Sunday, May 06, 2012

Fragments: Sontag on Benjamin

He thought of himself as a melancholic, disdaining modern psychological labels and invoking the traditional astrological one: "I came into the world under the sign of Saturn - the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays..."

The metaphor of the labyrinth also suggests Benjamin's idea of obstacles thrown up by his own temperament.

The influence of Saturn makes people "apathetic, indecisive, slow", he writes in "The Origins of German Trauerspiel" (1928). Slowness is one characteristic of the melancholic temperament. Blundering is another, from noticing too many possibilities, from not noticing one's lack of practical sense. And stubbornness, from the longing to be superior - on one's own terms.

Benjamin regards everything he chooses to recall in his past as prophetic of the future, because the work of memory (reading oneself backward, he called it) collapses time.

Benjamin's recurrent themes are, characteristically, means of spatializing the world: for example, his notion of ideas and experiences as ruins. To understand something is to understand its topography, to know how to chart it. And to know how to get lost.
For the character born under the sign of Saturn, time is the medium of constraint, inadequacy, repetition, mere fulfillment. In time, one is only what one is: what one has always been. In space, one can be another person. Benjamin's poor sense of direction and inability to read a street map become his love of travel and his mastery of the art of straying.

Since the Saturnine temperament is slow, prone to indecisiveness, sometimes one has to cut one's way through with a knife. Sometimes one ends by turning the knife against oneself.

The mark of the Saturnine temperament is the self-conscious and unforgiving relation to the self, which can never be taken for the granted. The self is a text - it has to be deciphered. (Hence, this is an apt temperament for intellectuals).

One characteristic of the Saturnine temperament is slowness: "The tyrant falls on account of the sluggishness of his emotions." "Another trait of the predominance of Saturn", says Benjamin, is "faithlessness".

Precisely because the melancholy character is haunted by death, it is melancholics who know best how to read the world. Or, rather, it is the world which yields itself to the melancholic's scrutiny, as it does to no one else's. The more lifeless things are, the more potent and ingenious can be the mind which contemplates them.

Bookhunting, like the sexual hunt, adds to the geography of pleasure - another reason for strolling about in the world.

One is condemned to work; otherwise, one might not do anything at all. Even the dreaming of the melancholic temperament is harnessed to work, and the melancholic may try to cultivate phantasmagorical states, like dreams, or seek the access to concentrated states of attention offered by drugs.

To get work done, one must be solitary -or, at least, not bound to any permanent relationship.

For the melancholic, the natural, in the form of family ties, introduces the falsely subjective, the sentimental; it is a drain on the will, on one's independence; on one's freedom to concentrate on work. It also presents a challenge to one's humanity to which the melancholic knows, in advance, he will be inadequate.

The style of work of the melancholic is immersion, total concentration. Either one is immersed, or attention floats away.

His characteristic form remained the essay. The melancholic's intensity and exhaustiveness of attention set natural limits to the length at which Benjamin could develop his ideas. His major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct.

His style of thinking and writing, incorrectly called aphoristic, might better be called freeze-frame baroque.

Thinking, writing are ultimately questions of stamina. The melancholic, who feels he lacks will, may feel he needs all the destructive energy he can muster.

The ethical task of the modern writer is to be not a creator but a destroyer - a destroyer of shallow inwardness, the consolation notion of the universally human, dilettantish creativity, and empty phrases.

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