January 31, 2009

Remnants and Recastings: Benjamin's Realm

"Only on that particular day was catastrophe possible."

--Hannah Arendt, "Introduction" to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations.

At Passages, J. Bowring, author of A Field Guide to Melancholy, shows a clip of her venture into the Walter Benjamin memorial of Dani Karavan.

The space is a descending slant along, almost hovering above, the rocky shore of Portbou, on the Spanish coast. While Karavan's work is often marked by a false whiteness -- bright paths cut into grass, towers rising from the brownish soil, pillars in a public alley -- the memorial to Benjamin is aptly and strikingly dark. Perhaps this is to echo the title of Benjamin's massive project, Passagen-Werk, and the sense of the dim afterglow he evoked in those Paris arcades. But it must also refer to the passage through the Pyrenees from France, and obviously, in Benjamin's case, to death. Its brick and steel tones speak to both the slow erosion of entropy and the more powerful, unavoidable grind of the sea at the bottom of the memorial's arc.

Because Spain's rail system uses a different track system than the rest of Europe, Portbou has long been a dreary point for arrivals and departure along the coast; those waiting to enter from France, or leave for it, often stacked in the station, dull and tired. Or that is how it was a long time ago, when a great many fewer people would have heard the name -- now with its saint-like aura -- of the writer who committed suicide there in 1940, his attempt to escape Nazified Europe having failed. Today he is more widely recognized, if surely few would have made a pilgrimage to his memorial on a biting January day, and perhaps, though his burial spot was long unmarked and is now expanded to include the sea and earth, the station fills and empties like clockwork, most passers-through oblivious to what occurred so close, where a catastrophe occurred just once, on a certain day, and even then was hardly understood by those who found the body of just another escapee.

January 30, 2009

Leaving Writing

"Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. . . . Maybe I've always written for no other reason than to win grace from this countenance. Because of disappearance. To confront perpetually the mystery of the there-not there. The visible and the invisible. To fight against the law that says, 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above of that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.' Against the decree of blindness. I have often lost my sight; and I will never finish fashioning the graven image for myself. My writing watches. Eyes closed."
--Helene Cixous, "Coming to Writing"

Photos from Graeme Mitchell: John Updike, 1962; Graeme Mitchell, "Inside a Found Book."

January 24, 2009

Critical Lens

Through Brecht's glasses; viewing a dedication by Walter Benjamin:

From Tomoko Yoneda's "Between Visible and Invisible" series.

January 20, 2009


This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I can not be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic citizens are desirous of having the National Constitution amended. While I
make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have referred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this if also they choose, but the Executive as such has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present Government as it came to his hands and to transmit it unimpaired by him to his successor.
Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.

By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new Administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

--Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

January 19, 2009

Remembering the Older Forms of Renunciation

The State of Israel: Through millenia of persecution, the Jews held together for the sake of justice. Their rituals, marriage and circumcision, dietary laws ad holy days were moments of cohesion, of continuity. Jewry was not a powerful state but the hope for justice at the end of the world. They were a people and its opposite, a rebuke to all peoples. Now, a state claims to be speaking for Jewry, to be Jewry. The Jewish people in whom the injustice of all peoples has become an accusation, the individuals in whose words and gestures the negative of what is reflected itself, have now become positive themselves. A nation among nations, soldiers, leaders, money-raisers for themselves. Like Christianity once in the Catholic church, but with smaller chances for success, Jewry is now to see the goal in the state of Israel. How profound a resignation in the very triumph of its temporal success. It purchases its survival by paying tribute to the law of the world as it is. Hebrew may be its language, but it is the language of success, not that of the prophets. It has adapted to the state of the world. Let him who is free of guilt cast the first stone. Except . . . it is a pity, for what was meant to be preserved through much renunciation disappears from the world as a result of it, as in the victory of Christianity. The good is good, not because it is victorious but because it resists victory. It must be hoped that the national subjection to the law of the world not meet as drastic an end as that of the individuals did in Europe of Hitler, Stalin, and Franco, and as it may under their overdue successors.

--Max Horkheimer, 1961

January 16, 2009

Wyeth in Winter

Andrew Wyeth, of muted winter light and living cold, dead.

January 14, 2009

Watching Them Burn

And now far-off smoke pearls from homestead rooftops
and from high mountains the greater shadows fall

--Virgil, Ecologues I

They took to the Tennessee hills to watch the civil war battle below (1864). Today, Israelis watch the smoke pearls from the besieged Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The reported story points out that only two miles separates the spectators from the bombing and those being bombed; only two miles of hills and ground and rock, absolutely walkable, divides the citizens of one state from the stateless dwellers of a patch of coralled territory beneath them.

