Monday, October 8, 2007

"Walter Benjamin"

"Walter Benjamin" is drawn from a series of Harold Jaffe's docufictions called OD, which addresses well-known humans who have died of an overdose of drugs either intentionally or inadvertently."

Found dead in his room from a deliberate overdose of morphine in the French-Spanish border town of Portbou, after the group of Jewish refugees of which he was a part was intercepted by the Spanish Police on September 26, 1940. The group was attempting to reach Portugal, “officially” neutral in the Allies-Axis war.

He had a peculiar gait, described by an acquaintance as “at once advancing and tarrying, a strange mixture of both.”

Was it a “mixture” or a contradiction?

Was it contradictory or dialectical?

Was it impulse or calculation?

Was it another display of Benjamin’s much-commented-on-complexity?

With something of the comic, tragic and idiot-savant in the pot?

He thought of himself as a collector.

Walking aimlessly through Paris, collecting impressions.


He read very widely, of course, but the books he meticulously collected were to be admired, not read.

When someone entered Derrida’s library and inquired whether the philosophe had read “all those books,” Derrida replied softly: “I’ve read just four, but very, very carefully.”
Benjamin collected objects that struck his fancy, with a keen eye always for the object’s non-usefulness.

He collected quotations all his adult life, pausing to write the words into a little book he carried in his breast pocket.

Wrote with his left hand.

Born on July 15, 1892, in Berlin.

The city he loved was Paris.

The first theoretician of the flaneur was Baudelaire, whom Benjamin admired and addressed in writing.

But how did Benjamin win over Bertolt Brecht, the most irascible artist-intellectual in Europe?

With the possible exception of Thomas Stearns Eliot, who because of unceasing constipation and his elevated caste, feigned patience.

Except, perhaps, towards Jews and Irish Catholics.

Walter Benjamin was a non-Jewish Jew.

Rather like Kafka with whom he identified.

Benjamin evidently never crossed paths with Eliot, who mostly remained in Britain, handling money, editing his literary journal, having quiet breakdowns . . .

Eliot, bent over his turtle soup, spoke softly, unctuously.

What little walking Eliot did made him think of fame and prayer.

Flanerie signifies a rich even delirious passivity, not thinking of anything in particular.

Hannah Arendt speculates that Benjamin was pursued by the “bucklicht Mannlein," the little hunchback of bad luck, well-known in German fairy tales.

At least in the ways of the world, Benjamin seemed incapable of making the right choice.

The little hunchback was always there pointing in the opposite direction.
When Benjamin refused on principle to compromise, he should have compromised.

When he suspended principle for the moment and did compromise, he need not have compromised.

He manifested potently (impotently) what he subtly demonstrated in both Proust and Kafka: that place at which weakness and genius coincide.

According to the sympathetic Hannah Arendt.

I nearly said “syphilitic Hannah Arendt.”

But that would have been Benjamin, wishing to be promiscuous but incapable, becoming syphilitic on his first deviation, which itself would be less than successful.

Lacked the thrusting power of his hero Brecht .

Lacked the courage (if that’s what it is) to enact his deviations as his hero Baudelaire enacted his.

He rarely completed what he set about.

What little he did complete was to him unsatisfactory.

Unsatisfactory as well to his student turned mentor/monitor, Adorno.

Another compulsion to flanerie was his, as it were, benign incapacity to locate himself.

He made a point of not going to the restroom while dining out for fear of not being able to find his way back to his table.

Which reminds us again of Kafka, born nine years before Benjamin, on July 3, at a period when the art of fasting had some purchase.

Moreover the most successful fasters had impresarios to present them to a restless public which naturally became more engaged the closer the hunger “artiste” approached death.

One such artiste, known as K, was especially refined at his craft and had established the Central European record of 42 days of fasting.

More than 42 days was unlawful because of the prospect of suicide, a prosecutable offence throughout Europe at that time.

K displayed his wasting self in a portable cage, barred, on a floor covered with grass, with a wooden bench and a low door at the left back corner which opened to a basin for excretions.

These of course became negligible as the fast extended.

The hunger artiste in his portable cage was transported from hamlet to hamlet, with an occasional stop in a city.

Sophisticated city dwellers for whom time was money tended to favor death itself rather than near-death, such as the hunger artiste presented.

At the termination of a successful fast there would be a small celebration.

Someone would play the tuba.

A pretty girl in a swimsuit secretly holding her nose would lead the rickety faster from his straw pallet to a table outside the cage bedecked with food.

For the artiste this was an intolerable moment.

The very thought of food made him dizzy with nausea.

Finally he would be prevailed upon to nibble a piece of bread, sip a thimble-full of mild tea.

Because of cultural factors not directly relevant to this discourse, the cynical attitude of the cities spread to the hamlets.

The general public grew more impatient with hunger artistes, as they did with other “performers” who, so to speak, toyed with death without actually dying.
As a result, K, in the 19th day of a new fast, awoke one dawn (he was never a sleeper) to find himself without an impresario.

After some nervous days, K hired himself out to a traveling circus, whose impresario could not be called enthusiastic.

To win him over, K offered to present his art for no pay, since his needs were minimal and money, of which he had little, meant to him nothing.

The graver difficulty was that the circus impresario had, he claimed, just one vacant cage, which was conjoined laterally to the cage of a young panther.

All night the hunger artiste listened to the panther pacing and growling.

In the day he smelled the raw meat and heard the panther savaging it.

Still he continued fasting, the sole occupation he knew.

Circus-goers, though not many of course, would pause by his cage, watch him for a brief time, occasionally comment.

The children would sometimes point at him then look at each other.

Usually these were nuclear families passing or returning from the fierce carnivores’ cages.

After several weeks the circus impresario removed the panther from the cage adjoining the artiste to a more spacious cage farther away.

The cage adjoining the faster’s cage remained empty, and as a result fewer and fewer viewers paused there.

After a time nobody paused by the faster’s cage.

Because the circus was otherwise thriving, nobody seemed to notice, until one day an overseer saw that not just the panther’s previous cage but the faster’s cage were empty.

An attendant was summoned to clean and prepare both cages for a newly captured brace of Bengal tigers.

As he was raking the straw in the faster’s cage he uncovered the faster himself, now shriveled to the dimensions of a starving child.

The attendant grinned vacuously at his discovery.

With what remaining strength he had, the artiste, without food for nearly fifty days, feebly motioned to the attendant, who squatted and, still grinning, lent an ear.

Before expiring, the enfeebled hunger artiste scratched out this almost inaudible whisper: I never wished to be a celebrated hunger artiste. I just could never find anything I wanted to eat.

Walter Benjamin did not deliberately kill himself with an overdose of morphine, as was widely reported.

He shot morphine into his left thigh because he never found anything else he liked to inject into his left thigh nearly as much.


Michael Filas said...

This is a stunningly good text as you present it here, Gary. I love the juxtaposition of Kafka and Benjamin--a natural connection, of course--but made so entirely fresh by Jaffe's subtle tones and attentiveness. The best thing I've read online in ages.

Gary Lain said...

Thanks for the kudos, Michael--I'm sure Hal will appreciate them.

trumanwater said...

yes, the layout of Jaffe's writing really works in this blog format. by the time you get to the last sentence:

"He shot morphine into his left thigh because he never found anything else he liked to inject into his left thigh nearly as much."


the whole thing comes together in an intuitive way that leaves you thinking for a long time after. there's a lot to learn from this text.