Book Reviews from The Reading Room
Walter Benjamin in Love in Moscow
by Nicole Muchnik
Among Walter Benjamin’s voluminous body of writings there is a slim volume, Moscow Diary, not as known as his other works, that perhaps gives us the best clue into his intimate life. In it he describes his almost two-month stay in Moscow –from December 6, 1926 to the end of January 1927. He went there to join the feckless, alluring Asja Lacis, with whom he was in love. And he gives us an account, almost hour by hour, of his walks in an almost frozen city; he chronicles his serious economic difficulties, his heartbreaking desires, his ambiguous feelings and frustrations, and finally, his somber defeated farewell from the city, Asja, and from Russia. With poignant precision he records a conversation with Asja concerning a belt that the German writer Ernst Toller had given her. In other sections he describes Moscow‘s architectural style, characterized by the many one- or two-story houses. He tells us about the shops where one could find only linen-baskets filled with apples or peanuts, the way porcelain was packed or unpacked in a shop window, and, mixed in with these references, he ruefully records the few kisses he manages to wheedle from Asja. Still, despite his love troubles, Benjamin is always bearing witness. He makes significant observations, for example, about the presence of peasants leading a rural life in the very heart of the metropolis, about a gathering of more or less dissident intellectuals, a censored production at the famous director Karl Meyerhold’s theater, and a meeting with the successful journalist/novelist Joseph Roth. He notes, ruefully, that class differences, in theory abolished, did not prevent a new caste system within the Party.
In this trip to Moscow (the perfect framework according to the rules of French classical theater of unity of time, place, and action) Benjamin becomes fully aware of both the impossibility of his adhering to his longed-for ideology, and the impossibility of his hopeless love affair. At the end of all this he must make a tragic return to reality.
In May 1924, while in Capri, Benjamin had met and immediately fallen in love with Asja Lacis, “a Bolshevist Latvian from Riga... one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever met.” He lived with her for a few months in Berlin in 1924 and 1926, in Riga in 1925, and again in Berlin in 1930. Lacis, an actress with a particular interest in didactic theater, was a commited Marxist activist. She eventually wrote her version of her life in her autobiography: Profession: Revolutionary. Her charm and militancy impressed Benjamin, and he was also attracted by the clear political stand of this fiercely intelligent woman, who voiced the ideology of progress as represented by the Marxism of the time. It was Asja who dissuaded Benjamin from changing the course of his life by accepting a teaching job at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, arranged by his friend Gershom Scholem. “The thinking path of those progressives who hold to their senses,” he wrote Scholem, “leads to Moscow, not to Palestine.” In any case, Asja Lacis’s political commitment did not save her from later serving an almost ten-year sentence in a Soviet labor camp.
The decision to go to Moscow – which was entirely in character for a compulsive traveler like Benjamin – was obviously prompted by three motives: to form a more stable relationship with Asja; to learn at first hand the facts of Soviet socialism; and to decide, finally, after some years’ postponement, whether or not to join the German Communist Party.
Moreover, Benjamin had to complete and deliver an article on Goethe, commissioned by the Great Soviet Encyclopedica. This writing assignment, as it turned out, affected the psychological and economic conditions of his Moscow sojourn. The article, begun in Berlin, was almost finished when Benjamin arrived in Moscow, where he had the opportunity to discuss it with one of the editors of the Encyclopaedia, who had asked Benjamin for “a sociological portrait.“ Although the editor did acknowledge that: “it is basically impossible to characterize a poet’s life from a materialistic point of view, it can only be done from his historical influence,” it should have been clear then and there to Benjamin that his article would not be accepted and that he would have to forgo the agreed upon fee, so essential for his stay in Moscow.
It wasn‘t until March 29, 1929 that he finally received the official Stalinist critique of his article with the presumed reason for its rejection by the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, signed by the Soviet cultural commisar Lunacharski:“He doesn’t come to any conclusion… sentences like ‘German revolutionaries were not illustrators’ [among other] must be eliminated…. So, I insist, Benjamin’s article should not be printed.”
