Walter Benjamin’s Notes On Various Topics, The Body And Sexuality, Part 3

Translated by Rachel Thomas.  Edited by Carl Raschke.

The following is the third part of a series of translated fragments (or “short prose”) from the writings of Walter Benjamin, beginning around the time of World War I.  The first part can be found here.  The second can be found here.  Some of these fragments, such as the section on the famous “liar paradox” (or “Cretan paradox”) of Epimenides,  have been translated elsewhere.  Some have never been translated.   They are assembled from the German text published online by Der Spiegel magazine as part of Project Gutenberg. – Ed.

Concerning Ignatius of Loyola

Jesuit asceticism seems to conclude, after the exercises of Loyola, to have its peculiarity neither in the torment of the flesh nor of conscience, but in that of consciousness. This can, namely, develop only out of a peculiar torment as penitential torment in the representation of moral confrontation, purification and clarification. This is what happens in forced brooding, forced thinking, the neurotic’s arithmomania. And just as with this one, the ascetic agony of the exercises does not lie in the serious or burning content of what is considered, but in the agony of the intention itself, which has extremely increased.

This torture of intellectual consciousness is predestined for authoritarian regulation due its complete lack of substance. It no longer has a relationship with the nature of man and, depending on how one wants to look at it, it atones mystically or mechanically like a sacrament. At the same time, the tension of penitence shifted to this purely intentional zone lets moral life rest in a certain dullness, in which it no longer reacts to its own impulses but to carefully balanced irritations of spiritual authority.

Love and Relatives (A European Problem)

(Concerning marriage is found in another notebook) This time participates in the execution of one of the most powerful revolutions that has occurred in the relationship between the sexes. Only from the knowledge of this event can one authorized to act today concerning eroticism and sexuality; for here the insight is indispensable that centuries-old forms and thus equally old knowledge of the relationship between the sexes ceases to be valid.

Nothing stands more powerfully in the way of this insight than the opinion of the unchangeability of that relationship in its deeper layers, the error that only the ephemeral forms, the erotic modes would be affected by changes, by history, because the deeper and supposedly unchangeable reason is the eternal laws of nature. But how can we even guess around these questions and not know that the revolutions in nature are the most powerful witnesses to history?

While in  the pre-apocalyptic world there may dwell a sediment and primordial basis of unchanging life, it lies infinitely deeper than the banal phraseology of those who tend to write about the eternal struggle of the sexes suggests. Even though this struggle may be eternally persistent, that is certainly not the reason for its forms. But what it will perhaps in every instance ignite is the unity of eroticism and sexuality in a woman – something which seems natural because is sadly hidden from men, who cannot recognize it as something that is indeed supernatural, as creative love. And, again and again the struggle breaks out of this inability of men to see what is actually there, when the historical forms of such creativity, especially in the modern era, have died away.

For European humanity seems as incapable as ever of confronting that singularity of female existence, which instills a kind of terror among all the guardians and better-offs of her sexuality, since they too remain blind to the insight into the higher origins of her existence, which they do not see as supernatural, but merely have to blindly sense it, and therefore to flee. And it is precisely under this blindness of man that the supernatural life of woman atrophied into what seems simultaneously natural and unnatural.

For this alone amounts to a strange kind of decadence which today, considering the primal drives of man, is able to apprehend the feminine only through the concurrent images of the prostitute and the untouchable lover. But this untouchability is not implanted in one’s soul, as is the low desire, which is impulsive and compelling  (The great,  pertinent symbol for the earthly  love is the one, and the only night of love, before death, before the night of possession).  Thus  today the night of powerlessness and renunciation has become the classical love experience of the younger generation and is applicable, who knows, for how many generations?

But through both powerlessness and desire, a new, unheard of way for the man emerges.  It is for the same man to whom the old way, characterized by the desire to possess a the woman, is now led to a new kind of knowledge.  Similia a similibus cognoscentes. So he seeks to make himself similar to the woman,  and yes, like him. Here begins the enormous and in the deepest sense almost systematic metamorphosis of the masculine, as one of the greatest that may have ever been – the transformation of the male sexuality into the feminine by the passage through, and the medium of, the mind. Now it is Adam who breaks the apple, but he is equal to Eve. The old snake can disappear and in the purified Garden of Eden nothing remains but the questions whether it is paradise or hell.

The gaze is lost in the darkness of that great transforming stream of the human physique, into a future that may not necessarily be prophetic, but open to those who are most patient. Here the dark stream flows, which today can become a predetermined grave for even the most noble. But above it the Spirit leads as the only bridge spanning it, a bridge on which life in its chariot will pass him.

