“Rites of Melancholy” — W.G. Sebald

This realization of the impossibility of salvation matches the unrelated condition of melancholy which, in developing its own rituals, promises some relief but not release from suffering and the “feral deseases” so often mentioned in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Among these rituals, in the narrator’s case, are the nocturnal reading of telephone directories and timetables, the unfolding of maps, and the making of plans for imaginary journeys to the most distant of lands, countries that might well lie beyond the sea shown in the background of Dürer’s Melencolia. Like Robert Burton, who was familiar with melancholy all his life, the narrator is a man “who delights in cosmography … but has never travelled except by map and card.” And the summer bed with room enough for seven sleepers where he meditates on stories such as that of the Black Death, with all its paths and coincidences, is of the same century as Burton’s compendium, an era of anxiety when the fear was first uttered “that the great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designes.” The narrator’s digressive excursions from the starting point of this realization open up the view—again, a reminiscence from Hamlet—of a world lying far below melancholy, a “dead globe crawling with parasites” whose power of attraction is spent and forfeit. The icy sense of distance as the narrator turns away from all earthly life represents a vanishing point in the dialectic of melancholy. However, the other dimension of the Saturnian circumstances responsible for melancholy does point, as Benjamin has said and in the context of the heavy, dry nature of that planet, to the type of man predestined to hard and fruitless agricultural labor. It is probably no coincidence that the narrator’s only utilitarian occupation seems to be growing herbs. He sends these herbs, dried and in carefully adjusted mixtures, to various delicatessens in Milan and Amsterdam as well as to Germany, to Hamburg and Hannover. Perhaps they bear the words “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” written in Ophelia’s hand.

From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Constructs of Mourning,” collected in Campo Santo.


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“Authenticity’s Wiped Out” — A Passage from William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:

. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .

Book Acquired, 9.27.2011


I’m psyched about this one—Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith, who you may know as UbuWeb.  Here’s the description from the publisher, Columbia UP

Can techniques traditionally thought to be outside the scope of literature, including word processing, databasing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, inspire the reinvention of writing? The Internet and the digital environment present writers with new challenges and opportunities to reconceive creativity, authorship, and their relationship to language. Confronted with an unprecedented amount of texts and language, writers have the opportunity to move beyond the creation of new texts and manage, parse, appropriate, and reconstruct those that already exist.

In addition to explaining his concept of uncreative writing, which is also the name of his popular course at the University of Pennsylvania, Goldsmith reads the work of writers who have taken up this challenge. Examining a wide range of texts and techniques, including the use of Google searches to create poetry, the appropriation of courtroom testimony, and the possibility of robo-poetics, Goldsmith joins this recent work to practices that date back to the early twentieth century. Writers and artists such as Walter Benjamin, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Andy Warhol embodied an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text was just as important as the resultant text itself. By extending this tradition into the digital realm, uncreative writing offers new ways of thinking about identity and the making of meaning.

Hitler’s Private Library — Timothy W. Ryback

In Hitler’s Private Library, Timothy W. Ryback works from Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector.” Ryback delves into the books–the actual, physical books–that Hitler studied and pondered, paying particular attention to the dictator’s annotations and marginalia. To be sure, there are plenty of political tracts–especially anti-Semitic writings, such as Henry Ford’s The International Jew–to be found in Hitler’s library, but far more fascinating is Ryback’s analysis of Hitler’s love for Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of all books. Hitler’s taste was varied–there’s an early infatuation with Max Osborn’s Berlin, an architectural guide to that city, an obsession with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and Hitler’s final day’s poring over a biography of Frederick the Great (he also comforted himself in the final days of his regime by rereading his boyhood favorite Karl May).

The Nazi party’s lurid mania for occultism is well documented, but Ryback brings a fresh perspective here, eschewing tabloid histrionics in favor of a measured approach to Hitler’s volumes of bizarre and arcane works. More troubling is the public misconception that the works of Schopenhauer and Nietchzsche some how gave philosophical weight to the Nazi’s crime spree; Ryback eliminates that notion:

For all the talk of Hitler’s exploitation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the “master race” or Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion of the “will to power” that Hitler used to headline the 1934 party rally and Riefenstahl cribbed as a title for her cinematic chronicle of the event, we have little credible evidence of Hitler’s personal engagement with serious philosophy. Most of what we know is tenuous and at best anecdotal.

In short, Hitler was a poseur who recontextualized bit parts of great thinkers into mind-numbing sloganeering for his own ends (luckily, no politicians today would be so crude). Ryback’s even-handedness here is indicative of the project of his book: his is not a psychological study; he never seeks to explain the motivations for Hitler’s evil actions, but rather report what Hitler read closely. What we get in the end is an historicized, contextualized account of a bibliophile who initiated book burnings and mandated reading lists.

Hitler’s Private Library is really a book about books and how what we read shapes and then testifies to who we are and what we did in our life. I am not particularly interested in Hitler or the (well-documented) history of WWII, but I found in Hitler’s Private Library both a fascinating dialogic analysis as well as a new narrative take on some pretty stale material. The philosophy of Walter Benjamin permeates Ryback’s book, which is also a big plus. I’m not sure if the world needs another book about WWII, but I’m always a sucker for books about books. Recommended.

Hitler’s Private Library is available in hardback and ebook on October 21st, 2008 from Knopf.

Ways of Seeing

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger riffs off of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” calling into question how and why images are used and disseminated; in particular, Berger discusses capitalism, the female body, and “fine art.” The internet is clearly the next step in a series of progressions of how information is transmitted, and has been held up as a bastion of information democracy. The personal computer has revolutionized how we view, read, and create images and documents.

Look at the following images. What authority, if any, is present in each image? Who authors the picture? How do history, original context, and cultural paradigms play into how the viewer “reads” the image? What questions do these images provoke?