In the early 1930s, on the island of Ibiza, Walter Benjamin sketched a plan for a detective novel, with the notional title Le chasseur des mensonges. He abandoned the project when it looked like a publisher’s advance would not immediately result, but the 1500 words with which he sketched out the chapters and crucial Denkaufgaben are a tantalizing hint of what would have been an excellent mystery, complete with a very Benjaminian hook: A man has interleaved a small fortune in banknotes into the books in his vast library, and now can’t find them (and neither can his murderers).
The researcher who is working on Benjamin is in a similar position. Threads are dropped and taken up again, ideas concealed inside of other ideas which are in turn wrapped up in experiments in form: geographical memoir, Denkbild, system of citation, feuilleton, radio play, unclassifiable collection of shocks. In what has become a famous letter, to Max Rychner in 1931, Benjamin wrote: “I’ve never been able to study and think except in the theological sense, if I may put it that way, that is, in accordance with the Talmudic doctrine of the forty-nine steps of meaning in every passage of the Torah.” His most treasured ideas — storytelling and Jetztzeit, collecting and Messianic time — are ascended to their final step only across the course of his entire life’s work, and sometimes not even then: hints are scattered everywhere, in sketches and incomplete proposals, to say nothing of the material for the two versions of the (untitled by Benjamin) Arcades Project, of what that forty-ninth step, many forty-ninth steps, might have been.
Benjamin entirely rewards the work of the enfilade, the work it takes to assemble a line of thought from his labyrinths (and he repeatedly sketched the progress of his life in the form of a labyrinth), to find the banknotes in the books. Rigorously assembling a particular “constellation,” to take another of his terms of thought, ultimately involves reading everything he wrote; to stick to a canonical essay or book, as is sometimes possible with other thinkers, is to miss many or most of the other steps, which are arrayed across his projects over his career — indeed, with the exception of his (rejected) Habilitationsgesuch on German Baroque tragic drama, and the experimental Einbahnstraße, he didn’t leave any books at all. Fascinated throughout his work with (in Ernst Bloch’s words) “that which is noticed only in passing” [LE 208], like the minute clue noticed by the detective, he asks same attention of his reader; as the thinker of the open-ended, the fragmentary, the esoteric, the mundane, and the very small, nothing has the luxury of being omitted from reading or discarded beforehand. “If I take it up I must understand every detail,” says Sherlock Holmes (Benjamin recommends the Holmes stories in his correspondence). “Take time to consider. The smallest point may be the most essential.” For this study, then, a great deal of work will have to be considered and transsected.
And why this effort? Because Benjamin was the best theorist yet produced in the European tradition of words as material — as a physical, physiological, and technological matter, that is, words as something that can be processed. He explored something like the philosophy of language on several occasions, but it was not the heart of his inquiry: language-as-such was always embedded, in his work, in the “gentle empiricism” of its context, spoken and particularly written. We have a philosophy of language, and a science of linguistics and of the cognitive activity of language; Benjamin does not, I believe, have much to give to those disciplines. What he brings, in his forty-nine steps through graphology and translation, automatic writing, the work of the insane, gestural practice and mimesis, aesthetics, craft culture, and mechanized textuality, is a sustained engagement with everything in writing that is impersonal, everything that acts upon writing.
The main threads on this clew (the ball of thread unwound by Theseus, the root of “clue”) that will take us into the labyrinth (“a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”) are two concepts, closely wound: nonsensuous similarity and the expressionless.
Gershom Scholem — then Gerhard Scholem — recalled a visit to Benjamin’s rooms in which he noted on the wall a print of Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece; Benjamin said that he prized it for its quality of das Ausdruckslose, “the expressionless.” In the 1916 notes on Socrates (Benjamin was then twenty-four), in the midst of a hazy discussion on philosophy and the erotic, he writes: “Grünewald painted the saints with such grandeur that their halos emerged from the greenest black. The radiant is true only where it is refracted in the nocturnal; only there is it great, only there is it expressionless, only there is it asexual and yet of supramundane sexuality. The Radiant One is the genius, the witness to every truly spiritual creation.” [I, 53] Setting aside the sexuality, what is this about? The radiance, “greenest black,” belongs not to a saint but to the Radiant One, the resurrected Christ in the far right wing of the opened Isenheim altarpiece. He is floating free of the tomb against a perfectly black night with a few stars, displaying the stigmata; soldiers (faceless in the helmets of their Medieval German armor) writhe, abased, on the ground. His grave cloth, which trails down in shadowed blue and white into the tomb, is a deep, gorgeous red and yellow around his body, which emphasizes, as though illuminated by it, the radiant yellow halo — at its center such a deep yellow that Christ’s face seems to vanish into it. The halo, at the edge, where it meets the night, is indeed a “greenest black,” a peacock-green that blurs at the edges into the darkness, “refracted into the nocturnal.”
Christ’s face, however serene, seems to possess a certain measured calm, a gentleness about the lips and eyes, that is not “expressionless.” (And the famous crucifixion scene on the closed altarpiece is famous precisely for the physical and facial expressiveness of its figures: the swooning Mary, the profoundly distressed Magdalene, and a Christ whose hands and arms are actually, gruesomely, splayed and distorted by the nails and the weight of his suspended body.) Indeed, Benjamin means something much more precise, and much more general, than what the reader may associate with facial expression or “expressiveness” in common use (as in, for example, Expressionism as an art movement). It is a profound but elusive concept, a fish that lives at the bottom of the deepest well of human attentiveness, and Benjamin will assemble many related terms around the central expressionless: “semblance,” “de-formation,” “intentionless truth,” “redeemed night,” color, caesura, imagination, riddle. In his 1925 CV, he mentioned that his interest in aesthetics was drawing his philosophical and literary studies together, and “I have been concerned with the meaning of the connection between the beautiful and Schein in the realm of language.” [I, 422] This Schein, appearance or semblance, with connotations (in the context of German Romanticism, of which Benjamin was at that time a committed scholar) of a glimmering or flickering of the sacred, a gleam, a luster, an “air” (as in “an air of mystery”) — and a halo — is the Scheinwerfer, the searchlight, that he will use to spot the expressionless by its shadow.
First, though, a contextual distinction needs to be made. The use of Schein, and of erscheinen (“to appear”) has obvious overtones of the classic philosophical dichotomy of appearance and reality, semblance and truth, phenomenon and noumenon; this is not what Benjamin is after. To be a philosophically-minded German youth at the turn of the 20th century was, of course, to read Kant. Benjamin studied under the prominent neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert at Freiburg (as did Heidegger, three years ahead of him) and many of his early academic projects reflected on Kant, but he was slowly assembling an oppositional stance to the duality of noumena/phenomena. In the 1917 “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” an essay concerned with establishing a continuity between Kant and future developments, Benjamin draws a clear line at the point of epistemology, “the germ of a disease that expresses itself in the separation of knowledge from the realm of experience in its full freedom and depth.” [I, 102] Benjamin, arguing against the “epistemological mythology” of “shallow ‘experience’” — “an individual living ego which receives sensations by means of its senses and forms its ideas on the basis of them” — turns to very different “epistemological mythologies”: “We know of primitive peoples of the so-called preanimistic stage who identify themselves with sacred animals and plants and name themselves after them; we know of insane people who likewise identify themselves in part with objects of their perception, which are thus no longer objecta, ‘placed before’ them; we know of sick people who relate the sensations of their bodies not to themselves but rather to other creatures, and of clairvoyants who at least claim to be able to feel the sensations of others as their own.” [I, 103]
Benjamin does not simply reject the dichotomies of received epistemology in favor of some other theory (monism, for instance); he is seeking a far more nuanced epistemology, one that develops from the most precise attention to some thing — including in its orbit the act of paying attention — rather than by descent from an axiom. It is an epistemology whose authority derives foremost from its Akribie, its superlative meticulousness, its precision. Akribie appears in the sketch of methodology that Benjamin provides in his 1923 notes on philosophy as a discipline, a document that begins to suggest where this post-Kantian epistemology will lead — and one of the last materials of Benjamin’s hand that will identify him as a “philosopher.” The notes describe the application of alternative epistemological mythologies, suggesting that Benjamin feels closer to the clairvoyants and the “so-called preanimistic stage” than the sense impressions and transcendental categories that had been his starting point. The alternates are moves towards the idea of “nonintentional truth,” which first appears in an extraordinary passage: “Our gaze must strike the object in such a way that it awakens something within it that springs up to meet the intention. Whereas the reporter who adopts the stance of the banal philosopher and specialized scientist indulges himself in lengthy descriptions of the object at which his gaze is directed, the intensive observer finds that something leaps out at him from the object, enters into him, takes possession of him, and something different — namely, the nonintentional truth — speaks from out the philosopher.” [I, 404] Something truly strange happens here: the “banal philosopher” strikes a pose and contemplates aloud, gazing and speaking; it is the “intensive observer” (and it is here, perhaps, that Benjamin comes closest to naming the profession he will follow in the rest of his work and his life: not philosopher, not critic, not theorist, but “intensive observer”) who engages in something rather more complex, something out which “authority” will come. Like the insane people who no longer have “objects of their perception,” because they “identify … in part with objects,” the intensive observer strikes and awakens, by gaze but even more by intention, something within the object that leaps across the epistemological barrier between object and subject, that speaks with “the nonintentional truth” — or rather “speaks out from,” the way music sounds from the speaker of a radio. The key, the “decisive” act of the intensive observer in this drama of possession is to keep their Akribie, their meticulousness.