The feeling of sexual guilt, which is probably the rule at least in men when dealing with women (whether also with women, and whether in same-sex dealings with one or both genders, I do not know), is a major indicator of earlier world conditions — for the world conditions themselves, not only for the picture that they made at the same time. Due to historical circumstances, this feeling of guilt cannot be explained if one rejects from the outset the error that guilt can arise from fear. Only the contrary is possible. Sexual guilt is similar to that of an incantation: the feeling of guilt when entering a space that exerts an overwhelming, evil power over the entrant. This feeling cannot be understood from the simple psychological natural of sexual intoxication, as it may not exert unrestrained power over man.

It must therefore be based on a prehistoric feeling when entering these or similar precincts. The elementary feeling when entering such overwhelming regions is the conspiracy, apart from feeling guilty, of horror. This feeling has been preserved as an important component of sexual guilt, and only the question remains whether those powers to which horror referred in this act still apply today, and whether the feeling of guilt in this kind of horror has been involved in such a sexual incantation from the beginning. The presence of those powers, albeit in a highly weakened state, is still to be suspected. The answer to the second question must be left unanswered.

The Prostitute

There are two opposing principles in the prostitute. The anarchic pleasure principle and the hierarchical principle of worship, now called God in the true sense of the word, as they are called for the Hierodules, or called “money”. Both principles have in this form an upside and a downside, a history of their expression. The modern coquette belongs to the hieratic type, which combines a genuinely pure expression of both principles – unbridled and obedient (in distress). To consider that this antinomy of the two principles of world history (revolutionary and theocratic) appears in the woman.

Horror I

The easiest way to experience horror is to awaken from a state of deep contemplation and concentration, such as deep sensation, immersion in the music of sleep. Much stronger and straightforward than any other perception, horror can be triggered by a vision. Here again most powerfully by the perception of female kindred (and presumably the same for men as for women). The apparition of the mother would produce an eidetic horror for the person who absent-mindedly is awakened by it.  To what extent the “experimental conditions” are still given inexactly in this description, and insofar as horror does not immediately appear to be evident under such conditions, can be elucidated in the following analysis.

Above all, the presumed state of immersion requires further definition. There are states of immersion, especially in their depths, which nevertheless do not make man absent-minded, but highly mind-present. But human beings the presence of the Spirit are not susceptible to horror. The only kind of presence of mind which has continuity and cannot be undermined is in holy immersion, for example, in prayer. In this kind of immersion one does not seem to find anything spooky – and if ghosts can appear at all then, which is very questionable, they would certainly not cause any horror. This kind of immersion, far from favoring horror, is the surest protection against it.

But in what kind of immersion does the sacred face predispose a person to horror? The one in which man is not completely absorbed in God and therefore not in himself, but is immersed in something strange and is therefore incomplete. In order to express this incomplete, albeit profound, but always absent-minded absorption in a figurative scheme, the soul manufactures a vortex in which its spiritual moments are extracted from all limbs and regions of the body, and now the body is disempowered with the absence of the spirit.  Only the body is left behind. But with the absence of the spirit, the body vanishes, and the body remains without any physical and spiritual extensiveness,  expressed by the fact that the human body has no defined boundaries in the absence of the spirit.

What is perceived breaks into the face.  From the alien body the spirit-body falls into a vortex and it remains in the perception of horror at the face – that is you at the sight of the other: (“you”, because there is no limit).  On the other hand the feeling persists that it is your double, but now refers to the “other” as  definite and disembodied. Thus the primordial phenomenon of double does not require an equality, or a similarity, of the two objects to be present together, but rather, conversely, equality is something that is easily achieved under the spell of double. A human being can come to imitate the one of which he is most frightened.

Horror is a specter that only appears in private, i.e. only for one subject and only in front of another (in the latter case not numerically, but essentially one). This again is the function of the double, whose connection with this sphere of the ghostly, the disempowered body, however remains unclear.  A pictorial scheme, a representation of the existential nature of the body in the case of prayer would still have to be found. Very importantly: with the disempowerment of the body in the moment of horror, the opposite pole of the language falls away, and not only the acoustic, but language in the broadest sense, as an expression, whose possibility from here as incomprehensible grace, whose habit of night-walking on a rope appears.

Horror II

The speechlessness in horror is a primal experience. Suddenly in the full possession of all other forces, in the midst of people, in the bright day of language, is to be deserted from every possibility of expression. And the consciousness: that this speechlessness, an expressive power dwells so deeply in man, as on the other hand the power of language has permeated him, that also this powerlessness from ancestors has overtaken him as atavism.

Schemata on the Psychophysical Problem

Mind and Body

Mind and body are identical insofar as they are points of view, not as different objects. The term “form” refers to the zone of their identity. Spiritually bodily in every stage of their existence the figure of the historical, spirit bodily in thus somehow the category of their “moment”, their current appearance as transient everlasting glory. The body and spirit are in the identical physical senses with the highest form categories of world events, but not the category of eternal content, which is the stance adopted by the Georgian school. Our body is, therefore, not included in the historical process itself, but only as part of an ongoing transformation; it is not the function of the historical event itself, but the specific, isolated reference of an individual life to it.

