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Reflections on Walter Benjamin 5.

Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg:
Photographs of Heaven, Photographs of Hell

[No. 5 in a Series.]


portrait_logoWALTER BENJAMIN UNDERSTOOD more quickly and more sharply than most how the camera, still or moving, was affecting our relationship with the perceptible world. The close-up abolishes the parameters of distance; slowmotion discounts our previous secure fastening inside the metronome of chronology. Photographic and cinematographic processes did not merely reflect perception; they altered it radically.

For years Benjamin had planned a long essay on the aesthetics of the picture postcard. Like Orwell grasping the significance of boy’s comics or the postcard world of Donald McGill, Benjamin understood that the popular form uttered a truth about the age which more arcane modalities might easily disguise.

To Benjamin, the popular post card ‘uttered a truth about the age which more arcane modalities might easily disguise’.

The postcard was a cheap and convenient means of emblematising a place sufficiently distant from home that it deserved memorializing. The images of buildings or rivers or promenades combined with a few words of personal reminiscence and a signature, together with the stamp and the postmark – all these brought together the public and the private, the distant and the near, the expensively exotic and the cheaply reproducible. In one sense they were emblematic of modernity, and the extremities of perception newly available to it. And of course the postcard is democratically non-auratic; which is to say, that it abolishes distance cheaply. This postcard world is demotic, not hieratic. No temple doors could ever be closed against it.

BENJAMIN WAS BORN in the 1890s, the same decade that saw the birth of the picture postcard. The first smudgy attempts at the genre were not impressive, but chromolithography was to supply images of a compelling enough clarity. Soon postcard companies were employing photographers to produce images that suited the postcard format: the summarizing shot; the abbreviated topography. The monastery in a foreign city is now captured as the recorded itinerary of a common tourist, where a few decades before it would have required the employment of an expensive landscape artist, or a skilled photographer with elaborate equipment. Once Great Britain had dropped its postal requirements that all such cards be square, which it did in 1899, the standard format became an international phenomenon: oblong cards, portrait or landscape, memorializing somewhere, something or someone. The postcard (long before television) announces the inescapability of images in the world of photographic process, and mass-printing techniques.

In the eighteenth century written correspondence was frequent but also frequently chaotic. The recipient would often be the one expected to pay, and there were no clear rules as to how much the charge should be. Coleridge records an argument with a delivering carriage regarding a letter arrived from afar and assigned to him. Just how much should such deliveries cost? Rowland Hill introduced the universal postal service with a universal pre-paid price in 1840, and the system was soon to be adopted all over the British Empire and then the world. The notion of unwrapped epistolary communication was introduced with the Post Office Act of 1870, which for the first time allowed the use of postcards, though without pictorial matter. By the end of the century, railways had replaced carriages, balloons and carrier pigeons, as the normal means of delivery, and the postal service in its revised form (picture postcards included) had become an essential element of every form of life, including the intellectual. Darwin’s work, for instance, could not have been completed without the Victorian postal service. There were several deliveries a day in London, and they could all be trusted to arrive on time.

postcard_tofl1-500pxThe first coloured pictorial postcard Great Britain ever produced is an image of the Tower of London. It had been printed in Saxony by the firm Raphael Tuck & Sons. Before the Tower, Thames Barges sail down the river, and there is a vignette of a Beefeater, in his ceremonial outfit of scarlet and gold. London is presented in miniature as a themed arcadia. The Tower was built nearly a thousand years before, and the military figure is one no longer designed for any credible form of combat or warfare. He is icing on tradition’s cake. An antiquated means of transport plies its trade on the mighty waterway, though the age of sail has long since been superseded. This is a picture of heaven, in which the menace of history dissolves, though to be fair there are a few dark clouds still to be seen in the sky above London. But there’ll be no beheadings today.

The postcard (long before television) announces the inescapability of images in the world of photographic process, and mass-printing techniques.