Despite the many references to Asja Lacis in Moscow Diary, Benjamin, though tremendously smitten with her, set down the sad reality of his deep frustrations and the emotional wounds she inflicted on him. “I arrived on the 6th… But there was nobody at the station.” Oddly enough, the person who finally met him was Bernhard Reich, the German dramatist and then lover of Asja, with whom Benjamin would be staying in the sort of trio arrangement that Asja had set up. In those circumstances it was almost impossible for Benjamin to be alone with Asja: “It’s only a week I arrived and already I have to face more and more difficulties to see her, to say nothing of seeing her alone”…. “With Asja, again constantly switching between ‘thou’ and ‘you’”... “I tried kissing her. As usual I did not succeed”… “The idea of living away from her seems to me less bearable…. Of course it depends on the fear of living here in a more solid relationship with Reich.” All this was jotted down. He also wrote of “her amazing toughness, also her indifference.” Asja had tuberculosis and was confined in a sanatorium, where Reich and Benjamin visited her, usually together. Benjamin increasingly realized the impossibility of having a real relationship with Asja, and slowly sank into despair; a despair infused with a certain dose of masochism, a lapse from his otherwise sturdy character. True, he had travelled to Moscow because he was in love with Asja, but that love was unrequited and he left the city in a state of acute melancholy: “With my voluminous suitcase [full of wooden and iron toys compulsively bought in many stores and shops] I made my way to the station, sobbing, through streets in which night was falling.”
Still, it was because of Asja that Benjamin became interested in Marxism. He wrote: “A true love makes me resemble the woman I love . . . . I look at her with such intensity that I hardly hear what she says.” Years after meeting Asja, Benjamin persisted in mouthing cliché Marxist slogans about the bourgeoisie, the family, and gave high praises to Lenin. But he never joined the Communist party -- though he persisted in searching for reasons, intellectual and material as to why he should join. He upheld his “Communism” as “the obvious and reasoned attempt on the part of a man completely or almost completely deprived of means of production as to proclaim his right to them.”
In this somewhat elliptical sentence Benjamin seems to want to compare the condition of the writer with that of a member of the proletariat, who, like the writer, also is deprived of the means of production. And conversely, Benjamin, the writer, like a member of the proletariat, is justified in espousing Communism. This formulation is followed by an inner debate on the “tremendous advantage of being able to project one’s own ideas into a tightly defined structure,” but under the doubt of whether “I will be able to account for my work, mainly scientific, with its formal and metaphysical bases.”
Was it his experience in Moscow that dissuaded Benjamin from joining the Communist Party? Moscow Diary offers supportive evidence that it was. Benjamin writes of “dangerously exposing” himself in an interview with a journalist, speaking about “art under a dictatorship, in Italy under the Fascist regime, in Russia under the dictatorship of the proletariat.” He writes about the censorship imposed on theatre director Meyerhold’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General and the scanty applause it received, “very possibly due to official orders.” He observes that “Soviet youth gets a ‘revolutionary’ education. This means that they get what is revolutionary not as an experience but as an order.” For Benjamin the question of joining the German or later the French Communist Party ultimately becomes a closed matter, clinched by the 1939 German-Soviet pact, which he judged from an ethical point of view and which put an end to what seemed to be his last attempt to join an “optimistic” outlook on History.
In 1940 Benjamin wrote Theses on the Concept of History, a work more centered on the suffering of the defeated than on the achievements of the victors. It isn’t necessary to describe the events of the historical time he was living in, but it would be simplistic to see in these events the fundamentals of the Theses. “The idea of a Progress of Humanity is inseparable from the idea of a History developing in an empty and homogeneous time,” he wrote. Also: “Progress does not lie on the continuity of the temporal development but on its intermittence.”
