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Saturday, 11 June 2011

Walter Benjamin: In the Stone Forest


Stone Forest, Kunming, Yunnan Province, China
: photo by Gilad Rom, 26 December 2008


Valéry concludes his observations with this sentence: “It is almost as if the decline of the idea of eternity coincided with the increasing aversion to sustained effort.” The idea of eternity has ever had its strongest source in death. If this idea declines, so we reason, the face of death must have changed. It turns out that this change is identical with the one that has diminished the communicability of experience to the same extent as the art of storytelling has declined.

It has been observable for a number of centuries how in the general consciousness the thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness. In its last stages this process is accelerated. And in the course of the nineteenth century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which the people press through the wide-open doors of the death house. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. (The Middle Ages also felt spatially what makes that inscription on a sun dial of Ibiza, Ultima multis [the last day for many], significant as the temper of the times.) Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life -- and this is the stuff that stories are made of -- first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end -- unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it -- suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.


Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death. In other words, it is natural history to which his stories refer back. This is expressed in exemplary form in one of the most beautiful stories we have by the incomparable Johann Peter Hebel. It is found in the Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes [Treasure Chest of the Rhenish Home Companion], is entitled “Unverhofftes Wiedersehen" [Unexpected Reunion], and begins with the betrothal of a young lad who works in the mines of Falun. On the eve of his wedding he dies a miner’s death at the bottom of his tunnel. His bride keeps faith with him after his death, and she lives long enough to become a wizened old woman; one day a body is brought up from the abandoned tunnel which, saturated with iron vitriol, has escaped decay, and she recognizes her betrothed. After this reunion she too is called away by death. When Hebel, in the course of this story, was confronted with the necessity of making this long period of years graphic, he did so in the following sentences: “In the meantime the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, and the Seven Years’ War came and went, and Emperor Francis I died, and the Jesuit Order was abolished, and Poland was partitioned, and Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed. America became independent, and the united French and Spanish forces were unable to capture Gibraltar. The Turks locked up General Stein in the Veteraner Cave in Hungary, and Emperor Joseph died also. King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French Revolution and the long war began, and Emperor Leopold II went to his grave too. Napoleon captured Prussia, and the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the peasants sowed and harvested. The millers ground, the smiths hammered, and the miners dug for veins of ore in their underground workshops. But when in 1806 the miners at Falun...”

Never has a storyteller embedded his report deeper in natural history than Hebel manages to do in this chronology. Read it carefully. Death appears in it with the same regularity as the Reaper does in the processions that pass around the cathedral clock at noon.

Death Playing Chess: Albertus Pictor (1440-1507), Täby Kyrka, Diocese of Stockholm (image by by Hâkan Svensson, 16 August 2003)

Walter Benjamin: from The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov: first published in Orient und Occident, October 1936; translated by Harry Zohn, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 3, 2002


Ed Baker said...

ahh you've discovered justwhereStoneGirl resides:

and still after all of these years

whenever I pass (by) a cemetery I mutter:

"people are dyeing to get into that place"

as for any fear of death ?

I am guessing that the greatest fear is that when dead no-one will you or what you did ...



Thanks for this -- we're still alive, but for how long? And then what? Johnny and I are going over to visit my mother today, who's taken another turn this week (how long will she be here?). . .


pink orange of clouds above black plane
of ridge, quails calling back and forth
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

construct position, picture
subject matter within

as material, object surface,
number 12 on the left

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
line of pelicans gliding toward horizon

Artemesia said...

I wonder if Albertus Pictor's Death Playing Chess didn't inspire:

"The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) is a 1957 Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman. Set during the Black Death, it tells of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death, who has come to take his life. Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting."

It seems more than coincidental..or perhaps just another "iconic idea."

Thanks for all the wonderful images!

TC said...

Sorry to hear that, Steve.

I'm afraid the

subject matter within

is always there, gaining on us.

(But not on Johnny, no.)


Yes, that too was in the back of my mind.

She must be the life of the place.

You have a fine eye, Artemesia. Indeed I believe Albertus's illustration of Death playing chess from Täby kyrka -- the church is located just north of Stockholm -- was the direct inspiration for the Bergman film. Albertus the painter actually appears as a character in the film, played by Gunnar Olsson. We see him in a dialogue with Jöns, Antonius Block's squire, while working on a church mural.


Thanks for that, she's better (happily), turning back toward the light -- and my sister and her two girls (Johnny's cousins -- Simone 22 (just half way between Oona and Johnny, as she told him) and Natette 19 -- were there), so we had a grand time, and will see them again tomorrow when they come out for a Bolinas stay. . . .


grey white clouds against invisible top
of ridge, quails calling back and forth
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

related to other repetition,
detail more realistic

turn back to word, “to call,”
what is it that calls

grey white clouds reflected in channel,
sunlit green canyon of ridge across it