for 5 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
All About the
What a fine, kind, tribute. Thank you.
All sorts of images spin off from your article. Dear Professor Kant and lives as ends versus lives as means. Lots of poetry think late Yeats and Crazy Jane. Early Dutch still-life paintings, with their incredible sense of things caught in transition. Flying over the center of the country and that flash of satori...realizing that in every one of those tiny tickytacky houses below live people who KNOW that when they die, the world ends.
Again, thanks. Fine writing.
Alan S Kornheiser
I have often mused on the idea that when I die, the world ends. When in fact, when I die, the world endures. This fundamentally galling fact is responsible for its revenge-fantasy inversion, also known as the Apocalypse, as well as the story of Noah and his Ark: when the world dies, I endure. But socially, when we die, something does endure.
I really enjoyed reading your article this morning. I haven't read such well thought-out prose in a long time. It's really a refreshing change from the usual drivel that mainstream journalists churn out. The journalism schools (here in Canada at least) beat down those creative and critical sparks that breathe life into a story like yours. The focus is Who, What, Where, When and Why but they've lost sight of Why Is This Significant or Who Cares?
Thank you for an enjoyable read. I hope to see more of your work in the future.
Thanks for the kind words, Aaron--along with his history writing, Benjamin had high hopes for journalism too, as well as children's literature and radio. There's a reason that the Cult-Studs want to adopt him as one of their own. Sadly, Benjamin never lived to see Canada.
Dear Hypatia Sanders, I really enjoyed your piece on Walter Benjamin in today's Suck, and I think you're right on target about the "reception" of Benjamin's writings by assorted book reviewers, literati, and academics in this country. As an American conversant with Benjamin's writings in German who spent several years teaching American studies at the J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt--my office was right across from the apartment of Adorno's widow and many of my closest friends there had been students of Adorno--I wanted to pass along the following observations. First, I think the image of Benjamin as a schlemiel of genius, the schlemiel as genius--you use the more charitable term bohemian--owes a great deal to the essay by Hannah Arendt which first appeared in the New Yorker, later serving as the introduction to Illuminations, and which for all purposes introduced him to an English-speaking audience for the first time. But the essay furnished Arendt with an occasion for settling scores with Adorno, whom she loathed as she did all members of the Frankfurt School, by tacitly comparing the luckless Benjamin who dedicated himself to the Pursuit of Truth and for whom nothing ever turned out right with the comfortable university professor. At one point she refers--I am relying on memory--to the letters Adorno wrote to Benjamin while he was living in poverty in Paris as arcane discussions of Marxist theory--as if Adorno had his head in the clouds while Benjamin was starving to death. But not only do the letters provide a brilliant commentary on what Benjamin was attempting at the time he was working on the Passagenarbeit and Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, he himself would have wanted nothing less than that kind of response--and Adorno was the only person capable or interested in supplying it.
Similarly, it is easy to present Benjamin's death as nearly a martyrdom--which in a certain sense it was, but no more so than the death of the lowliest shop assistant from Krakow who ended up being gassed at Auschwitz. Benjamin certainly had some need to flee France--although he was not Gerhart Eisler or Wilhelm Pieck, he was nevertheless an associate and admirer of Bertolt Brecht, and he would have had no doubts about what fate awaited any "Jewish Communist" who fell into the hands of the Nazis, as he certainly would have had he chanced remaining in France. Also, unlike many refugees, Benjamin had a visa to enter this country which Horkheimer and Adorno had been able to obtain for him. However, Benjamin was in very bad shape at the moment he tried to escape into Spain. He apparently suffered from a heart problem and couldn't walk around the block without getting out of breath--Susan Sontag, discussing the photos of Benjamin, has rightly pointed how he seems to have prematurely aged after his immigration to France. But the trip across the Pyrenees was a physically exhausting one, requiring the participants to crawl through vineyards and over rocky passes, often on hands and knees, to avoid attracting the attention of the French border patrols. The edition of the Passagenarbeit in the complete German edition of Benjamin's works includes an account of the trip by a woman who eventually settled in this country, describing the rigors of the journey and relating how Benjamin insisted on lugging along a suitcase filled with manuscripts. Realistically, I think anyone in that position--no longer young, suffering from ill-health, having just gone through such a draining experience, and facing certain death from Nazi butchers if forced to turn back--would have made the same decision and taken his or her own life. Secondly, I think the American interpretation of Benjamin has been strongly influenced by the fact that Das Kunstwerk was one of the first of his writings to become well-known here, and his earlier work has often been read as if it were a prologue to his later, highly politicized essays from the 1930's. However, his works from the 1920's--particularly his dissertation on Romantic art criticism, the long essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, and the treatise on the German Trauerspiel--are arguably the most important things he ever wrote, and none of those can be characterized as Marxist, even if the sense of outrage at injustice is ever present in Benjamin's writing from early on. Following what Adorno aptly termed Benjamin's "assumption [as a world view] of dialectical materialism with closed eyes," the latter tried to force his highly idiosyncratic, profoundly theologically colored body of ideas into the straightjacket of orthodox Marxist doctrine--such as he had apparently picked it up from Brecht and the ideological gurus of the KPD. This could only result in a double act of violence, both to Benjamin's own ideas and Marxist doctrine. It is also true that this act of violence led Benjamin to apply Marxist concepts to the study of history and art in a way no one has done before or after, but it remains an act of violence nonetheless, a point that did not escape the ever vigilant Brecht, who blew a fuse when he read Das Kunstwerk--and contemptuously rejected it as a perversion of Marxism. I am in no way arguing for elevating the earlier over the later writings--as some of Benjamin's conservative interpreters would like to do--but to slight the earlier ones in favor of the later, or to separate them at all, amounts to liquidating the whole problematic dimension of the last phase of Benjamin's writing.
