Monday, February 19, 2007

His cosmos has its sun, perhaps, in death

Saturday afternoon I opened the Arcades Project at random (the only way I make progress in reading it) and found this mysterious, late-career dictum from Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the teenage poet-prodigy who infamously and tragically lost his flow in such a way that he couldn’t really even be said to have “quit” poetry but who reemerged as a giant of the Austrian theater:
What drives us into contemplation of the past is the similarity between what has been and our own life, which are somehow one being [ein Irgendwie-eins-Sein]. Through grasping this identity, we can transport ourselves into even the purest of all regions—into death. [S2,2]
Benjamin attempts to illuminate this dark saying by considering the case of Proust, who sustained a pretty long look at this somehow-one-being.

Late in an imaginatively rich but objectively indolent life, Proust’s narrator comes to see that the act of thinking is all there is; consciousness doesn’t exist outside its own activity, and memories not recovered and articulated in language are lost to oblivion. This recognition sets off an extended Scrooge-like Christmas Eve of repentence in which the narrator relives his life, or lives it for the first time, by writing the words you and I read in Remembrance of Things Past. All the spiral arms of narration swirl back to a central point of productive negativity, for consciousness can appear to itself as what it is only when it recognizes the imminence of its own non-being. Benjamin writes: “His cosmos has its sun, perhaps, in death, around which orbit the lived moments, the gathered things.” [S 2,3]

At night I walked to town to meet Hilary, and in the nightspace of blackness and artificial light I tried out this cosmology on everything—Henry James, Thomas Mann, Poe, Exile on Main St., cinema as such, Buddhist sculpture, Yale—imagining their elements in solar-systemic motion and looking for the impossible axis around which they turn, the singular, central Other that animates the images, that has no actual visible features but countless symbolic guises and a quite particular and unvarying narrative shape.

So I was quite interested when Hilary proposed that we join a couple of her classmates who were meeting at midnight to discuss black holes. Our symposium was brief and mildly occult, ranging over light, gravity, dimensionality, and holes-in-general before degenerating into a You-Tube session—a social arc perhaps familiar to my virtual peers. Someone called up the video for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a downward-spiraling corporate grunge number noteable for a weirdly paced riff that floats under the guitar solo. The basic story of the video is that some aerial, off-camera object (or non-object) appears over a Midwestern suburb, causing the faces of the locals who gaze upon it to lock in a frightening rictus that seems to signify a psychic shift into some entirely private state of pleasure. The video’s particular combination of makeup and mid-90s computer effects makes the suburb’s residents’ smiling faces look increasingly really sick and possibly already dead, which licences the inference that whatever they’re looking at is objectively bad even if on some level they're enjoying it. (This predates David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which a video—“the Entertainment"—whose content is never reliably narrated has the same sort of effect on the people who watch it.) There may be another midnight symposium next weekend, on string theory, a topic which at present fails to give me the existential willies.

The last sentence of Within a Budding Grove, the second novel of Remembrance of Things Past, concludes with an image that illustrates Benjamin’s necrotic sun almost too literally to count as a real test of his thesis. It is the end of the season in the seaside resort town of Balbec and the narrator must depart. He recalls the height of summer, when on doctor’s orders he was confined to his room at the Grand Hotel, shut up in darkness while Albertine and her friends frolicked on the beach, left to construct in imagination the day’s events from the light and sound that managed to penetrate the system of curtains arranged by his servant.
And after Françoise had removed her pins from the mouldings of the window-frame, taken down her various cloths, and drawn back the curtains, the summer day which she disclosed seemed as dead, as immemorially ancient as a sumptuously attired dynastic mummy from which our old servant had done no more than cautiously unwind the linen wrappings before displaying it to my gaze, embalmed in its vesture of gold.


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