Aug 142017
 

  Walter Benjamin

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My Red Heaven is collage in form. This piece centers on Walter Benjamin, and moves back and forth in time as he sits on a bench on Unter den Linden, beginning what will become The Arcades Project.

 

1.The only way of knowing a person is to love him or her without hope, Walter Benjamin pencils in his notebook, hunched on a dark green bench in the dark green shade of a linden.

A bear occurs, a man playing a flute followed by twenty beautiful children.

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  1. Walter crosses out the sentence. He has spent his entire day here, the last three, in this park running up the center of Unter den Linden, in combat with a three-page essay about Parisian arcades for the Frankfurter Zeitung. The essay refuses to stay in its skin. It keeps wanting to unfurl into something larger, messier, less itself.

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  2. Suppose I were to begin by recounting, he pencils in his notebook, how many cities have revealed themselves to me in my expeditions through them in pursuit of books. Suppose I were to speak of a time, ours, when even the best readers have become frightened of imperfect, torrential monographs — ones that fan out into a maze of dangerous branchings.

    Suppose I were to bring up how easy a certain kind of completeness is.

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  3. He crosses out that paragraph, writes in a choked scribble I am falling in love with lostness, then the brakes, a woman’s shriek.

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  4. When he raises his head everything already exists in another tense.

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  5. An old truck, advertisement for a brewery across its side, run up onto the curb in front of the Adlon Hotel. Several empty barrels burst on the sidewalk. A smartly dressed man splayed in the street, pedestrians vectoring in.

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  6. (When a world war breaks out, all you can do sometimes is begin to translate the works of Baudelaire as faithfully as possible.)

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  7. The bear man stops. His triad of notes. The twenty beautiful children stop, at first confused about where to look.

    One points, a perfect girl, mouth opening, nickel-blue eyes wide with the world.

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  8. Walter squints through his chunky spectacles to determine if the man is alive or the other thing.

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  9. Suppose, he considers, his weak heart twinging, I am falling in love with disjunction. Medieval alleys full of flowers. Suppose I am falling in love with learning to interrupt my —

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  10. Three years ago. Island of Capri. Ernst Bloch crumpled down the newspaper he had been reading and glared at Walter over the dried-seagull remains. The pair reclined in chaise lounges on their pension’s balcony amid a tumble of shiny white houses overlooking the Bay of Naples.

    How just so fucking absurd it must seem, Bloch proclaimed, for an immortal soul destined for heaven or hell to find itself sitting in the kitchen in the form of a maid.

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  11. The bear waiting for orders.

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  12. The children.

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  13. We may call these images wish images; in them the collective seeks

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  14. But most of all the tiny squares. Medieval alleys full of bougainvillea clinging to stone walls. Plumbago. Yellow, red, powder blue rowboats pulled up on the Marina Grande’s pebbly beach. And Bloch saying: The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security. It is the loss of the capacity to imagine things other than they are.

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  15. For you were born under the sign of Saturn, planet of detours and delays, blunders and stubbornness; of those who see themselves as books, thinking as a method of gathering, organizing, yet always knowing when to stray, wander off.

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  16. For to lose your way in a city or a person requires a great amount of willpower.

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  17. It is Bloch proclaiming from his chaise lounge, newspaper seagull crumpled in his lap, and emaciated Rilke all those years after that first meeting at the University of Munich, praising in a letter to Walter from somewhere among the Swiss Alps Mussolini’s New Year’s Eve speech.

    What soaring language! What beautiful discourse! Fascism, our great healing agent!

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  18. The hotel doormen holding onto the driver of the truck until the police show up, and the belief Jewishness means a promise to further European culture, each epoch dreaming the one to follow.

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  19. Inaccurately.

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  20. These moments, those hours, the other days: Had Walter really accomplished anything at all?

    Wonders Walter.

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  21. It is Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap of paper Sois toujours poète, même en prose — Always be a poet, even in prose — and the ambulance disturbance rising on the far side of the heavy, coal-smoked Brandenburg Gate, and the found object, the readymade, the already extant message, the chance encounter, the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, that half of art of which the other half is eternal and immutable.

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  22. There was the juncture at which he understood he was not to become an academic instructor.

    There was that injury.

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  23. Wine. Bread. Thickly sliced salami.

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  24. The lizard with azure scales panting rapidly on a fence rail.

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  25. The sun, a glossy orange in the sunset sky: Capri.

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  26. There was that juncture, and there will be the one in which he can no longer remember what he wants as he reaches languidly for the bottle of tablets on his hotel nightstand in room number three.

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  27. Yet now it is those days with Bloch on that balcony, the nights with Asja Lācis in her bed, long umber hair tousled.

    Naked.

    Yawning.

    Her unselfconscious stretching, her body Y-ing on the mattress.

    Walter was completely open about the Latvian Bolshevik theater director when his wife, Dora, asked in her letters.

    But only when she asked.

    (She asked only once.)

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  28. Writing about a given place at a given time puts its existence between quotation marks, plucks it from its native context by engendering unanticipated new ones.

    This is collage’s capacity, through cutting up and cutting off, to open up and ou

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  29. We won’t be getting married, mana saulīte. I find divorce too hard on the nerves.

    Asja footnoting in mid-stretch.

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  30. Dora remaining behind in Berlin with their nine-year-old son, moody anxious Stefan, and Asja introducing Walter over dinner to Marxism as historical mutiny and late night Prosecco to sex as whirlwind.

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  31. Writing that looks like writing, however, thinking that looks like thinking, has come to feel to Walter progressively flat, faded, fated.

    Suppose, he pencils in his notebook, I were to rethink everything.

    Suppose I were to start all over again.