“The language of the intentionless truth,” Benjamin continues, “(that is to say, of the object itself) possesses authority,” an authority which “stands in opposition to the conventional concept of objectivity because its validity, that of the nonintentional truth, is historical — that is to say, anything but timeless; it is bound to a particular historical base and changes with history.” In fact, it “contains within it a precise concept of time, since it comes and goes depending on the temporal constellation.” [I, 405] It is precisely in the historical, contingent, constellated arrangement of encounter, and not any encounter but this specific and particular encounter, that the object, or the nonintentional truth that “subsists” between the object and the observer, can speak in its authoritative fashion. The authority is not granted to it, Benjamin is careful to add, in the historical process of arriving at a consensus as to the “‘correct’” opinion, but solely from the encounter: “It leaps into existence as the result of an immersion of the object in itself provoked by the external gaze.” The object, in the gaze, has a kind of reflexivity imparted to it within the intensive observer, and it is in this moment, this friction, when the object has taken the speaker’s role, that the nonintentional truth takes place, and its authority takes other forms of reasoning about the object under its analysis as content. “Insofar as truth is intentionless, it seizes the whole inductive apparatus, which has now become external, and thrusts it back into the work. There, secure in the heart of the matter, it manipulates it — playfully, at will — in the interest of authority.” The intentionless truth that speaks in that encounter takes the whole process of logic presumed transcendental to it, and brings it to “the heart of the matter,” to a territory defined by the thing at hand and the encounter with the thing. It is the banal philosopher who applies the apparatus to describe the truth about something, some thing; the intensive observer can only operate from immersion, from the inside out.
(This passage is also the complete and entire kernel of the aura, the theory that will begin to play such a dominant role in his work in later years.)
Having established Benjamin’s project of a more complex, nuanced, and reflective epistemology, the project of the semblance can be taken up in earnest. For the young Benjamin, Goethe is the iconic intensive observer, the source of a “gentle empiricism” which Benjamin will return to again and again; he provides an essential document of semblance. He is an iconic figure all the more for his single, critical flaw, and it was as such that Benjamin wrote of him — particularly in his long study of Die Wahlverwandtschaften, Elective Affinities, Goethe’s 1809 novel. Goethe’s flaw, Benjamin writes, is “an ambiguity … in the concept of nature.” [I, 314] Goethe “never penetrated to the fruitful center of an intuition that bade him seek the presence of ‘true’ nature,” because he resisted “resorting to philosophical investigation” — to the introspective gaze that gives to the thing its introspection — instead relying on experiments to provide empirical evidence for his intuitions of ur-phenomena. Goethe, sublimely observant, even hypertrophied in his gifts (Benjamin quotes the passage from Scientific Studies in which the entire audible world flows through Goethe’s head like an ocean through a canal), lacked only the meticulousness of the “intensive observer”: holding that “the empire of the ur-phenomena could never be clarified entirely by thought,” (I, 315) his scientific projects lost precision, drifting into “the chaos of symbols,” “the confused universe.” Fed, in Benjamin’s critique, by the deep intuition of archetypal forms, Urbild, Goethe did not keep a distinct sense of his own thoughts, and turned nature into a model (Vorbild) of his ideas — literally, in the case of Elective Affinities, which was written close to his work on the theory of colors, and draws directly on his studies of magnetism. Here Benjamin discerns a fundamental irony, an irony particular to the semblance: the one place where the archetypal forms of Goethe’s intuition live is in works of art, and in Elective Affinities he created such a work. As he walked around Sicily and the gardens of Palermo, seeking the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant of which all others are logical variations; as he arranged prisms on a table on a cloudy day, or contemplated a sheep’s skull found in the Jewish cemetery in Venice, thinking of the development of vertebrae, he was all the time seeking a confirmation — one that he himself would eventually produce.
Prior to the study of Elective Affinities, though: what is Schein to Benjamin? As described above, it is more intricate, and more interesting, deeper to his experience of consciousness, than the “appearance” behind which “reality” lies. It is a sense of perception that is consonant with intensive observation, that the boundaries between observer and observed are blurred, and that in that blurring an intentionless truth can be observed. In Schein, in semblance — or, rather, in a very special kind of semblance — that blurring of figure and ground become a new kind of ground, the domain of the expressionless. Roughly contemporary to the start of his Elective Affinities essay, around 1919-1920, Benjamin wrote an astonishing, lively short piece, “On Semblance.” Put it simply: Benjamin, the young art historian with an interest in aesthetics, is thinking about the quality of one thing seeming like another, the sense of a relation between forms. What really fascinates him, though, is illusory elements that aren’t hallucinations, because they let him talk about what is of greatest power in his project: “The semblance in which nothing appears,” the quality of relation felt about something without an apparent sensory correlative. (Here, it is possible to go at a single bound into the deepest point in his work, into the nonsensuous similarity, but with ideas so delicate, modes of thought that brush the edges of cognizability, it’s appropriate to move as Benjamin does, step by step, attentively, slowly, “under the sign of Saturn.”) Here, again, it is helpful to emphasize that Schein includes in its possible translations the “air,” that certain indefinable “air” about something, the neural glimmering — but Benjamin, in “On Semblance,” is focusing on the visual, so “semblance,” “apparent form,” remains a clear and appropriate way to approach Schein.
“On Semblance” is a sketch of thoughts, not an essay, and it moves through a series of tries, quotes, notes. He considers semblance as including illusions that aren’t hallucinations — mentioning the Irrlicht, will-o’-the-wisp, and the fata morgana or mirage — before setting up an “eidetic experiment” (it’s important to remember that an “eidetic” image is not a hallucination, but an exceptionally vivid mental image):
“A man is crossing the street when out of the clouds a coach with four horses appears, coming toward him. During another walk he hears a voice from the clouds, saying, ‘You have left your cigarette case at home.’ In our analysis of the two events, if we set aside the possibility of hallucination — that is, the possibility that this semblance has a subjective cause — we find, in the first case, it is conceivable that nothing lies behind the manifestation, but in the second case it is inconceivable. The semblance in which nothing appears is the more potent one, the authentic one. This is conceivable only in the visual realm.” [I, 223]
This is an amazingly weird statement, and he largely leaves it as it stands, without further elaboration, turning to issues of mistiness, indiscernibility, and beauty, but it rewards a little more attention. To be addressed from the clouds about forgetting a cigarette case is certainly a “potent” experience, no doubt; but in what way is it “the authentic one” of the two? First, because it takes place in the “visual realm” and is not a hallucination, and this distinction is already an important step in Benjamin’s understanding: the experience of the mental image that is recognized as such is not a subjective experience in the same way that a hallucination attributed to the visual world is a subjective experience. The moment of recognition of the eidetic image is similar to the sight of the Irrlicht in the night air over the bog or the fata morgana in the indistinctly bright desert air: in some sense it is an artifact of vision, while at the same being more, being in a different category of understanding, from what is attributed to the world by the hallucinating person (and Benjamin will turn shortly to the writing of the insane and its manifestation of their understanding). The person experiencing the eidetic image sees the horses and the carriage — tropes with a long history in European fairy tales, the coach-and-four of death — but “it is conceivable that nothing lies behind it”: it is inconceivable that there is “nothing behind” the voice that issues such a mundane reminder, the voice that acts like the most quotidian instance of memory blown out to a cosmic scale, because that is the semblance in which nothing appears. It is an illusion without illusory content, and what is left is the vibrating ground of experiencing something that isn’t there, but is, because we experienced it. This vibrating ground (vibrating, that is, oscillating like an optical illusion on the retina) is the place where beauty occurs in the work of art; the decisive voice that speaks from the clouds, arrests us in our tracks (to turn, retrace our steps, retrieve our cigarette case), the voice of the semblance in which nothing appears, is the voice of the expressionless.
In the work of art it is the beautiful semblance, the appearance of being beautiful to us, that we talk about when we talk about “beauty.” There is something within that semblance, that air, that catches us up short, stops us in our step, and it is that quality that Benjamin seeks to describe, the moment of looking at something which strikes us as beautiful, a certain wordless break. “The life quivering in [the work of art] must appear petrified and as if spellbound in a single moment,” [I, 224] brought up short, spellbound, turned to stone, by a voice from the clouds. “What arrests this semblance, what holds life spellbound and disrupts the harmony, is the expressionless. That quivering is what constitutes the beauty of the work; the paralysis is what defines its truth. For just as an interruption can, by a word of command, extract the truth from the speech of a liar, in the same way the expressionless compels the trembling harmony to stop and immortalizes that quivering through its objection [Einspruch].” The expressionless is that which interrupts, which breaks into the flow of life with its (a fascinating choice of words, Einspruch) protest or objection. The semblance as illusion, the breathless way we lie to ourselves and surround ourselves with semblances, is suddenly broken off: “Stop!” says the semblance in which nothing appears, holding life spellbound, and we can feel the “quivering” in the work. “Quivering life is never symbolic,” Benjamin goes on, “because it lacks form; but the beautiful is even less so, because it is semblance. But that which has been spellbound, that which is petrified and mortified, is undoubtedly in a position to indicate the symbolic. It achieves this thanks to the expressionless.” This is still mysterious.
“On Semblance” seems to be casting about for a specific case, and it finds one in the study of Elective Affinities. The same language quoted above is moved into the latter study wholesale, and between the two texts can be seen how Benjamin has refined it, made it more exact, and given the Irrlicht a place on the map of human experience. This new home for the interrupting expressionless includes a more exact description of its role and place in the work of art, and in the experience of life, and the mystery of both — and a place for Hölderlin, who helps make the territory Benjamin describes much clearer, as a point to the far side of Goethe, and what can be done in the attempt to write beautifully. His study goes in three moves: the philological (Goethe and Hölderlin), the aesthetic (“turbidity”), and finally the theological (the falling star). There is a place for each of these in a reading of Elective Affinities, but taken together they also describe a major step in the theory of the expressionless, and ultimately in the role of the impersonal in writing.
