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Hannah Arendt on Walter Benjamin

October 22, 2014

“Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition. Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime, were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency. ‘Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions’ (Schriften I, 571). …

[Benjamin], like the flâneur in the city, entrusted himself to chance as a guide on his intellectual journeys of exploration. …

When he was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of a collection of ‘over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged’ (Briefe I, 339); like the later notebooks, this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary. The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another and were able to prove their raison d’être in a free-floating state, as it were. It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage. …

Benjamin’s ideal [was to produce] a work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text. …

[H]is method [was] drilling to obtain the essential in the form of quotations – as one obtains water by drilling for it from a source concealed in the depths of the earth. This method is like the modern equivalent of ritual invocations, and the spirits that now arise invariably are those spiritual essences from a past that have suffered the Shakespearean ‘sea-change’ from living eyes to pearls, from living bones to coral. For Benjamin to quote is to name, and naming rather than speaking, the word rather than the sentence, brings truth to light.”

(from Men in Dark Times [1968])

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