A poet who would not write poetry. A novelist who would not write a novel. A philosopher without a philosophy who was a mystic and a mystic who was a crank rejecting the mystical and embracing the philosophies of the mystical depending on when you spoke to him. Or how.
Sometimes one and sometimes another.
The last Romantic. Except not really because he was not alone.
Hemingway, despite the cries of foul temper and score settling was right when he said in A Moveable Feast that Scott Fitzgerald never learned how to think. He meant that for Fitzgerald the idea, the aesthetic was, if it sounds beautiful it must be true. Nothing else is required. Of course that’s not Fitzgerald and is Keats but what Hemingway was after was that Fitzgerald died straddling the chasm between the 19th and 20th centuries. Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy – the vast precise train schedule as novel of an idea on one side…Joyce and everyone else on the other. The end of Tender is the Night confirms it. A sort of carbuncle attached like a second nose to the middle of your forehead. A coda not for the novel he had written but for the 19th century and its certainties. But Fitz didn’t know that. He wanted to believe in our ability to tie up the loose ends; the chance that we might all arrive at an understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. As if to say – And then they all lived happily ever after or not but this is how the story ends.
So Hemingway was right. No more tidy endings. Just a sort of darkness descending. Whimpers not bangs. Walking home alone in the rain. Something private from which the camera withdraws half in embarrassment half in desperate desire to say this small thing, this story, is every story amid the masses of…all our stories.
Benjamin at the border. He never could cross the bridge and present a passport that said: This is who I am. This is where I live.
But that should never have been a crime.
That it was a crime reinforces Kubrick’s criticism of Spielberg and Schindler’s List. Schindler’s List is about success, Kubrick said to Freddy Raphael, but the Holocaust is about failure.
Benjamin should never have been required, or forced to declare his allegiance.
The Jesuits of the Left would say otherwise. One must choose sides. Ignoring of course that they had killed their parents and then demanded mercy from the court because they were orphans.
Darkness at Noon.
He had to choose.
Sontag in her introduction to Benjamin’s One-Way Street is correct to attach Benjamin to Baudelaire and to the Paris Surrealists of Breton – who himself drifted between the poles of tyranny and lethargy. Between generosity and rhetorical rape.
She is right but go further and all of them – these desperate subversive romantics – are a fever in response to the rising demands of industry – the demand that we must be busy at our labor.
But he saw it differently. He could be a pothead and a Marxist – who didn’t get around to reading Marx until 1938 when he was in love with a Soviet dissident of the Left (i.e. anti-Stalinist) and on his way to visit Brecht. He could be a playwright and a critic and a philosopher and a lover forlorn and wounded standing in front of Brecht’s house on the edge of the abyss.
And she adds: that Benjamin considered the freelance intellectual a dying breed – killed off by industrial capitalism but also by the revolutionary Left. Each with its strict adherence to doctrine. To the template. At the expense of the individual soul. In other words, as someone else has said: “Fate is other people.”
The obvious criticism would be of corrupt imperial liberalism in England and America and of the twin monstrosities of tyranny in Russia and Germany and later Japan (and then later still add China under the god-king Mao). That is, the context of Benjamin’s destruction. The great powers with their liberal hypocrisies on one side – the horror, the horror – and the tyrannical fascists on the other. And that’s true but deeper lies the rest of the indictment. The 20th century – the blowback of the 19th century’s faith in order, the machine, the template, industry, organization. I mean that the usual suspects are indeed guilty. America’s race based genocide was internal and hidden behind two oceans but an abyss nonetheless. And England and opium and Zulus and so on. Democracy for everyone it’s just that some get more of it than others. And so then to the rest of the barbarians – Franco and Il Duce and of course Gulags and Work Shall Set you Free.
Masses of men conscripted and then led rhythmically to slaughter. The 19th century does not end until 1945. The dead in Flanders or Verdun die again, and again, in the shattered smoldering ruins of the broken world in 1945.
Benjamin was a pagan without a cult. He was the Last Romantic but not really as there were others. A great tide of them all, as Henry Miller put it while speaking of himself and Rimbaud in Time of the Assassins – rising and flailing – nothing but crisis hallucinations and breakdowns. He meant that the great wave of writers and other artists that rose up and crashed upon the shore of the world from oh, let’s say the mid 19th century until just after the charnel house was complete in 1945 was full of visionaries – of Romantics who either executed themselves like Kafka’s K assisting the state in placing the knife to his own throat or were executed by the state like Lorca. (Though surely Lorca knew what he was doing – so, suicide, sacrifice, murder all neither something Dionysian and Christ like) Hemingway didn’t commit suicide. He was driven to it by the state and that’s murder no matter what they say. (And let’s be honest – obviously he was running guns to Castro and made enemies everywhere – the reactionary mafia, the Hooverite thugs, the Cuban aristocrats, Wall Street).
Benjamin at the border. Unable to cross. Unable to return. Like the angel of Paradise he looks forward into the past and sees not a string of separate catastrophes but one continuous extravaganza of disasters with no beginning and no end.
Benjamin spoke of astrology while all around him machines masquerading as humans were speaking of turbines and freeways. Benjamin spoke of visions drifting in the electrified mist of hashish but the machine men were too busy designing train schedules and laying barbed wire to listen.
He invited his soul to loaf in the manner of Whitman but the 20th century was the century of schedules; of being busy. He wandered and observed but the 20th century demanded he get a job and obey a schedule. And schedules do not have time for daydreams.
He could not cross the border from the old world to the new and the old world was too busy committing ritual suicide to take him back and so…
He could have made it to New York but…in truth he could not have ever made it across the border let alone the ocean. New York, in the abstract would have been the ultimate labyrinth for him but more likely, the Minotaur would have killed him and no Ariadne would have saved him. The clue would have been lost, the string cut.
There is something ancient about him. A Japanese or Chinese Zen monk who walks and writes Haiku on scraps of paper that his students collect. Most are lost in the mud and rain. Some survive, transcribed and published in an ersatz samizdat style. He survives on bowls of rice or occasional cups of wine. From time to time someone recognizes his talent and allows him to sleep in their hut or at a monastery. Then back to the road.
But the machine has no use for people like that.
He did not commit suicide.
He was executed.
Benjamin at the border because that is a metaphor for failure.
The failure of others.