Clearly Benjamin had firmly distanced himself from a vision based on the idea of historical progress on the model of scientific or technical progress. That is to say, progress that is infinite, irresistible, and irreversible. His ideas represent the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment joined at the hip with the emergence of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. For Benjamin, the true idea of progress means relating each moment not only with a starting point, an origin, but also with an end point, “a legendary End of History.” As Stéphane Mosés observed in his book On the Concept of History in Rosenzweig, Scholem and Benjamin, “the significance is in a past that continues to pass, of a present that renews itself at each moment, and of a future always arriving.”
In the Theses, Benjamin explicitly expressed his radical and definitive rejection of the ideology of progress. Such a conception of history and humanity is without doubt at odds with the Marxist conception of a one-way progress towards a utopian future. But let us not forget, Benjamin’s truest observations involved art.
Interestingly, Walter Benjamin kept close to him a particular painting, a Klee, throughout his life. Bought in 1921, it hung in his Berlin studio until 1935, when it was sent to Paris, where Benjamin had taken refuge from the Nazis. Benjamin entrusted it to Georges Bataille for safekeeping in June 1940, before fleeing to the French-Spanish border with a small band of fellow exiles. Armed with a U.S. visa, he had hoped to proceed from Spain to Lisbon and from there to the United States. He never arrived. Momentarily, he was refused entry into Spain. Fearful of being returned to the French authorities, who would hand him over to the Gestapo, Benjamin panicked, swallowed morphine, and died the following morning. Sadly, that very morning, the rest of the group was permitted to proceed through Spain to Portugal. Benjamin was buried in Port Bou, the little French Mediterranean fishing town, near the French/Spanish border.
His cherished painting, the 1920 work by Paul Klee, eventually passed into the custody of the French National Library, and then was was turned over to Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, which was what Benjamin had wanted and had indicated in his will. The painting, Scholem observed, had an immense and decisive, influence on Benjamin’s thought “as an object for meditation and a memento of a spiritual calling.”
Benjamin himself had described it as: an angel that seems to move away from something he is staring at. His eyes are uncommonly open, his mouth is open, his wings are unfolded. Such must be the aspect of the Angel of History. His face is turned towards the past. Where we think we see a chain of events, he sees just one and unique catastrophe which continuously stacks ruins on ruins and throws them at his feet. He would like to stop, to bring the dead back to life and repair what is broken. But a tempest blows from Paradise that entangles his wings, a tempest so hard that he cannot fold them up. This tempest sweeps him towards the future, to which he turns his back while the debris pile up before him and grow up to the sky. This tempest is what we call progress.
When Benjamin wrote these words, in 1933 or ‘34, he was living in precarious material circumstances. As he wrote Scholem: “I pick flowers in the margin of the existential minimum.” Yet the Klee painting depicts a violent movement that, for Benjamin, is an image of humanity irresistibly pulled towards a future it can’t nor wants to see, since it goes backwards, while rubble accumulates before it. The Angel would do something positive and beneficial, restore what has been destroyed, but it does not seem possible, he is petrified, as it were. With eyes and mouth open and fixed, he looks in terror at a heap of ruins, “just one and unique catastrophe.”
Stéphane Mosés points out that Benjamin employs the present tense in his description of the Angel: “It is the present tense of repetition, of damnation, of glaciations with no escape.” The Angel of History is the prisoner of a singular catastrophe, one that is condemned to repeat itself over and over, bringing to mine the Kafka aphorism, where day after day Adam and Eve are evicted from Paradise. (Such despair was also felt by Nietzsche and Baudelaire, whom Benjamin studied intensely.) Benjamin defines as crucial the constant repetition, indeed remembrance of the past in the present. He defines ethics as being shaped according to whether one looks at the past as pure knowledge or with the added awareness of responsibility.
Nobody knows exactly in what hilly terrain in Port Bou Benjamin, so obsessed with history (and also its victim), lies buried. The grave that visitors are shown “is an invention of the cemetery attendents”” writes Scholem in his memoir of Benjamin, looking to assure themselves of a tip…Despite the Mediterranean’s splendid beauty, the grave there is apocryphal.”