Arendt's New Yorker piece, which ended up introducing Benjamin to an American audience, really does seem to have stuck. For one thing, the Adorno-as-Grinch narrative you detail has become e a convenient way of sidestepping his ideas. From reading the full correspondence, which Harvard has just put out in translation, it's clear that under the Bourgeois circumlocution and ponderous deferentiality there was a great mutual sensitivity. On the subject of Benjamin as martyr, you're right that elevating without considering the ordinary people who died without the benefit of narcotics is simply an insult to their memory. Finally, I strongly feel that both theology and Marxism could do with a lot more of exactly this sort of violence.
for no good reason, a thought pierced my slack-jawed idiocy while reading today's filler. it occurred to me that evolution seems to favor smaller, faster, and more efficient things. given that preposterous hypothesis, and given the fact that evolution can affect all parts composing the whole, i hereby propose the theory of the smaller, faster, penis as being evolutionarily advantageous. not only would a smaller faster penis be able to work more efficiently, it would also, ostensibly, operate under heisenberg's uncertainty principle, allowing 'randomness' to work for said smaller, faster, wiener. my question is this, however: what subliminal (or subliminable in the honorable george w. bush's smaller, faster, vocabulary) message did you implant in filler that would have caused me to think this?
Oh sure, blame it on me. The fact is, I would never have suggested that a smaller faster penis is better. I think Freud might give you more insight into where this "message" came from. But you know, choose your delusion.
I am a computer person. There is no sexy way to tell a woman that you are a computer programmer/engineer/technician/analyst. I've tried them all. None work. Help.
P.S. How do I really go about getting Suck apparel? Being too connected for my own good, I can get suck mentions and links on plenty of sites all over but I'm not sure this is enough. Specifically, I want a Suck.com hat. Make this happen and I will suckle your penis.
I was recently in Evansville, Indiana, and a woman there told me a joke. An older couple are sitting at a table at the country club. A pretty young woman comes in, and touches the man's arm and talks to him for a while, then leaves. His wife turns to him and says, "Who the hell was that?" He says, "Well, that was my mistress." She's shocked and disgusted and says she's divorcing him immediately. He says, "Go ahead and divorce me. But think about it. Are you sure you can live without the Lexus, and the nicest house on the block, with the pool, and the country club membership, and all that jewelry, and the shopping trips, and the trips to Europe?" She thinks about it for awhile. Then another old guy walks in with a younger woman, and the wife asks her husband who it is. "That's Bob's mistress," he says. The wife replies, "Well! Our mistress is a LOT better looking than theirs is!"
What a sick, sexist joke, huh?
So, maybe you should get a Lexus.
Onward: I don't have a penis, but if I did, I wouldn't refer to "suckling" unless I wanted people to think that I was very, very small. I'm not sure why I'd want people to think that, or why you would, but I'm really beginning to think that Lexus is just the thing for you.
Today's Filler was so concise, to the point, and so generally free of divergence and confusion that I am worried. Are you feeling okay? Was there a substitute Polly? (Polly Ethylene? Polly Nomial?) Or was this part of some automated Filler generation experiment? Filler seemed almost mainstream this week.
On a side note, my long suffering friend, Andrea the payroll princess, would like you to please explain this riddle to her. She is convinced it must be funny and I haven't been able to help her out.
Q: How do you recognise a computer expert on an oil rig?
A: He is the one throwing crusts to the helicopters.
Ah, that reminds me of a great joke I just heard.
Q: How do you recognize a computer expert on an oil rig?
