Sunday, July 27, 2008

Your Source For All Things Benjamin

Where to get the latest texts from Walter Benjamin, dead these sixty-plus years? Why, it's not from me, but from the New Left Review, who've just posted Benjamin's letter to the Institute for Social Research's Max Horkheimer (one-half of the duo who, among other things, brought you the Dialectic of Enlightenment) detailing literary and intellectual activity in France c. 1940. An excerpt:

Michel Leiris’s book, Manhood, is also based on the biography of the author. [2] But what a different biography this is! Before going further, I would like to draw out what it has in common with other recent Surrealist publications. Particularly notable is a decline in the power of bluff: a power that was one of the glories of Surrealist actions from the beginning. This drop is accompanied by a weakening of internal structure and an unwonted textual transparency. This is due, in part, to the grip that Freudianism exerts over these authors.

Leiris is in his mid-thirties. He was a member of the Collège de Sociologie, which I wrote to you about at the time of its foundation. In civilian life he is an ethnologist with the Musée de l’Homme, at the Trocadéro. As for the personal impression he makes, you met him yourself in 1934 or 35, at a soirée at Landsberg’s. [3] It would be no exaggeration to claim that his book would have been the greatest success of the literary season if the War had not intervened. I think certain pages of his autobiography might interest you and will take the liberty of sending you the volume.

You will not suspect me of an excessive tenderness, either for the milieu from which this production emerges, or for the literary genre (‘true confessions’) to which it belongs. In fact the book rather reminded me of Chaplin’s well-known gag where, playing the part of a pawnshop employee dealing with a customer who wants to pawn an alarm clock, he examines the object with distrust, then, to make sure, carefully takes the mechanism to pieces, finally putting all the parts in the customer’s hat and explaining that he cannot see his way to granting a loan on such an object. I have been told that, when Polgar saw this film, he exclaimed: ‘That’s psychoanalysis, the spitting image!’ [4] Leiris’s book, which the author explains was written after psychoanalytic treatment, may well trigger the same remark. It seems unlikely that a man who has been brought to list his mental assets so scrupulously can hope to produce future works. Leiris explains this clearly enough: ‘It is as though the fallacious constructions on which my life was based had been undermined at their foundations, without my being given anything that could replace them. The result is that I certainly act more sagaciously; but the emptiness in which I dwell is all the more acute’ (p. 167).
The Collège de Sociologie, which both Leiris and Benjamin (only briefly) participated in, was totally awesome. Disaffected Surrealists reading and writing about anthropology and theories of the sacred. What more do you need?

The New Left Review also has links to these Benjamin essays which are way, way better than his letter to Horkheimer: "Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia" and "Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century." Alas, they're both firewalled! But if you can finagle your way around it or find them from another source, read them. You won't be wasting your time.

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