Declan Kiberd, reviews Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, gen. ed. Michael Jennings, in The Irish Times (15 July 2000)

Details: Declan Kiberd, ‘The revolutionary use of tradition’, review-article occasioned by publication of Michael Jennings, gen. ed., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vols. 1 & 2, Rof Tiedemann, et al., eds., The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin (Belknap Press 1999).

The greatness of Walter Benjamin’s criticism lay in his ability to balance the mystical and the Marxist in an open philosophy of the future. The publication of English-language versions of works over recent years has allowed us to see just how much he had in common with two other geniuses of Modernism, W. B. Yeats and James Joyce.

If for Benjamin the accumulated labours of past workers were signified by money, for Yeats they appeared as moods. The invisible life of earlier times lived on in the underworld of the fairies, or in energy saved from previous generations which manifested itself in the human body as moods.

Yeats tapped into a collective past long erased from official memory. In his eyes the greatest sin would be to bring the work of dead to nothing. But places needed to be emancipated too, to be reconnected with spirit and rescued from mere ownership. The argument in 19th-century Ireland between landlord and tenant had been about ownership, but the freeing of national territory demanded also a recognition that the land which people walked was holy ground.

Likewise with things. The artist’s duty was to breathe life into objects. In one poem by Yeats, a doll complains about a new-born baby, which it feels to be a poor imitation of itself. Art thus asserts primacy over life: and and the dreams of the present generation (expressed in art) may become flesh in the life of some future time.

The Yeats notion of tradition is very close to that of Benjamin, who wrote: ‘each epoch not only dreams the next but also, while dreaming, impels it towards the moment of its waking’. A redeemed world might be one in which dolls talk and mankind rises to an even higher level of consciousness. Many of Yeats’s greatest poems, from ‘The Second Coming’ to ‘The Stolen Child’, are about the moment of waking from dream to a heightened sense of reality. Hence the utopian thrust of his declaration that ‘the arts lie dreaming of what is to come.’ This made Yeats a real if unlikely fellow-tvaveller of the Karl Marx. who had written: the world has long possessed in the form of a dream something of which has only to become conscious in order to possess reality’.

The surrealists also wanted to animate despised objects, by embracing all those rejected as useless by an over-scientific society. Yeats’s manifesto, A Vision, was in many ways a surrealist text which, in its use of automatic writing, considered dreaming as the way to restore contact with the unconscious. The artist was, in effect, one who could still dream while awake. Freud had joked that every night the sleeper abandons himself to death in high hopes of a dawn reprieve; but for Yeats this was the very model of all literary creation, which happened in those moments when the dreamer reached out of reality.

Yeats believed that art made old, forgotten energies articulate again, and then destroyed them in the very act of expressing them. Benjamin put the same idea more tersely: ‘The art-work is the deathmask of its own conception’. In the new scientific order, energy was on the wane: the more of life that got expressed, the less energy there was left.

Yeats would have agreed with that. On a visit to a zoo, he stared in brief puzzlement at the monkey-cage, before inverting Darwin and concluding that monkeys, far from being the source of humanity, were all degenerate men: ‘hence their look of wizened age’. The only hope for people was to end this cycle of diminishment by recasting life on to a higher plane of consciousness.

When the young student Joyce mocked the 38-year old Yeats, he told the great poet: ‘It is as I feared. You are too old for me to help you.’ But the two had more in common than they thought. In Ulysses a printing machine tries to speak and a bar of soap sings in an advertising jingle, as a rebuke to that humanity which sees itself as the source all articulate creation. The socialist OscarWilde had thought of machinery as something which might allow man to liberate himself from common toil, but even he had never considered emancipating things - merely controlling them.

To Joyce, however, art had good intentions which only technology could fully deliver. The man who opened one of the first Dublin cinemas saw no gap between technology and culture. Even something as banal as an advertising jingle was, for him, filled with utopian longings for a better world; or as Benjamin would put it, ‘the advertisement is the cunning with which the dream imposed itself upon industry.’

Which isn’t to say that Joyce was a naïve celebrant of mass culture. Ulysses is, among other things, an attempt to produce a record of a single day more lasting than a newspaper; yet each of its episodes liquidates its predecessors, much as the second or third editions of a daily paper deny final authority to the first. The wide circulation of news-papers had led to intense concentration upon the immediate moment, with an over-load of information which befuddled rather than illuminated readers. ‘Every morning brings us news of the globe,’ lamented Benjamin, ‘yet we are poor in noteworthy stories.’ Sensation was taking the place of experience; . but Joyce sought to supply in his alternative newspaper the stories of such experience.

Joyce’s hope was to discover a language above and beyond tradition. Like Benjamin and Yeats, he felt that the past should first be celebrated, then liquidated, so that life might be moved on to higher planes. The problem was tha the rich potential of technology had not yet been so fully assimiliated as to have the force of nature for most mortals. The Modernist generation lived in an early phase of the new technological order, being in that sense its primitives: hence the affinities felt with cave art, with Homer’s Odysseus and with Cúchulain. But the urge was to use those past images to press ahead into a scarcely imaginable future.

Benjamin observed that the pace change was so great that new technologies felt obliged to adopt the protective appearance of the older forms which they we designed to overcome: so railcars imitated stagecoaches, electric light-bulbs were made to look like gas-flames, and the Joyce novel mimicked ancient epic. This was one reason why the radical potential of the new often went unfulfilled.

Another was that technology, intended as a means of implementing human dreams, had been mistaken as itself their realisation. Newspapers, for instance, had not fully involved readers in their production, reducing them instead to passive consumers of purveyed sensation. Ulysses, on the contrary, offers itself as a book to be co-authored by the reader. It is saturated in messianic possibility, the sense that Leopold Bloom might transcend the given world and become the prophet of a ‘new Bloomusalem’.

Walter Benjamin’s contention that major art-work contains all past and potential forms is apposite here: for Ulysses is a book utterly aware of itself, filled with self-commentary. Like the bar of soap, it achieves self-consciousness.

Joyce’s attitude to Homer, like Yeats’s to Cúchulain, was anything but respectful. He had no interest in reviving the past in own terms, but in destroying its structures and unleashing their energies in the present. For Benjamin, too, tradition is the moment when a past molecule comes into collision with a present one, releasing a new and unprecedented form of energy into the future. But figures like Odysseus and Cúchulain have their value, since they also are shot through with utopian longings, mostly unfulfilled - and it is for those longings that they are revived.

Joyce’s use of Homer is a mask behind which the author could create something entirely new - like the maker of the electric bulb who gives it the reassuringly familiar look of a gas jet. Behind all of this was the example of those French revolutionaries of 1789 who wore togas in portraits, pretending to be resurrected Romans while actually being futurists.

Benjamin’s lesson (as with all complex thinkers) is simplicity itself. The past is not so much to be repeated as redeemed: the old stories can be made completely available just one last time before they are allowed to disappear.

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