Lao Tzu and the Apaches.
All History is contemporary history: not in the ordinary sense of the word, where contemporary history means the history of the comparatively recent past, but in the strict sense: the consciousness of one's own activity as one actively performs it. History is the self-knowledge of the living mind.
John Berger: G. A Novel
In his fascinating essay, "Fancy Footwork", Rob Shields (1994) usefully introduces Benjamin's treatment of the north American Indian in conjunction with the flaneur and the idea of "popular imperialism." He writes: "To accomplish [the] urgent task of orientation in a changing world, the flaneur borrows the practice of other ‘Mohicans' to scan for himself the urban environment and passers-by for information on the true nature of the world. The arcades of Paris are a vantage point for both the flaneur and for Benjamin to engage in a depth hermeneutics of the street and, through its metropolitan centrality, to Europe and its colonies" (73). It is important that Shields has explored the appropriation of the ‘savage' and the ‘Apache/Mohican' in creating the intellectual milieu within which the flaneur and, by implication, Benjamin moved. However, in trying to understand Benjamin's own attempt at creating a philosophy which placed himself in relation to space, time and the Other, it is necessary to go beyond the flaneur as a central motif, even if his writing of the 1930s is taken as the central project, for during that period he also produced writings on Kafka, Brecht, Proust, Kraus. The influence of Baudelaire and Poe seems to have become the central feature of most Benjaminian scholarship, but it seems to me, in these anti-Marxist days, important to reclaim the "baleful influence" of Brecht, the hermeticism of Proust, and the dystopian world of both Kafka and Krauss. Otherwise Benjamin's meta-critique of the way we live now is reduced to the perambulations of a mimetic nomad. It could be argued (and I will do so) that Brecht, and though him Kafka, Proust, Krauss were the theoretical and political counterweights to the Paris Project, just as Goethe and the Trauerspiel had been to its invention. My title is therefore somewhat mischievous, because the Lao-Tzevian or Novian Benjamin is, of course, the Brechtian who took many of his ideas from these traditions, and made them his own, as Slavoj Zizek has recently remarked:
Then there is Bertolt Brecht....He took over elements like sacrifice and authority and put them in a left-wing context. Here in the west, Brecht was seen as someone introducing a fanatic Eastern morality. But now there's in Suhrkamp Verlag a detailed edition of his "Jasager" and his "Lernstacke." They discovered that all those moments the western critics perceived as remainders of this imperial and sacrificing Japan were indeed edited by Brecht. What they perceived as Japanese was Brecht.
What Benjamin perceived in the Apache was Baudelaire's Apache, not the Apache himself, as Rob Shield's essay was careful to point out. But, in juxtaposition to this there was the perception of the Brechtian Japanese and Chinese who were positioned as formidable alternatives to the flanerie of Paris. The others might be used for different purposes and those differences are evident in Benjamin's own writing. Most of Benjamin's writing centres around gesture as a part of language and social action. In one of his several essays on Brecht he wrote:
....the interrupting of action is one of the principal concerns of epic theatre. It is here that the importance of the songs for the ‘economy' of the drama as a whole resides. Without anticipating the difficult study, yet to be made, of the function of the text in epic theatre, we can at least say that often its main function is not to illustrate or advance the action but, on the contrary, to interrupt it: not only the action of others, but also one's own.
In discussing the flaneur, Rob Shields draws out the important contrast between Simmel's notion of the stressed-out metropolitan who withdraws into the blase mentality, and the flaneur who, quoting Benjamin, experiences spleen as "becoming foreign, distant....[placing] centuries between the present moment and the time actually being lived. Modernity is only the latest antiquity" (Shields: 1995, 73) Benjamin's use of Brecht allows us to put the flaneur into a historical and political context, without which it would have no meaning at all. If Shields argues that the "flaneur borrows the practice of other ‘Mohicans' to scan for himself the urban environment and passers-by for information on the true nature of the world," and that the arcades of Paris are a vantage point for both the flaneur and for Benjamin to engage in a depth hermeneutics of the street and, through its metropolitan centrality, to Europe and its colonies," it is important to see that Brecht allows Benjamin to contemplate on the meta-narrative within which all of this takes place. And that narrative, thinking about the implications of the "Ruminations on philosophy and history," is that we have been here before, and that our stories must be interrupted by the cries of the others who demand our recognition. Rethinking that narrative is what compelled Benjamin to recognize in Brecht (with all his collaborators) a voice which pulled out of all our (global) historical stories the issues and the plots that make sense for us now. If the ‘Apache' or the ‘Mohican' was appropriated by the Parisian dilettante as the symbol of his own urban, colonizing identity, there was a much more formidable problem for Benjamin: how, in telling stories that have any meaning, do we pull together the experiences of not merely the other societies and other conflicts, but do so in such a manner that not only should the story of the good woman of Szechuan be told that we can make sense of her self and ours, but also the craft of writing, the telling from other cultures which would have a direct resonance to ours.
