"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 19 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

All About the Benjamins

What's so powerful about the work of the German Jewish culture critic Walter Benjamin (died 1940, a suicide) is exactly what's so depressing about the reviews that greeted the first English publication of his life's masterpiece, The Arcades Project, earlier this year. Benjamin emerges as a glamorous failure , an early slacker with great thoughts and noble ambitions who could never really get it together long enough to write a staightforward book or earn a stable university position (being a Jew hounded out of Germany and France by Nazis didn't help). For the reviewers, the signal image is that of the flaneur or idler, a romantic citydweller who's been made into a sort of cute trademark which the critics take as a sign portending nothing much more than the rise of the mall rat. The character of the world-weary bohemian seems about as fresh and potent as one of those childhood teddybears with the eyes, nose and mouth rubbed off; it even clings to descriptions of Benjamin's death, during an attempt to escape from occupied France into Fascist Spain. "A bureaucratic quirk prevented anybody from exiting France that day," reads a characteristic article in The Nation. "Spent and unable to take any more, on the evening of the 25th, with the Gestapo moving in, Benjamin swallowed his entire morphine supply, all fifty tablets. He was dead by morning. He'd threatened suicide for years. Now, he'd really gone through with it."

Great Man done in by the cruel hand of History or petulant artiste dying of his own ineffectuality? Benjamin's death was even sadder and more ridiculous: The Gestapo wasn't even moving in. That bureaucratic quirk was a one-day snafu; if Benjamin had just waited until morning, it's more than likely he would have made it out of France and spun out the war in the relative comfort of Riverside Drive, working on his book, talking about important stuff with other intellectuals, maybe taking in the occasional gung-ho propaganda film with a script by Dalton Trumbo. The teetering balance between the mundane and tragic, the way a dumb mixup blows up into catastrophe, suggests that what's so powerful about Benjamin's Arcades Project is exactly what's so scary about the images in Luc Sante's Evidence, a collection of crime scene photos (New York City, 1914-1918) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1992). The effect of the pictures — anonymous bodies in unplaceable dives, taken "so long ago that the people in them would now be dead even if they had enjoyed long and untroubled lives" — comes from how cheap and ordinary they are. The past doesn't get much deader than this; yet the pictures are peculiarly restless and alive. They don't fall into our usual packages for death scenes from the past. They're not swaggering, tough-guy gangland massacres, full-costume civil war battles, or the stunning, lushly sad human pileups of concentration camps. Taken in low-rent districts of New York during WWI, these boring deaths in alleyways, bars and messy beds are too eerily normal to be Great Events. It's the potential meaning inherent in that normality to which Benjamin was sensitive, which he searched for ways to unlock. The events of these people's lives are unplaceable because they're so typical — people have always died like this and we're going to go on dying this way. Deprived of a noble or tragic Event to be a part of, they float in a vacuum: short guy in suit, on floor of bedroom — oh yeah, dead. As dead as Benjamin himself.

60 years after his fatal overdose of morphine, Benjamin is now best known as a theorist of the aura, that patina of meaning and power that radiates from objects ranging from the Mona Lisa to old shoes. His most famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," studied how the social power condensed in objects (an untouchable Torah scroll or Original Master Painting) changed along with the technology that made them (a cheap paperback bible or poster of the Mona Lisa). Benjamin liked the way the mass production of images blew away the sacredness of high art: Sante's photos catch these images in the drab rooms of the immigrant and vice districts of the 'teens, the intimate spaces of their native habitat.

Not what you'd think of as world-historical, the scariest and most radiant things in Sante's photos are the objects captured in John and Jane Does' bedrooms. The tiny mementoes with which they brightened their lives or at least distracted their eyes are hardly Mona Lisas, but in the pictures of these pictures they have gained an aura. Their objects seem to go on radiating whatever they radiate after their owners die: If a tree falls in the forest and all the people who heard it are dead, the wood might be a collector's item. Scariest of the radiant, scary objects are the pictures on the walls: they're too singular and specific. The sainted aunt whose head is just a little too square and hair a little too chunky to fit in the cheap gilt frame; she stares out in a way different from the way your aunt would (is there such a thing as a stare from the 1900s? Did they stare differently back then?) but in a way totally the same, petrified by the photographer. The photo haunts the family member through moves from house to house. They were as essential and unnoticeable as the little things around you right now. Along with the walk to work, the love letters or divorce papers, the evening meal, passing glances on the street, these things made up the textures of their lives, now lost and indecipherable and useless. We know that our lives, too, will probably pass this way; we can only pretend not to be like them. So are these countless people just totally dead to us? Could we share anything with them? Better, we must share something with them: But exactly what is it, how can we see it?

Benjamin's methodology of analyzing the stuff of everyday life and the texts of all manner of writers, weaving them together as clues to a puzzle the reader is invited to help solve, is a chance to try and answer these questions. He decried the way conventional history erases scenes like these and reduces everything to a smooth story, a narrative of winners, of influential individuals and events. There's no worse indictment of the story version of history — a ponderously objective-sounding tale of how Great Men, or Great Historical Forces, made events begin and end — than the way it misses this evidence. History's silence here is at once moral, aesthetic and political: It tells big stories about the past (Though some historians would ask if the lowlife past of Sante's subjects is even the same as the highlife past of the bigwigs who ran WWI), but in its "objective" form it refuses to say much about how we relate to the past. The exception proves the rule: the romantic uses of history that invoke the past to bring people together (as nations, religions, "races") tend towards propaganda and hollow myth. Each nation's uniqueness and supreme value lives in denial of the uniqueness and value of the people it has to kill in war, of everybody else's dead. If the US soldiers of WWII were the "greatest generation" because they helped defeat Hitler, what does that make the soldiers of the same generation who fought for Communist Russia and probably had a greater hand in actually vanquishing the Nazis? If people's greatness comes from something as obvious as courage and sacrifice to a nation state, that greatness is nevertheless erased from the point of view of any other nation state: People disappear both as individuals and as parts of anything bigger than their countries.

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