Now, the best essay in Reflections is “The Critique of Violence,” but I have read that enough times that I decided to give it a miss. Instead, I read “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Benjamin had a bunch of really interesting ideas about the value of translation, and this is the second most obvious place to go to get some sort of understanding of them. The upshot is that the plurality of human languages are fragments of a true originary language, in which the names humans gave to things genuinely corresponded to their natures. The value of translation is that by finding what is common in the before and after of translation you get a glimpse of the pure language to which we no longer have access. It’s a pretty cool idea, but without the stained-glass metaphor of the most obvious place to hear about Benjamin’s ideas about translations, it’s not quite as effective.
Almost all of Benjamin’s writing is sufficiently religious that someone like me (or, in a couple of important essays, Jacques Derrida) needs to do a bit of filtering in order to come away with something of value, but this piece in particular is very religious, taking Genesis as literal truth. This introduces some fruitiness (har har) about the knowledge of good and evil being “prattle” rather than any kind of knowledge as such, and an intriguing argument about why the linguistic crisis of the Tower of Babel was inevitable from the moment of the fall. There is also a very definite sense that if we were able to make some messiah-enabled return to original language that we would definitely be all having our words corresponding to things as they really are &c.
This stuff is all quite charming, but not that interesting. I’m pretty sure that this is an earlier work, and it’s grasp of things isn’t as nuanced as they get later on. I suppose it is also the case that Benjamin’s ideas about language were never as interesting as ideas about psychology. Perhaps it was a commitment to the religious fundamentals that made this the case.
So I have sort of bogged down in the reading things. This is a little disturbing, but what’s really odd about it is that it happened during “Myth Today,” which is something I really love. When I was at NYU I once joked that I wasn’t ever going to bother reading anything new, and that I was only going to devote time to gaining a complete understanding of stuff I had already read, but maybe “Myth Today” doesn’t have anything else to say to me right now (except for the joke about the bourgeois lion; that will kill me every time until the end of time.) This isn’t to say I’m done with it. No, “Myth Today” is an astounding piece of work, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading it again at some point in the future.
On a more personal note, I have finally succumbed to West Coast life, and become a total weakling when it comes to the cold. I guess it could also be the fact that I’m becoming less comfort-averse in my old age, or that there is something about the creeping cold in houses that weren’t made to keep it out that is somehow worse than a blizzard whipping along Delancy (if you are of a certain disposition.) At any rate, we’re short of thawings here, and that could be better.
When I think “maybe I should read Barthes,” and then think “eh,” I have been prone to reading Something To Tell You by Hanif Kureishi. I have been a huge Kureishi fan since about the middle of the second chapter of The Buddha of Suburbia, but it hasn’t always been easy. I remember reading a book that contained both Intimacy and Midnight All Day and thinking that he probably wouldn’t ever write about anything other than how hard it was to dump your wife and have a much younger mistress (as if he’d turned from an English author into a French director), and in any other tone than gratingly melodramatic.*
Well, Something To Tell You is fucking incredible, and I’m quite pleased to have been in error. One of the things that I loved so much about Buddha and The Black Album is that their treatment of race, counterculture and sexuality were so free from resentment. The divorce-fiction was, naturally, one-hundred percent resentment (or even RAY-ZON-TAY-MONT as Nietzsche might say.) At any rate, we’re done with that now, and back to being arch brilliant. Good stuff all around.
* I have no idea why authors agree to have collections of short stories published. Because people gravitate naturally towards certain themes in writing, collections of short stories always end up being tedious repetitions of a particular piece of material.