Soon the words used on such cards would be a phrase borrowed from the German. ‘Greetings From’ was translated from the usage ‘Gruß aus’. One sends greetings wherever possible from a place of happiness, not one of misery or imminent death. (The etymology could take us to more dangerous places, since in Old English gretan means to accost and attack as well as greet in our modern sense). Thus does the picture postcard tend toward images of paradise, rather than representations of an inferno, though one should not underestimate the elasticity of the genre. It is fascinating to study the postcard in a time of war, to see how it is able to negotiate its leaning towards paradise, by taking account of our present inferno, but only ever with the sense of the redemption that is soon to be at hand- there have never been any entirely hopeless postcards. Some images of the trenches were turned into postcards; the shooting of Edith Cavell became a popular motif. And in the Second World War there were a number of series showing the devastating effects of the bombing of London. Once again these appear to be aimed at rousing the heroic war spirit – we shall pull through – and there do not appear to be any equivalent postcards from the devastated ruins of German cities in 1943 or 1944.

sonderimageNor of course were there any from Auschwitz, where copious signs were posted indicating that anyone caught taking photographs would be shot on sight. A postcard from Auschwitz would have been neither more nor less than a piece of shameless propaganda, like some of the early German films of the camps, showing smiling inmates, learning (at long last) that Arbeit macht frei. But images of misery on postcards are always teleological: they point towards redemption, as do images of the crucifixion in Christian iconography. Otherwise they would be little more than celebrations of the blackest nihilism. Here glimpses of hell always indicate a forthcoming heaven, unlike the four photographs taken in secret by Sonderkommandos at Birkenau, and smuggled out of the camp. One of them is here. They really were snapshots of hell.

POSTCARDS WERE PRINTED for a mass audience, and therefore fitted in with Benjamin’s description of non-auratic image production in his great essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility’1. An artwork that retains its aura asserts a distance between itself and any viewer, however close that viewer might get to the work; even if he owns it. The aura is that still-potent residue of an original ritual purpose. Such ritualistic reverence as it evokes requires that the work be unique, or at least extremely rare. Faced with a painting by Piero dell Francesca which is the only one in the world, I sense its auratic presence before me, not merely because the subject is the baptism of Christ, even without the nimbus around the Saviour’s head which in any icon of the time would have been the visual manifestation of his sacred aura, but because this unreproducible moment of perception involves an unreproducible image. It can be turned into a print, to be sure, or photographed and filmed to a high degree of exactitude, but the painting itself remains unique. It occupies this space, and only this space, and in entering such a space, I arrive as a pilgrim, however aestheticized my pilgrimage might have become in our secular era. Benjamin hints in his thoughts on photography that the truly auratic image (which can be photographic too) looks back at us, secured so firmly in its own outward gaze, like those early photographs that so preoccupied him, where the neck-brace and the long exposure between them concentrated the being of the sitters into intense expressiveness. They entirely assume their own identities in order to be gazed at. In what is probably the first entirely meaningful use of the phrase, they focus themselves. We can see a similar process occurring in Rembrandt’s portraits: the subject watches intently as his or her lineaments are discerned.

The postcard is a clear example of modern, non-auratic image-making. It is designed for infinite reproducibility.

Modern techniques of production and reproduction, so Benjamin informs us, have a tendency to abolish this auratic distance. So it would have been meaningless to have asked for the ‘original’ of any photograph. Photographs were taken from a negative and as long as the print had been competently produced, any one photograph was as authentic as any other, whether it carried the photographer’s signature or not. And the same must obviously be true of cinematic film. What could it mean to demand to see the original? (There is only one sense in which this could be a meaningful question: to request the director’s cut, before producers had hacked the work around for their own commercial purposes.) And the postcard is a clear example of modern, non-auratic image-making. It is designed for infinite reproducibility. Its value increases the more it is printed and posted.

