Unreal Nature

October 23, 2011

Behind the Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:54 am

These snippets are from the writings of Walter Benjamin:

10. Cleverness, a knowledge of human nature, and similar talents are far less important in real life than we imagine. Despite this, there is genius of some sort in every successful person. But we should not try to find it, any more than we should try to find the erotic genius in a Don Juan when he is alone. Success, too, is a rendezvous: it is no small thing to be in the right place at the right time. Because it means understanding the language in which luck makes its arrangements with us. How can anyone who has never in his life heard this language pass judgment on the genius of the successful? He has no conception of it. In his eyes it is all a matter of chance. It does not occur to him that, in the grammar of success, chance plays the same role that irregular verbs do in ordinary grammar.  — first published as part of a numbered list, “The Path to Success, in Thirteen Theses” in the Frankfurter Zeitung, September 1928

Noises. High in the empty streets of the harbor district they are as densely and loosely clustered as butterflies on a hot flower bed. Every step stirs a song, a quarrel, a flapping of wet linen, a rattling of boards, a baby’s bawling, a clatter of buckets. Only you have to have strayed up here alone, if you are to pursue them with a net as they flutter away unsteadily into the stillness. For in these deserted corners all sounds and things still have their own silences, just as, at midday in the mountains, there is a silence of hens, of axes, of cicadas. But the chase is dangerous, and the net is finally torn when, like a gigantic hornet, a grindstone impales it from behind with its whizzing sting. — first published as part of an un-numbered list “Marseilles” in Neue schweizer Rundischau in April 1929

Too Close. I dreamed I was on the Left Bank of the Seine, in front of Notre Dame. I stood there, but saw nothing that resembled Notre Dame. A brick building loomed, revealing the extremities of its massive shape, above a high wooden fence. But I was standing in front of Notre Dame, overwhelmed. And what overwhelmed me was yearning — yearning for the very same Paris in which I found myself in my dream. So what was the source of this yearning? And where did this utterly distorted, unrecognizable object come from? — It was like that because I had come too close to it in my dream. The unprecedented yearning that had overcome me at the heart of what I had longed for was not the yearning that flies to the image from afar. It was the blissful yearning that has already crossed the threshold of image and possession, and knows only the power of the name — the power from which the loved one lives, is transformed, ages, rejuvenates itself, and, imageless, is the refuge of all images. — from an un-numbered assortment, “Short Shadows”, first published in Neue schweizer Rundschau, November 1929

On Belief in Things That Have Been Prophesied. To investigate the circumstances of someone who appeals to dark powers is one of the quickest and surest ways of understanding these powers and learning how to criticize them. For every miracle has two sides: one for the person who performs it, and another for the person to whom it happens. And the second is often more illuminating than the first, because it contains the latter’s secret within itself. If someone has had his handwriting analyzed, his palm read, or his horoscope cast, what we would like to ask is: What is happening to him? You would think that the person concerned would start by comparing and examining — by sifting more or less skeptically one assertion after another. But far from it. If anything, you see the opposite — above all, a curiosity about the result, a curiosity as urgent as if he were waiting for information about a matter of great importance, but of which he knew nothing. The fuel for this burning curiosity is vanity.

… We yearn for this game with masks as a kind of intoxication, and it is this that enables fortune tellers and palm-readers and astrologers to earn a living even today. They know how to transport us into one of those silent pauses of fate that only subsequently turn out to have possessed the seed for quite a different lot in life from the one given us. The fact that fate may stop beating, like a heart — this is something we sense with profound, ecstatic terror in those seemingly so meager, seemingly so distorted images of ourselves that the charlatan holds out to us. And we hasten all the more to confirm his predictions, the more thirstily we feel the shadows of the lives we never lived welling up within us. —also from an un-numbered assortment, “Short Shadows”, first published in Neue schweizer Rundschau, November 1929

All of the following is from “Some Remarks on Folk Art” written in 1929:

Folk art and kitsch ought for once to be regarded as a single great movement that passes certain themes from hand to hand, like batons, behind the back of what is known as great art. They both depend on great art at the level of detail, but apply what they have taken in their own way and in the service of their own “goals,” their Kunstwollen.

What is the direction of this Kunstwollen? Well, certainly not toward art, but toward something far more primitive, yet more compelling. If we ask ourselves what “art” in the modern sense means to folk art on the one  hand and to kitsch on the other, the answer would be: all folk art incorporates the human being within itself. It addresses him only so that he must answer. Moreover, he answers with questions: “Where and when was it?” The idea surfaces in him that this space and this moment and this position of the sun must have existed once before. To throw the situation that is imagined here around one’s shoulders, like a favourite old coat — this is the deepest temptation awakened by the refrain of a folk song, in which a basic feature of all folk art may be perceived.

… When we are in earnest, we discover our conviction that we have experienced infinitely more than we know about. This includes what we have read, and what we have dreamed, whether awake or in our sleep. And who knows how and where we can open up other regions of our destiny?

What we experienced but do not know about echoes, after its own fashion, when we enter the world of primitives; their furniture, their ornaments, their songs and pictures. “After a fashion” — this means in quite a different way from great art. As we stand in front of a painting by Titian or Monet, we never feel the urge to pull out our watch and set it by the position of the sun in the picture. But in the case of pictures in children’s books, or in Utrillo’s paintings, which really do recuperate the primitive, we might easily get such an urge.

Utrillo, Maison Rose

… the situation is not one experienced by a bystander; it has been pulled over our heads — we have wrapped ourselves up in it.

… Impoverished, uncreative man knows of no other way to transform himself than by means of disguise. Disguise seeks the arsenal of masks within us. But for the most part, we are very poorly equipped with them. In reality, the world is full of  masks; we do not suspect the extent to which even the most unpretentious pieces of furniture (such as romanesque armchairs) used to be masks, too. Wearing a mask, man looks out on the situation and builds up his figures within it. To hand over these masks to us, and to form the space and the figure of our fate within it — this is where folk art comes to meet us halfway. Only from this vantage point can we say clearly and fundamentally what distinguishes it from “more authentic” art, in the narrower sense.

Art teaches us to look into objects.

Folk art and kitsch allow us to look outward from within objects.




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