April 19, 2007

Walter Benjamin's Books

Walter Benjamin was one of the geniuses of mid-century Europe who was consumed by the horrific events of that period. Amongst Benjamin's pieces which range across the historical, philosophical and literary genres and combine astounding erudition with an incisive logical faculty, is a charming piece about Benjamin's private career as a book collector and a book enthusiast. (It can be found in the collection of his works published by Pimlico called Illuminations) There are many reasons to laud this piece- but I think one of them is the way that Benjamin discusses our relationship between that which we are and that which we own. The essay is a simple one- it starts with a simple antithesis- the way that the disorder of a library and the order of a catalogue to the library reflect the mind of the reader that collected and put together the library. But swiftly that simple reflection of the reader's mind onto that which he owns is overturned and Benjamin begins to draft a much more interesting and exciting thesis.

Benjamin suggests that this new relationship through his discussion of the collector, for he points out that the collector is the most childlike of individuals- finding new meaning and new excitement in a world filled with the mundane and the repetitive. He suggests that a collector beleives that his possession of a book enthuses that book with a new life- a new meaning a new place in the world. The lust for collecting he shows can rule our own lives- he cites a wonderful story of a man who unable to afford books proceeded to copy out the text of every book he found in a bookshop, rewriting his own library- and suggests that this is the state of the modern writer (even one might say the modern blogger). As you can see Benjamin's text illustrates the principles of his argument- it does not proceed by rational influence- but he browses his bookshelves in order to make his points about the ways that collecting books might influence the collector. Seeing a book reminds him of when it was bought- and how he bought it. As he says quoting Anatole France the only certain things about books are their publication dates- everything else in their meanings is invested by the collector- and yet his investments in those books, his histories of them become his history of his life.

Benjamin argues that owning books is not a utilitarian activity- one collects not for use (as the mad man in His Girl Friday beleive)- but for the sheer fact of collecting. Benjamin talks of the way that his bookshelves expanded as soon as he realised that it was not reading but collecting that enthused him. The essay allegedly is about unpacking crates of books and as he unpacks, Benjamin realises that he has made so much of his books that they have become part of him, they have become his markers in a world of chaos, his way of understanding his own past and his relationship to it. Not merely that but he shows how it has developed his faculties and developed the way that he is- the way that he can search through catalogues and the way that at least here he writes, with aphorism succeeding aphorism in a display of purposeful erudition.

At a time when the status of another form of collection- the collections of American gun owners is under pressure both politically and indeed from the internal consciences of American gun owners, it is worth rereading Benjamin's essay. I don't want to debate the rights or wrongs of gun ownership on this post- but there is something interesting about why debates like that over gun ownership or say should one ever arise (in which I would have a far more personal interest) book ownership or fishing or whatever get so heated. It isn't merely the rights or wrongs of the activity which are at stake but its the fact that for the people that perform that activity, that activity has become part of the person themselves. The relationship of owning and collecting is as Benjamin rightly says is deeply private. Any other relationship that we have, and here I go beyond Benjamin's explicit utterance to my own thought, is public, it is with another- but my relationship with things is solitary, hence depressives take comfort in books and films when they cannot cope with people, hence politically its difficult to disrupt such a relationship- as intense as a love affair, the relationship between a person and their things only can be broken by injuring the person concerned, with regrets and nostalgia as the scars of the rupture. It may be neccessary to do so- noone thinks that a collector for instance of nuclear weapons has the right to keep them- but it is always painful.

To end this piece, and to substantiate my and I think Benjamin's point, its worth pondering on the last lines of Benjamin's essay on book collection for they encapsulate the points I am trying to make in a wonderful way- demonstrating how closely capitalist man is bound to the notion of property in a Lockean sense as part of himself,

For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector- and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be- ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside as is only fitting.

As an end to an essay- combining artistry and argument- that is flawless- and invites me back to my bookcases!


james higham said...

Did you see [of course you probably saw all versions of it] 'The Collector'? Was that an insight into the minds of the collector?

Gracchi said...

No I haven't. Sounds interesting I must find out about.

James Hamilton said...

Thankyou - I've been searching for that reference for ages. A unique man, unluckily for him, and tangentally luckily for us, in the wrong place at the wrong time. RIP.