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Cluster index: Alan Wall

Modernist poetics.

Alan Wall: ‘Myth functioned for the modernists as a formal simplification, an avoidance of Brancusi’s ‘confusion of familiarities’. Myth could bring you closer to the present and its horrors and barbarities than the accustomed techniques of naturalism; it was in the widest possible sense, more realistic. The ancient could bring you closer to the realities of the present than the accustomed modes of the immediate past. But such employments were valid only if the ritualistic, the mythic, the legendary, interacted dynamically with the present; only if the past could be made to acknowledge that it only existed at all within the present. The past exists as long as the present carries it forward in time. That is the meaning of the word ‘relevance’ in terms of art. ‘


Alan Wall: ‘Oskar Kokoschka commissioned
a life-size doll of Alma Mahler
who’d left him to marry another’

Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Alan Wall: ‘Although many of the pieces published in these two impressive volumes would be known already to Wittgensteinians, many more would not. Unless you have not only bought anthologies like Rush Rees’s Recollections of Wittgenstein, but also followed such publications as Guy’s Hospital Reports and the Irish Medical Times, or Hermathena, then some of these essays will be new to you. Together they present a composite image of the man which is hugely impressive. Perhaps each century can produce one man like Wittgenstein; certainly not many more. ‘

Irony and ironists.

Alan Wall: ‘What the ironist says is a matter of logic: if this, then that. But since that is not inevitably that, then this is not inevitably this either.’


Alan Wall: ‘What terrifies about Satan and the demons is intelligent cunning and damnable determination, not the multi-coloured yawns of the possessed. It is that which makes them uncanny and terrifying, and it is that quality of hellishness which connects them with the goings-on in From Hell. This quality of transcendent and merciless intelligence is what intrigues us about infernal agents. ‘

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 9.

Benjamin and Surrealism: ‘By smashing any remaining illusion of the continuum of history (another pernicious doctrine, according to Benjamin) Surrealism freed the mind into a simultaneity of revelations. All that ever was is here now, or it has already vanished for ever into the black hole of oblivion. That is the law of the jungle, the truth of dialectics, the inexorable procedure of capitalist development, and it is also the law of art: we either make it new, or we might as well forget it. In fact, we are already forgetting it. We retain what we retain of history in a flash of present perception, a luminous manifold, or it has disappeared into the strata of the unconscionable, which is to say, the pious stacks of archived amnesia. ‘

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 8.

Benjamin’s angel and his ‘Theses’: ‘Benjamin understood that the phantasmagoria and the human sensorium are both theatres of perception and mystery, whether made of flesh or wax. The leap into the revolutionary would have to be a leap out of Clio’s mechanical continuum into the Jetztzeit, the dynamic time of a “now” so disruptive that it does not permit itself to be translated into the atomised slide-show of progress and historicism.’

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 7.

Baudelaire, Allegory and the Aura: ‘Now Baudelaire is endlessly aware that New Paris stands on the grave of the Old Paris buried beneath it. Baudelaire’s poetry at times takes the form of a prosodic archaeology. Haussmann is merely the latest conqueror of its urban topography. If his boulevards are designed to permit speedy transit, they are also intended to prevent revolution. And in the buildings, the streets, the passers-by, the prostitutes, Baudelaire constantly finds parallels with antiquity. The ancient flashes up and meets the new in a single and unique image of illumination, which must be seized now or lost for ever. ‘

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 6.

The ‘canonicity’ of Kafka: ‘Kafka, in his photographs, looks like an evolutionary warning to the world’s imagination. Our eyes will need to be even larger, if we are ever to see what is actually going on. His own seem set to swallow the rest of his features. The man who worked for the Workers’ Insurance Company in Prague, and wrote through the night, confronts us with the vast, dilated gaze of a lemur. His eyes have grown big enough to uncover the hours of darkness. When we look at his features we see an optic nakedness.’

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 5.

Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg – Photographs of Heaven, Photographs of Hell: ‘From the beginning, we have called upon photography to prove our realities to us. If in doubt, we demand to see the photograph. During the heyday of the Society for Psychical Research, photographic evidence was seen as one of the key elements needed to establish the truth or otherwise of the goings-on in séances. There are many photographs of séances, with ectoplasm appearing out of the medium’s mouth. All that is needed here is a certain slickness with the optical equipment together with some notion of the potency of phosphorus, and a winning way with cotton wool. A great many were convinced, all the same, some of them of considerable intellectual eminence.’

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 4.

Spadefuls of meaning: ‘What troubled Hopkins was that the whole manner of signification, and therefore the meaning of what was being signified, shifted according to the nature of the language employed. A dilution of meaning was a change of meaning, and so a shift of usage was effectively a change of mind. And meaning here is not merely lexis; it is syntax too, the way grammatical configuration elicits alternative possibilities from the words thus constellated.’

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 3.

Bad Reading Habits: ‘Sacred scripture has a mythic resonance for Walter Benjamin. It bespeaks a world prior to the fracture of word and meaning which is the condition of modernity. He is of course reverting here to a long-standing myth: the idea that the original language, the language spoken by our first philosopher Adam, was Hebrew. It is only relatively recently that Indo-European has displaced that originating language in our schemas. The sacred is constantly under threat from scientific analysis.’

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 2.

Texting: Ancient and Modern: ‘In a world where ninety per cent of our realities arrive in the form of electronic images, we have elected (without any individual consideration of the matter) Erlebnis over Erfahrung. If Erlebnis is smoothly planographic, glissading along, Erfahrung eats into the mind’s surface. It is either a burin digging or acid biting. It hurts, and the pain becomes a form of recall.’ – Alan Wall

Reflections on Walter Benjamin 1.

Preface to the series: ‘The essays that follow are part of a sequence. The aim is to use some of the key concepts of Walter Benjamin, that remarkable critic and cultural analyst, in order to describe aspects of contemporary culture and politics.’

The poet and the dictionary.

Alan Wall: ‘Geoffrey Hill’s poetic career has been mediated through his engagement with the dictionary. And that dictionary is first and foremost the OED. There is no greater dictionary in the world, and its making constitutes one of the great intellectual events of the twentieth century, though it started life in the nineteenth. There had never been anything like this before. Now the language itself has become the documented labyrinth of its own manifold meanings. Now history can be traced uttering itself thus and thus in one mutating word after another. The thought of a poet writing in English who would not grow excited turning the pages of the OED, or clicking on the electronic version, is so dismal that one wishes such a personage an even smaller readership than modern poets normally manage to acquire.’