Monday, March 10, 2008

Pre-empting Reflections

Yesterday I bought a copy of Reflections, the Walter Benjamin collection. I'm happy to have the book, but now I sort of wish I'd held off and perhaps tried to find an older, used edition. See, I bought a copy of the new edition, issued in 2007. The cover is uglier than the old one was, for one thing. Far worse, it's saddled with a new, worthless, three-page preface from one Leon Wieseltier. Has a preface or introduction ever made you want to unload a book you're otherwise happy with having? Is it wrong that I want to take a blade to these pages? Wieseltier isn't around for long and doesn't say much, but characteristically, he does have time to irritate. After a relatively innocuous opening page, we get this:
In his temperament and in his method, Benjamin was an esotericist. He was modernity's kabbalist. In his turgidly enchanted world there were only mysteries, locked and unlocked. His infatuation with Marxism, the most embarrassing episode of his mental wanderings, the only time that he acquiesced in the regimentation of his own mind, may be understood as merely the most desperate of his exercises in arcane reading. . .

[. . .]

. . . Benjamin's work was scarred by a high ideological nastiness, as when he mocked "the sclerotic liberal-moral-humanistic ideal of freedom" (as if Europe in his day was suffering from a surfeit of this), and speculated acidly about the belief in "the sacredness of life" (or from a surfeit of this), and responded with perfect diffidence to the censorship and persecution of writers in the Soviet Union, which he coldly described as "the transfer of the mental means of production into public ownership." The pioneering explorer of memory worshipped history too much. He also wrote too much: he advised writers to "never stop writing because you have run out of ideas," and often he acted on his own advice. I confess that there are many pages of Benjamin that I do not understand, in which the discourse seems to be dictating itself, and no direction is clear. Like many esotericists, he abuses the privilege of obscurity.
What is the purpose of such a preface? The book still has the original, 35-page introduction by Peter Demetz (who, to be sure, does criticize Benjamin in certain ways, including aspects of his relationship with Marxism, but who isn't dismissive or obnoxious about it), which should do a well enough job by itself introducing the new reader to Benjamin (especially when combined with Hannah Arendt's introduction to Illuminations). Why is Wieseltier here? What purpose can he serve, other than as an attempt to pre-empt the novice reader's own readings? This Benjamin character is an interesting read, when it comes to literature, sure, but be sure to not take him all that seriously otherwise! (But, you know, thanks for buying our book!)

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Blogger Scraps said...

I got rid of Library of America editions of Willa Cather because they were introduced by Sharon O'Brien, the leader of the Cather Was a Suppressed Lesbian movement. (Nothing against the idea as such, it's just that there's no credible evidence for it, nor anything that can be inferred from the text unless you really want to see it there. It's simultaneously enlivened interest in Cather -- who deserves it -- while misprisioning her and making her more the property of specialists.)

March 10, 2008 6:13 PM  
Blogger david e. ford, jr said...

pointless introductions notwithstanding, there is much to be said for choosing an edition of a book based on the physical aesthetics:

March 12, 2008 7:24 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Also, whilst I generally dislike ad hominem (sp?) attacks, this from wikipedia indicates that he's something of a vile character: "Wieseltier served on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq [a neo-con organisation agitating for the downfall of Saddam Hussein]. "I am in no sense a neoconservative, as many of my neoconservative adversaries will attest," Wieseltier wrote in a May 2007 letter to Judge Reggie Walton, seeking leniency for his friend Scooter Libby." Is there anyone less suited to writing an preface to a Benjamin book?

March 15, 2008 8:46 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

No argument from me, Dan. He doesn't win any points for being an editor at The New Republic, either.

March 15, 2008 9:42 PM  

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