Benjamin's ultimate rejection of Judaism, Marxism and conventional liberal practices and approaches, as well as Adorno's Negative Dialectics was surely based on this sensibility that, if we are to survive in any meaningful way as political, social and cultural beings in a world which is becoming increasingly international, we have to construct a language which tries to make sense of the appropriation of the experiences of others through time and down to the present. If, as Rob Sheilds argues, "Flaneurie is the psychotic appropriation of space and time," the alienation-effect in Brecht's plays was an attempt at providing a code by which we can crack the meaning over space and time. Cracking that code (if one had read Wittfogel and many other books on the decline of the West and the Rise of the Orientals) was a bold action. Benjamin tried to come to terms with this in an interesting way. The Brecht of the theatrical parables was also the Brecht of occasional poems. While Benjamin generally only refers to the Orient in oblique asides in essays on Proust and Kafka, and never, as far as I know, in any of his essays on Brecht's theatre, there is one revealing piece in one of his commentaries on Brecht's poems. This is contained in the commentary on "Legend on the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tzu's Way into exile." If the Brechtian theatre was driven by his own interpretation of Japanese No theatre , the poem, based on a Chinese legend around a real book, is an account of telling and unfolds in the following way.
The seventy-year-old impecunious Lao Tzu is going into exile. At the border he is challenged by the customs guard to declare his valuables. I have none, he says. (Not the pompous "Nothing to declare but my genius," of Irish/British Imperial encounters). The boy who accompanies him says that he's a teacher. All he needs is water. The custom official says that I will give you water and bread if only you will write down your wisdom, "Dictate it to this boy". Lao Tzu sees that the custom official is as poor as he is ("Patched coat. Never owned a shoe. One deep wrinkle in his brow"). For seven days Lao Tzu dictates the eighty-one maxims, leaves them with the customs officer and goes on his way. The moral of the story is simple. Lao Tzu would have never produced his great text without the urging of the customs' officer and the active assistance of the boy.
What Benjamin does with this is important if we want to tease out the different points of gestural politics. If, in the flaneurie segments of the Passagenwerk he seems to reach out to the body as a performance-object which radiates the possibilities of worlds yet to be conquered , the analysis of Brecht suggests a sense of universality, but a universalism of those others of whom we are an ongoing part. Reading history is an issue of choice and will. We might choose to interrupt its moments at any point, as all the ruling classes have done in the past. If we have been here before (the transmigration of all souls) at moments not of our own choosing, at least here we should cultivate a pincipled reading of the others. The reading of Lao Tzu at the frontier (all our frontiers - Benjamin's, Brecht's, Lao Tzu's) is a parable of what makes us creative, human. Our lasting works are composed out of a sense of what Benjamin calls "friendliness," a juxtaposition between "the wisdom of Lao Tzu," and "the custom official's desire for knowledge." "Without the spirit of friendliness, the book would never have been handed down to us." But this friendliness "does not consist in doing small things casually, but in doing the very greatest things as though they were the smallest" and does not "abolish the distance between human beings but brings that distance to life." In this view of Chinese culture, turned into a caricature during the Cultural Revolution, the interaction between the sage and the pauper is the catalyst of any dynamic culture.
So, if we interrupt the gestures of history, we can pretend to be Mohicans, or anyone else we want, and cruise the Paris streets wearing the feathers of the other and present ourselves as "the archtypical consumer," in Shields' words. Or else, with Benjamin/Brecht, "living in the darkest and bloodiest of times," we can "spread cheerfulness" wherever we go. The contrast between the commodified individual (masquerading as the Apache/Flaneur) and the wizened wise-man straddling the frontier of knowledge, experience and history has never been more exquisitely expressed. Even if they are both stereotypes, we live in the labyrinth where they might at some time bump into each other.
Over his shoulder the old sage now
An alternative scenario is, necessarily, Benjamin's own frontier experience. As Brecht wrote:
But surely the frontier of Lao Tzu is the one than Benjamin would have preferred. In the aftermath it is surely the image we should preserve.
Keith Tester (ed) , The Flaneur. London: Routledge, 1994, essay by Rob Shields ,
"Fancy Footwork: Walter Benjamin's notes on Flanerie, 61 - 80
Arthur and Mary-Louise Kroker (eds) Digital Delirium. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1997.
Ioan Davies 16 July 1997 [Paper presented at the Walter Benjamin Association meetings in Amsterdam, July 1997]
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