The first move: the philological. Benjamin opens this revised try at understanding semblance with a distinction between “conjuring” (recall that Schein can also mean illusion, as in a magic trick), “creation” — geschaffen and gebannt — and the caesura in the making of the work of art [I, 340]. Conjuring and creation form two extreme points and form an axis between them, and the caesura a third point lying outside; both conjuration and creation are based on the idea that the artist claims “to bring forth a world from nothingness,” and neither, in Benjamin’s opinion, partake of the essential strangeness of the moment of experiencing a work of art, in any medium. Artistic creation “emerges not from nothingness but from chaos,” but it neither escapes from chaos (“as does the created world according to … the doctrine of emanations”) nor “engenders semblance, as conjuration does, from elements of that chaos.” Form, the act of giving form, “enchants chaos momentarily into world,” and the “momentarily” is critical. It is a two-valued word: “momentarily” in that it lasts but a moment in the experience (though the moment can be repeated), and in that it is arrested, frozen, spellbound, in a moment. Here he begins a refinement and alteration of the text written for “On Semblance”: The semblance is again arrested, the movement again spellbound, by the expressionless. Here, however, things are elaborated: “This life” — the “life undulating” in the work of art — “grounds the mystery; this petrification grounds the content in the work.” The quality of liveliness in a work is spellbound, halted for a moment in the gaze, and in this frozen state the expressionless shatters the “legacy of chaos,” which is “the false, errant totality — the absolute totality.” The semblance, the thing that we speak of when we speak of the work “seeming beautiful,” is given a ground, a place on which it rests, in the quality of petrification, of being suddenly interrupted in its flow of events; and then, in that icy or stony state, the last element of semblance — the false totality, the sense of a whole world in which the beautiful thing is beautiful — is broken apart: “Only the expressionless completes the work, by shattering it into a thing of shards, into a fragment of the true world, into the torso of a symbol.”
There is so much to say about this moment! For the young aesthete and philologist, studying German Romanticism, the work of art was painting, writing, theater, music, the classic categories, but this fascination with what emerges in the petrified, frozen, interrupted moment — with the wordless force at play inside those moments — will be a major part of Benjamin’s work on photography and cinema. (The Chock, the shock that is the critical experience of modernity, is the petrifying interruption with a mass-production scale and a mechanized affect.) There are two fragmentations in this moment: the break in the flow of beauty, the “momentarily” that comes into being at the interruption, a break in time; and a spatial break (or a break understood through spatial metaphors), the work becoming fragments, a “torso,” as in the limbless, headless piece of a statue retrieved from the earth somewhere. Both fragments make the truth available, but solely through suggestion. The expressionless halts the speech at just the right moment to bring out the truth; the fragment that is made of the work suggests the true world by being a fragment of it. Critically, we never get the whole thing: we only get something — an interruption, a little piece — that speaks to our sense that the whole thing is there.
This is deep water — “black, dark, unfathomable,” Benjamin writes in a slightly different context, “but, on the other hand, it is reflecting, clear, and clarifying.” [I, 341] And, for the first time, Benjamin provides an example of this momentary, crucial activity that operates somewhere in the difficulty of speaking and writing, in the sense of things. Immediately after retelling the story of the semblance, he continues by stating that “the expressionless can be no more rigorously defined than through a passage in Hölderlin’s Anmerkungen zum ödipus” — which he quotes: “For the tragic transport is actually empty, and the least restrained. — Thereby, in the rhythmic sequence of the representations wherein the transport presents itself, there becomes necessary what in poetic meter is called caesura, the pure word, the counter-rhythmic rupture — namely, in order to meet the onrushing charge of representations at its highest point, in such a manner that not the change of representation but the representation itself very soon appears.” (I, 340-1) Benjamin identifies this caesura with the goal Hölderlin gave for artistic practice in the German language, an “occidental Junoian sobriety,” that is, a capacity for the restraint that is missing from the “tragic transport” — what we might call, looking back to the “intentionless truth,” a meticulousness. It’s the capacity for caesura, for a “pure word” which ruptures the flow of representations in such a way that “the representation itself” appears: you see the semblance, without the semblance vanishing; you see the fata morgana as a mirage, but it still shimmers over the sand in the sunlight. You see yourself seeing in the representation itself, the phantom of your own understanding, and the place where the surface of your understanding brushes against the thing as “every expression simultaneously comes to a standstill, in order to give free reign to an expressionless power inside all artistic media.” [I, 341] Benjamin gives cases of this standing-still in Greek tragedy as “the falling silent of the hero,” and in Hölderlin’s hymnic poetry as “objection” in the rhythm: “Indeed, one could not characterize this rhythm any more aptly than by asserting that something beyond the poet interrupts the language of the poetry.” This interruption points to, “comes forth to,” “the limit of what can be grasped in the work of art.”
The waters are somewhat clearer: Benjamin is trying to describe an experience very close to an experience of wordless encounter, an experience that takes place in the moment of interruption, caesura, the falling silent of the hero, the trembling of the world in the painting (at the edge of the halo where the orange shimmers into greenest black), the fragment that makes us aware of our sense of the whole, of origins and complete things, without pretending to be whole, origin, world, complete. It’s a point of failure, a failure that is the success of the work of art if carried through with sobriety, clarity, and restraint. It is the moment when the object we’re looking at is veiled by the tears that come to our eyes: “For the tears of emotion, in which the gaze grows veiled, are at the same time the most authentic veil of beauty itself.” [I, 348-9] That effect, tears being brought to the eyes, is best achieved, Benjamin writes, by those who have a capacity for sobriety, who are “proof against the power of living beauty.” [I, 349] The tears and the sobriety provide us with a clue, or another sense, of this appearance of the “representation itself.” As Benjamin writes, of Goethe’s process as a writer, the beautiful semblance “grows more and more turbid, like the transparency of a fluid in the concussion by which it forms crystals” — that is, more and more clouded, opaque, translucent, and apparent as semblance. You become aware of the beauty you are seeing in what you behold or read; the tears cloud your vision as you find yourself gazing at your gaze, at that intersection of inner and outer experience, the recognition as a meta-layered moment of thinking on your thought, seeing your sight in which the beauty subsists. This state of seeing, at once within and without, is the formation of the crystal out of the opacity of the seeing of beauty; the crystal is the expressionless. “For the beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil.” [I, 351]
It is this crystal of seeing that Benjamin reads at the end of essay. In a phenomenal passage of synthesis, a single grand move that brings the whole long essay up short behind it — as though suddenly turning on his heel after a long march uphill to look back over all the ground to the far horizon — he slowly unfolds a single line of Goethe’s: “Hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star.” [I, 354-5] He begins with a recollection of Goethe by one of his contemporaries, about hearing him hold forth on Elective Affinities, and the heroine Ottilie in particular, as the stars came out and Goethe and his friend rode toward Heidelberg. Goethe was confessing that he loved Ottilie, his character, and how she had made him unhappy, that he had “‘brought on the catastrophe,’” and that (Benjamin argues) he had wanted to redeem her, to “truly rescue someone perishing,” in Benjamin’s words. Benjamin, who as we will see will come back again to idea of the stars as signs and omens, the sky as fate, turns to the moment when there is hope in the novel that the lives of the characters will be reconciled, that Ottilie will save herself — the moment when the lovers embrace and the star falls. “That sentence, which to speak with Hölderlin contains the caesura of the work and in which, while the embracing lovers seal their fate, everything pauses …” This, in all of Elective Affinities, is the moment of the expressionless. The world pauses, the characters fall silent, though they are not even aware of what, precisely, is taking place. They do not see the falling star, Benjamin is careful to point out; they do not know that hope has fallen across their sky. The writer — “the innermost basis for the ‘narrator’s stance,’” he writes — is alone with the sky. The hope that falls across the page of their fate is the kind of hope one can only cherish for another, “as Dante assumes in himself the hopelessness of the lovers,” which corresponds “to the hope of redemption that we nourish for all the dead. This hope is the sole justification of the faith in immortality, which must never be kindled from one’s own existence.”
The capacity for sobriety, for meticulousness, is to be able to see one’s own seeing, see to the edge of one’s writing and just a little beyond that, a seeing that is expressed in the interruption where the expressionless can appear. The expressionless fills the silent space as physicists expected the light-bearing ether to fill a perfect vacuum — an ether that could carry waves. It didn’t appear, the vacuum remained silent, light was something else entirely. In some sense, the expressionless doesn’t appear either: the world holds its breath, the star falls, the words are interrupted — but the sign of the star expresses nothing but the desire for a sign; the hope will come to naught, Ottilie will not be saved. “The mystery is, on the dramatic level, that moment in which it juts out of the domain of language proper to it into a higher one unattainable for it.” The hero falls silent. But precisely in the failure of the expressionless to show, there is something, in the same fragile way that tears blurring the words allow us to momentarily hold our own consciousness as readers (to hold it the way we hold a ray of sunlight falling on an open palm). The ether doesn’t appear, but there is, instead, light; “this world of course remains a mute world, from which music will never ring out.” What matters, for the expressionless, for the intentionless truth, for what lies in the semblance, is that we are listening, in the silence that follows the voice from the clouds. “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones,” Benjamin writes in the last lines of his essay, “have we been given hope.” [I, 356]
Before going from the stars to the page, from the high point of Benjamin’s Romantic aesthetic philosophy to the much grubbier, less respectable practice of graphology, where the nonsensuous similarity is developed, it’s important to look briefly at a few other places in the early Benjamin where the nebulous entity that we’ve studied as “intentionless truth” and the “expressionless” is worked on. These passages are all notes, much closer to the spirit of “On Semblance” than to the essay on Elective Affinities, and closer still to the “eidetic experiment” of the speaking cloud. These are elusive and enigmatic meditations, and rewarding when considered in that guise. The “redeemed night,” the “de-formation,” the “core that is the symbol of noncommunicability,” each provide another try at catching this mercurial fish. In color, in the experience of imagining, in the riddle, Benjamin again draws close to the mystery of perception in the expressionless where we step back from the transparency of words into their opacity, their turbidity — which is also the realm we’re dealing with in the mechanization of language, and particularly in computation, in text handling, in word processing, in aggregation and augmentation.
