Friday, November 30, 2018

A riffle through Illuminations - “This is how one pictures the angel of history”

Thinking about a more ideal Walter Benjamin collection, I imagine dropping “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), which is perverse but the problem is that is like a building that has been completely dismantled, its materials used as the structure of a hundred other, newer buildings.  I can imagine its explosive force – now I am imagining it as a bomb – in English in 1968, when so many people were ready to not just write about but theorize about television, rock music, comic books, and so on.

Benjamin, who mostly sticks to film and photography, keeps brushing up against the concept of pop art.

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.  The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. (227)

May the Village Voice and a million pop culture blogs bloom.  Every art – the creators, the audience – has had to wrestle with Benjamin’s notion that the individual art object has some kind of “aura” that is dimmed or destroyed by mass reproduction, by technology.  He is not against this, but he is a creature of literature, which had long accommodated itself to the printing press – heck, the scriptorium – rather than of visual art, where the response has been to everything possible to keep the aura, so that the original embodiment is worth a fortune and the exact reproduction is kitsch.  Theater and dance have made their own less insistent, less neurotic negotiations with film.

Benjamin thinks about the case of literature in “The Storyteller” (1936), nominally about Nikolai Leskov but more about the modes of literature:

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times…  What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. (87)

He takes Leskov as an example of the epic or storyteller type, even within the form of modern fiction.  He mentions Poe and Stevenson as other examples.  I am not sure this is true; Benjamin’s Leskov only distantly resembled the one I remember.  I wonder if he had read Sholem Aleichem.  Now that is an imaginary Benjamin essay I would like to read.

The essays on individual authors that he did write, on Baudelaire, Proust, Brecht (a close friend), and Kafka, are outstanding and accessible, by which I mean, as we all mean, written at or just above my head.  Like “Unpacking My Library,” these essays remind me that Benjamin is an unusual creature, a philosopher who is a true literary critic.  I mean that he deals with literature as literature, with Kafka and Baudelaire as artists, creative people, with whom he has personal affinities.

I have some doubts about, because I did not understand, the final piece, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), which has to be retained because of the single paragraph in which a Paul Klee angel takes on cosmic, apocalyptic meaning – “This is how one pictures the angel of history” (249) – one being you, Walter, but the “one single catastrophe” he sees the angel seeing is upon him, so what do I know.  With these few lines Benjamin willed into being Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels and I assume much many more unusual works of art.

I was planning to write about Illuminations, to the extent that it can be said that I have written about it, in December, but then I thought I would tack it onto GermanLiterature Month, why not.

In early February, I will continue my reading of classic literary criticism with Northrop Frye’s Fables of Identity, which should be something different than Kermode or Benjamin.


  1. I wasn’t t aware of the connection with Wim Wenders. That’s most interesting. One of my favourite movies. Btw, this is the first time I seem to be able to leave a comment here. Every comment I left on your French Lit posts this summer just disappeared. (This one might too. Haven’t posted it yet.)

  2. My pals at Blogger must have fixed a glitch. Thanks for the persistence.

    The old storyteller in the movie, "Homer," is kind of a Walter Benjamin-figure, a Benjamin who lived.