27 February 2009

Walter Benjamin

[from Charles Rosen's "The Ruins of Walter Benjamin, originally published in The New York Review of Books, 1977; reissued in Charles Rosen's Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen, Harvard, 1998]

For [Walter] Benjamin, the significance of the work is not exhausted by the meaning given to it by the author and his contemporaries, and is often not even adequately realized by them. The work is "timeless" in that it is not limited to the moment of its appearance. It transcends history, but this transcendence is only revealed by its projection through history. The transcendence is double: on the one hand the work gradually reveals a meaning accessible without a knowledge of the time in which it arose, and on the other it preserves for posterity some aspect of that time. A symphony of Haydn is meaningful and moving even to those who know little or nothing of Haydn's contemporaries and of his age, and yet it appears to embody that age for us today. The work detaches itself both from the life that produced it and from the specific cultural milieu within which it was conceived; nevertheless, it keeps a sense of that past life as an effect of distance from us. Commentary and criticism are Benjamin's names for the two ways of approaching this double nature of literature. Commentary deals with the sense of the past life evoked by the work; criticism with the way the work detaches itself from that life. Commentary is philological in its method: criticism is philosophical. They are interdependent: without commentary, criticism is self-indulgent revery; without criticism, commentary is frivolous information.

In his essays on Proust, Kafka, and Baudelaire, we find that Benjamin never hesitates to refer from the literary work to the life and back again, but always with a tact that is a sign of his respect for the dignity and integrity of both life and work. Tracing the development of a work in the writer's life was as fascinating to Benjamin as to a professional biographer. What he protested in Gundolf was a form of interpretation which diminishes and restricts the meaning of the work by viewing it as a direct product of the author's life. Unlike an act, a work does not draw its immediate meaning from the life -- if it did the Elective Affinities would be unintelligible to a reader ignorant of Goethe's biography. The work is to be understood first of all in a more objective literary, historical, and even philosophical tradition. Underlying Gundolf's approach, Benjamin felt, was a process of sentimental mythmaking, which turned the life of Goethe into a work of art in order to place it into a correspondence with the novella.

Supporting the myth is a tenacious fallacy, which distorts the life even more than the work, the gratuitous hypothesis that what is most profound, most moving in a work must have a corresponding emotional experience of equal power in the author's life. For Benjamin, this inevitably and disastrously misrepresented the imaginative process. The artist transforms his experience, but the experience is not simply a source of emotions and motifs that the artist must accept, nor does the experience impost itself on the work. The artist does not sing his emotions, but actively seeks for "occasions" to make into song. By too simply identifying life and art, the biographer has failed to notice the most essential relationship: the artist shapes his life and his experience to make his art possible.

In Benjamin's essay on Proust, this relationship is given its full weight. A few sentences of Benjamin's mosaic style show the importance he attached to it:

The doctors were powerless in the face of this malady [asthma]; not so the writer, who very systematically placed it in his service. To begin with the most external aspect, he was a perfect stage director of his sickness. . . . This asthma became part of his art -- if indeed his art did not create it. Proust's syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the weight of memories. On a larger scale, however, the threatening, suffocating crisis was death, which he was constantly aware of, most of all while he was writing. . . .

Work and life here interpret each other literally and metaphorically, and the work is seen more as creating the experiment than as helplessly dependent on it. Proust's life, unsentimentalized, retains its dignity, and his art is left free to seek meanings beyond the restricted range of the author's own biography, as the metaphorical cast of Benjamin's style avoids constraint.

Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen

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