To start with the riddle, we can start with the Rätselwort, the riddling phrase, the cryptic remark — or, more precisely, with the answer, “the thing that thwarts it” (as we would start a labyrinth — “twisty little passages, all alike” — from the center to find our way out) [I, 267]. “Thwarts”? The answer is what stops the riddle — or rather starts it, gets it going in the flow of conversation again, breaks its spell. There is a spell to break because in riddles Benjamin sees another way to talk about the expressionless moment in which some thing is spellbound, caught up in its mystery. He will write, much later, in notes connected with the second draft of “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” (in the winter of 1935) of mimesis as containing, “interfolded like cotyledons,” the twinned buds of “semblance and play.” [III, 137] A cotyledon, a seed-leaf, is a perfectly Goethean image, the latent shape that will unfold; the riddle takes the ordinary thing, “the ‘profane’ object,” [I, 267] and rolls it back into a mysterious shape. The power of the riddle is its “emphatic intention to elevate an artifact or an event that seems to contain nothing at all, or nothing out of the ordinary, to symbolic significance.” There are two ideas in this first sentence, and Benjamin will play first one, than the other, alternating as a xylophone for the entire fragment. The first idea is “emphatic intention”: riddles, and the kind of mystery particular to them, are a deliberate act — “the only objective element” of the riddle’s Schein of mystery “is the intention that addresses a mystery, the insoluble aspect of the artifact or event, an intention that is ultimately disappointed.” It is not that things are mysterious, then; but that we want to speak to, to speak of, the mystery, the air of mystery, that most delicate of mental states. Things, however, are mysterious, and that is the second idea: they can be given “symbolic significance,” and though is not the case that “the artifacts or events are a mystery,” “they, like all being, have a share in mystery.” They have a share in being “bound to something else: to a solution in the case of a riddle, to a meaning in the case of a word.” It is here that this fragment on riddles becomes something more than intriguing idling on Benjamin’s part: “For precisely as word all being exists in a state of mystery by virtue of the symbolic force of the word,” and the riddle is a way to play on that “state of mystery.” In the same meta-cognitive turn as becoming momentarily aware of one’s own entire consciousness, or entering a state of receptivity in which a “profane” object can come to voice — an aesthetic experience that is without expression, a truth without intention — the riddle lets one hold the fragile but everyday experience of existential mystery, the mystery in things and talking about things, in focus.
The words that make up the riddle are unusual in starting from the mysterious qualities of language; a riddle does not seek to enunciate or point but to meaningfully obscure, and in this way a riddle’s enigmatic Wort is “its intention, its precondition, its foundation.” The words of the riddle, starting out with a concealed symbolic core “beyond the meaning communicated,” provide “the symbol of noncommunicability.” [I, 268] To clarify the Wort that he’s talking about, Benjamin specifically points out that those riddles, “recent in origin,” which are just word puzzles (homonyms, syllable games) are “less significant” than “the riddles of primitive peoples,” which do not need to be “rooted in words.” Presumably by this last statement — he gives no examples — he is referring to imagistic riddles, riddles that don’t rely on tricks of grammar or sound for their solution, like the early riddles of Anglo-Saxon that close with the exhortation “Say who I am,” “Say what I am called,” after a series of phrases: “My race is old, my seasons many; my sorrows deep, I have dwelt in cities.” Archaic riddles, with their dreamlike sequence of phrases and final exhortation to give a word, and specifically a name (and for the younger Benjamin, naming was the primal act of language), provide a place to see and speak words “with their entire immediacy.” (This search for ways to discuss the “immediacy” of words and the air of mystery around profane objects feels manifested in the course of Benjamin’s writing career, whose maturing style includes both extraordinary passages of sustained lucid observation, as coherent as a laser, in which the most insignificant of “artifacts or events,” or writings or mental states, are followed up and up all forty-nine steps, and studies composed in a deep and intricate riddling language, as permanently puzzling as two mirrors set facing each other.) “Pure of source is the riddle,” as Hölderlin wrote in The Ister. It springs from the cold slopes of Daumal’s Mount Analogue, where, as Benjamin wrote in the Elective Affinities essay, “the mystery … juts out of the domain of language proper to it into a higher one unobtainable for it.” [I, 355]
Benjamin, in the “gentle empiricism” of his study of different epistemological experiences, has been occupied by the Schein, the appearance or air, of the object’s presence, of beauty, and of mystery; but there are other attempts, Versuch, tests and essays, into these delicate and quotidian experiences. He has dealt with three instances requiring painstaking use of language, an extremely light touch and sustained focus with things that are very difficult to speak about, much less speak clearly about; of the two remaining pieces studied here, one begins “The German language possesses no native term to describe the forms of the imagination,” and the other, marvelously, in a note to himself: “A sheet of paper has gone missing.” What is the form of an imaginative experience, a voice from the clouds? What is the thing at play that we cannot point to in something we find beautiful? What is the status of the word that is the unknown answer to the riddle? And why are these things so difficult to think about, if they lie so close at hand, every day and every profane turn? A sheet of paper has gone missing!
In fact, there is a reason that German has no words for “the forms of the imagination” [I, 280]: “imagination has nothing to do with forms or formations” — it operates by Entstaltung, “de-formation,” “it plays a game of dissolution with its forms.” Again, as with “beauty,” Benjamin is using a large and perhaps clumsy word, “imagination,” a classic portmanteau word for which everyone may have a slightly different sense, to describe something quite small, specific, and precise. It is not a “constructive” imagination, something which makes; works of art which are solely grounded in this de-forming habit of thought act towards the world represented as “a text to which they provide a commentary or an arabesque” [I, 281] — in fact, “because they point beyond themselves, they are no more pure works of art than are riddles.” The experience of imagination is one of a blurring of things, a meditative world “without compulsion” or the sharp, clear outlines of an empirical acuity, and world where “death” and “doom” become “an unending series of transitions.” The world of imaginative experience, in the state of mind Benjamin means by “imagination,” has the fullness and bleed of watercolor, or a child’s restless story, “permeated by a rich flow of events,” but in a state of dissolution that results in “eternal ephemerality”: everything in that domain flows, and all is suddenly gone, washed out in the Chock of the tram rattling to a halt and the conductor’s shout. (We will return to that shock, one of the most interesting and vital of Benjamin’s impersonal writing partners.) “It is,” he writes, “like the sun setting over the abandoned theater of the world with its deciphered ruins.” Imagination does not have the tension at its heart, the moment of self-reflexivity on the part of the work, in which the expressionless can occur, and it lacks the meticulousness in which the thing can, in some sense, come to voice in the intensive observer. The ruins have been deciphered, the hidden word of the riddle revealed, the theater abandoned: there is no compulsion, no tragic doom, just the soft blurring together of things and the sense of a world without end. The sun is setting: for Benjamin, the place where imagination comes into its own as an experience is “at dawn and at dusk,” both cosmically and in an individual life, in Paradise and childhood, and in the “reduced, extinguished, or muted” — but not deathly, grieving, mournful — state of the abandoned theater, the twilight. The blurriness of imagination is the “radiance that surrounds the objects in Paradise.” (Here he footnotes the painter Philipp Otto Runge, a Romantic whose paintings, such as Der Morgen, deploy highly theatrical lighting effects, particularly a love of 25,000 kilowatts of hot yellow sunrise. Before his death, Runge produced Die Farbenkugel, an extraordinary document developed after consultations with Goethe in which all the colors are displayed on a sphere in axes of saturation, brightness, and hue; everything fades into everything else, a primeval world of color.) So the beginning; at the end, it is “the gray Elysium,” a suspended world of “pure appearance,” which comes with twilight, dusk, and clouds and mist: “De-formation occurs also in the acoustic realm (so that, for example, the night can reduce noises to a single great humming), or the tactile (as when the clouds dissolve in the blue or the rain).”
Though imagination cannot produce of itself a “pure work of art,” it — “pure conceiving” — is “the basis of every work of art.” “Every work of art is grounded in the imagination,” but the pure work, that which steps beyond the riddle to actually host within itself the expressionless to which the riddle only alludes, takes some formed thing into its production, with an awareness of “the process of de-forming itself”; that thing must “become of fundamental importance for the work.” Within that thing in the work is the meticulousness that can take account of even the blurring, de-forming imagination that first invited the thing into the brushstrokes, the words, the movements. Not all artists can do this: Benjamin mentions Jean Paul as one with “the greatest imagination” who could not “keep the de-forming powers under control.” (Bloch was the first of many to see Benjamin as one of a small group of writers, Jean Paul pre-eminent among them, who engaged in “incidental thinking.”) In this regard — and this is a critical jump — Paul, so fully possessed of the imagination, “came closest to the minds of children.” Children are the dawn in which the imagination exists in one of its pure states, an idea that Benjamin turns over in a slightly different form in his thoughts (and charming essay!) on the colors of children’s books, and their peculiar, blurry vividness. The child and child’s experience is the last of Benjamin’s critical areas of alternate epistemology (he himself had an exceptionally acute memory of his childhood), and provide another realm for looking at the thing — and a jumping-off point for the refinement of the idea of the expressionless in the work of art into the idea of the nonsensuous similarity in the act of writing.
For Benjamin, the child has ready access to imagination, and particularly to its blurriness and constant flowing transitions; the proprioceptive boundaries (to take a term from neurology — the sense of where the edges of your body are, the sense that you use to know the distance between your hands in the dark) are not entirely fixed, and so children can be very receptive to things, and to words as things, as the intensive observer is. In them, the dissolving of clouds that Benjamin identified as the tactile correlative to imagination extends easily to all activities: “the gazing child” at the picture book “enters into those pages, becoming suffused, like a cloud, with the riotous colors of the world of pictures.” [I, 435] For “the picturing child,” pages are exquisitely permeable, making “the Taoist vision of perfection come true,” to pass though “the illusory barrier of the book’s surface.” A children’s book (Benjamin collected them; his article on children’s books in the 1926 Die literarische Welt is furnished with illustrations from his collection) is an enormous gathering of the transformations afforded by “imagination” as he understands it: “people walk upside down, stick their arms and legs between tree branches, and use a house roof as a coat.” [I, 437] As Benjamin mentioned, the pure imagination provides a receptivity to the thing, a place for it to move into the center of expression, and the great work of pedagogy, and in children growing, is their special and particular form of imaginative receptivity: permeable to the page, they are also close to the permeable place in the life of the thing, the place where it is turning from one thing into another:
“For children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.” [I, 408] In a marvelous turn that seems constitutive of so much of his style of writing and thinking, he continues: “The fairy tale is such a waste product — perhaps the most powerful to be found in the spiritual life of humanity: a waste product that emerges from the growth and decay of the saga. Children are able to manipulate fairy stories with the same ease and lack of inhibition that they display in playing with pieces of cloth and building blocks.”
