26 September 2005

Benjamin in Extremis

Can Walter Benjamin fit into an Opera?

Walter Benjamin, or rather, the now-beloved figura of Benjamin—shuffling, myopic, mustachioed, fat, unhealthy, small round glasses glinting like flashlights—was largely unattractive in his own lifetime. Introducing Benjamin, a precis of his life and work in comic-book form, spends an inordinate amount of time demonstrating that Benjamin had no positive libido—and that, in fact, women just could not under any circumstances find him attractive. How strange is it now, then, to read in the Guardian that “as a teenager,” the novelist Nicole Krauss “had a crush on the German philosopher.” How odd to reflect upon the growth and consolidation of a veritable Benjamin industry in the sixty-five years since his death, an industry that extends well beyond the academy, to art-pop songs like Laurie Anderson’s “The Dream Before (For Walter Benjamin),” and Jay Parini’s embarrassingly unreadable “novel of ideas” Benjamin’s Crossing. A movie must surely be on the way: can I start by suggesting Tim Robbins as Benjamin?

Such widespread reverence has been essential to the growth of Benjamin studies; but it has also served as a barrier to actual understanding and use of his thought. Franco Moretti, for one, leveled a bitter disparagement at academics for treating Benjamin as “the sancta sanctorum“ of literary criticism, a pure soul from whose gloomy pen issued the true plash of ideas, protected from the reproof and constant reconsideration one expects from critics. Susan Sontag’s “Under the Sign of Saturn,” (originally published in the New York Review of Books, with Sontag’s characteristic vatic humorlessness, as “The Last Intellectual”) is symptomatic of this unreserved Benjamin adoration. She begins by lovingly—too lovingly, perhaps—describing photographic portraits of the man, how “the downward look through his glasses—the soft, day-dreamer’s gaze of the myopic—seems to float off to the lower left of the photograph.” She goes on to discuss Benjamin’s melancholia and saturnine disposition, glancingly using Benjamin’s own highly interesting work on melancholy and German Baroque allegory to produce wan axioms and declarations: “precisely because the melancholy character is haunted by death, it is melancholics who best know how to read the world”; “only because the past is dead is one able to read it.” The presentation of Benjamin’s ideas on allegory, collecting, and city life point continuously back to Benjamin the pudgy myopic. Using what is clearly an “erotics” of reading and not a hermeneutics, Sontag winds up arguing, however inadvertently, on behalf of the photographs, the image, the figure of Benjamin—as if to say: only because he is dead is one able to make love to him.


Recently, against this sentimentalized Benjamin, we have been given composer Brian Ferneyhough’s and poet Charles Bernstein’s extraordinary and utterly bizarre opera, Shadowtime, which had its North American premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival in July. “Shadowtime is a ‘thought-opera,’ based on the work and life of Walter Benjamin,” Bernstein writes in the program. “[It] inhabits a period in human history in which the light flickered and then failed.” Critics and audiences were immediately skeptical. What, after all, is a thought-opera? Few people bothered to stay and find out. During the two-hour, intermissionless performance I attended, at least thirty audience members walked out; critics have testified to mass exoduses in other performances, as well as to dutiful but unenthusiastic applause at the opera’s close. The reviewer for the New Jersey Star-Ledger described it as the concert experience that brought him closest to physical pain.

The source of such exasperation was, partly, the conjoining of the uncompromising musical sensibility of Ferneyhough with the relentlessly avant-garde tendentiousness of Bernstein. Ferneyhough’s approach was signaled early on by the musical prelude, in which spiraling horn motifs clashed harshly with slow unpredictable low cello lines—the wild shifts from gravity to absurdity could only elicit a response somewhere between laughter and confusion. The unremitting non-tonality reached a high point in the second scene, “Les Froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel” (The Rustling of the Wings of Gabriel), in which 128 fragments of music followed hard upon each other, led by bursts of brilliant but nonsequential guitar lines, not one of them lasting more than fifteen seconds. In the program notes, Ferneyhough made clear his intention to frustrate: “I was concerned with making each of these segments just slightly too short, so that the length of the segment is not adequate to the time required to understand it . . . time in music fails if it disappears without remainder into the musical experience.” The staging was equally perplexing: the character of Benjamin sat silently at the side of the stage, while the audience was subjected to a projection of a European train timetable, gradually repeating itself.

