Remembering Walter Benjamin -or- As Time Goes By
Walter Benjamin's Anxiety of German Poetic Influence -or- Goethe's Faust
Richard Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart) flashback scene in the film Casablanca of the Germans entering Paris and Rick and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergamn) planning their escape is unforgettable. Blaine escapes to Casablanca without Ilsa, only for Ilsa to later reenter his life where he is a prominent salon keeper there. Rick as a consequence of Ilsa's return into his life, reminisces about those "happier days", and his getting on the last train leaving Paris without his soulmate Ilsa. In the end, Rick helps Ilsa and her unbeknownst to him freedom fighter husband to escape the clutches of the Nazi's by supplying them with stolen exit visas, signalling a personal turning point in the war.
In escaping Paris, not all were so fortunate. In reality, one such person was Walter Benjamin, a man who also escaped Paris, yet in the moment when freedom seemed so near, his transit visa was revoked by the Spanish government, leaving him facing the prospect of being sent back to occupied France into the hands of the Gestapo and the Nazi's. Benjamin abhorring this prospect, decided to commit suicide and reportedly did so via a lethal injection of morphine. Benjamin was one of the great European literary mind's of the 20th century. Here is one of his dreams found in "Relections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings" (p63);
"In a dream I saw myself in Goethe's study. It bore no resemblance to the one in Weimar. Above all, it was very small and had only one window. The side of the writing desk abutted on the wall opposite the window. Sitting and writing as it was the poet, in extreme old age. I was standing to one side when he broke off to give me a small vase, an urn from antiquity, as a present. I turned it between my hands. An immense heat filled the room. Goethe rose to his feet and accompanied me to an adjoining chamber, where a table was set for my relatives. It seemed prepared, however for many more than their number. Doubtless there were places for my ancestors, too. At the end, on the right, I sat down beside Goethe. When the meal was over, her rose with difficulty, and by gesturing I sought leave to support him. Touching his elbow, I began to weep with emotion."
Goethe has inspired and influenced numerous individuals and the German and European culture in general. Goethe's "Faust" is considered by some, to be a primary European archetype. Sigmund Freud who never won the Nobel Prize, did however win the prestigious Goethe Prize. Harold Bloom "Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry" believes modern poets who read the work of precursor poets, must overcome the anxiety of influence in order to supercede the poetic vision of their predecessors.
Walter Benjamin's poetic vision is what his dream is all about. In the dream Goethe gives Benjamin a gift, an urn from antiquity. Goethe also provides Benjamin with a meal, for himself and for his ancestors (the Jews). For Benjamin to experience such a gesture from such a revered German personality was touching and brought him to tears. Among Benjamin's many works, his incomplete magnum opus, the "Arcades Project", studies the psychological roots of modern visual culture and consumer society found in 19th century Paris. In conjunction, Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" provides insight into visual culture and the way we see. Many of Benjamin's insights into visual culture can be found operating in the dreams sent to the International Institute for Dream Research.