Friday, November 27, 2009

Benjamin: I take back the chronopathos

That's what I get for trusting the Web. The photograph of Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale that I blogged about on November 22 was taken in 1937, not 1932, and Susan Sontag describes it and its context in the title essay of her Under the Sign of Saturn.

And of course the general weakness of my speculation about history is that it's just as easy to sigh, "Ah, the tragic irony of it all" about 1937 as 1932. You might, for instance, enjoy the sensation of placing your hand over your heart when you recall that in Paris in June, 1937, Prime Minister Blum's Popular Front fell. Just a year and a half earlier, Blum had been dragged from his car and beaten almost to death by followers of T. S. Eliot's culture hero Charles Maurras. Somewhere, some time, the world is always awakening from the pleasant dream called Library. But the moment of awakening will be more serviceable to the day that follows if we accurately know something about the night before, such as its date.

And of course we'll always need the dream called Library to help us understand why Gisèle Freund's photograph of Benjamin has a significance beyond its formal properties as an image. It's Library that makes us realize, with shock and sadness, that Freund's photograph of Walter Benjamin is a photograph of !Walter Benjamin!

But the curve of Benjamin's back and the fierce yet distracted look on his face as he gazes down toward a library's catalog slip -- regardless of the year, regardless of the stage to which history's nightmare had progressed at the moment when Benjamin's image entered Freund's camera, that is all photography.