And while there is no monument marking Walter Benjamin’s grave, “we have,” as the historian Peter Demetz has observed, “his texts, in which his elusive, vulnerable, and terrible, tense mind continues to survive.”
Nicole Muchnik, a noted artist and essayist, has exhibited her work in such galleries as Galeria Sen in Madrid, Tess Gallery, El Taller de Pasaje in Seville, and La Galeria in Segovia, Spain.
Understanding Proust through the madeleine
By Alfonso Guerra
“Man is the only creature who cannot escape
from himself, who only knows others
The experience of Marcel Proust’s madeleine in The Remembrance of Things Past, is also the essential expression of its investigation of knowledge, art and memory. However most attempts to understand what Proust means by this experience focus too much on its involuntary nature. These discussions ignore the deeper implications of the physicality and emotionality Proust ascribes to the act of remembering. For Proust, remembrance happens not through the association of ideas, but through the identification of sensations. Implicit in the episode of the madeleine is Proust’s theory of knowledge, which operates on two different levels: as a sensory evocation and an interior investigation.
According to Proust, a work of art is not something invented, but discovered, ready-made in itself. In Remembrance, the narrator is continuously expecting his story to reveal itself while exploring its meaning for him. Each time there is an encounter where an experience in the present evokes a mysterious voice from the depths of the past, he tells us that he cannot yet understand the call, but that he will in the fullness of time.
Through the madeleine his past life reappears, the words belong to the future, the work of art has yet to be made: the act of creation will only be complete with the profound revelation and understanding of a life already lived.
Proust’s magnum opus of self-observation is an act of authentic introspection. We, his readers, are witnesses to the awakening of a consciousness through him. When Marcel finds himself before the madeleine, it elicits a physical response because objects can only be experienced through the senses, and it is only when these moments of present and past are inexorably joined that the writer can make sense of experience.
Understanding of the external world is a function of the imagination and memory: it involves placing an image of our own creation against the perception of the external; it involves elevating the impression to expression; it is about discovering the metaphor.
For Proust, the experience of involuntary memory, of the madeleine, is the foundation for the use of metaphor. This is achieved through a simple equation by which the metaphor is to art what reminiscence is to live; a connection of sensation to experience through the “miracle of analogy”. On the surface, Proust’s use of recall is nothing more than the use of analogy, relying on the identification of sensations separated from each other in time.
For example, the taste of the madeleine contains one story that unfolds simultaneously in two timeframes. These flashes of the past and present are connected by more than just that singular experience. Each moment conjures another moment in the chain of connections, which is the conscious link to creating the understanding of a life, indeed of the world. So the taste of the madeleine evokes not just itself, but a lifetime of other tastes, touches and smells, which for Proust are the world of Combray.
This remembered Combray is not at all an intellectual construction. For the narrator, the taste of the madeleine reminds him of Combray, not in the present but in the past. This vision arises Marcel’s true past, impossible to be merely comprehended consciously. It is what Proust calls in Le Temps Retrouvé “a little bit of time in its purest form.”
What matters for Proust, what is indeed his discovery is what he calls in Swann’s Way involuntary memory:
“And so it is with our own past. It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect.”
Borrowing from the Kantian revolution, Proust works an inversion where instead of having the novelist create the world, the world creates the novelist.
In Le Temps Retrouvé, Proust writes about contemplation of the self as the essential dimension of the modern novel: “I realized that the essential, the only true book – though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘invented’ by a great writer, for it already exists in each of us – has to be translated by him.”
When Marcel sips the first spoonful of tea he is filled with a delicious pleasure that helps him overcome his somber melancholy. His mood changes, he no longer feels his own faults. That a sip of tea could create in Marcel such a strong sensation of immortality is astonishing. Logic is immediately disrupted. Marcel then has two, three more swallows of tea, but the sensation fades, it doesn’t grow stronger.
