquaintance

“Very well, I have reached a limit. Like one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to send out a rescue signal.”

(In a letter to Scholem (June 25 1932), he plans to be in Nice by July 15, to celebrate his 40th birthday in company with “a pretty strange fellow whose path I have often crossed in the course of my various travels,” to be his guest over “a glass of white wine” — this visitor being Death.)

“With no way out, I have no other choice but to end it. It is in a little village in the Pyrenees where no one knows me that my life reaches its conclusion. I ask you to transmit my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain to him the situation in which I find myself. There is not enough time for me to write all the letters that I would have wished to have written.” His last words, according to Henny Gurland, to whom he gave a postcard with those lines, which she committed to memory and destroyed.

“(Just as white magic goes hand in hand with the rigorous, sober scrutiny of experience, while black magic never gets further than enchantment and mystery.)”

On the notebooks

His last published writing, a review of Le Regard by Georges Salles, praises the recognition that a material can be perfected by time. Salles was arguing against making museum exhibitions too easy for the visitor, with an excess of information that stands between us and the object. The visitor’s eye meets the object, “witness of its epoch,” at the intersection of “innumerable looks, close or distant, which lend their life to it. … Each eye is haunted, ours as much as those of primitive peoples. In each moment it grasps the world according to the schema of its cosmos.”