And yet. Enter the collector, for whom the most fleeting ephemera can become items as prized as that painting by Piero della Francesca. Collecting, Benjamin informs us, is a form of practical memory. Each item in the collector’s inventory is a citation from the past, from the history of production, the history of reception, the history of perception. Benjamin appears to have started collecting postcards when his maternal grandmother posted them to him as a child. This redoubtable lady was one of those indefatigable nineteenth-century female travellers. Benjamin soon acquired three collector’s albums, and into these went the cards. Each collection, Benjamin also informs us, is a unique constellation, in which practical memory and individual obsessiveness between them arrange to defeat the Law of Entropy, if only temporarily. Order for once is brought out of disorder, rather than the other way about. So, we might ask, is the auratic creeping back in here, even in objects seemingly defined solely by their mechanical reproducibility? Benjamin’s relationship to Paul Klee’s watercolour Angelus Novus was auratic, to the point of being allegorical, as his Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History demonstrates. Certain postcards start to seem, for him, almost as auratic in effect, however reproducible their original conditions of production might have been. It certainly feels that way when he writes: ‘It stood in the same relation to the city I knew as that most jealously guarded of my postcards, the depiction of the Halle Gate in pale blue on a darker blue background.’ This was written in ‘Berlin Chronicle’, a meditation on the Berlin of decades before, written on Ibiza in 1932. Berlin would soon be lost to Benjamin, as would his precious postcard collection.

At the beginning of ‘Le Voyage’ Baudelaire has these lines, well-known to Benjamin, Baudelaire’s most lucid expositor:

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grande a la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux de souvenir que le monde est petit!2

Postcards are like the maps and prints here, and can be gathered together beneath the evening lamp, where they then constitute a world, the collector’s world, a form of practical memory in a unique constellation, and an assault upon the principle of dispersal expressed in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

WHAT IS HEARTBREAKINGLY poignant about the life of Walter Benjamin is to watch him formulating the laws of protest against diasporic entropies, at the very moment that historical circumstances were contriving to make his own life a personal diaspora, in which so much of value was to be lost. Not everything. He kept many of his papers, even after death. Klee’s Angelus Novus stayed with him during the long years in Paris. Certain volumes were clung to throughout his exile. The notebooks in which his thoughts were written daily were guarded and hoarded. But the postcard collection soon scattered as the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933. So what had been lost here? A form of constellated space, like the prints beneath the lamp in the evening in Baudelaire’s poem. We constellate the perceptible space of our lives with images. Most of us do it unconsciously; we simply take what’s given by posters, screens and television sets. The collector, so Benjamin informs us, does it instead with great deliberation, as a form of practical memory, as a way of constituting a coherent world for the duration of his sojourn here.

Benjamin did not accept the alphabetic or thematic principles of ordering his library, so we are told by himself and others. He would deliberately place unlikely items next to one another, a classic work next to the detailed memoir of a madman, so that this unique constellation might generate perceptions unprompted by the Dewey System or any other. What he found in Surrealism was just such a principle of radical juxtaposition, which could generate an array of defamiliarized perceptions. Dreamwork now invaded the daylight topography of the city square. The internal monologue spilled over, thus sharing its vocabulary and its syntax with the traffic.

mnemosyne1So what was lost when Benjamin’s beloved postcard collection was dispersed? He effectively defined the nature of the loss for us, by saying it was the constellated space of a collection. A space configured by images whose meaningful interrelation was provided by the intelligent care of the collector. A unique arrangement of practical memory. This was a constellated space whether the cards were ever laid out in relation to one another or not. Even as they existed inside the three collector’s albums, they still existed in relation to one another, as clearly as Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas called Mnemosyne did. At the end of a lifetime of studying how images are configured and constellated in art, astrological charts, architecture, public processions, the formulae for evoking pathos, Warburg had begun to construct a vast picture atlas. Images were mounted on black screens with pins. One could then see how the Nachleben der Antike, or afterlife of the antique, expressed itself in certain forms of Renaissance art, or how a figure from our primal history could shed the violence that had once accrued about it, become de-demonized in Warburg’s phrase, and live on as a redeemed motif. We should perhaps think of all visual collections as if they were laid out across those big screens which Warburg used to mount his images and relate them, one to another. The screens, and the manner of the mountings, are the manifestation of a constellated space in which, Warburg would have insisted, they already existed. In Mnemosyne they are making visually present a set of relations their pre-history had already implied.

We live in a world of images, and the universality of postcards in the twentieth century was merely one expression of that fact.

