Art By Johanna Povirk-Znoy


A Letter to Walter Benjamin

Dear Walter,

Not long ago, a friend of mine walked into a bar in Berlin, and found a large photo of you hung on the wall. Believe it or not, you’re finally in vogue. How right you were to assert that life is given form by its death. People now insist that no one explains our time better than you do. Yet all we have are fragments of your thoughts; and much of “the vast contradictory and mobile whole” of your convictions, as you yourself put it, is missing.

Please excuse this meager attempt to unlock your argument about time. Film influenced your perception of time, and to some extent your perception of history, too. You say that the past manifests itself in an image, which quickly flits past, never to be seen again. But how are we to sustain that image and persuade the present to recognize it as “one of its own?” Isn’t this precisely where our “mimetic talent,” as humans, repeatedly fails? You might say that the answer is hidden in art. But what if art is appropriated by the ruling class or crushed by a totalitarian regime? In the absence of a revolution, how can illumination be found? And what use is there for “poetic politics” when the intellectual is bashed by an angry depraved mob?

Pardon my doom-stricken propositions; you prescribed pessimism, not morbidity. Walter, for years I’ve fantasized about the prospect of becoming an intellectual exile, maintaining that it is better being an actual stranger than to be a stranger at home. You know that feeling. But you also know that destiny doesn’t wait to meet its objects, but rather chases them until it reaches its own selfish satisfaction. You said that “to live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence,” and I yearn for that dubious privilege. But glass houses are not cheap and I wonder if I could call one home.

Did you hear that Adorno died?

From a heart attack shortly after a few female students flashed their breasts at him and adorned his head with flower petals in some act of protest. Poor Theodor left the room covering his face with his briefcase in pumping indignation. Those students pulled off quite a surreal act, wouldn’t you say? But would that act of protest meet your definition of “revolutionary nihilism?” Breast-bearing-anarchism is still alive and a kicking, in case you needed to know, and so are the decadent left-wing bourgeois.

You write, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I don’t wish to sound naïve, but is pessimism the only path to hope? And if so, is it because the enemy has, admittedly, never ceased to be victorious? You speak of mistrust as a means to evaluate the condition for a revolution, but what if that mistrust spills over to the very potential of a revolution? The masses have no shortage of pessimism, yet the ruling classes remain intact and the revolution is yet to come.

A friend of mine joked that you resemble the deceased Yasser Arafat (you must forgive him; he’s just a petit-bourgeois). Once a legendary revolutionary, Arafat spent his last years as a sad relic dying of a mysterious disease, possibly poisoning, while besieged in his compound in Ramallah. The order to confine the Palestinian leader for months, and to make the whole world watch him rot inside, was given by his ultimate nemesis, the notorious Ariel Sharon, whose demise was no less mysterious. Eight bizarre years of deep coma until the Israeli Prime Minister finally expired. What a mystical touché. In my dream, I see them both plotting against each other in the afterlife, duplicating the conflict there. Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon; I stay in hell just to see who will finally rip off who? In any case, it was wise of you to refrain from visiting Palestine.

Dear Walter, many have tried to rewrite your dialectic images after your death, and they have all failed. Take it as an example of man’s failure to reproduce similarity. You remain, as Hannah Arendt says, “unclassifiable,” a portrait on the wall in a bar in Berlin. I will end this letter with a most Marxist goodbye: rest in peace, you’ve earned it.