Tag Archives: “One-Way Street”

“Let no thought pass incognito”

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I count myself fortunate in my readership.  Though my stats are nothing to write home about, I have something much more important (to me at least):  a handful of readers apparently willing to think with me.  I was reminded of this by a comment left on a recent post about Walter Benjamin’s writing on newspapers, one that began (auspiciously) by quoting me quoting Benjamin:

“Work itself has its turn to speak.” I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind….

As Benjamin also predicts, again, what was old has become new again. Thank you for turning this up.

For me, this succinct comment resonates like crazy.  The re-citing of Benjamin’s language (in translation, of course) – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – redirects us to a formulation that appears deceptively brief, almost pithy, and yet is anything but.  “I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind” attests that such distilled and difficult thought takes time to unfold, if it is not to vanish irretrievably – succumbing to the threat of disappearance that for Benjamin haunts the dialectical image (a threat that, for blogger and micro-blogger , is part and parcel of reverse chronology).  Indeed, it recalls another passage from Benjamin’s writing, one I cited in a post written at the end of 2009 (http://wp.me/pLpwg-19 ).  “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” part of the volume One-Way Street, lists the following under number 5:  “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”  My gentle reader is precisely not letting this thought – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – pass unrecognized.  (And no one on any side of any border I can think of will miss the stringency of Benjamin’s analogy regarding his notebook-keeping practices.)
The final part of the comment is for me likewise galvanizing:  “Thank you for turning this up.”  My assumption (and I of course stand ready to be corrected) is that the “turning up” involved is not so much a cranking of the volume as a given track is played, but rather akin to an archaeologist’s (or, more prosaically still, a researcher’s) practice when it meets with some success.
But as I have written here before, this blog’s project is very much one of “turning up” writing from the proximate or more distant past that might help us to take stock of our own present, particularly when it comes to the unpredictably unfolding trajectories of media, journalism and historiography.  My own working term and concept for this has been curation, and, for better or worse, this blog is unabashedly curatorial, whether serendipitously or by design.
It goes without saying that I am not the only one who is thinking in terms of curation these days.  To borrow once again from an earlier post ( http://wp.me/pLpwg-Fy ), let me cite Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore:  “For those adrift in a sea of content, good news:  A ‘curation’ economy is beginning to take shape….” [“Twitter lists and real-time journalism,” http://www.cnn.com/2009/tech/11/04/twitter.lists/index.html ]  Whether its inception is late-breaking or old news, there is little doubt that the curation economy is the site of important work, where it may even transpire that “work itself has its turn to speak.”

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Never mind the SEO: For good prose, I’m sticking with Benjamin

As I continue to flaunt my indifference to all things SEO, I present a one-sentence passage from Benjamin’s “One-Way Street,” which appears under the heading “Caution:  Steps” (Selected Writings, vol. 1, 455).

Work on good prose has three steps:  a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.

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Benjamin on leave-taking

Copied from Walter Benjamin’s “One-Way Street,” Selected Writings, vol. 1, 450.


How much more easily the leave-taker is loved!  For the flame burns more purely for those vanishing in the distance, fueled by the fleeting scrap of material waving from the ship or railway window.  Separation penetrates the disappearing person like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance.

…at Half-Mast

When a person very close to us is dying, there is (we dimly apprehend) something in the months to come that – much as we should have liked to share it with him – could happen only through his absence.  We greet him, at the last, in a language that he already no longer understands.

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From your secret valentine (WB)

“To the Public:  Please Protect and Preserve These New Plantings” (from “One-Way Street,” Selected Writings, vol. 1, 449)

What is “solved”?  Do not all the questions of our lives, as we live, remain behind us like foliage obstructing our view?  To uproot this foliage, even to thin it out, does not occur to us.  We stride on, leave it behind, and from a distance it is indeed open to view, but indistinct, shadowy, and all the more enigmatically entangled.

Commentary and translation stand in the same relation to the text as style and mimesis to nature:  the same phenomenon considered from different aspects.  On the tree of the sacred text, both are only the eternally rustling leaves; on that of the profane, the seasonally falling fruits.