AS BENJAMIN KNEW, we live in a world of images, and the universality of postcards in the twentieth century was merely one expression of that fact. We have lived inside constellations of images ever since our communal life began, so far as we can see. Prehistory constantly presents us with human images of one sort or another. Trying to understand the structuring of such constellations, and the extent of their subliminal effect upon us, is one of the hardest tasks for the anthropologist and the art historian. Benjamin understood this, and was acutely conscious of the difficulty of the task; in this he shared Aby Warburg’s obsession with constellating the images that in turn constellate our thoughts, and it is one of the many tragedies of Benjamin’s life that his hopes of making contact with the Warburg group were to come to nothing. He had hoped that they, of all people, would have understood something of what he was trying to achieve in his Trauerspiel book. But no one rose to the occasion with even the minutest notice or review.

How far back can we trace the constellated spaces in which we have situated ourselves? We can go back to the Upper Palaeolithic, which is a fair distance. In Lascaux we see an underground space of ritual significance. The hybrid images on offer here were fashioned not by evolution, but by the human imagination, employing what Coleridge called its esemplastic power, yoking together heterogeneities, much as Benjamin insisted the collector always did, in his constellated acts of recovery. Different creatures miscegenate in what might be, according to some accounts, a shamanic state of transportation. And then there are therianthropes, combining the human and the animal. We see, in what looks remarkably like a dynamic form of modernist economy, the auroch, the horse, the ibex. In the Hall of the Bulls we see a cathedral, one provided by geology itself, as a natural form; here is a vast space, permitting a constellation of images.

The arguments continue as to the precise function of these spaces and the rituals associated with them. Bones of animals seem to have been brought here in great quantities, and animals both real and fictional were represented with great vividness. David Lewis-Williams argues in The Mind in the Cave that the cave was a membrane, a meeting-point between one world and another; the world of material reality and the world of spiritual potency beyond it (above or below) which sustained it and made its renewal possible, facilitating the hunt, seeking to guarantee once more the fecundity of earth the great provider.

THAT TAKES US back somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand years.

fraasanmarSix hundred years ago in Florence the priory of San Marco was made over to the Dominicans. Savanorala would make it his headquarters for his brief problematic period of power, but it is mostly remembered now for the images created by Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk who was also the monastery’s painter. These images structure the space of the interior into a progression from annunciation to scourging and crucifixion, and then on finally to resurrection. Space itself here, in its configuration and illustration, reclaims the time of the passion and constellates it as a journey of redemption. Chronology itself is sacrificed to the pattern of salvation. Saints like Dominic are pictured praying at the foot of the cross. Christ’s voluntary self-immolation and his redemptive power have stopped the clocks. Or even wound them back.

Modern galleries and museums seldom display such a coherent structure in their exhibition spaces; instead the space of viewing is atomistic and disintegrative. Individual items occupy their individual frames, their individual plinths, their individual galleries. By contrast there is a quality of collective constellation in Lascaux and San Marco, which has congealed into individual items and individual styles in our modern galleries.

And yet there are communal constellations constantly surrounding us, even if we barely notice their existence. Shared gestures, the silent meaning of communal signs, the structure of cities, the tarmac and concrete scrollwork of our roads and highways configuring their three-dimensional maps. It was this constellated space that Warburg’s picture atlas called Mnemosyne was meant to bring out, so as to demonstrate its physiognomy in an extended epiphany. Benjamin’s collection of postcards was such a miniature space of constellations too, before its dispersal. It was in its own way, all facilitated by photography, a complex space as meaningful as Lascaux or San Marco.

fxtbdsatparPHOTOGRAPHY HAD BEEN around for half a century by the time Benjamin was born. Its very name announced the problems it was subsequently to cause aesthetics: marks made by light. Put thus, the practice would appear to be an effect of nature, rather than a contrivance of art. The title of Fox Talbot’s photographic book of the 1840s was The Pencil of Nature. It is precisely its quality of artlessness, of being a technique for simply recording what you find placed before you, that made it so useful. Here, it seems, we were being given contingent reality, askew, clumsy even, and therefore indisputably authentic. Degas would come to use compositional framing devices which were deliberately ‘photographic’ in their effect: they gave the sense of simply offering a slice of visual reality, without having posed any of the figures or accoutrements first.

