Friday, May 02, 2008

Walter Benjamin’s Archive


Walter Benjamin: “The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.)” Who says something somewhere about “Nature’s too few startling indices”? A world subsumed by a lexicon’ll fit in a box, one supposes, though one aches to say it. How apt that Benjamin, collector of cartes postales, sees an economy of the “scholarly” residing in boxes. It’s Nabokov who so implacably fills the index cards, the long boxes. Benjamin is mostly notebooks, scraps, lists, pages impeccably script’d and with margins left blank (a place for the inevitable late-beleaguer’d intrusions of futurity, or for the “de-forming agent” call’d imagination), in a minuscule hand micrographic, neatly single-lining out the errors. A new book call’d Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs (Verso, 2007). Translated by Esther Leslie. Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla. Book of an exhibit (in 2006 in the Academy of Arts, Berlin), replete with notebook pages; clippings; postcards of toys (the Thingworld), of sybils out of the cathedral at Siena, of travels (San Gimignano, Volterra, Mallorca); logs of words and phrases (distorted, a “childish lexicon”) out of the mouth of Benjamin’s son Stefan; photographs (arcades, clutter); graphic constellations (lists spatially sort’d and align’d); riddles and puzzles, letters and quotables. Wholly, meanderingly, thumbable.

Toujours in Benjamin the processual tug of constant flux and ephemerality opposed to the impulse to stay that through collecting. “Thus the life of a collector manifests a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” The sour inevitability is: disorder surmounts order—in a line out of the preface: “the briefcase that Walter Benjamin carried over the Pyrenees in September 1940 is lost.” Presumably disappear’d into the maw of the state.

License in Benjamin to snatch and hoard with a magpie’s bright indifference: “not to retain the new but to renew the old. And to renew the old—in such a way that I myself, the newcomer, would make what was old my own, as the task of the collections that filled my drawer.” Assimilating the perdurable, or, make the perdurable out of what’s select’d to assimilate. Or is the collectable, like memory, endless? “He who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments. No image satisfies him, for he has seen that it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside—that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake all this has been unfurled and dissected; and now remembrance progresses from small to smallest details, from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier.”

Odd combo of fatigue and restlessness proceeding. Flowering plants in successive waves, forsythia, magnolia, redbud, pears, the dogwoods beginning (greenly white), the catalpa one of the latest, just now with a little greenery amongst the clinging brown pods. The bird regulars getting interrupt’d by notes here and there of migrants. I am dizzy with intents one moment, sour and adamant in sloth the next. Kind of thing that makes for a dullard’s mayhem:
A Caliper to measure Fleas—
A compass, minuscule—
Can hardly reach to span the breach
Between two women gathering fuel

In vacant lots where winter is
A fit of emptiness
Against what—absent—presently
Hocks its copiousness.
“Hocks” as in spits, “hocks” as in dumps on the unsuspecting, pawns off. (Do I feel that thing—here in my relentlessness—that Benjamin says? “The scruples, sometimes disturbing even to me, with which I view the plan of some sort of “Collected Works” correspond to the archival precision with which I preserve and catalog everything of mine that has appeared in print. Furthermore, disregarding the economic side of being a writer, I can say that for me the few journals and small newspapers in which my work appears represent for me the anarchic structure of a private publishing house. The main objective of my promotional strategy, therefore, is to get everything I write—except for some diary entries—into print at all costs . . .” Maybe. Though I thrill to defiant insouciance too: “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content. / I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone” sorts of things. Wouldn’t Benjamin, if he’d survived, be today an morosely riotous (downloading fever’d) assemblagist of pixels? No scrap unturn’d, no caustic mot forgot.

A Page of Benjamin’s Paris Address Book of the 1930s

Walter Benjamin, 1892-1940