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Walter Benjamin is a figure in vogue among post-modernists in American academia. I’ve been to a number of conferences at which speakers quote his works, usually followed by a grating mispronunciation of his name and some silly po-mo interpretation of his writing. I wonder how Benjamin would rate his late-found notoriety and the metamorphosis of his thought that it presents. But Benjamin is an important writer and thinker—he’s a literary critic, a philosopher, an impressive word sculptor.
It’s often said that the proximity of death has a wonderful ability to clear and focus the mind. But there can’t be many instances in human history where that was quite so much the case as with Benjamin. He was an anti-Nazi writer, a Jew, an Expressionist—vilified by the Nazis. His books had been banned and burned. He fled into emigration in France. By the early months of 1940 the Nazi drive across France had begun, French defenses were collapsing, and Benjamin knew that the Gestapo was looking for him. He was seeking desperately to flee across the Atlantic, to America, to safety. But his plans went dreadfully awry.
He made it as far as Portbou on the Spanish side of the Pyrennes, and there, in the Hotel de Francia, he committed suicide through an overdose of morphine. The circumstances are unclear, but it seems that he feared that his escape was about to fail, and that he faced capture and death at the hands of the Nazis. His last weeks of life had been spent feverishly scribbling on a manuscript called “On the Concept of History.” It is a very brief, amazing work, and it has come down to us through lucky happenstance: Hannah Arendt passed the same way from France into Spain a couple of months later, found the manuscript at the hotel where Benjamin had been staying, and brought it with her to America.
I thought of this quote earlier in the day when a friend from London contacted me. He and I made some trips to Baghdad together last spring, and on one of the trips—as our Royal Jordanian flight was making its spiral descent into Baghdad–out of the blue he quoted a passage from Benjamin’s second historical-philosophical thesis. It’s the most striking of the eighteen theses, compelling for many reasons. And also, in my mind, tied to the Hofmannsthal poem that I have translated below.
Perhaps I am simply wrong in linking these two works, but the first time I read Benjamin’s work on the philosophy of history, I saw the very distinctive words and thoughts of the haunting Hofmannsthal poem drifting through it. There’s no question that Benjamin knows the Hofmannsthal poem and that he’s quoting it in this thesis—the language is simply too close, the images almost identical, the thoughts perfectly aligned. The second historical-philosophical thesis is a reworking of this poem into philosophical prose.
Hofmannsthal is writing at the dawn of modern psychoanalysis, in Vienna, the city that gave birth to this new science. This poem was published just as Freud was writing his studies on hysteria and shortly before he wrote the Interpretation of Dreams. So these ideas—the notion of ego and id, the conception of alienation, appear as shadows in the poem’s background. But the ideas which appear more in the foreground would be Ernst Mach’s Analysis of Perceptions (Analyse der Empfindungen) or the writings on impressionism by Hofmannsthal’s friend Hermann Bahr.
But even more apparent, I think, are thoughts of classical antiquity, especially of Heraclitus, the man who wrote in one of the surviving fragments of his book: “All things are in motion and nothing remains still.” In fact, Aristotle once summarized Heraclitus’s writing on the transitory nature of the universe by saying that in a sense no man can ever wade into the same river two times, because through the passage of time both the man and the river will be different than they were before. Aristotle was being perhaps a bit sarcastic, but he does capture the essence of Heraclitus’s view.
And this paraphrasing comes very close to the first poem, the one to which Hofmannsthal applies the title “On the Transitory,” though it always seemed to me that this label was intended to apply to all four poems in this short series. In this poem, Hofmannsthal expresses just this essence of the transitory, taking as reference points breath (anima, so also, especially to one trained in classics, the soul or spirit), the child, the narrator (the child matured), deceased ancestors, and most vividly struck in the end note—hair. Of course we humans speak of our hair as if it were something static, but the hair of the child and of the adult are different things; the evidence of a body transformed.
And beyond Heraclitus, I think there is a strong touch of the Stoic philosophers here, of Seneca and Cicero, with their notion of a golden cord that binds humankind across time and space. In Hofmannsthal’s poem we see the sequence—ancestors to offspring—and the concept is unfolded in terms of an almost genetic succession. The notion of DNA was not developed in 1894, of course, but just this notion of a code which gives life, form and identity and ties human embodiment across a great sweep of time lies at the heart of Hofmannsthal’s poem.
The second poem takes a haunting image of the young girl seemingly on the brink of death. I can’t read this without hearing the strains of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Rückertlieder, which were written about seven years later, and which evoke the same images. The pictures that Hofmannsthal uses—the young innocent life fading into the infinite blue of the sea, the trees and grass—are the same that Heraclitus uses. But in the end, Hofmannsthal contrasts this with a Christian image—a saint spilling her blood, a suggestion of universality.
There are a number of very problematic lines in the poem series from a translator’s perspective. But then there is the opening of the third poem, which is easy. Here it’s Hofmannsthal’s German that is the translation. The original is in English. He’s quoting one of the most famous lines of Shakespeare’s Tempest (Prospero: “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep” act iv, sc i). He tugs at the idea of a collective subconscious, a unifying oversoul. But key in this poem is the striking last line: the curious trinity of humankind, things and dreams. And here Hermann Bahr’s famous essay on impressionism, one of the landmark works of Junges Wien, the artistic circle to which Hofmannsthal belonged (with Arthur Schnitzler, for instance), provides some clarification:
The impressionist dissolves the divisions between humankind and nature. A stone, an animal, a human being and an angel—in essence that is all the same creature, each is a manifestation of holy life.
That was penned roughly six years after the poems in terza rima, and it provides a perfect key to understanding Hofmannsthal’s curious words.
The fourth poem in the series invokes marvelous imagery, it is redolent of the symbolists and certainly of a high aestheticism. The matching of physical landscape to imagery is very impressive (for instance, mirror/pond, course of life/path, the plain allusion to Goethe most famous poem in the tree-tops/breathing). As with many such poetic works, it seems a shame to deconstruct the text; it gains from the lyricism of its language and the mystery of its images.
It’s interesting that Hofmannsthal takes the terza rima as the form for his poem; this is not a common form for a German poet. It would be closely associated with Dante, of course, the form of the Divine Comedy, but also favored by English poets of the 17th century, like Milton. Both of these periods are important to Hofmannsthal and his writing. Again, I see in the form a stressing of universality—of a cultural chain stretching across many centuries and spanning Europe from Italy to England.
Benjamin’s thesis is a transcription of this poem. He reworks it as a thesis for the philosophy of history. He borrows many of its images, and he transforms its spirit. The notion of beauty from decline is left behind. Instead what Benjamin gives us is the notion of a past which beckons, summons, commands those who have inherited the world. There is an unmistakably Mosaic sense to this—it’s present throughout the few pages of On the Concept of History, but it makes its most obvious appearance right here. We are given a weak Messianic power, he writes—just as the generations before us were possessed of such a power. It is a challenge to seize the fruits left by those who proceeded us, and to be sound custodians of the earth for those who will come next, adding some incremental benefit to the accumulated wisdom, science and art of our species.
Neither Benjamin nor Hofmannsthal ever wrote anything more profound or important than these short works.
More from Scott Horton:
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Discussed in this essay:
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.
The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:
“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.
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Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.
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