Shadows of *Shadowtime*: Bernstein's Benjamin
Charles Bernstein had occasion to remind me recently of the interest we share in the concept of art as object. Now, I see why he might have been thinking so much about this topic of late. In his libretto for Brian Ferneyhough's opera which premiered in Munich in May 24, 2004, and will be peformed at Lincoln Center on July 21st and 22cd, Bernstein mentions Walter Benjamin's famous discussion of the Paul Klee
painting Benjamin owned -Angelus Novus- which serves as an insignia for Benjamin's voyage into time,
also functioning as a kind of abacus for decoding -Shadowtime-:
"There is a picture by Klee called *Angelus Novus*. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before *us*, *he* seems one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong the angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly towardsthe future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows towards the sky. What we call progress is *this* storm ("from *On The Concept of History*)
Another essay Bernstein points to in the libretto is Benjamin’s *On the Doctrine of The Similar*.This essay is about the human proclivity for mimesis, a significant topic in itself, but Benjamin rides this horse a bit further than might be expected, discovering in the outreaches of this territory a basis for a theory concerning the underlying equivalence of languages. No surprise that Bernstein would find this intriguing, given his fascination with homolinguistic translation, I happen to have participated in such a writing experiment at the invitation of David Nemeth. It is an uncanny experience working this way; there is an excitement in having the experience of creating a new language with a group of writers- each one translating the poem before, into an new arrangement of words by mimicking the sounds of the previous poem, which in turn had evolved from the one previous, etc.
“If, at the dawn of humanity, this reading from stars, entrails, and coincidences was reading per se, and if it provided mediating links to a newer kind of reading, as represented by runes, then one might well assume that this mimetic gift, which was earlier the basis for clairvoyance, very gradually found its way into writing in the course of a development over thousand of years, thus creating for itself in language and writing the most perfect archive of nonsensuous similarity….So tempo, that swiftness in reading or writing which can scarcely be separated from the process, would then become, as it were, the effort, or gift, or mind to participate in that measure of time in which similarities flash up fleetingly out of the stream of things only in order to sink down once more.” *Doctrine of the Similar.*
It is of interest to note, speaking of similarities, that following this essay in the new Selected Writings is a piece called *Short Shadows III*.
Bernstein’s Benjamin in *Shadowtime* is riddled with similarities and clues to further connections and solutions to the rhymes, rhythms and runes underlying both their works- and the innumerable tie-ins between them. Like Benjamin’s, Bernstein’s concept of literary time focuses on harmonics and dissonancesacross languages, cultures and periods. To get *Shadowtime*, you have to work the same way Benjamin worked, like an archeologist searching in the arcades and in the annals of literary history: trying to unlock puzzles, uncover clues, you listen to the similarities, you dig it.