Thursday, 4 June 2009

Orhan Pamuk on Walter Benjamin

It is now well documented that the Stranz-Browns are waiting for another conversation about Walter Benjamin. Things keep offering us the idea that this might be possible. Today by chance I began reading Orhan Pamuk's wonderful book Other Colours. The preface is only two and a half pages long but full of wonderful quotes, of which more later, it ends with this which made me smile and may be part of another conversation about WB once I get back to Geneva:

I am hardly alone in being a great admirer of the german writer-philosopher Walter Benjamin. But to anger one friend who is too much in awe of him (she's an academic of course), I sometimes ask, What is so great about this writer? He managed to finish only a few books, and if he's famous, it's not for the work he finished but the work he never managed to complete." My friend replies that Benjamin's oeuvre is, like life itself, boundless and therefore fragmentary, and this was why so many literary critics tried so hard to give the pieces meaning, just as they did with life. And every time I smile and say, "One day I'll write a book that's made only from fragments too." This is that book, set inside a frame to suggest a center that I have tried to hide: I hope that readers will enjoy imagining that center into being.
What I love about this idea is that the fragmentary can truly become an "oeuvre". Of course that fragmentary writing needs in the first place to be of a slightly higher order than my own sermons sometimes scribbled on the paper tablecloths of the local pizzeria (really sermon writing is no longer so much fun since they went in for proper tablecloths). Leaving the oeuvre to one side though I think what appeals to me is that of course none of our lives will ever fully achieve, fully write all that they could. And yet in some ways they will also achieve so much more too, leaving meaning to be pieced together long after we are gone. Reminds me of a bit from Middlemarch which I've probably quoted before (yes I have -how boring am I?):
But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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