The reader will recall an allusion to the moment in his later writing when Benjamin speculated about mimesis having within it the cotyledons of semblance and play; it is in his notes on children’s books that he begins to look at the part of play in mimesis, and mimesis will be critical to his attempts at understanding the experience of writing. His work on mimesis, with one of its starting points here, will draw heavily on the idea of children’s capacity to let things into their experience, to handle words as things as they learn to read, and to explore the world of things on terms of relative equality, as a bellwether of the action of deep affordances and constraints within human consciousness. In his notes on the mimetic faculty, written about seven years after these pieces on children’s books, he will lay the ground for his study of writing and reading with the imitative behavior of the child — who “plays at being not only a shopkeeper or a teacher, but also a windmill and a train.” As an artifact suited to a permeable mimetic imagination, the children’s book, like the moment of echoing, self-reflexive consciousness exposed in the expressionless instance (the falling star, the falling silent of the hero), is a dance between within and without, between perception and the sense of perception. “Very gradually,” of children’s books, “their meaning is discovered in the outside world, but only in proportion as they are found to correspond to what children already possess within themselves.” (I, 410). This is why Benjamin describes the child as “picturing”: in color is located “the inward nature of this way of seeing.” But what does this mean? In means that color, like riddle, imagination, the expressionless, and to a fascinating degree writing itself, is at the border where a seeing can catch sight of itself, where there is an exchange with the intentionless, the expressionless.
This leads to the remarkable few lines that will play a major role in considering writing and the mimetic, near the conclusion of his second published essay on children’s books. “All form, every outline that man perceives, corresponds to something in him that enables him to reproduce it. The body imitates itself in the form of dance, the hand imitates and appropriates it through drawing. But this ability finds its limits in the world of color. The human body cannot produce color.” [I, 442] Thus we can relate to color “not creatively but receptively,” and so “pure color is the medium of fantasy,” and so forth — but what an idea to slip sideways into essay about collecting children’s books! Many of Benjamin’s most crucial ideas sidle into frame from the side, turning up as a few lines or a footnote, the small island that is the peak of a submerged mountain. All form, every outline, is visible to us because we have the capacity to reproduce it out of ourselves. But there are certain things we cannot reproduce of ourselves, and those address themselves to our consciousness differently. When a child builds her “own small world of things,” she is less imitating adults than acting on a sense of the possibilities within things themselves; she is open to their transformation, and so similarly to the inner fluidity of colors, their ceaseless transit.
What has all this to do with writing? As the child learns to write, they approach words as things, and thus possessed of the same thingly cryptic liveliness; this, in Benjamin’s notion, is expressed in the conjoined relationship between letters and things in their books, like the “very mysterious” still lives of ABC-books, with “Ape, Airplane, Anchor, Ark,” [I, 436] and so forth, gathered in the same place. To Benjamin, the child learning to write is learning “hierogylphics,” “supplemented with line drawings of the objects they refer to: ‘egg,’ ‘hat.’” Writing is a mimetic act, and a graphic one, but one which engages in a fundamentally different kind of imitation — since “the hat” or “der Hut” do not resemble a drawing of a hat, much less a hat itself. A different order of mimesis is taking place, a kind of imitation that functions below the level of semblance and Schein, though it can participate in those experiences in fascinating ways.
In these different essays and tries, on the expressionless, on color, on imagination, on the intentionless truth, on semblance, Benjamin has been sketching large notions — but also drawing the lines, ruled across the surface of theories of consciousness, on which letters will hang. Out of the ceaseless flow of the imagination, the voice of the unspeaking thing, the color that provides a place to look within looking, the frozen moment of the life of the artwork where the expressionless can play, he builds a little theater in which the child re-enacts the beginning of the writing, the production of hieroglyphs. In notes from the late 20s, he considers “A writing child”: “The writing hand is suspended in the scaffolding of the lines like an athlete in the giddy-making wall-bars of the arena (or of the theater-flies). Mouse, hat, house, twig, bear, ice, and egg fill the arena — a pale, glacial audience. They watch their dangerous tricks.” [II, 285] The child begins with a trapeze artist’s death leap, the “salto mortale of the s,” and “its hand sets off on a journey. A long journey with pauses for it to spend the night.” The child is learning the runes, the lines, learning a dancer’s craft, a new and different order of mimesis. This is the realm of the nonsensuous similarity, the domain of the encounter between writing and the technologies of writing. It is the area that will preoccupy the middle period of Benjamin’s work, and it is, first and foremost, the domain of graphology.
Scholem, in conversation with George Steiner as recounted in Steiner’s lecture “To Speak of Walter Benjamin,” listed twelve prerequisites a complete reading of Benjamin. These include the historical (the experience of the emancipation of the German-Jewish bourgeoise, the culture of youth movements and discipleship), the literary (the evolution of the German language, the place of translation in German philology), and the personal (the sociology of drug-taking, Benjamin’s failure to enter the academy or to form lasting intimate relationships). The two items which Scholem presents as critical are the twelfth and last, theology; and the seventh, graphology — without understanding that, said Scholem as quoted by Steiner, “then ‘nichts anfangen,’ ‘no use.’” (16) Steiner says that he is unsure why this is an important prerequisite, but suggests two major details: the practice of graphology provided Benjamin with much-needed funds, and the theory offered ways of thinking about “enigmas of similitude.” Most of the items on Scholem’s list have been studied with varying degrees of depth since Benjamin’s work came to the attention of the humanities community, but Benjamin’s graphology does not have anything like the level of critical attention accorded to his theology, his Marxism, or his youthful years in the Wandervögel.
This lack of attention should not be surprising. Judaica, German-language philology, and Marxism’s role in the history of ideas are all legitimate objects of humanist academic inquiry. Graphology is an entirely discredited pseudoscience, and one tainted by its association with physiognomy, phrenology, and other crude attempts at the naturalization of human traits — an association which includes “racial sciences” (in which the entire inner moral worth of a given man could be determined by his facial resemblance to a portrait photograph of a farmer from outside Köln). Its milieu is a strange mingling of magia naturalis, criminology, renegade anthropology, and racialist theorizing. Additionally, despite Scholem’s emphasis on it, it does not appear in Benjamin’s texts with anything akin to the obvious presence of drug experiments or German philology or Marxism. The place of graphology, on first reading, is one of notes, mentions, asides, a radio talk, a few book reviews; many of the incidental graphological moments could be less examples of graphology in practice than of the customary intensity of observation Benjamin brought to whatever was before him. Steiner is correct in both of thoughts on why Scholem included graphology, but both points bear elaboration: the former will rapidly make clear the constancy of graphology as a practice throughout Benjamin’s working life, and the latter, of far greater depth and importance, how graphology as a theory provided Benjamin with a place to think through fundamental issues — mimesis, gesture and space, and the nonsensuous similarity — that he found in the theory of writing made available to him by his new epistemologies.
The first case to make is that of constancy. Scholem records that the third time he and Benjamin met, he noticed a copy of Jules Crépieux-Jamin’s Graphology on the desk in his friend’s room [SF 19]; Benjamin had been brought to the subject at a very young age, taught by his beloved aunt (on his father’s side) Friederike Joseephi, who had been a pupil of Crépieux-Jamin’s. (She committed suicide in 1916, when Benjamin was twenty-four.) [MB 15] He was also to meet Crépieux-Jamin personally, as it turned out, when the “somewhat unworldly” teacher came to Berlin in 1930 to open the Institute for Graphology at the Lessing college. [MB 267 n. 41] In his youthful vacation journal “Meine Reise in Italien Pfingsten 1912”, he mentions “Simon is converted to graphology during a conversation” [GS VI 262] — he could be, as should come as no surprise, an extremely compelling debater on the subject. Ten years later, no longer a haute bourgeois son on a paid vacation, he had turned to graphology for financial support, instructing “young girls from Grunewald” in the subject for 30 marks a term [SF 112], and writing graphological reports on submitted handwriting. (The reports, though sometimes banal, read like the casebook of a psychoanalytic private detective. On the handwriting of “R.L.,” dated Berlin 1926, breaking down a sample of handwriting: “In addition, the mental and emotional life [of the subject] is very strong,” and so on. [GS VI 748-9]) His university friendships included that of Max Pulver, who would go on to found the Schweizerische Graphologische Gesellschaft. From the first textual appearance at the age of twenty, when he is already a partisan passionate enough to convince a friend, to appearances in the late writings, graphology is a continuity in his life as we have it, and in his thought.
At times this continuity appears with a display of theatrical verve. Scholem records: “In Bern I had once shown him a letter from my closest friend in the Zionist Youth Movement, whose character I thought I knew intimately. Benjamin looked at the letter briefly but closely, rather excitedly said, ‘Idiotic probity,’ and refused to make any further remark, as though he found that type especially infuriating. As a matter of fact, probity was precisely what that person radiated.” [SF 111] That theatricality marks many of the appearances of graphology in his biography — when excerpts of his radio lecture, “Alte und neue Graphologie” [broadcast on 23 November 1930] were printed in the Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk-Zeitung (“Zum Vortrag von Dr. W. Benjamin”) handwriting samples were included which contrasted the style of Rilke with that of Fritz Haarmann, a serial killer executed five years previously. In his August 1928 review of Der Mensch in der Handschrift, a major graphological text (“It represents the science of graphology at its very best”), Benjamin mentions Rafael Scherman (and his “insights”) as an example of the “telepathic graphologist” — Scherman, a professed graphological clairvoyant, given to tuxedos and envelope-to-the-forehead performances, was the theatrical face of Benjamin’s profession par excellence. (Freud had drawn Scherman’s ire for trying to disprove clairvoyance; Scherman acquired a sample of Freud’s handwriting and pronounced him a humorless domestic tyrant.)
