“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
– Walter Benjamin
Live (and write) in the now
Over the years, I’ve heard “Walter Benjamin” (1892 -1940) name-dropped occasionally, mostly in anthropology and sociology courses I took in grad school.
I heard the name ‘Benjamin’ often enough to feel I should learn more about who he was and what his work was all about. But for some reason I never took up the task of investigating this German Jewish philosopher who was the mentor and friend of early thinkers of the Frankfurt School like the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
So when Walter Benjamin’s name came up, usually in the same sentence as words like ‘aesthetics’ or ‘surrealism’ (or was it anti-surrealism?), I just listened vaguely, thinking “someday, I’ll sit down and learn about this man and his lofty, probably convoluted philosophy.”
It’s funny how once you learn about a new person, idea or topic, you start seeing it everywhere.
Nowadays, I see his work cited often: as deeply relevant for helping us understand our crazy world in crisis today — mounting and interconnected crises of ecological, racial, and social injustice — and how we might imagine and create better worlds.
The relevance of Benjamin stems in no small part from his efforts to live through and try to make sense of another globally destructive crisis in his day: WWII. Along with many other European Jewish writers and thinkers, he was forced to flee from the Nazis. This was an effort he failed to accomplish, however, and that ultimately led to his death in 1940.
About his experience of WWII, Benjamin wrote,
“A generation that has gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”
Reading Benjamin, his writing seems to emphasize the importance of the present moment, almost like a Buddhist mystic might remind you to ‘live in the now.’
Live in the now. Or as Benjamin put it: “‘Overcoming the concept of ‘progress’ and the concept of ‘period of decline’ are two sides of the same thing.’”
“Only the trivia, the trash”
In his 1928 book, “One-Way Street,” Benjamin offers a fascinating collection of fragmented thoughts, ideas, observations, poems, and memories.
In his introduction to Benjamin’s ‘One-Way Street,’ the American writer Greil Marcus describes how the book is made up of fragments, from the ‘trivial’ to the ‘world-historical.’ In the book, Benjamin seems to want to jolt the reader to fill in the connections between fragments as a way to distort their sense of time. Or as Benjamin himself described his writing approach:
“Method of this project: literary montage. I need say nothing. Only exhibit(zeigen in German). I won’t filch anything of value or appropriate any ingenious turns of phrase. Only the trivia, the trash — which I don’t want to inventory, but simply allow it to come into its own in the only way possible: by putting it to use.”
Only the trivia, the trash, the fragments. Greil Marcus comments on Benjamin that, for him, a “fragment exerts its own gravity, that each fragment contains its own time, and that great writers thus inhabit the past, the present, and the future at once, without a sense of time passing, everything swirling around them” (emphasis mine).
For writers, the challenge is to harness the chaos of bits and pieces ––fragments of ideas, memories, and observations ––and deliver them to the reader with precision:
“Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.”
– Walter Benjamin
Benjamin’s advice for writers
Tucked away in his 1928 book One-Way Street, buried in a sub-section entitled “Post No Bills,” is Benjamin’s collection of writing advice, called “The Writer’s Technique”. Here they are¹:
The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses
- Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
- Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
- In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
- Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
- Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
- Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
- Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
- Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
- Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
- Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
- Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
- Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
- The work is the death mask of its conception.
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”
— Walter Benjamin
I first discovered One-Way Street, and Walter Benjamin’s ‘writer’s techniques’ from Open Culture, which has a helpful discussion of his work and more comments on this list of techniques.