16 March 2015

“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.”

Walter Benjamin. Clippings from a Google image search screen shot.
I have always been an opportunistic reader, reading whatever happened to be at hand. I am also a disciplined reader; give me a list of required reading and I read through it. (Always excepting Ulysses by James Joyce--I tried and tried and tried again. Three strikes and out.) First and foremost, I am a meandering reader. When I read a book that mentions a book, I often go find that mentioned book and read it. I adore footnotes and bibliographies where more books can be found. Some of my most influential books and favorite authors were discovered in this way. Reading and the discovery of books is for me a metaphor for life: interconnectedness, chance, and serendipity.

Larry McMurtry was an instructor, writer-in-residence, when I was an undergraduate at Rice University and I happened to be assigned to his section of English 100, 1967-68. At the time I was a science/engineering student or I would have missed that opportunity since potential English majors were assigned to English professors. Chance. Serendipity. Because I knew McMurtry, I  follow his career and read  his books, dutifully checking them off the list, although in general his books do not number among my favorites and I'm lagging behind the list.
I have always most enjoyed McMurtry's non-fiction:
   In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1968), Roads: Driving America's Great Highways (2000); Books, a Memoir; and my favorite Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond (1999).

 So having read McMurtry, I read Walter Benjamin's Illuminations: Essays and Reflections 
Interconnectedness. I read it slowly giving myself time to reflect and think.
Serendipity. I had read bits and pieces of Benjamin long before; my German professor was fond of having us translate paragraphs re. Kafka and Lestov. I had gathered a few English quotes for a paper on Kafka. Kafka is on my "do not like list" just ahead of James Joyce. While I do not share Benjamin's admiration for Kafka, I forgive him all those awful German paragraphs because he was my introduction to Proust.

Harry Zohn's translation with Hannah Arendt's excellent introduction was, and is, pure joy. A joy I had forgotten--Benjamin has a lot to say about remembering and forgetting--until I stumbled upon Maria Popova's Brainpickings: Walter Benjamin on Information vs. Wisdom which presents a nice selection of quotes with commentary on Benjamin's essay: The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolia Leskov.

The Mundaneum.  Cataloging the World:
Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.

I loved this early 20th Century photo!

Quoting Popova's blog: "The most dazzling such transmutation takes place in an essay titled “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin uses the work of 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov as a springboard for a higher-order meditation on the role of storytelling in society, the dangers of its decline, and how it shapes our relationship to truth, both public and private. The picture Benjamin paints begins in darkness but reaches toward the light."

It is easy to see all the modern digital experience as interconnectedness, chance, and serendipity.
 My  favorites of Benjamin's essays are probably quite predictable to those who know me.
Of course I want to visit his library and learn about the life he reads:

"Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting" jogs my memory. I have not yet finished Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night which has spent well over a year at my bedside. Somehow it was displaced and lies neglected but I look forward to the life I read tonight. Serendipity, indeed. And one of my favorite McMurtry books is also about collecting books.
Quoting Benjamin:
“I am unpacking my library. Yes I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood -- it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation -- which these books arouse in a genuine collector.”
Screen shot of Google image search, March 2015

I had just begun to learn Hebrew so that I could better understand the biblical Psalms when I first read "The Task of the Translator" and realized that:
“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.”
"Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”

Technical Reproducibility.
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"  should be on every one's reading list. It anticipates and contributes to the discussion re. STEM and the humanities and why the humanities (history! literature! art!) are essential. Its relevance might be more easily recognized if the translation of the title had been truer to the German: "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitaler seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" which Zohn revised to "The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility" and I (with only my librarian's German) am bold to suggest "The Work of Art in a New Age of Technical Reproducibility." Given the very long time that art, literature, storytelling, history existed before the fairly recent advent of the scribe, the press, print, audio and video, digital ad inf. this Age is always New. The great thinkers of the past, like Walter Benjamin, help us navigate these uncertain waters.

“Every morning brings us news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event comes to us without being already shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. . . . The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the event is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.”  

“The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.”

“We do not always proclaim loudly the most important thing we have to say. Nor do we always privately share it with those closest to us, our intimate friends, those who have been most devotedly ready to receive our confession.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: "With the outbreak of war in 1939, Benjamin was temporarily interned in the French “concentration camps” established for German citizens. On his release a few months later he returned to Paris and there continued his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale on The Arcades Project. The notes for his unfinished research were left in the safekeeping of librarian and friend, the writer Georges Bataille, as Benjamin fled Paris before the advancing German army in the summer of 1940. The last few months of Benjamin's life reflect the precarious experience of countless other Jewish Germans in Vichy France: a flight to the border and preparations for emigration by legal or illegal means. Lacking the necessary exit visa from France, he joined a guided party that crossed the Pyrenees in an attempt to enter Spain as illegal refugees. Turned back by customs officials, Benjamin took his life in the small, Spanish border town of Port Bou, on September 27, 1940."

What a horrible loss to all of humanity!
Blame the Nazi Holocaust.
Blame the petty bureaucrats at the border.
Blame ourselves because we never seem to learn the basic lessons of compassion and peace.

“In the end, we get older, we kill everyone who loves us through the worries we give them, through the troubled tenderness we inspire in them, and the fears we ceaselessly cause.”

Oh the back roads of Texas, I never stop at a Dairy Queen without remembering McMurtry and Benjamin and meandering through the life I read.

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