All of the crudity, the theatricality of graphology as a doctrine does not impair Benjamin’s philosophy, because he partook of it only as far as his material survival — requests for columns and talks; paying students — was concerned. In his philosophical development, graphology provided him with an almost open field in which to develop his own ideas. Benjamin wrote with theology; he struggled with Marxism; he encountered the poetry of Baudelaire, the writings and conversation of Brecht. Graphology, by virtue of being facile, dubious, and vaguely and poorly argued even in its primary texts, provided a frictionless space in which he could think in a fashion piecemeal and undisturbed — much as he could in other areas then free of much theoretical apparatus, like children’s books, old toys, and other areas of proto-science like astrology and the Medieval theory of humors. As he writes of the “new type of researcher” in a 1933 book review (under the pseudonym Detlef Holz), he himself has “the capacity to be at home in marginal domains.” [2, 670] Like a Balzac character coming from the provinces to conquer the literary city, it is from this marginal home that Benjamin begins to establish his claim to a very different understanding of the consciousness of writing and the semiotic.
Which leads to making a case for the importance of graphology as a place of thinking for Benjamin; and to make that case, we need to distinguish deep graphology from shallow — or theoretical from applied. There is a particular attention to letterforms and the Schriftbild throughout Benjamin’s career (he was, after all, a philologist and a bibliomane), and it is important to distinguish that practice of looking, closer to the application of graphology as reading probity into serifs and counters, from the eventual theoretical implications he will draw from his graphological studies. In writing of the novelist Julien Green, for example, he notes: “In the unsullied nobility of his voice, there is something that seems to fend off too many words; and like his voice, his handwriting — with its transparent, unadorned letters — advances almost in silence. One is tempted to speak of letters that have learned renunciation.” [II, 332] As we will see in his thoughts on writing in the context of a technological apparatus, he often describes letters in ways that suggest that contain, in some form, something like agency. The place of graphology in his thinking is not simply to make him pay attention to letterforms, though, and to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them: on the theoretical level, it provides Benjamin with a way to discuss writing as a thing, prior to something which is read — a thing which comes from a body and from a hand, in which a training is expressed, and in which psychological, physiological, and anatomical elements come into play. Graphology makes it possible to approach writing as the child does, when words and letters are still hieroglyphic and have a voice of their own (the same voice that speaks from the thing through the intensive observer) rather than being signs solely for the voice of their writer. It is in this respect that graphology begins to suggest the nonsensuous similarity, and acts as the royal road into his larger researches into mimesis and the mimetic faculty — studies which incorporate dance, astrology, physiognomy, forms of prognostication and other activities in which a relationship of total legibility was made between the human observer and things as small as a single character of script and as vast as a constellation; studies in which the intensive observer was raised to a kind of cosmic scale.
Before continuing, it must be first observed that Scholem’s seventh prerequisite begins to make definite sense. Benjamin’s graphology gathered several of his disparate concerns into one: the recurrent idea of mimesis and the “mimetic faculty,” of course; and the culture of similarity, which is in relation to, but distinct from, analogy, allegory, and equation; physiognomies and “elective affinities” (which will, for Benjamin, include not just Lavater and Goethe, but his early-admired and later loathed contemporary Ludwig Klages); the capacity for “physiognomic interpretation” (closely tied to “intensive observation”) that Benjamin was teaching himself to bring to bear on the “fossils” of the Belle époque; elements of his theory of technics as the interface between humans and nature; the study of Surrealism and Fourier, who incorporate some of the modes of thinking that graphological mimesis makes available; and a deep meditation on translation, which is critical to his thoughts on language and meaning. Graphology takes its place with the other eleven prerequisites because it was not merely a topic of study but a topic elaborated into a way of thinking, one which illuminates (with a ray of moonlight, as we’ll see) a deep history of human consciousness that continues his earliest attempts to argue for a new epistemology.
Benjamin periodically seems to gather all his thoughts on an important topic into a sheaf, in the form of one of his brief texts, heavier and more opaque than usual. They are like a closed book with its covert pagination, and the many writings that precede and spring from these texts are akin to cutting the pages, and the book’s unfolding. Like the basic shape of the aura appearing all at once in his 1923 notes on philosophy, his whole thought on mimesis is gathered together in a brief, intense study, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” written between the summer and fall of 1933. [II, 720-722] In it he sums up the themes of previous drafts and notes: There is a natural tendency to “the similar” [Ähnlichen] in nature (“one need think only of mimicry”) that is reflected in an biological “faculty” [Vermögen] to “become similar and to behave mimetically.” Benjamin presents the imitative behavior of the child — who, as quoted before, “plays at being not only a shopkeeper or a teacher, but also a windmill and a train” — and various behaviors of “ancient peoples,” whose powerful mimetic faculty has grown “fragile” in “modern man.” (The reader will recall Benjamin’s habit, established early on, of using an “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” approach to human history: behavior observed in children is mapped on to human prehistory and “primitive peoples.” This somewhat oversimplifies Benjamin’s approach, but needs to be pointed out nonetheless. Indeed, in “The Doctrine of the Similar,” Benjamin refers to “the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic sense” in the play of children re-enacting the process of ancient mimesis to modern language; the same passage, slightly edited, recurs in “On the Mimetic Faculty.” These ideas were in the air at the time of his writing — he mentions Ernst Haeckel, for instance, the origin of the monistic Darwinism of “Ontogenese rekapituliert Phylogenese” — but he treats them in a strangely old-fashioned way in his search for primal faculties, like a German Romantic poet-scientist who has children raised by mute nurses in hopes that they will grow up speaking the language of Adam.) As the physical capacity for mimesis and mimetic sensibility has decayed in immediate lived experience, it has moved into language, and specifically into written script — “a canon according to which the meaning of nonsensuous similarity can be at least partly clarified.” Written script has become the refuge for the mimetic faculty that connects “microcosm and macrocosm,” the “law of similarity” that governs human consciousness and the natural world alike; and the interpretation of written script therefore falls to the domain of graphology.
Benjamin is telling a story of biological withdrawal, of a faculty now suggested only by the mute signs we could once read and can no longer, a deep psychological Minoan culture which has left behind only its Linear A — but that is an imperfect metaphor, because the language of our daily use is not haunted by Linear A, as we are by nonsensuous similarity. His goal is to assert that the faculty of mimesis has not merely decayed but undergone a “transformation.” Astrology provides an initial example of the nonsensuous mode, by virtue of the fact that its correspondences now seem meaningless to us. In a fragment on astrology (written sometime in 1932, prior to “On the Mimetic Faculty”), he suggests that the existence of the horoscope as a concept implies “that people in Antiquity had a much sharper mimetic sense for physiognomic resemblances than does modern man”: “As students of ancient traditions, we have to reckon with the possibility that manifest configurations, mimetic resemblances, may once have existed where today we are no longer in a position to even guess at them.” [II, 685] The very unlikeliness of attributing personality traits and historical destinies to observable natal constellations is, for Benjamin, a demonstration that there was once a capacity for certain kinds of visuality, for seeing “manifest configurations,” that have since declined: “We no longer possess in our perception whatever once made it possible to speak of a similarity that might exist between a constellation of stars and a human.” (II, 696) It should be clarified here that Benjamin considers mere fortune-telling a deeply debased form of astrology: a cosmic order of relation lowered to the task of making people lax before the idea of their “fate.” He is looking towards a unity of micro- and macrocosm genuinely alien to contemporary sensibilities, an order of imitation to which we no longer have access. He does invoke an occasional atavism, though: “Modern man can be touched by a pale shadow of this on southern moonlit nights in which he feels, alive within himself, mimetic forces that he had thought long since dead, while nature, which possess them all, transforms itself to resemble the moon. Nevertheless, these rare moments furnish no conception of the nascent promises that lay in the constellation of the stars.” [II, 685]
This idea — that we could once perceive wholly different orders of relation — echoes up and down through his other notes in this period and after, and he repeatedly takes the feeling of a latent sense of transformation in the experience of the moon and the stars, both for oneself and for the Earth. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: under the right conditions, the person as well as the planet can briefly sense atavistic and long-decayed stages (and, as we will see, the act of writing can take the shape of birds following ancient migration patterns over sunken continents). In the fragmentary notes collected in the GS VI, 200-203 [translated in II, 287] — notes penned between 1928 and 1930, at least two years before the passage in “On Astrology” — he includes this tantalizing sketch: “Depiction of a southern night, based on the idea that beneath the moonlight the earth passes once again through all the past stages of its life. And also, perhaps, anticipates in a dream the stages yet to come.” He restates the experience of the “southern moonlit night” of “On Astrology” almost word-for-word in the slightly later mimetic study “The Lamp” — adding, at the end, the specification “But he is transported into this very force field [of mimetic impulses in moonlight] by his memories of childhood.” [II, 692] And, in fact, in “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” a lengthy text which evolved from starting points written around 1932 and ‘33, in the midst of the texts just quoted, we find a beautiful and profoundly strange passage on these very childhood memories: “The Moon.” “The light streaming down from the moon has no part in the theater of our daily existence. The terrain so deceptively illuminated by it seems to belong to some counter-earth or alternate earth. … Its broad bosom, whose breath was time, stirs no longer; the creation has finally made its way back home, and can again don the widow’s veil which the day had torn off. … [E]very spot on this alternate earth to which I was transported appeared wholly occupied by what once had been. I had no choice but to give myself up to it. When I returned to bed a moment later, it was invariably with the fear of finding myself already stretched out upon it.” [III, 382-3]
The child learning to write, whose hand set out on “a long journey with pauses for it to spend the night,” is writing by just this moonlight, in a world of doppelgängers, where what once had been continues in the writing, where the hat is also the “hat,” or “Hut,” or yet not; an alternate earth, the “home” of creation, which begins to suggest the space of mimesis where memories have a presence of their own and the theater of the day is revealed to be run by subtle and atavistic powers. (Once again, this is a claim for a complex epistemology, an empiricism that can take into its accounts a range of conscious experiences which includes the feeling of ancient and modern, past and present, being coextensive.) But how has this happened? How has this purported early state — one experienced in childhood and early epochs of the Earth, and suggesting the relation once visible between the human and the stars — passed into the moment of the child at her primer? What moves in this story, what has a historical transition that connects these states, is the nonsensuous similarity.
