Tuesday, 6 March 2012

40BFL 8: Illuminations

This book means more to me than any other. More effectively than any other work, the essays within it helped to organize my thoughts. There is something so arresting about Benjamin that distinguishes him from any other writer; perhaps it's partly the tragedy of his life, perhaps it's the nostalgic, magical tone in which he writes, perhaps the power of his detached but engaged observation that is so uniquely able to observe change in his own time, without modernist exaltation or conservative lament. It is a collection of essays - and particularly this collection - that best represents Benjamin, since one doesn't read him for a systematic appraisal of the world or literature. Instead one finds wonderful writing and gems of wisdom. The best modern parallel to him would be David Foster Wallace - the differences are obvious but I still sense an odd sort of kindred spirit between them.

There are four essays of particular note which I return to again and again. The most famous of these is 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.' It appears so often through the rest of the twentieth century it hardly needs mentioning. But put it against some of Adorno's writing, say, and you will see the difference in tone - the desire to understand, to see what is changing, what is passing and coming, to experience a moment in history. This essay in many ways foresees the advent of postmodernism coming a generation later. Adorno, in contrast, sulks and spits and harrumphs in a powerful but less intelligent way.

The final climactic essay is 'Theses on the Philosophy of History'. It is full of beautiful imagery, clear thinking and a mystical edge framed as messianic time. Take this passage:

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The only problem is that he writes so well he makes me think it's not worth bothering to try.

And there is such frail honesty. When he talks about our cultural treasures, he looks upon them with horror:

They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

For some reason this quote always rings in my ears as I walk through Cambridge. But, crucially, it is not a dreary wading in bourgeois guilt so much as an honest appraisal of the price of culture.

The essays which have most concerned me in the past are 'The Task of the Translator' and 'The Storyteller'. For someone engaged in hermeneutics, cultural translation and interpretation, they are remarkable. But they are also a lament: 'Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.' One of the great things about being a priest is that you get to tell stories. A mish-mash (in my case) of Aesop's fables and fairytales, biblical stories and the lives of saints. And you get to tell more stories, new stories from your own life and those of people around you. Benjamin is writing out of a world that was literally falling apart. His student Adorno wrote in bitterness about the world that has fallen apart. The world never did pull itself back together again. This makes the role of the preacher all the more expedient, as translator and storyteller, to help find connections that can draw lives, communities and nations towards peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment

DreamHost promo codes