Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Walter Benjamin; July 15, 1892 - Sept. 27, 1940

One morning in 1992 I dreamed that I was not me, but was, rather, one Walter Benjamin.  It was one of those dreams that stays with you throughout the day, you can't shake it off. 

I'd just read a biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault who wrote that the dream "is the birth of the world, the origin of existence itself." Foucault's biographer, Jim Miller, explained: "The dream must therefore be approached, not as a psychological symptom to be analyzed, but rather as a key for solving the riddle of being."

Having become Walter Benjamin was a riddle alright. The name itself was but vaguely familiar to me, from one of the essays in Susan Sontag's Under the Sign of Saturn, which I'd read eleven years earlier.

Benjamin was a German Jew, an essayist himself. He spent much of his life in Paris, most of his time in the library.

I was happy to consider becoming him. Frankly, being me had become tiresome. Now, simply during a night of sleep, I'd come upon a way to avoid myself.

Naturally curious about my new self, and wondering how I should conduct myself, I re-read Sontag's essay about Benjamin. Then I spent a Saturday in bookshops in Amherst and Northampton, buying a few volumes:  Benjamin's essays; his letters; and a biography of him.

I read that Benjamin died in 1940.  I happen to have been born at one-fifteen a.m. on the first day of 1940. What if he had died on the day I was born? Soul-transference? If that turned out to be so, then I was really onto something. (This was before Wikipedia, before Google; I'd have to make some effort before learning the actual date of his death.)

Then on the Sunday after my dream a reference was made to my new self in the then current issue of The New York Times Book Review. This leant me a prestige which my previous self had not achieved. It happened, too, to be the first time I'd noticed the name of Walter Benjamin in print sine reading the Sontag essay those eleven years earlier. This seemed both peculiar and timely.

Cosmic?  Maybe I'd at last made contact with my guardian angel.

Then, a week later, in the same periodical, I beheld yet another reference to me!

So it seemed just short of astonishing when, on the following Sunday, a third reference to me was printed!

I was somebody!
I'd recently re-read a little book I'd bought thirty years earlier, an essay on Baudelaire by Jean-Paul Sartre. There was a quote from one of Baudelaire's own essays: It is at once by and through poetry, by and through magic that the soul catches a glimpse of the splendors which lie on the other side of the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to our eyes, these tears are not the proof of excessive enjoyment; they are much more the sign of an irritated melancholy, a nervous postulation, a nature exiled in an imperfect world which would like to take possession at once on this very earth of a revealed paradise. Thus the principle of poetry is strictly and simply human aspiration towards a higher beauty and this principle appears in an enthusiasm, an elevation of soul; an enthusiasm which is completely independent of passion, which is the intoxication of the heart, and of truth which is the field of reason.

I'd felt a close spiritual kinship with Baudelaire; I recognized a soul-mate, and I underlined passage after passage of Sartre's descriptions of Baudelaire which reminded me, for better or for worse, of myself. Like Baudelaire I possessed an irritated melancholy, and I was a postulant at the back door of the house of youth and love. And, god knew, I was, like Baudelaire, exiled in an imperfect world.
Then, returning to the Benjamin books, I read that he actually considered himself to be a spiritual descendant of Charles Baudelaire.  I had to set aside the book when I read this fact.  The word uncanny drifted into my mind.  Now I was thinking that Walter Benjamin was my spiritual father and Charles Baudelaire was my spiritual grandfather.  It took me nearly half an hour before I could compose myself mentally so that I could continue reading.
I dug out Susan Sontag's book and re-read "Born Under the Sign of Saturn," her essay about Benjamin.

"Slowness is one characteristic of the melancholic temperament," Sontag writes of Benjamin. "Blundering is another, from noticing too many possibilities, from not noticing one's lack of practical sense. And stubbornness, from the longing to be superior -- on one's own terms."

That is me, I thought. And that's me. And that's me too!

In The Origin of German Traverspiel, Benjamin refers to himself as "apathetic, indecisive, slow"

Those are me too. Boy are they ever me.

A mark of Benjamin's temperament, writes Sontag -- and she's writing about me as well --"is the self-conscious and unforgiving relation to the self, which never can be taken for granted. The self is a text -- it has to be deciphered .... The self is a project, something to be built .... And the process of building a self and its works is always too slow. One is always in arrears to oneself."

Further, Walter Benjamin and I are "dissimlative" and "secretive." We have "complex, often veiled relations with others." We have "feelings of superiority, of inadequacy," and we are "baffled" about getting "what we want," baffled even at "properly (or consistently) naming that want."
Walter Benjamin "kept numbered lists of all the books he read." I do this too except mine are dated, not numbered.

For Benjamin, as for me, books are not just books, but are "contemplative objects, stimuli for reveries."
In his essay Agesilaus Santander, Benjamin "feels not that life is worth living but that suicide is not worth the trouble."

That sentiment rings so true to me; I wish I had thought to express it with exactly those words.
When I eventually learned that Walter Benjamin had not died at exactly one-fifteen a.m. on the first day of 1940, but rather late in September of that year, I quickly rationalized: of course, it would take some months for a suddenly released soul to find the new body it wants to reside within; and, after all, Benjamin's soul had had to find its way all the way from Spain, where he died, to Indiana, where I was born, and where, as a consequence of such a long journey, I spent the first nine months of my life without a soul.

It was temptingly easy to make everything make such marvelous sense.
In Agesilaus Santander, again, Walter Benjamin writes, "I came into the world under the sign of Saturn -- the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays ...."

I too was born under the sign of Saturn.

After a while I came to believe that, yes, there must be something to astrology after all, though I'd have been hard-pressed to articulate my beliefs, for I knew next to nothing about the subject except that I am a Capricorn and Walter Benjamin was a Cancer and we both were born under the sign of Saturn; therein must lay the explanation for my special kinship with the man whose very identity I had felt impelled to steal for my own use.

After a couple months of trying out my new identity, I became tired of thinking of my new self, and it was hopeless to explain it to others.  How could I introduce them to a new self which was difficult even for me to become accustomed to?

I foreswore that new self and went back to being just me -- a nobody, once again, and that was just fine; I'm good at enjoying myself.
Despite having once felt that suicide was "not worth the trouble," Benjamin did, in horrible circumstances that he can't have foreseen, take the trouble. According to Peter Demetz, the editor of one collection of Benjamin's writings:

Benjamin crossed the French-Spanish border with a small band of
fellow exiles, but was told on the Spanish side by the local
functionary (who wanted to blackmail the refugees) that Spain
was closed to them and that they would be returned in the morning
to the French authorities who were just waiting to hand them over
to the Gestapo. Benjamin -- totally exhausted, and possibly sick --
took an overdose of morphine, refused medical help, and died in the
morning, while his fellow refugees were promptly permitted to pro-
ceed through Spanish territory to Lisbon.

I am a groupie for authors.

I admire them like other people admire movie stars.

I love Walter Benjamin. He's one of those rare few whose books you
can open to any page, begin reading anywhere, and be carried away to
wonderful places. Sontag referred to him as "a prince of the intellectual
life." However ridiculous my pose, how can I not have thoroughly
enjoyed, off and on for a while, imagining myself as him?

"The melancholic's intensity and exhaustiveness of attention set
natural limits to the length at which Benjamin could develop his ideas,"
writes Sontag. "His major essays seem to end just in time, before they

This is one of my major essays.

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