The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect, in some material object … which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
journeys… childhood… memory… history… home… traces…. objects… spaces…. magic… home… memories… traces of memories… journeys… secrets… magical objects… childhood memories… ghosts… traces of journeys… secret spaces… memories of home…
layering… merging… mingling…
There have been some loose threads floating around my blog of late. A little indefined. Vague, perhaps. Though not entirely disparate. It requires for me now, I think, at this point, to attempt to weave a shuttle through those loose ends; to bring them (if only briefly) together. I feel I have now come to a point where I need to write about Walter.
Yes, I think if I tell you about Walter, it might all start to make just a little bit more sense.
I am not generally a person who craves neatness or completeness in her life in any way. I am comfortable with the ambiguous and the abstract. Vague ideas and concepts excite me, even. I enjoy trying to wrap my brain around impossible notions and theories. In the end, I really don’t need to tie it all up in a ribbon with a perfectly neat bow.
But. I do need to understand. I need clarity. I need structure. This is vital. Since without clarity, or an attempt at it, there is no understanding. There is nothing. Just words, just fragments, drifting.
Now, it may be that you understand already. Or it may be that you understand better than I, or it may be that you don’t that much care – in which case you’ll skip this post, and just look at the pictures (that’s fine, by the way) – but I need to understand, and I also need to believe that I have made some effort to bring clarity into your thinking as well as mine.
So what I’m hoping is that Walter will provide a sort of loose context; a framework if you like. Less tying up ends, more catching them together. Briefly. Just imagine, please, a little girl in a park with a fistful of brightly coloured balloons. It’s a warm, breezy Spring day. She’s clinging onto those threads for dear life because she doesn’t want to let them go. In the end, she knows she will have to let them go, and watch the pretty balloons floating away into infinity, but she is holding out as long as she can.They are something beautiful, and transient, like all the best things in life. She is enjoying the experience of having those balloons. She feels insanely happy inside, but there is also a unpleasant shadow of a sensation fleeting across her, quietly hovering, clouding her sunny day and tugging at her bursting heart. She knows it must end. She has experienced moments of pure joy like this before and the memory of having to let them go is surfacing and it is painful, but she is learning to control her emotions. She is a little too old to tantrum and whine. She is also learning that the bitter aftertaste which coats the sweetness of a joyful moment is the flip-side of that heady emotion; that we cannot hold onto joy forever, and part of the process of experiencing it, is also letting it go. Watching the rainbow orbs carry away bobbing gently on the wind, fading ever so gradually into nothingness. They were there, in her hand, and now they are not.
Now they are shelved somewhere in a compartment of her brain.
Memory: holding a brightly coloured bunch of balloons in the park on a windy Spring day.
This, for me, is one of those moments where I am trying to hold on tight for as long as I can; pulling the threads together. It requires thought and concentration, and willpower. It requires me to focus my energies. And in the end I know I will have to let them (the thoughts) go their disparate ways as they will pull and tug and try to out themselves from the confines of my words. (I will let them go.)
I’ll do my best.
So, let me tell you about Walter, and maybe, together, in the process of me writing, and you reading, we will come to some kind of transient state of deeper understanding. Maybe.
Now, I am being overly familiar of course, but I do feel very connected to the late Walter Benjamin. I have always had a fondness for German Intellectuals, and he is unashamably my favourite and most treasured. It is true to say that he has been a great influence on me, my photography and my thinking since I first discovered him in my early university years. Since then he has cropped up again and again in my life, been rediscovered countless times. Possibly one of the most under-rated literary figures of the 20th century, for me, he is up there with Rilke, Baudelaire, or Goethe. He wouldn’t have described himself as a poet: an essayist, social critic, translator (he translated some of Baudelaire and Proust’s work) historian, diarist maybe… an assembler of words; a master of the literary montage. But to me he has always been, and will always remain a poet. His words work some kind of naive, awkward magic over me and continue to resonate time and time again when I am searching for that something which connects everything into place, locating me in that sideways vantage point where I can find distance, and reflect, and yet at the same time place myself firmly in the here and now in a way in which everything around me seems more alive and more exciting. Maybe it’s fate, or serendipity, but my thoughts seem to spiral a trail which lead me back to him, there at the core every time.
Let me explain a bit more.
When I write about phenomenology, I am mostly thinking about it as a philosophy of experience; a celebration of how the self engages with the everyday world around her. Because it is the subjective consciousness which is key in this experiencing, the sense of perspective is also important, requiring a sort of immersion into the sensory world of ‘things become magical’. Like watching a rain drop drip, diffusing undulating ripples in a puddle, or pocketing an irresistibly tactile pebble for my son’s collection. When I look at the world like this I am Alice, who has shrunk to tiny proportions after foolishly eating something labelled ‘drink me’. I am in a state of wonder at the world so familiar, yet so strange and surreal at the same time. There is much more to be explored, of course, but in relation to photography, I suppose, this is what interests me most about phenomenology as an ontology, and as a way of seeing. The sense of perspective and the large-miniature dialectic is important because it serves to heighten that sense of awe, exactly in the way a small child experiences the world around him.
