Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 9

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Benjamin, Walter

There are no rules to this project other than to proceed in more or less alphabetical order to the last shelf, with sideshows for reference books and magazines and so forth along the way. I may have to add one rule, however. No rereading books before writing about them -- just give them a once over and write the blog entry. Otherwise I'll be doing this until I die.

Here's why I say this: I picked Illuminations off the shelf and my giving the book a once-over quickly turned into bringing the book to bed. I haven't read any of these essays in several years and as I looked at the table of contents (not to mention the title of the next book on the shelf, The Arcades Project) I realized that Aimless Reading owes a lot to the author of this book.

Of course, the first essay is "Unpacking My Library," which is essentially the subtitle, or at least the inspiration, for this project. Benjamin's essay is more about collectors and their motivations and passions. While I can say that I have a collection of books, I cannot say that I am a collector in the sense that he is talking about. I have a few cool books that may or may not be considered rare or valuable, but I do not seek these out. Most books enter my library because I have read them or I plan to read them. In some cases I buy them because I might want to read them or, at the very least, look through them, at some point or other, and in some other cases I am given books to review or to consider their authors for readings at Just Buffalo. In many cases I have traded my own poetry books for the books of other poets I have met. I am sure there are other ways books enter my library, but none of them have anything to do with auctions or catalogs or rare book rooms. My love of the individual books has none of the ardor of the collector that Benjamin describes, though I can say I love all of them together and I love having a relationship with them over time.

Where I do feel a kinship with this essay, and where I think this project owes something to WB is in the relationship of this collection to memory. Part of what I am trying to record are my memories of having purchased these books. Remembering the place and the time of my life in which I first encountered each book unlocks a lot of personal memories, which I find useful and intriguing. And then there is my (often faulty) memory for what the books contain. I am interested in re-discovering these lost moments, lost passages and lost words from my life so far.

(I just turned 40 and I suddenly find myself bewildered by the passage of time. I want it back!)

Christ, that's just one essay from this little book. Of course, I was just discussing a translation of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal a few entries back, and Benjamin's amazing essay, "The Task of the Translator," concerns itself with that exact book. I reread that, of course, and I also reread the essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," which is both a study of B's poetry and an examination of the function of memory in the modern world, referencing Proust and Bergson heavily in its examination of Baudelaire.

I am happy to say I have read all of In Search Of Lost Time since the last time I read Benjamin, which made rereading these essays a richer and more comprehensible experience than before.  I almost waited another night to write a blog entry so I could reread "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the latter having been hugely important to me in grad school as I was thinking about poetry and history and poets writing about history and Olson so forth.

Alas, I will probably revisit them tonight, but the blog must go on. And so it does. I leave you with this (from Theses...):

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was" (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain the image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, comes as the subduer of the Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

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