Benjamin was alert to the potency of photography from the beginning. He saw how Atget’s images of Paris were forensic, inquisitorial. He photographed Paris, said Benjamin, as if he were recording the scene of a crime. He was particularly good at capturing the way commodities, with no people around, continued to contrive the phantasmagoria of their displays, often from behind shop windows. Benjamin’s essay on Kafka starts by looking at the writer as a child, shipwrecked in the strange land of the photographic studio, clutching a hat vastly too large for him, already finding all the fitments of life alien – ill-fitting fitments. His fiction was already composing itself.

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.

ONE OF THE most notable of them was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most fiercely rational detective of them all. But Doyle’s rationality broke down before his desperation to believe in the reality of the psychic world and his wife Lady Doyle’s mediumship. Even his old friend Harry Houdini could not convince Sir Arthur that what he was witnessing during these sessions was not the other side breaking through at last into the quotidian, but the charlatanry of fake wizards and mercenary conmen. In short, a phantasmagoric contrivance.

cdoylefairiesSo when, a long way from London, curious paranormal phenomena announced themselves, Doyle was soon to find himself not merely convinced, but entranced. The Cottingley Fairies manifested their existence through photographic prints. Two young girls in Yorkshire (with an amateur photographer for a father, and a dark room upstairs) faked up some pictures of themselves with fairies dancing around them out in the garden. Conan Doyle believed quickly and would never be subsequently shaken into unbelief, even publishing a book on the subject. Yeats too believed for years that photographic evidence would soon be proving the existence of the spiritual world. They were both of them in search of photographs of heaven.

There have been many photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, and as many analyses to show how those photographs were faked. There have also been many recorded images of UFOs, once again followed by the analytic sceptics showing how they could easily be cobbled together using easily available darkroom techniques. The photograph as proof of history goes back a long way. Stalin had Trotsky’s image removed from early photographs of the Russian Revolution; thus was he to be erased from history itself. The lesson here appears clear: disappear from photographs and you disappear from memory. To which the alternative truth is what? Appear in the photographs and you have gained a kind of immortality? It is not your name that is written in the book of life any more, but your image that is to be imprinted there.

The image presents us with the reality of the past, with all the vivid immediacy of the living. To use one of Benjamin’s favoured words, the image flashes up before us.

André Bazin says in his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’3 that the Surrealists valued photography so highly because they thought of it as a hallucination that was also a truth. Why should a hallucination not be a truth? And the photographic image was also a transcendence of death, as fruit painted on a pyramid wall could stay there in perpetuity, while the organic sort rotted all too swiftly. So the photograph is to the ravages of time what sodium was to the dead pharaoh: the possibility of mummification was a defiance of mortality, at least if you were a pharaoh. The sodium of the pyramid and the phosphorus of the séance both offer a clue as to the phantasmagoric beguilement of the photographic image. The image presents us with the reality of the past, with all the vivid immediacy of the living. To use one of Benjamin’s favoured words, the image flashes up before us. The past meets the present in a dialectical compound of then and now, past information and present need; the preterite of the archive and the present’s voracious curiosity. This is what Benjamin sometimes called dialectics at a standstill.

IN THE SECOND half of the nineteenth century there were many systematic attempts to delineate the study of how to read the human personality: amongst them, chiromancy, phrenology, physiognomy and graphology. Benjamin remained devoted to the last of these, and according to Scholem he was throughout his life ‘an uncanny graphologist’. He was also obsessed by physiognomy, though not particularly of the human variety. It was the physiognomy of cities that enticed him. He gives us various accounts of them in his essays on Marseilles, Naples and Berlin, together with all the information we receive about Moscow in his Notebooks. The postcard can show the physiognomy of a city on the obverse while permitting a graphological analysis of the handwriting of the sender on the reverse. Thus do macrocosm and microcosm come together; two sides of one small piece of card.