The three major writings on this nonsensuous similarity — “On Astrology,” “Doctrine of the Similar,” and “On the Mimetic Faculty,” all of them brief, all of them meant for Benjamin’s private consideration only, written between 1932 and the winter of 1933 — we begin to perceive the working-out of a distinct historical narrative of these abiding mimetic capacities and their graphological revelation. In brief, this history runs as follows: at some point in “Antiquity,” people lived in a world that was entirely legible to them, a cosmos of a different order from our own. Benjamin expresses this difference with metaphors of concealed volume — in “Doctrine of the Similar,” the ratio between consciously perceived similarities and those perceived “unconsciously or not at all” is akin to “the enormous underwater mass of an iceberg in comparison to the small tip one sees rising out of the water” [II, 695]; in “On Astrology,” the visible experiences of similarity available to us “are nothing more than tiny prospects from a cosmos of similarity.” [II, 684] This capacity — “which was the earlier basis for clairvoyance” [II, 697] — was a form of reading prior to language as we now understand it, “reading from stars, entrails, and coincidences,” which provided “mediating links to a newer kind of reading, as represented by runes.” This capacity for nonsensuous similarity moved, over millennia, entirely into language, and is particularly visible in the relation of the Shriftbild, the written form, to the signified. It is a transfer of power from magic, the domain of sympathy and mimesis: “these were the stages by which the mimetic gift, formerly the foundation of occult practices, gained admittance to writing and language … a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic.” [II, 722] In this history, then, language has two sources and two histories, the semiotic and the mimetic. The former is subsidiary to the latter: the semiotic experience of language, like the tip of the iceberg, rests on a vast submerged apparatus of mimetic sensibility, capable of recognizing nonsensuous similarity.
Appropriately, this very idea is the tip of one of Benjamin’s icebergs, hiding beneath its opaque cap a system that incorporates elements starting in his 1916 “On Language as Such and the Language of Man,” and his 1921 “The Task of the Translator.” In the notes written in 1933, preparing for “On the Mimetic Faculty,” he quotes himself from seventeen years before, with brackets to add a new thought: “The name no longer lives in [the human word] intact. / It has stepped out of … its own immanent magic, in order to become expressly, as it were externally, magic.” [II, 717] Then, writing in the present, he summarizes what has been described above in the decay of primal mimesis and its transit into written language: “The determinate empirical (albeit nonsensuous) similarity always appears fleetingly in a heterogenous substratum — namely, in the sign character of the word. / … Runes as a transitional form between treetops, clouds, entrails, on the one hand, and letters, on the other. The magical function of the alphabet: to provide the nonsensuous similarity with the enduring semiotic ground on which it can appear.” [II, 718] In another column, headed “The Magic of Nature” in the same sequence of notes, he uses a current thought to set up a final quotation from his youth: “In the things from which it shines back silently and in the mute magic of nature, God’s word has become the communication of matter in magical community. / ‘Moreover, the communication of things is certainly communal in a way that grasps the world as such as an undivided whole.’” The nonsensuous similarity, now fleeting, speaks to a primal form of communication in which the world is “undivided” — in which “manifest configurations” existed between human and constellation, thing and thing. The experience of standing under the southern moon, of watching children play at being windmills, at looking through the eyeholes of a mask or writing words with graphological attention, is an “anamnesis” of “this lost similarity, which existed in time.” To express these ideas, Benjamin is reconsidering his own youthful, and far more overtly theological, thoughts about the original character of language.
Halfway through “On the Mimetic Faculty,” he restates his youthful case in a new, short form: “Now if language, as is evident to the insightful, is not an agreed-upon system of signs, we will, in attempting to approach language, be constantly obliged to have recourse to the kind of thoughts that appear in their most primitive form as the onomatopoeic mode of explanation.” Language cannot be arbitrary; the semiotic is subject to a more inherently meaningful form of reference. A seemingly arbitrary collection of signs and referents assumes, in Benjamin’s consideration, a common esoteric point of organization, a magnetic pole. “For if words meaning the same thing in different languages are arranged around that signified at their center, we have to inquire how they all — while often possessing not the slightest similarity to one another — are similar to the signified at the center. … In brief, it is nonsensuous similarity that establishes the ties not only between what is said and what is meant but also between what is written and what is meant, and equally between the spoken and the written.” [II, 721-722]
We briefly need to return with Benjamin to these early essays to see how an initial sense of language, as experienced, was expressed theologically and is now being reshaped into a very different narrative of his unique empiricism. (Or, to take it another way, how his initially theological conception is cloaked and coded in these documents. As he put it to Scholem, he always wrote on “the blotter of theology,” which could be seen in mirror image in his texts — but Scholem was the friend to whom he most expressed himself theologically, and that line can read with too much assurance. However, in one of his very late texts, he presents the image of an intellectual apparatus, Maelzel’s chess-playing “mechanical Turk,” with theology hidden inside, working the controls and winning the games. Either way, there was covert work on theology in concepts like mimesis and the nonsensuous similarity; but whether it was a rewriting of initial, theological ideas in new critical register, or a covert enacting of theology, remains an ongoing debate.) “On Language as Such and the Language of Man” is a document about the enigmatic multiplicity of words and languages, argued from a youthful “theological” perspective — theological, that is, in that the idea of God plays a prominent role, not that it is argued in a truly theological manner (in the way that can be seen in Scholem, for example, to say nothing of entire theologians like Buber or Barth): it’s the kind of theological argument that draws primarily on German Romantic poetic evocations of Biblical events for its sources. In fact, this writing, as with much of the very early Benjamin, is much less theological than Kantian; even the cadence of the German has a Kantian flavor. Under the rhythmic march of the rhetorical questions (“What does language communicate?”, “Why name them?”, “How does man communicate himself?”, etc.), a argument is being made which will reappear in “The Task of the Translator,” and, thoroughly transformed, in the theory of nonsensuous similarity. The early shape of these arguments is heavily circular, and what is germane to this study is what they circle: another facet of the mystery of similitude, the epistemological mystery of how we perceive that this thing and that are somehow related, that memories and emotions are evoked by them, that they seem to speak to us. Here, the element of mystery is specifically semiotic (and not linguistic; Benjamin is to any actual linguistics what a phenomenologist is to physics, probing how it is felt and understood from within). When we say that some thing has a sign-character, what do we mean? How is it that we give something a name? “If the lamp and the mountain and the fox did not communicate themselves to man, how should he be able to name them?” [I, 64]
What makes all this of interest is precisely what persists over the years of Benjamin’s thinking. He moves on from the Book of Genesis; he sets aside various divine instances in his theory; he stops covertly wrestling with Kant. By the time of his writings on mimesis, only a few of the original elements remain, and the consistency of their shape can be discerned over more than a decade; indeed, continuous sentences can be fashioned. “Language never gives mere signs.” [I, 67] And: “Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.” [I, 255] Thus: “Language, as is evident to the insightful, is not an agreed-upon system of signs.” [II, 721] 1916, 1921, 1933. This is the grain of sand around which the pearl of nonsensuous similarity is formed, one of a small set of convictions (not quite ideas — indeed, they seem to incite ideas in their explanation and defense) to which Benjamin will hew over the course of many years. His writings are little given to recognizable logical argument, but even by those standards these convictions are unusually presented: generally as simple declaratives that are so obvious to the “insightful” that they need no introduction. That there was, in fact, no particularly compelling reason to consider language as anything other than arbitrary system of mere signs, which would be the starting point of so much 20th-century linguistics, is a matter that he seems to repeatedly duck. His 1935 study for the Institute for Social Research, “Problems in the Sociology of Language,” is a masterpiece of feints and indirection, with Benjamin quietly taking sides as he reports on the state of the discipline: “Morever,” he writes, in the midst of describing “the central questions of current research,” “the onomatopoeic theory of the origin of language has always been the most immediately convincing to uncritical reflection. Academic criticism has made strong efforts to downplay the importance of the onomatopoeic factor, though it has not said the last word on this aspect of the origin of language.” [III, 69] The onomatopoeic factor, he wrote two years earlier, is what we are “constantly obliged to have recourse to” [II, 721] if language is to be something other than an agreed-upon system of signs. If there an origin to language — which becomes code, from 1916 to 1933, for “if there is a pure language” — it has a start in “imitative behavior in language phenomena.” But why, to put it bluntly, is Benjamin going to all this effort? What is he avoiding by keeping to this insistence on something in language which is not the “mere sign”?