Isn’t it true that when we go back to visit places which were important to us as children, like schools, treasured secret dens in the garden, playrooms… they always seem smaller to us than they did then? And as their proportions normalise to our adult eyes and adult perspectives, they somehow lose their magical, transformative properties?
Explicitly, Benjamin didn’t have a lot to say about photography, but it was there in the background, in his contemporary history, and it surfaced from time to time in his writing. However I am not so much concerned with what he said or wrote about photography, as his writing style itself which is so descriptive, and so focused on the minutiae of life that it could be called photographic. This is what interests me, as this is the key to understanding his writing, and his thinking on history, the past, and memory.
A Berlin Childhood is probably Benjamin’s most personal and poignant of works. It takes the form of a sort of assemblage or tableaux of ‘moments’, which are recollections of his childhood in Berlin in a middle class Jewish home at the turn of the twentieth century. The recollections are unusual, perhaps, and written with the perspective of an adult who remembers clearly what it was like to experience the world as a child (see for example The Mummerehlen). Benjamin believed in a kind of material history (he described himself as an ‘historical materialist’) which is buried in the strata of our everyday lives. To uncover the past, then, we must take on the guise of archaeologist-detective and search for the clues of the past in our present. Memory is an important medium in this search, since it plays out our past in the way that a theatre stages a play (see the translators forward to A Berlin Childhood, 2006 by Howard Eiland, for more on this), but memory is also complex. It is not linear, instead appearing in flashes, which burn brightly and briefly… and the next moment are extinguished just as rapidly. These memories – flashes of the past – must be snatched at that very moment at which they burn at their brightest:
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again.
Benjamin, from “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Chapter V, in Illuminations
Memory is also composite. So as archaeologists we have to delve and dig deep. It is messy. It overlaps, much like a multiple exposure (see Eiland again, translators forward to A Berlin Childhood, p xiii). We have to scratch at the surface to expose the faded, peeling paint layers of a forgotten history: rubble trodden underfoot into the receiving earth, waiting to absorb its bounty; layer upon layer of stretches of time compressed; centuries compacted into seconds.
It seems to me then an obvious and small step to make to link Benjamin’s writing style to that of photo montage, or collage. The principle of montage (of which Benjamin was a great admirer for its revolutionary potential) is one of interruption. It creates a gap which is like an inbuilt critique mechanism, inviting a space of questioning. In The Arcades Project this takes on a structural and visual form, but here it Berlin Childhood it is more directly linked to how we experience memory (in the sense that the structure of the text is built up of seemingly random snatches of memories from Benjamin’s childhood, so is more akin to how we experience memory). Michel de Certeau describes how the signifying practice of language can, through the structure of literary forms, create spaces; “ellipses” and “leaks of meaning” in The Practice of Everyday Life.
The verbal relics of which the story is composed, being tied to lost stories and opaque acts, are juxtaposed in a collage where their relations are not thought, and for this reason they form a symbolic whole… Within the structured space of the text, they thus produce anti-texts, effects of dissimulation and escape, possibilities of moving into other landscapes.
(p. 107 of the 1988 publication)
These spaces, then, open up gaps, possibilities of departure, of escape, of other landscapes, other stories. This is especially relevant to my recent thinking around photography and memory-making, layering and composite image-making:
Is a “broken” or multi-layered mode of expression a more effective approach in attempting to convey memory? Is it more akin to how we actually experience memory? Is this the only way that the medium of photography could truly come close to the real experience of memory, and move beyond mere nostalgia?
For a long time, life deals with the still-tender memory of childhood like a mother who lays her newborn on her breast without waking it.
Benjamin, A Berlin Childhood, ‘Loggias’
For Benjamin, the most important repository of memory was childhood, in turn, the repository of the past. In childhood we are closer to ‘things’ and their magical properties. The child experiences the world around him in a state of mimesis; she (also the collector and the flaneur) truly dwells in the everyday and alone is privileged enough to be initiated into mysterious, enchanted life of everyday objects. For the child, objects come alive – they are comfort and security, but also portals to another, more exciting dimension of play and imagination and other-worlds. The door which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy step through, and which leads them to Narnia is just an old wardrobe door, full of old coats. An everyday thing. It is only the children, fully engaged in the world of things, who are privileged to have it revealed to them. Thus the magnifying eye of the child enlarges seemingly insignificant objects, which become clues, or portals, unlocking the secrets of a hidden world.
Where this journey will eventually take me I am still not sure, but it will involve some detective work. I’ll worry at the gaps and the cracks. I’ll dig my fingers into the very soil of the watchful earth. I’ll turn it over to sift, to search, through the exquisite detritus. I’ll whisper to it to yield up its secrets. And there, I’ll discover gems, dance with spectres, and etch shadowy traces on the blasted canvases of the past.
© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013