At that moment, Proust realizes the euphoria he feels, his heightened sense of truth, is not a result of the tea, but of his associations with it. This is the crucial moment when he contemplates the idea of internal recall stimulated by sensations.
Proust rejects the illusion that the seed of memory originates in the surface of his consciousness, he allows “involuntary memory” to take over.
But is this act of remembering capricious or involuntary? Marcel had eaten sponge cake many times, but the madeleine by itself hadn’t evoked memories. It is the combined flavor of the tea and his Aunt Leonie’s madeleine that brings back the past. Now in the sensual fullness of flavor and taste, Marcel is carried back to an entire world that he had forgotten. And so he writes in Swann’s Way:
“When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
With flavor taste and smell meshing, memories appear, and with these memories, the village of Combray, from the church to the inhabitants and their lives, re-emerge. Combray is the starting point for all that follows – it is the key that unlocks the Remembrance.
Ironically it is the very instability of Marcel’s intermittent memories of his passions toward characters from his imagined past that give the Remembrance its depth.
In Marcel’s first memory of Gilberte, she is seen as a little girl with fair reddish hair, returning from a walk through a park in Combray and holding a spade in her hand. Marcel is enamored of her and her vivid azure eyes. Yet later on in Swann’s Way, in another memory, Marcel adds:
“But when I arrived at the Champs Élysées – and, as at first sight it appeared, was in a position to confront my love, so as to make it undergo the necessary modifications, with its living and independent cause as soon as I was in the presence of that Gilberte Swann… Then at once it became as though she [the woman Gilberte] and the little girl who had inspired my dreams had been two different people.”
Then why not turn from the reality to the dream? Alas, although dreams born from memory are there for the taking, the dreams are finite, while reality stretches into the future. The dream carves itself from the real, in order that reality may be grasped. But once reality is experienced through memory it ceases to be real. Experience can only be recreated as a dream in memory.
Proust’s obsession to recreate and unify the world led him to move reality to memory and from memory to reality and thus create the modern novel.
As he firmly puts it in Time Regained:
“But this time, I had my mind set not to accept this impression without knowing its causes…”
--Translated by Carlota Fluxá Van Delzen
Alfonso Guerra González (born May 31, 1940 in Seville) is a Spanish politician. A leading member of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), he served as Vice President of the Government of Spain from 1982 to 1991, under the presidency of Felipe González. He currently represents Seville in Congress, being the only deputy that has served since 1977 without interruptions.
The Uses of Metaphor
By Stuart Schneiderman
Nearly three and a half centuries ago Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman learned, to his amazement, that he had been speaking prose.
More recently David Brooks, in one of his columns, returned from one of his sojourns to the land of neuroscience and informed us that we are all speaking… poetry.
Wisely, Brooks qualified the assertion by quoting Steven Pinker’s idea that we are all speaking “pedestrian poetry.
Brooks means to say that we all use metaphors, all the time. He does not seem to know that speaking in metaphors-- which is one step short of speaking in tongues-- does not make you a poet, or even a poet manqué.
Metaphors are integral to everyday language. Brooks explains that we talk about healthy marriage, liquid assets, and digested facts. When we say that a nation is healing we are using a metaphor.
Surely, metaphor is much more than a mere embellishment. If we say that an economic recovery is gaining traction, Brooks explains, we are simply trying to grasp what is happening in our world.
Sometimes you need to visualize a process to understand what is going on. Especially, when you need to take action.
Saying that you are going to attack a problem or wage a political campaign is designed to define the right frame of mind.
If you need to feel strong and aggressive, the metaphors help you to approach the challenge.
What is the difference between the cold statement that the GDP has increased and the metaphor that the economy is growing? The difference is that you can feel like you are part of a growing economy. You have no attachment to the idea that the GDP has increased.
Metaphor is not necessarily an illusion that is keeping us from relating to reality. It might even facilitate our ability to act in the real world.
