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Cluster index: Alan Wall

Remembering Ovid.

Alan Wall: ‘Ovid’s long gone, breathing the salt wind of the blackest sea/Exiled to his outpost where the priests/All recommend a sacramentum of barbarity./Write (if you must) with old coals on the dungeon walls.’

Walter Benjamin and the City.

Alan Wall: ‘Had Le Corbusier been given his way in the early twentieth century, then the Parisian Babel would have been translated entirely into Esperanto; a modern synthetic language of the Enlightenment: modernism rendered as a form of aesthetic hygiene. But the city photographed by Atget survived, for a while anyway. Benjamin obsessed over Atget’s images, which he reckoned had drained away the auratic entirely, and produced something different in its place. ‘

1922, that liminal point.

Alan Wall: ‘he significance of the year 1922 is beyond question. Kevin Jackson in Constellation of Genius calls it Year One of modernism, and Ezra Pound took to dating his letters from the date of completion of Ulysses. This was the end of the Christian era. Yeats had already remarked, after watching Ubu Roi: “After us, the Savage God.” ‘

Looking back in anger.

Alan Wall: ‘Kitaj was obsessed all his life with Cézanne, and Cézanne certainly believed that everything needed in life and art was here, right before us, but we had to learn to see with utter integrity, and that meant ridding ourselves of false visual conventions. It is not the subject-matter of art that makes it lofty, but its method of perception. ‘


Alan Wall: ‘How reconcile the holy text of Genesis with modern cosmology, which we now know to be true? Hebrew scripture being canonical. Well, God makes everything in six days before signing off for the Sabbath. But look hard at the words.’

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.’