Benjamin shared with Aby Warburg a fascination for older methods of mapping our relation to the universe. Warburg detected astrological dispositions in the way we presently disported ourselves, aesthetically and politically, and Benjamin found the old humoral system more provocative of incisive thought than modern psychoanalysis. His understanding of the sorrow plays, and of much allegorical art, is dependent on an astute grasp of the significance of melancholy for so much of our artistic and literary tradition. The humours should have become defunct intellectually with Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. But Benjamin, again like Warburg, seems to believe that any tradition which has continued long enough establishes its own intellectual autonomy; it cannot simply be superseded or erased. If it has generated a rich enough iconography, then it must have been on to something.

operaxIeBenjamin’s most striking act of physiognomic perception, in regard to the city in history, is to see in the Paris arcades of the nineteenth century, an exemplary space, a passage between nowhere and nowhere, in which commodities could display themselves with all the dazzle of the phantasmagoria. Single-storey or at most two-storey buildings, the arcades were the precursors of the department stores on many floors that came later. Built in the first half of the nineteenth century, these thoroughfares with no destination but their own displays were a luminous parenthesis in the discourse of the modern city. In many cases Benjamin had only the photographs to go on: the buildings themselves had vanished. So once again Bazin seems vindicated: the photographic image is a transcendence of death. Inside the arcades, commodities continue their séance. There is no need of phosphorus here, only gas lighting. The arcades were the first public spaces to be publicly lit in this fashion. They shine in darkness, like ectoplasm.

WE LIVE ALWAYS inside our constellated meanings, but we are seldom fully aware of their significance. We make them over incalculably long periods, then they shape our minds for us in what we like to think of as the present. This is the condition Marx referred to as commodity fetishism. What we originally fashioned stands over against us as if it were a world of immutable natural forms. Or, as Benjamin understood after studying the arcades, a phantasmagoria. Each age dreams its successor, and in the act of contriving it phantasmagorically, thereby starts to bring it into being. Like cinema, this is the technology of the dream. An arcade, like a Hollywood studio, is a dream factory.

Warburg reckoned that we have a tendency to make our image-making appear rational retrospectively, where it more frequently originated in irrationality. He insisted, following Nietzsche, that the Dionysian is a more likely source of our original images than the Apollonian. The progression of images in civilization is a history of de-demonization, according to Warburg. Except, of course, for certain reversals. Warburg died before one of those major reversals was to achieve its catastrophe in Nazi Germany, when the image once more overwhelmed the sign, and the mediated distance between image and intelligence was abolished, so as to permit murderous frenzies on the street, accompanied by night-time processions under flags and lamps. And the chanting of sacred threnodies by the uniformed priests of the new rite.

Warburg saw mature art as the negotiation between violence and peaceable form, outlandishness and the imaginative comforts of the hearth…

Warburg saw mature art as the negotiation between violence and peaceable form, outlandishness and the imaginative comforts of the hearth, as we can see in that the inrush of energies from a classical iconography newly recovered in the Renaissance (his Nachleben der Antike) and a means of domesticating these energies in artistic expression and convention. Warburg feared the new technology of cinema could all too easily overwhelm the senses, making any dispassionate intellectual judgment impossible, which was precisely what that master of propaganda, Josef Goebbels, most valued in it.

mnemosyne2Mnemosyne tried to link up the images, to find patterns of persistence and metamorphosis. The grand displays on those multiple screens were only possible because of photographic reproduction and the technologies of modern printing. The original images from galleries and churches and palaces, could they ever have been brought together – which they never could – would never have interrelated thus, so positioned on screens that their interconnections can become visible and intelligible.

WE HAVE NO photographs of maenads going about their murderous business; what we have instead are images of women carrying severed heads, or subsequent baskets of flowers, as the figure is gradually de-demonized. The figure is retained while the demon is exiled from the iconography. The mistake of Conan Doyle and the Society for Psychical Research was to imagine you can photograph the inhabitants of heaven and hell, when you can only photograph the traces of the images we have made in seeking to represent those states. Freud lived in the age of the photograph too, but there are no photographs of the realities he thought he was pursuing. There is no photographic evidence of ego, superego, id, and certainly none of libido or destrudo, the ultimate forces he posited of life and death respectively. Here we can only photograph manifestations, not agencies. The dead on the battlefield, bodies contorted in passion in the hotel room. But then, according to Freud, these are puppets. The puppet-masters of the psyche are either camouflaged or invisible. Unless they are the ones pointing the cameras.

