Thursday, September 4, 2014

On Benjamin: mystic, firebrand, priest, libertine

As an unashamed intellectual, Benjamin spent large portions of his life reading, writing, editing, and researching. But he was also a devoted traveler (he believed in foreign jaunts as a cure-all for most writerly ills); something of a ladies’ man; a loyal aficionado of plush casinos; and an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs. He was, in short, a logjam of contradictions: part Jewish mystic, part Marxist firebrand; skeptical priest, polite libertine. A line that Jean Cocteau devised for Orson Welles could equally apply to Benjamin: “an active loafer, a wise madman, a solitude surrounded by humanity.”

Some of the current vogue for Benjamin may stem from our nostalgia for the vanished dream of grand European culture to which he belonged. Photographs of Benjamin at work in elegant libraries, or strolling along tourist-free Mediterranean streets, provoke feelings of awed and envious benevolence. In today’s insipid, rigorously PC academy, Benjamin represents a burst of real flavor. He’s kind of sexy, by academic standards. As well as doing literary criticism (and conducting a pitiless interrogation of the status and value of same), he also wrote about window displays, travel, children’s books, drugs, food, and films. The gorgeous One-Way Street (1928) reads like a textual kaleidoscope: a glinting mix of views, shadows, memories, and jokes. His is a nomad thought: unmoored and unhurried, sometimes flinty, sometimes a bit vague and stoned. Benjamin works in starts and stops, to a strange fugue-like pulse. His sentences have a hesitant, leaning rhythm, not unlike the playing of Thelonious Monk: you’re never quite sure where the next emphasis is going to fall.

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