Blog all Dog-Eared Pages: Benjamin & Montaigne

August 15, 2010

Lochan Mám a Cullaich

I’m just returned from Scotland, where I swam in lochs and rivers and partook of nature. This was good. I also read: novels aside, I was immersed in Walter Benjamin and Montaigne’s Essays. Of the former, this was my first experience of reading on the iPad, and a very good one indeed. The highlight function in iBooks is addictive; the lack of an export function criminal, but there you go. Copying out, as we shall see, has its own rewards.

Both writers are prodigious, generous and, in their own way, quite funny, which makes them ideal holiday companions. I thought I’d share some.

No one, nowadays, should stick rigidly to what he or she ‘can’ do. Strength lies in improvisation. The blows that count are all landed with the left. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Chinese Goods’, One-Way Street]

On the relationship between reading and walking:

The force exerted by the country lane varies according to to whether one walks along it or flies over it in an aeroplane. Similarly, the force exerted by a text varies according to whether one is reading it to copying it out. The person in the aeroplane sees only how the lane moves through the landscape, unwinding in conformity with the laws of the surrounding terrain. Only someone walking down the lane will experience its dominion and see how, from the selfsame countryside, as for the flyer is simple the unfolding plain, at every turn it summons up distances, views, clearings, and outlooks as the commanding officer calls back soldiers from a front. Likewise, only the copied-out text commands the mind of the person replicating it, whereas the person simply reading it never gets to know the new prospects of his inner being that the text, that lane through the ever-denser internal jungle, opens up: the fact is, the reader yields to the movement of his ‘I’ in the open air of daydream while the copyist enables that movement to be directed. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Chinese Goods’, One-Way Street]

On writing:

Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Mind the Steps!’, One-Way Street]

From Benjamin’s 1940 essay “On the Concept of History” (which I have quoted before), rejecting the historicist viewpoint and asserting historical materialism:

In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. [VI]

Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. [VII]

History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit]. [XIV]

c.f. Huxley’s insistence on the “Here and now boys; Attention” in Island. We should pay attention not only to the here-and-now, but the effect the here-and-now has on our conception, interpretation and application of history.

On physical attacks on time:

The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The day on which the calendar started functioned as a historical time-lapse camera. And it is fundamentally the same day which, in the shape of holidays and memorials, always returns. The calendar does not therefore count time like clocks. They are monuments of a historical awareness, of which there has not seemed to be the slightest trace for a hundred years. Yet in the July Revolution an incident took place which did justice to this consciousness. During the evening of the first skirmishes, it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris. [XV]

Benjamin discusses books frequently in One-Way Street, particularly in the form we might today refer to as the networked object:

These days… the book is already an obsolete link between two different card-file systems. The reason being that all essentials may be found in the paper-slip index of the researcher who compiled it, the scholar studying it assimilating those essentials into his own card file. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Certified Proofreader’, One-Way Street]

This does seem over-scientific: the book is and always has been a link above all between two minds, an imperfect but powerful transmission of setting, character, plot and meaning. This is perhaps literature’s distinctive and signal quality.

The uncut folding of the book still invites the kind of sacrifice that made the red edges of ancient tomes bleed; the introduction of a weapon or paper-knife, confirming appropriation. [Mallarmé, quoted in One-Way Street]

This quote makes me think of cigarettes, thanks to Sartre: “Smoking is the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world.” We need to do some thinking about how we, in the future, appropriate books, and convey the sense of this appropriation.

From the ‘Thirteen points on Books’ in One-Way Street:

I. Books and whores can be taken to bed.


XIII. Books and whores — footnotes in the one are what banknotes in stocking-tops are to the other.

On childhood:

Hardly has the child entered life before it is a hunter. It hunts the spirits it senses haunt things. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Enlargements’, One-Way Street]

Benjamin has a good crack at publishers who protest too much about the market to their authors:

You know yourself why you became a publisher. You could equally well have taken up a good clean profession like your father. Typical youth though — always living from day to day. Go on indulging your habits. But stop posing as a businessman. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Legal Protection for the Indigent’, One-Way Street]

Frankly, he’s just a stunning writer:

Each morning, day lies like a clean shirt on our bed; this incomparably fine, incomparably close-woven fabric of pure prophecy fits us like a second skin. How the next twenty-four hours will turn out for us depends on our deciding, as we wake, to grasp it. [Walter Benjamin, ‘Madame Ariane’, One-Way Street]

Which leads me neatly to Montaigne, who has plenty to say on Experience. First, he warns us, in his gentle, learned fashion:

The mind is not all that different from those dogs in Aesop which, descrying what appeared to be a corpse floating on the sea, yet being unable to get at it, set about lapping up the water so as to dry out a path to it, and suffocated themselves. [‘On Experience’, Essays III:13]

And then he consoles us, in the same fashion:

When I find that I have been convicted of an erroneous opinion by another’s argument, it is not so much a case of my learning something new he has told me nor how ignorant I was of some particular matter – there is not much profit in that – but of learning of my infirmity in general and of the treacherous ways of my intellect. From that I can reform the whole lump.

With all my other mistakes I do the same, and I think this rule is of great use to me in my life. I regard neither a class of error nor an example of it as one stone which has made me stumble: I learn to distrust my trot in general and set about improving it. To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads. [‘On Experience’, Essays III:13]


  1. I just saw Montaigne quoted on another blog–he’s far from the time and place I write about, but maybe you’re on the front lines of a Montaigne renaissance!

    Comment by Shelley — August 23, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  2. I just came across your blog/blogs and love your work. Like the Benjamin quotes – I think Benjamin kept a notebook that was only quotations from other books. About the iBook highlighting – that is cool. Kindle has a feature that lets you can see what other people have highlighted. At first this seems like an intrusion but I am completely intrigued and interested in the possibilities for this – I’m sure iBook will add this feature too.

    Comment by Meredith — September 9, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

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