The successor to photography was, of course, cinema. And Benjamin really did seem to believe that cinema (whatever Goebbels saw fit to do with it) might be the nearest thing to a worker’s paradise that recreational technology had yet achieved. The greatest movies certainly superimpose heaven on hell and hell on heaven. In the course of two hours we vicariously experience damnation and redemption. Hence the astonishing potency of this new medium, with its photographic realism combined with its preternatural ability to take us inside the mind of the protagonist or victim, through the ingenious deployment of the lens. Slowing down time and speeding it up, slicing away irrelevant temporality through the techniques of montage, harmonising the contingent and the heteronomous through the cohering agency of the soundtrack. And linking us vicariously to the damned or the redeemed through the voice-over, which speaks so intimately in the identity of another that we come to imagine it is our own.

rdheavenCINEMA PRESENTS US with images of damnation and salvation, heaven and hell. In cinema’s precursor, the magic lantern show, we might have found the prototype: in a slide picture show called Road to Heaven by G. R. Sims a little boy is in such a state of misery in London that he finds it indistinguishable from hell. Dickens also gives us many such figures in his novels; the child as infernal prisoner. The boy jumps into the Thames in order to achieve salvation. When he wakes in hospital he thinks the figures in white coats around him must be angels. The scene is parallel to Dorothy awakening from her extraordinary adventures in Oz to recognise the features of her companions in the earthly figures of those who tend her in Kansas. In Chaplin’s films, to which Benjamin was devoted, we constantly find hell in the city, only to discover redemption at the end of the movie. Redemption is frequently figured in a single human face. Here the close-up reveals the physiognomy of an earthly paradise.

The most terrible thing about heaven is the superimposition of hell upon it; the most terrible thing about hell is the superimposition of heaven.

The most terrible thing about heaven is the superimposition of hell upon it; the most terrible thing about hell is the superimposition of heaven. It is the contiguity of these two contradictory states, the fact that they present themselves to us as the obverse and reverse of the coin of existence and eschatology that can entirely defeat the imagination. William Blake realised that this was the ultimate spiritual contradiction to be confronted, but he lived before the age of photography, if only just. Wordsworth lived on into the age of photography but scrupulously avoided all its lenses. The single most shocking thing about Dante’s cosmology is surely the simultaneous coexistence of blessedness in paradise and eternal damnation in the inferno. Blessed observers can peer into the chasm of the unredeemed, as if tourists could gaze through the gates of Auschwitz, or even take photographs, before travelling first-class back to their mansions on the good green sward.

The development of the photograph and the negative by Fox Talbot enhanced the magic lantern shows of the Victorians, but its real technological home was to be in the cinema that was still to come. Here was a medium that could overwhelm with its verisimilitude. Photography had automated itself into life. Or as Jean-Luc Godard put it, with an auteur’s overemphasis: ‘Photography is truth. And cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.’

WE HAVE FOUND ourselves so entirely inside the world of images that we no longer register the rearrangement of perceptual realities involved. Spiritually, we have become photographic and cinematographic. Our souls are now anthologies of recorded images. Consider the following film sequence. Let’s call it Virtual Reality in Nevada.

We start with a montage of shots inside a casino. People are gambling, with that look of intense distraction gamblers tend to exhibit. There are baize tables where blackjack is played; roulette wheels spin in their ecstatic circuits of uncertainty, until they are halted. Reward for a few; loss for most. In the chamber outside there are rows and rows of shining gambling machines where solitary punters push in the money, pull the handle or press the buttons, and watch the images flash on a screen. Occasionally the orgasmic clatter of coins registers a win. Each one of these individual gamblers relentlessly feeds the metal maw of the many-headed hydra of chance. The relationship is highly individual and also as impersonal as possible, since it is a tryst with the faceless machinery of fate. If someone wins, it is because the fortuitous turns gratuitous. Nothing here is earned by the sweat of your brow, except perhaps for the money with which you arrived in Las Vegas for that long weekend. The machines blip and squeal and chatter in excited inconsequence. This is a kind of artificial paradise, though for some its repetitious lack of overall meaning could also be construed as hell. Dante could have added a circle here; Doré might easily have illustrated it. Statistically this crowd is a large collective loser. Dynamically, each individual believes he could still turn out to be the greatest winner on earth. No one puts money in any of these machine in order to lose.