Such difficulty had more significant consequences in terms of how the opera situated itself within the Benjamin industry. Just as Benjamin devoted some of his linguistic essays to the idea of a “pure speech,” of which our own idiom-rich languages are the fallen result, the opera seemed to suggest a fallen work of art, broken into non-linear fragments of deliberately incomprehensible narrative; music which resisted experience almost successfully; poetry that hovered somewhere between Benjamin’s own language and absolute gibberish. It would have been comparatively easy to tell (and to watch) the life of Benjamin, up to and including his suicide at the Spanish border. But Bernstein and Ferneyhough, with this prospect in view, magisterially refused.

Even in the opening scene, which depicts (if that is the proper word) the evening of Benjamin’s suicide—“a story . . . by now so well known that it barely needs to be retold,” J. M. Coetzee has written—the actual death is treated vaguely. Nothing takes place on stage. Instead a doctor, like a messenger in Greek tragedy, arrives only to tell us, without accompanying music, that “Senor Benjamin’s / heart is weak / the beat irregular.” And instead of dressing up a bass to resemble the pudgy, myopic Benjamin, the producers chose a tall, thin man with a shaved head (Ekkehard Abele, in an accomplished performance). He sings his lines haltingly, almost stuttering, slowly misstepping about each word—mimicking the walking style Benjamin described in “A Berlin Childhood Around 1900.”

After a few dramatizations of Benjamin’s life, including a conversation with Gershom Scholem, the opera descends with Benjamin into some sort of underworld. This is what Bernstein has called “an alternative course for what happened on that fateful night,” where Benjamin is confronted obliquely by the past, in the form of poetic elaborations of his thoughts. Each section surpasses the previous one in strangeness and virtuosity, as well as in a deep commitment to engaging Benjamin’s writing. Scene III is entitled “The Doctrine of Similarity,” after an eponymous essay in which Benjamin considered how the sound of language might reproduce the early structures of the cosmos, and it approaches a somewhat sentimental version of the language of the poet Paul Celan in its depiction of the very extremities of experience: “Sometimes / you burn a book because / it is cold / and you need the fire / to keep warm / and / sometimes / you read a / book for the same reason.” Elsewhere, the language and the music together reach gorgeous heights—we seem to hear what Benjamin might have written, were he a poet and musician: “Mourning is a kind of listening / where the dead sing to us / and even the living tell their stories.” Another section contains only anagrams of Benjamin’s name, nearly each one containing the word “Jew,” as if to emphasize both the arbitrariness of the identity and the ineluctable fate to which it consigned him.


Like Tristan and Isolde, which destroyed all previous convention with its opening chord, Shadowtime is a thinking opera—not just a work full of “ideas,” but a work which actually thinks through the philosophical questions it raises. Unlike Tristan, however, Shadowtime is not simply influenced by philosophy—it is philosophy. It demands an aesthetics of listening and watching which, it seems, we do not yet have.

In Shadowtime’s very last scene, the entire stage set—props, curtains, everything—is turned backwards, the lighting turned from low spotlights to harsh, blinding fluorescence. “Wake up,” it says. “That things simply go on as they are is the catastrophe.” We face the scenery’s rear, white in the white light; we seem to witness the opera’s end not in a theater but in an office—and an office, after all, was the source of some of this opera’s funding, the place where we purchased our tickets. Theodor Adorno, Benjamin’s friend and intellectual contemporary, suggested in his essay “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening” that concertgoers were beginning to value the ticket stub over the art work itself: to view a work of art was to receive what Charles Bernstein has called “the blank stare of the commodity.” Time and again, through its purely negative relation to musical and narrative form, its deep and ultimately political commitment to an unreconstructed modernist aesthetic, Shadowtime forced its listeners to consider the value of these tickets, enough to make dozens discard them. For those who stayed (and it seemed essential to the opera’s aesthetic that some felt reasonable cause to leave), Shadowtime exposed its commodity status, even as, through its daring, it achieved the status of art.

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