As the political economist and Gaza-expert Sara Roy has said of late, the walling in, the concrete division of the civilized from the barbarians -- who are tunneling, cunning, vile and clever, it is said, over and over -- was the first, long stage of this assault. With withdrawal of the settlers came the purity of curtailing human movement, the further cleansing of Jerusalem, the ensnarement of the prey. It is almost a year to the day that she published a piece describing the absolute economic and psychological and legal collapse of the strip. A year of weakening before the figurative bulldozing of life by air, sea, and finally land.

Those sitting upon the hill, on plastic chairs, eating olives, drinking Pepsi, what do they see? Do the plumes of smoke rising so close bring them a feel of homestead calm? Of righteous delivery onto that land? Does their skin shiver with the thrill of death delivered to the enemy? Or do they shift in the dust, knowing that their IDF has not yet killed enough, that the government they choose cannot create a wall high enough, and that the enthusiasts for the slaughter cannot bring their dire dream to fruition fast enough to fend off the eventual inheritance of incomplete empires?

January 9, 2009

An Unforeseen Logic

Child, certain skies have sharpened my eyesight. Their characters cast shadows on my face. The phenomena agitate. And now, the everlasting inflection of moments and the infinity of mathematics hunt me throughout the world where I experience civic popularity, the respect of strange children, and tremendous affection. I dream of a War -- for right or power -- of an unforeseen logic.

It is as simple as a musical phrase.

--J.N. Arthur Rimbaud, "War"

January 5, 2009

Finding Ways to the Persecuted

With the persecuted in late, un-

Das Morgen-Lot, gilded,
hafts itself to your co-
swearing, co-
scratching, co-

--Paul Celan.

The demonstrations expand, city to city. Reports today suggested they were fueled by the old equation of Israel with Nazis, occupation and confinement with the Holocaust. But as people in pockets around the globe now gather, march, and waive signs, the indications are clear that the lingua franca of the world-wide outpouring is generally one of solidarity and support: a long-ignored flag becomes, before us, a more potent symbol; posters proclaim the ideal of a unified Palestine; calls for peace in a placid font and bolder insistence to stop the massacring of civilians. The language of human rights, the capacity to clearly name evil, to recognize, through the fog of foreign strategy discourse, the reality of Palestinian suffering beyond all that is acceptable, may be evolving here. Maybe, maybe not.

As the bodies pile higher in what must be the many make-shift morgues, or sink further into rubble, hospitals are bombed and aid workers killed. A conservative estimate, tonight, of 125 civilians killed. The (legal, all too legal) use of white phosphorus. The people of Gaza cannot, it is suggested by Livni, suffer a humanitarian crisis because humanity, says Netanyahu, is on the side of the righteous aggressor. His remark was typical of the bombast, hers perhaps informed by the Israeli High Court's willingness to rule that the minimum amount of fuel and food allowed to seep through the blockade constituted the avoidance of international law violation and the responsibility of a governing body. Against the backdrop of territorial dissection of a densely populated area by tank, entrenched positioning by a sophisticated army, and continued aerial bombings, nothing that does not cry with remorse is credible from those on the side of safety.

In response to the persecution, for now: mourning, solidarity noise, a flag new to many contexts. The rest may come. Maybe, maybe not.

January 1, 2009

This Year We Are Here

The days and their thoughts are split. Particulars are abstracted out, "again and again," the melodies divided into tones, the verses into words, the statue into the discreet swings of the hammer, persons into things, bombs into reason.

Also, respite into peace. So the paths of the disparate crisscross one another, the bleeding ideas shaped by the difference with the affirming feeling still there, the time of particulars dissolving into the utterance of beauty, the timely timelessness of prayer -- then "the tempests of causality cower at my heels, and the whirl doom congeals." No deception there: "here is the cradle of actual life" (Martin Buber, I-Thou).

This actual is said to remain in spite of the realities all around, cataloged and dispiriting. It is felt in the humane healings and the very capacity of hope by those most feelingly vulnerable to hopelessness.

"Madness, thou has prevailed. . . . But we need not therefore think that we must sink altogether. Reason and spirit have known, through many thousand years, that things do not go their way on this earth; surely they have not confuted, or crushed, or given the lie, by a defeat as preposterous as this. It is the way of the world -- it always has been; but that does not mean we did wrong to wish it otherwise. To be against such a thing as [we witness] is always to be right, let it turn out as it will. The way that history has taken in this instance is so foul, it has such a stench of lying and knavery, that no man need be ashamed of having refused to take it. And who can say whether it will not still lead through such abominations that we are justified of our faith?

We must have no fear. Reason and truth may suffer apparent eclipse. But in us, in our hearts, they are eternally free. And looking down from the bright regions of art, the spirit may laugh at the triumphant folly of the hour. Not forsaken and alone, but secure in the bond uniting it with all the best on earth." (Thomas Mann, 1938)

And so for the year to come and for that which is not forsaken, nor forsaking the world as it is: Steve Earle, courtesy of Ted Barron: Jerusalem

Photos: Gaza (1/1/2009) and Andre Kertesz