Tuesday, May 13, 2003

WB On The Treadmill


WB On The Treadmill

"Benjamin thrills me in no small measure because he does not cohere, and beautifully."
R.B. Kitaj, apropos his painting "The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin)"

When, several years ago, I joined the gym I now go to, I kept imagining a short, stout Walter Benjamin in a black suit jacket sweating profusely on the treadmill next to me. This wasn't the WB who had been snatched up and translated into an afterlife of often tortured academic discourse. It wasn't the WB of a dense thesis that flunked him out of graduate school, nor of the incomparable essays. Nor yet was this the WB of hashish writings so lovely they can make you wonder if all his writing, all his thinking, aspired to that state, the state of poetry, and to ask, further, if it wasn't the poetic, not to say stoned, immediacy of WB's best prose that left his censorious buddy, Theodore Adorno, in the dialectical dust.

WB on the treadmill, half soft flesh, half shimmering cartoon mirage, was a WB who had put the pen down, a WB of the very last days, on his last legs, hauling a bulging briefcase over a mountain with the Gestapo on his trail. This was a WB who had come back to burn off calories if he could, and to retroactively repair a cardiac arrhythmia. He had a mountain on his mind, one he had lacked the fortitude to scale more than once in the fall of 1940, so that when guards on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees told him he would have to go back to Nazi occupied France, he chose suicide rather than another climb.

I was drawn to everything pertaining to his last days, not least of all the particulars of Weimer heart ache. It turned out that "soldier's heart" commonly afflicted returnees from World War I who had come close enough to an exploding shell for it to permanently disrupt cardiac rhythm. WB, who never fought in the war, seemed to have contracted a sympathetic version of the complaint, a zeitgeist arrhythmia. And I found improbabilities bordering, to my mind, on wonders about Benjamin's last days, and also moments when his peculiar character, the character of an incessantly hounded, endlessly resolute man, shone through.