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  32. And thirteen years later, twenty-some-odd changes of address, standing outside the Bibliothèque Nationale on a thick spring day, twenty-four hours before the Germans howl into Paris with orders to arrest that Jew intellectual at his flat, Walter hands over his color-coded notes — green language, yellow, red; diagrams; copies of images that have collared his curiosity — to his grouper-mouthed librarian friend Georges Bataille.

    Over Georges’ shoulder, Walter’s last glimpse of the filthy Seine glistering.

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  33. Asja’s double enlivening: the erotic and the political slurred into a single unfathomableness.

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  34. Or this man, weak heart, weakening lungs, a mobile intelligence unit moving through the metropolitan streets, he likes to think of himself as, likes to believe he believes, maybe others, too, although what would happen if you began to imagine the essay you are composing, not as a —

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  35. After this shitty war, Georges telling Walter outside the library on that balmy pre-invasion day, Europe will resemble a de Sade novel. Watch out for Duc de Blangis. He will be everywhere.

    Georges not grinning then, but rather turning away, repairing to work.

    Walter watching his friend’s lightly pigeon-toed gait decrease in size down the sidewalk.

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  36. Suppose you began to imagine the essay you are writing, not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes?

    This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to the other thing.

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  37. These lines written by the man who earned his Ph.D. cum laude eight years ago with a dissertation on art criticism amid German Romanticism, yet who has been assiduously unable to find academic employment ever since.

    That injury, too.

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  38. (Among others.)

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  39. There is that brief deliberation over emigrating from Germany to Palestine and how the bottle of morphine tablets catches the caramel sun in his tiny room at the Hotel de Francia on the Catalonian coast one autumn afternoon in 1940, police guard posted outside Walter’s door demurely clearing his throat every now and then.

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  40. Written by the thirty-four-year-old journalist unable to support himself, let alone his family, through his own labor, and so forced for a time to ask his wife to stop loving him so he could return to Berlin to reside with his parents.

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  41. To reside with his

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  42. Ne cherchez plus mon coeur; les bêtes l’ont mange.

    Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap.

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  43. There is that slightly less brief deliberation over emigrating to the United States through neutral Portugal as the Germans howled closer, and how Max Horkheimer negotiates a travel visa for Walter, who will only be able to flee as far as Spain over the Pyrenees before the Franco regime cancels all transit permits and orders the authorities to return those carrying them to France.

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  44. And on 25 September, 1940, there is that Spanish official with the pinched lips telling the group of Jewish refugees Walter has joined to prepare for deportation the following morning, and the emptiness on Hannah Arendt’s face taking in this information, on her husband the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher’s, on their friend the Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler’s, on the German photographer Henny Gurland’s, her son Joseph’s.

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  45. Yet, despite the future, the bear man steps into motion again, melody picking up.

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  46. One by one, the beautiful children.

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  47. Do not look for my heart anymore; the beasts have eaten it, scribbling the poet who spent his last two years between Brussels and Paris, semi-paralyzed and unable to speak after the massive stroke.

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  48. The emptiness on the ambulance driver’s face as he employs a plain white sheet to cover the bodily fluids held in by tender skin.

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  49. Or the emptiness on the doctor’s face during each of his four visits to tiny room number three through that late September afternoon and evening, administering injections and blood letting as if these things might in the end somehow alter the configuration of that space.

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  50. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Asja’s body in her bed, sheetless in silvery sun, along with the belief writing as collage draws attention to the sensuality of the page even as it strips itself of the tedious, tendentious pretense of originality.

    Suppose, therefore, it could be argued

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  51. Suppose we were to call it a meditative practice that allows one to be surprised by what one says next.

    A practice, we could even submit, of reading.

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  52. Or the other manuscript, completed, which Walter will carry in his suitcase from Paris to Portbou, which will disappear forever.

    That manuscript, too.

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  53. Suppose, therefore, it could be argued that we are all collage artists, pencils Walter, then crosses out the sentence, for there will be that juncture in two years at which Dora and he will have become separated, then divorced, the juncture in thirteen at which the other Jews in his party of refugees for no discernible reason will be allowed sudden passage through Spain into Portugal.

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  54. Four days later all will safely reach Lisbon.

    Minus one.

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  55. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Hannah Arendt admiring the terracotta rooftops, the pale yellow dwellings, bunching down the steep Lisbon hillsides into bluegreen seasprawl.

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  56. The Spanish police will refer to the deceased forty-eight-year-old in their correspondence with Max Horkheimer, who will query about the details of his friend’s passing, as that German gentleman.

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  57. That German gentleman about whom you inquire, the Spanish police writing, died of heart failure.

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  58. Cerebral hemorrhage, the medical certificate will state.

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  59. The town judge listing Walter’s possessions at the time of death thus: suitcase leather, gold watch, pipe, passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, one pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, a few papers, contents unknown, and some money.

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  60. A few papers, contents un

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  61. How, because of confusion surrounding his identity, Walter will be buried in leased-niche number 563 in the Catholic section of the Portbou cemetery. When no one remembers to keep up the payments, Walter’s remains will be quietly exhumed and moved in the summer of 1945 to the town’s common burial ground, where their exact location will over time become unremembered.

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  62. Four days after Walter reaches for the bottle of morphine tablets he brought with him from Marseilles, just in case, Hannah Arendt will lean out the window of her hotel room in Lisbon, relishing the act of breathing, just that, while admiring the terracotta rooftops and pale yellow dwellings bunching down the steep hillsides into the bluegreen seasprawl.

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  63. Below, the streetcars clanking by.

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  64. Mosquitoey scooters revving.

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  65. That greasy scent of reprieve billowing up around her a flash before she steps back into life.

—Lance Olsen

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Lance Olsen
Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His latest is the novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017). A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

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