Now the camera pans out and we see Las Vegas, in all its glittery showbiz kitsch. Here is the Strip, the single brightest spot on earth when seen from our lenses out in space. Now we fly through the air like a supersonic bird to a different part of Nevada, where men sit rather than stand in front of screens, operating knobs and levers on different types of consoles. On each screen crude images appear. These flag up potential targets. Every so often one of the operatives presses a button, and a drone fires a weapon thousands of miles away.

Finally our film cuts to the scene in a Pashtun village. There is smoke, destruction, weeping women, yelling men. The wedding party had fired off its ancient guns at the sky, a traditional practice, and our man before his console in Nevada had merrily shouted ‘Splat’ as he annihilated a group of human beings who were nothing to him but blurs on a screen, and now even those blurs have stopped moving. Thus does virtual military reality in Nevada become actual physical death in northern Pakistan. There is no blood to bear witness on our man’s monochrome screen.

Back in the casino we gaze at the serried ranks before the chance-machines. Not one is part of a crowd, indeed each one is utterly alone, connected by the machine to an arbitrary fate whose blessings mean a night of bliss, or whose curses involve a night of drunken misery. Outside in the gathering gloom the hookers on the Strip are gathering too. The same fate that condemns you to death might this very night have arranged for a temporary redemption. An artificial paradise, paid for by the hour. The sort of parenthetical heaven Baudelaire understood, and described with great precision. He thought it the only species of paradise modernity ever permitted. A parenthesis, like the arcades.

bridlingtonALL THIS HAS been presented to us in two minutes flat. So many lives, so many deaths, without us even having to move an inch from our seats. If we compare such images of heaven and hell to Dante’s, we see how, in our modern world, the technology of image manufacture has replaced, to an astonishing degree, the imagination. In effect it becomes the raw material of what we call imagination. And once again we have the simultaneity of heaven and hell; their superimposition. At the moment when the young man in Nevada hits his target on a screen he is in heaven. He is serving his country to the best of his abilities, and being paid to do so. He has demonstrated his hard-earned skills in cyber-warfare. And at that precise instant, a world away, the wedding party finds itself inside its own roaring inferno. What connects heaven and hell are missiles, drones and lenses. The damned co-exist with the redeemed in a world of simultaneous imaging and linkage.

hitlercardIt has been so for a long time, if less speedily. A postcard from Bridlington to Germany in 1935 promises paradise. Happy men and women, radiant children, sunshine promenaders. The Bridlington Belle steams up in the harbour by the North Pier, preparing to take the delighted on land out to encounter the delights of a calm sea. And in the same year a postcard is sent from Germany to Bridlington. It shows Adolf Hitler staring grimly into the future, as though it were an alien problem he is about to resolve. It is one of the official Hoffman photographs from 1933, heavily retouched. The image announces a paradise to come; for some anyway.

wbenjmemBut not for Walter Benjamin, who died by his own hand in 1940 at Port Bou, trying to escape the Nazis. Port Bou is on the French-Spanish border, and was described by Hannah Arendt as one of the most beautiful sites she had ever seen. So there was something of heaven about the place. And Benjamin had brought with him a supply of morphine sufficient to knock out several horses. The possession of those phials would be regarded as a promise of paradise by some. The group of refugees had been told (wrongly, as it turned out) that they would not be able to make their escape after all, and would therefore end up in the hands of the Gestapo, which would have turned this place of rare beauty into a portal to hell, as far as Benjamin was concerned. So he took the morphine, and presumably enjoyed a brief spell of profane illumination. Then he died.

In 1994 a memorial was built to him. Perhaps one can buy a postcard of it.4

LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of his essays has now been published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.


  1. Available in a translation by Harry Zohn, online at the Marxists Internet Archive.
  2. The text may be accessed here via
  3. The text from Film Quarterly, via a JSTOR pdf, is here.
  4. The text from Dani Karavan’s memorial project sketchbook is here.
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