In 1935, in the context of contemporary linguists, he describes efforts to solve the problem of the origin of language as “a bridge across this void of knowledge.” [III, 69] In 1921, presenting Hölderlin’s translations of Sophocles as exemplary in their effort to address themselves to “true language,” he writes: “In them, meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language.” [I, 262] In 1916, the Fall of Adam from the primal nomothete, name-giver, drops “into the abyss of the mediateness of all communication … into the abyss of prattle.” [I, 72] “The view that the mental essence of a thing consists precisely in its language — this view, taken as a hypothesis, is the great abyss into which linguistic theory threatens to fall, and to survive suspended over this abyss is its task.” [I, 63] This abyss may seem pretty shallow from a linguistic perspective — the idea that language is the largely arbitrary, socially-embedded mediation of things is less a bottomless depth than the wading pool of simplified Structuralism — but Benjamin’s abyss is of a different sort. Jalal Toufic has a remark in one of his short stories that a young person may be old relative to the date of their death; Benjamin’s abyss, to read him a little contrary to his words, is not so much a depth into which we fall as a height that we lose. A properly translated text signals the presence of “a more exalted language” [I, 258] in which the text “rises into a higher and purer linguistic air.” [I, 257] His abyss is at sea-level, as it were, with the awareness of having falling from “an infinitely higher language.” [I, 73]
In fact, in Benjamin’s model, the Mount Analogue peak from which language falls when taken as arbitrary signs is exactly that peak mentioned in his study of Elective Affinities where “the mystery … juts out of the domain of language proper to it into a higher one unobtainable for it.” Benjamin cannot cede the inherent meaningfulness of language because of something slightly different, the real focus of attention: the idea that the meaningfulness has an origin in a now-decayed human capacity to apprehend the nonsensuous similarity of the cosmos. Language is not just signs, because “language is in every case not only communication of the communicable but also, at the same time, a symbol of the noncommunicable.” [I, 74] In its noncommunicableness, there is a place for things in this understanding of language — “nameless, nonacoustic languages, languages issuing from matter” [I, 73] — and in the creation of a place for things, there is recognition that each thing (“which can communicate with one another only through a more or less material community”) “that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.” [I, 255] For Benjamin, the starting point that language has dimensions besides simply accounting for things and issuing orders is closely connected with the possibility of other forms of relation to the things which language does not merely signify but addresses. In his origin myth, “Once men had injured the purity of name, the turning away from that contemplation of things in which their language passes into man needed only to be completed … The enslavement of language in prattle is joined by the enslavement of things in folly almost as its inevitable consequence.” [I, 72] In other words, finally, the defense of language as more than arbitrary signs is a defense of other dimensions of language, further possibilities which suggest alternate modes of relation — to things and technics, to the natural world, to ourselves, and to language itself, particularly written language. Benjamin had to shed a great deal of baggage in the transit between the overgrown, Romantic forest of the early writings, the “polar climate” of the ß, and the Nietzschean malarial high noon of the Ibiza period when the crucial studies on mimesis were composed. He would let go of many things, but “the seed of pure language” would stay tucked into his hatband (as botanists used to smuggle rare seeds back from distant lands), because what it promised was another approach to alternate epistemologies, with different means of knowing and being in relation. This seed, divested of the skin and flesh it had originally worn when dressed as the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, was the nonsensuous similarity.
After all this mystical language on language, there is no more appropriate sign of the turn of Benjamin’s thoughts to new channels than that his most fundamental example — the new origin story, without the need for citations from Genesis — begins with gesture and with dance. His seed of the mystery of similitude has been replanted, going from a diorama of theology with Kantian characteristics to the dark and excavated soil of a half-dreamed paleontology and anthropology. That it is at its center still an expression of his own sense of things, his inner empiricism (he was always more Proust than Bergson) is made far clearer in this shift to grounding the multiplicity of languages in “the formerly powerful compulsion to be similar and to behave mimetically.” [II, 691] As most origin stories are secretly concerned with the storyteller’s origin, Benjamin’s sense of the “nameless, nonacoustic languages” of things, of the “formative powers” of mimesis to make the human capable of joining the material community of things, is both the means and the motive for journeys back to the earliest humans in the form of his own childhood. The man standing in the southern moonlight, experiencing one of the few flickers of the primal capacity for mimesis, feels that flicker by virtue of “his memories of childhood.” [II, 692] The child’s porousness, one of the very features that will pass away into their use written language, the refuge of mimesis, is shared by the earliest human experience. Benjamin repeatedly returns to the idea that the horoscope, the icon of a similitude no longer available to us, is natal and cast at the moment of birth. “The moment of birth … is decisive here” [II, 695]; “if the mimetic genius was really a life-determining force for the ancients, it is not difficult to imagine that the newborn child was thought to be in full possession of this gift, and in particular to be perfectly adapted to the form of cosmic being.” [II, 721] The wordless, unlettered infant, with the expressive eyes and hands, crying and laughing, imitative speech, is close to the formative powers, particularly physical mime: the movements of the body and of the hands.
Benjamin puts dance at the outset of expression, as, following the decay of the mimetic faculty and its withdrawal into written forms, mimetic understanding is at the outset of reading. In fact, dance is a kind of response to mimetic reading, a way of participating in the perceived cosmic pattern. As he puts it in “On the Mimetic Faculty”: “We must assume in principle that in the remote past the processes considered imitable included those in the sky. In dance, on other cultic occasions, such imitation could be produced, such similarity dealt with.” [2, 721] The “oldest function” of dances was “producing similarities,” and such production was the precedent mode of human consciousness: “Such reading is the most ancient: reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances.” In the fragment “The Lamp,” Benjamin touches on this relation of imitation in a passage that will continue with a restatement of the lunar atavism: “Modern man can be touched by a pale shadow of this when he looks through a mask …” [II, 692] The masking of ceremony, rite, and dance is an expression of the same instinct that feels these apprehensions of cosmic correspondence. In an earlier — 1929 — set of feuilletons, he considers masking at slightly greater length, suggesting the emotional resonance of a debased mimetic faculty: “The so-called inner image of oneself that we all possess is a set of pure improvisations from one minute to the next. It is determined, so to speak, entirely by the masks which are made available to it. The world is an arsenal of such masks. … We see the constellations, the moments in which we really were one or another of these things, or all of them together. We yearn for this game with masks as a kind of intoxication, and it is this that enables fortunetellers and palm-readers and astrologers to earn a living today. They know how to transport us into one of those silent pauses of fate that only subsequently turn out to have possessed the seed for quite a different lot in life from the one given us.” [II, 271] The silent pauses of fate are the place in which we can sense, as on a quiet moonlight night, the mimetic fluidity of our consciousness and our lives — or rather, the promise of that fluidity, which is ours no longer; the sense of it is sold to us by the folk-physiognomists of palmistry, astrology, and, perhaps, graphology. Dance was a means to process the richness of experience in a cosmos for which divisions between consciousness and environment, world and destiny, were virtually nonexistent. It was a way of acting within and living by the “originary totality” [II, 695] that Benjamin discerns in the concept of the horoscope as experienced in the dawn of the mimetic faculty: a horoscope is read on “both levels,” as he puts it — “the astrologer reads the constellation from the stars in the sky; simultaneously, he reads the future or fate from it.” [II, 697] Time and the world are one, personal destiny and the cosmos are of a seamless unity. For Benjamin the graphologist, this remains the case, albeit in an increasingly esoteric mode — reading handwriting involves a similar duality, with the semiotic process of reading the language overlaying the mimetic process of reading the graphological content, the “images — or, more precisely, picture puzzles — that the unconscious of the writer conceals in his writing.” This remains, however, but “a pale shadow” of the “originary totality” as an object of direct experience.
The connection between cosmic experience and dance is more directly made each time Benjamin restates it, in successive drafts and notebooks. In the “Problems in the Sociology of Language” (published 1935, quoted above), he summarizes Richard Paget (“articulation as the gesture of the speech organs falls within the larger sphere of bodily mimicry. Its phonetic element is the bearer of communication, the original substrate of which was an expressive gesture” [III, 84]) and Mallarmé (“The dancer is not a woman but a metaphor that may give expression to one aspect of the elementary forms of our existence: sword, goblet, flower, and others” [III, 84]) to obliquely restate his current conclusions: “With such a perception — namely, that linguistic expression and choreographic expression are rooted in one and the same mimetic faculty — we cross the threshold of a physiognomics of language, which takes us far beyond the primitive attempts of onomatopoeic theory, in terms of both import and scientific respectability.” [III, 85] By the end of 1935, in the notes that form the basis for the second version of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility,” he writes: “The mime presents a subject as a semblance. (And indeed, the earliest imitation knew only one material in which to work: the body of the imitator himself.) Language and dance (gestures of the lips and body) are the first manifestations of mimesis.” [III, 134] In a footnote to the second version of “The Work of Art,” the latter two sentences have been slightly refined: “And the oldest form of imitation had only a single material to work with: the body of the mime himself. Dance and language, gestures of body and lips, are the earliest manifestations of mimesis.” [III, 127] The idea has reached its simplest and most direct formulation, its public face — recall that Benjamin never intended to disclose the full theory of the mimetic faculty. Here, then, the idea of dance and mimesis becomes almost simple, concealing its antecedent ideas of cosmic communion, nonsensuous similarity, and the birth of language out of magic. (In this public mode, it oddly recalls Vico’s theory of the birth of culture from a peal of thunder, which created architecture, in the retreat to caves, religion, in the fear provoked by the noise, and language, in the imitative, mimetic babble of ur-people attempting to simulate the sound.) Once it has been returned to his private and fragmentary contemplation, in the following 1936 fragment, he begins to elaborate it again, but in a new direction.
“The knowledge that the first material on which the mimetic faculty tested itself was the human body should be used more fruitfully than hitherto to throw light on the primal history [Urgeschichte] of the arts. We should ask whether the earliest mimesis of objects through dance and sculpture was not largely based on imitation of the performances through which primitive man established relations with these objects. Perhaps Stone Age man produced such incomparable drawings of the elk only because the hand guiding the implement still remembered the bow with which it had felled the beast.” [III, 253] The realm of discourse in the theory of mimesis has grown to incorporate the implement, the tool. With the addition of this new order of relations, Benjamin opens his history to the present day. His addition of the tool to the expressive vocabulary of mimesis creates a feedback relationship, that the hand which fashions the bow is then slowly, subtly remade by the bow (or the pen, the camera, the typewriter).