Statements of fact make us detached observers. Take the famous pangram: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The statement is true or false depending on an observable state of affairs. It does not tell us how to relate to the fact or what, if anything we should do about it.
So far, so good.
As it happens, metaphor is a very tricky issue. And Brooks offers several different, but contradictory views of it. In all of them he sees us as observing the world, not acting in it.
At one point he suggests that we need metaphor because we are “not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states.” He believes that “we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape.”
He then adds that we are trapped in “the illusion that we see the world directly.” He claims that “our grip on reality” is actually very tenuous.
Clearly, metaphor cannot be a compensation for our failure to think about abstractions and our failure to see the world directly.
Begin with the idea that we use metaphor because we are not very good at thinking about abstractions. In place of abstractions, let’s use Plato’s Ideas. Then we are using metaphor because we cannot see Ideas directly.
That was Plato’s theory, expressed in the well-known allegory of the cave. At the least, we recognize that this concept was not produced in the bowels of a cognitive psych lab.
Plato saw human being as prisoners chained down in a cave, unable to see the light at the mouth of the cave, and forced to look toward the shadows projected on the cave wall. Since the prisoners only knew shadows, they imagined them to be real.
Then, Plato declared that a class of people had been liberated from their prison cave. Having escaped into the light, these people could look directed on the Ideas. These were-- you guessed it-- philosophers.
Metaphor transports us. That is what the word means in the original Greek.
It transports us from a world where pigs wallow in the muck to a world where pigs fly. It transports us from a world where white swans appear on the lake to one where black swans appear out of nowhere.
Everyone agrees that metaphors carry us into fictional worlds, but, there is more to fiction than illusion. And there are fictions that show things as they might have been or might be and fictions that show things that can never possibly be.
Fictional worlds are not an illusion keeping us from seeing the real world. What might have happened is a fiction. What might happen in the future is currently a fiction. The future is always a fiction; it might be a possibility, it might be a prophecy. It is never a fact.
We should be thankful that we have more than facts. And not just because fiction has an entertainment value.
Facts do not tell us what we should do, how we should do it, or what the outcomes might be. As David Hume famously pointed out, scientific description of fact does not have an ethical dimension.
For that we need to use our imagination, to plan and predict, to put together scenarios about different possibilities. This process is commonplace; it is called policy analysis.
Planning for the future requires that we transport ourselves into a world of possibilities.
And yet, policy analysts weigh things that really might happen. They do not occupy their minds with thinking the impossible or the highly improbable.
And yet, sometimes the impossible does come to pass, and it upsets all of the policies we have set in place to deal with what really might happen.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called Black Swans, in which he suggested that the most important future events are not the ones that we can realistically expect to occur, but the events that we would have discounted as impossible or improbable.
Taleb called them black swans, but they might as well, though less elegantly, have been called flying pigs.
Why were we unprepared for 9/11? Why did we underestimate the impact of Hurricane Katrina? Why did not one predict that the Middle East would erupt in political turmoil?
If, before 9/11, someone had suggested that terrorists would hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings, the correct response would have been: Sure… when pigs fly.
Yet, we think that we plan for all eventualities. We are realists and we believe that history repeats itself. We believe that if we understand the past we will know what will happen in the future.
To a limited extent that is true. Yet, as Taleb points, out our infatuation with the past and our iron-clad belief that it must repeat itself makes us ill prepared when a black swan appears out of nowhere.
Taleb does not claim that we can put a group of a poets in a room and ask them to mine their reserve of metaphors to discover the most impossible things that can happen.
If we could predict an impossible future, we would be prepared for it and it would not be a black swan.
No, the use of metaphor is to counteract our tendency to disbelieve, our tendency to reject reality because whatever is happening could not possibly be happening, because we did not predict it or plan for it, because it has never happened before.
If we understand metaphor properly, we will be able to deal with black swans more quickly and effectively because we will find it easier to embrace a reality that we never saw coming.
Stuart Schneiderman is a life coach and a writer in New York City. He blogs at "Had Enough Therapy?"