He who loves is attached not only to the “faults” of the beloved, not only to the whims and weaknesses of a woman.  Wrinkles in the face, moles, shabby clothing, and a lopsided walk bind him more lastingly and relentlessly than any beauty.  This has long been known.  And why?  If the theory is correct that feeling is not located in the head, that we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but rather in the place where we see it, then we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves.  But in a torment of tension and ravishment.  Our feeling, dazzled, flutters like a flock of birds in the woman’s radiance.  And as birds seek refuge in the leafy recesses of a tree, feelings escape into the shaded wrinkles, the awkward movements and inconspicuous blemishes of the body we love, where they can lie low, in safety.  And no passer-by would guess that it is just here, in what is defective and censurable, that the fleeting darts of adoration nestle.

NB:  One of Benjamin’s ambitions was to write – or rather curate – a magnum opus consisting entirely of citations.

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Losing my religion

Here, twice-transcribed (book-notebook-blog), is another passage from Walter Benjamin’s “One-Way Street.”  Page numbers refer to the Selected Writings, vol. 1.

“Je ne passe jamais devant un fetiche de bois, un Bouddha dore, une idole mexicaine sans me dire:  c’est peut-etre le vrai dieu.”  [“I never pass by a wooden fetish, a gilded Buddha, a Mexican idol without reflecting:  perhaps it is the true God.”] — Charles Baudelaire

I dreamed I was a member of an exploring party in Mexico.  After crossing a high, primeval jungle we came upon a system of above-ground caves in the mountains.  Here, a religious order had survived from the time of the first missionaries till now, its monks continuing the work of conversion among the natives.  In an immense central grotto with a gothically pointed roof, mass was celebrated according to the most ancient rites.  We joined the ceremony and witnessed its climax:  toward a wooden bust of God the Father, fixed high on a wall of the cave, a priest raised a Mexican fetish.  At this, the divine head turned thrice in denial from right to left.

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More copy-blogging with Benjamin

Under the “command” invoked in Benjamin’s “One-Way Street” (cf. previous post), I surrender and comply.  Transcribed below are two more passages from that text, with the headings under which they appear.  Page references are to vol. 1 of the Selected Writings.

Come Back!  All Is Forgiven!

Like someone performing the giant swing on the horizontal bar, each boy spins for himself the wheel of fortune from which, sooner or later, the momentous lot shall fall.  for only that which we knew or practiced at fifteen will one day constitute our attraction.  And one thing, therefore, can never be made good:  having neglected to run away from one’s parents.  From forty-eight hours’ exposure in those years, as if in a caustic solution, the crystal of life’s happiness forms.  (446)

“Chinese Curios”

There are days when no one should rely unduly on his “competence.”  Strength lies in improvisation.  All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.  (447)

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Copy-blogging, a la Walter Benjamin

For several days now I have felt an odd mixture of compulsion and revulsion with regard to writing about Shellie Ross, mother and blogger, who ignited a firestorm (chiefly on Twitter) in the aftermath of reports, including her own updates, that she was tweeting shortly before, and shortly after, her two-year-old son fell in their swimming pool and drowned. The stark juxtaposition of a medium that is already contested (cf. my recent post on George Packer and David Carr) with a life-and-death situation that ends so unequivocally seems to cry out for commentary, critique – some discursive response from those who know and use Twitter and have a passing acquaintance with loss. The journalistic accounts (e.g. from HuffPo, WaPo and the NYT) cite tweets that alternately attack and defend Ms. Ross. Few if any manage to rise above the quagmire of opinion to attain anything resembling judgment.
So I’m taking a pass for the moment, and will confine myself to passing along material on this case as I encounter it, and perhaps return to it after greater distance and more reflection.

Reflection, in my own case, is sorely needed at this juncture. In times like this (though there has never been a time quite like this), there are a handful of writers to whom I return as instinctively as I might reach for an arm or a wall to steady myself and avoid falling down the stairs (I’ve broken enough bones for one lifetime). Chief among these is Walter Benjamin, whom I have invoked and cited more than once (just check my tag cloud) both on my startup blog, fledgling, and here on Makurrah’s Blog.  Last night, as I sought to fend off the great waves of sorrow that crash over me and recede leaving me directionless, I left the house with a volume of Benjamin’s work and my notebook, without a clue where I was headed.  I wound up at a cafe, where I copied out the following (in longhand) with a salutary sense that, if nothing else, I would be able to transcribe it again here today.

From “One-Way Street” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 447-8, under the heading “Chinese Curios”:

The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one is flying over it by airplane.  In the same way, the power of a text when it is read is different from the power it has when it is copied out.  The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it.  Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.  Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it:  because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.  The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas.

Copying, submitting the mind to command – perhaps that’s the way to proceed for now.

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