A: He's the guy with the little dick trying to parallel-park his Lexus.
Just basically a mean person,
I read all your columns (or most of them, anyway) and I thought today's was one of the all-time best. Last night, my wife and I were discussing the subject of explaining what you do to strangers and folks at parties/church/the gym/whatever and today I read your column. I used to work at Broadcast.com and Yahoo!, and made the mistake of leaving for a "better" job at another Internet start-up which is about to go bust or, I hope it goes bust, since I was lied to by the ceo/founder who got me to join the company in the first place!
My dad always told me that most people really don't care what we do, that we imagine that they are so much more concerned than they really are, and that most people, even the apparently together people, have their own insecurities to deal with. But, it's tough to just be oneself, and not try to be "important". I've been seeing a career counselor for a few months, and she is really good. She told me that she has a lot of clients who are in hi-tech as programmers and such, and they hate it, but everyone tells them that they're in such a hot field that they can't leave. I've also been struggling with the isse of trying to do something "meaningful", and she said I'll probably always have that hang up, but that I just need to try to do something that I imagine would be cool or fun to do. That would be easy if I didn't worry what people thought!!
Have you ever read the book Class, by Paul Fussel? It's great, and it discusses the theme of trying to impress people and move up the social ladder, with the irony that most people really don't care about your car/college decal/job/house, etc.
Thanks for the great columns. I appreciate them each week.
You know, Jeff, your dad is absolutely right. Most people don't care what we do, they have their own insecurities to deal with. For example, at your last office party, you were chatting away with someone in engineering about your job, thinking maybe he was thinking about what a low-level scrub you were, when, actually, maybe he was worried about, you know, the weather, or, you know, the fact that the sock in his pants was about to fall out the bottom of his pants' leg. In fact, maybe that's why he diverted your attention by suggesting you two take a spin in his brand new Lexus. Sly dog!
Just goes to show you, no one really cares who's got the hottest mistress.
god i hate it when you're so spot-on with your pissy observations. a friend of mine came into town this weekend from washington state...that's right, he works for microsoft. not only does he work for microsoft but he's now got a position of import that allows him semi-regular access to...that's right, big bad bill. at some point he asked me, "what is it that you do?" me? sputter, flail, stutter, did i mention that i'm the father of triplet boys?
First of all, your name says it all. Secondly, how much cuter and more fun are your triplets than Bill Gates? Thirdly, you could become King of the Universe and your "friend" would still be blathering on about how Bill really prefers cinnamon sprinkles to chocolate in his triple nonfat no-foam latte. I hate that guy. I'll kick his ass for you. I mean, come on, semi-regular access to Big Bad Bill? What is this, a bathhouse?
Suckle this, you robber baron bastard!
Apparently, during World War 2 if you were working on something top-secret and someone asked you what it was you did for the government, you could give the smart-ass answer "I make wheels for miscarriages." (You know, my stepmother always used to warn me, "Nobody likes a smart-ass." But the funny thing was nobody liked her!) "Lion-tamer" is another surefire occupation, as is "chrononaut" (my dream job.) "Chrononaut" may be literally true, too, for those who spend their days reading old books, shopping for ancient used crapola at the thrift shop or listening to long-dead musicians on CDs. But the answer "writer" is the worst conversation killer there is. "That must be interesting" can be met with "Actually, it's a dog's life" (pilfered from Keep the Asphidistra Flying)--just as "are you working on a novel?" "Yes, but it's a piece of shit." (pilfered from Animal House). Yeah, chrononaut! That's the best answer. What exactly was Jennifer Lopez's job in The Cube--cerebronaut? Psychonaut? That's going to be the second big growth field of the 21st century. Imagine an amazing journey into the brain of Jennifer Lopez!
Updating my resume,
Richard Von Busack
Let's see, how can I beat those same two stupid jokes into the ground even more? I think of two stupid jokes at the start of the day and then just spit them back at anyone who writes in. Isn't it fascinating to see a cutting-edge comedian at work?
That's what I describe myself as: Cutting Edge Comedian. When anyone asks me what I do (which they always do, since I'm stunningly attractive tall and thin and naturally they wonder if I'm in the entertainment industry ["If you're not, you should be!" they always squeal]) I always say: "Ah, well, I'm a cutting edge comedian. I write wildly hilarious jokes that appear weekly on Suck.com, the longest running daily site on the Internet, the graphical portion of the World Wide Web." That always shuts them up, but mostly because I take out the keys to my Lexus and twirl them ostentatiously on my pinky finger.
But then I found out "Lexus Driver" is a code name for "Guy with a Suckle-able Penis," so I stopped doing that.
Everybody hates a smart-ass, particularly one can't stop beating a dead horse,