A body may therefore acquire everything that is real, but not as a substratum or substance of its very own being, as a phenomenon in the illumination of the historical “moment.” The corporal mind might perhaps most fittingly be called “genius.” Generally, one could say that everything is real as form unless it is regarded in the historical process in such a way that it refers meaningfully to the whole of its “moment”, in the innermost aspect of its temporal presence. All forms can manifest themselves in two identical ways, perhaps in a polar relationship: as genius and as body.

While body and genius can obtain everything real from their present-day relation to the historical process (except God), the body and the mind that belongs to it are not founded on a relationship, but on existence par excellence. The body is one of the realities that stands in the historical process itself. How it differs from the physical makeup can first be illustrated by the example of man. Everything that man has in himself as a form, the whole of his form, as well as the limbs and organs — insofar as they appear to him— belong to his flesh. All limitation, is perceived as sensually in himself, also belongs to this as a form. It follows that the sensually perceived individual existence of a man is the perception of a relationship in which he finds himself, but not as perception of a substrate, but of a substance of himself, as the body sensually represents such a relationship.

On the other hand, this manifests itself in a peculiar polarity in two ways: as pleasure and as pain. In these two non-form and non-limitation is perceived. So if we only know about our body primarily only through pleasure and pain, we know no limitation of it. It is now necessary, among the modifications of consciousness, to keep in mind those which are as alien to that limitation, as to the states of pleasure and pain, which in their highest intensification, constitute intoxication. Such a state is first all of the perception. However, with difference in degrees. Perhaps the most limitless is facial perception, which, in contrast to more centripetal taste and especially tactile perception, could be called virtually centrifugal. Facial perception shows the body, if not unlimited, at least by fluctuating shapeless limitation.

In general then, as far as we know of perception, we know of our body, which in contrast to our flesh, extends without a definite designed boundary. This body is not in the last substratum of our being, but nonetheless. Substance is the only distinct function of the living/ lived body. The body is in a higher sense objective, and therefore more than the clarification of the ingenuity, which is identical with the body. There must be clarification of the spiritual “nature” of the living being bound to the body and attached to it. Here lies the grave problem in the fact that “nature”, whose affiliation with the body is asserted, points in the strongest degree to the limitation and detail of the living being.

That limited reality, which is constituted by the foundation of a spiritual natural in a body, is called a person. The person is indeed limited, but not formed. It therefore has its uniqueness, which of course, it is permissible to resolved in a certain sense, as it were not from itself, but rather from the perimeter of its maximum extent. This is the same with their nature and their body: they are not limited in a formed  way, but they are bounded by a maximum of interpretation, the people.

Body and Soul

The human being, as a combination of body and soul, belongs within a universal context.  It is quite different, however, with the body of humanity, and with the body of God. Both trench unsteadily against nature, and both as determined by worldly events for the deepest reasons. The personal living-body, as the function of the historical present age in man, grows into the living-body of humanity. One’s “individuality”, as the principle of the living-body, stands higher than singular living-body individualities. Humanity as individuality is the completion, and at the same time the downfall, of the living-bodily life. The downfall: for with it the historical life whose function is the living- body reaching its end. In this life of the living- body of humanity—and thus in this downfall and in this fulfillment, humanity, apart from the totality of the living—is still partially able to incorporate nature – inanimate, plant and animal through the technology in which the unity of their life is shaped. Lastly, everything that belongs to their happiness belongs to their lives, their order.

Bodily nature opposes its resolution, physical nature of its resurrection. Even over this lies the decision in humans. The body is, for man, the seal of his loneliness and it will not break – even in death – because this loneliness is nothing but the consciousness of one’s immediate dependence on God. What each human being encompasses within the range of their perception, their pain and highest yearnings, is salvaged in their resurrection.  Of course, one’s highest object of desire has nothing to do with chance.  Pain reigns, while pleasure is the judgmental principle of the body. So, in natural history there are the two great trajectories – resolution and resurrection.

Mind and Sexuality / Nature and Body

Mind and sexuality are the basic polar forces for the “nature” of mankind. Nature is not something that belongs to every single body. Rather, it is comparable in its relation to the singularity of the body to the ratio of the currents in the sea to the individual drop of water. Countless such drops are seized by the same flow. Nature may not be the same in everyone, but it is the same in many people. And in the true sense the same and identical, not just equal. It is not constant but its flow changes with the centuries and always a more or less large number of such currents will find themselves at the same time. Sexuality and the mind are the two vital poles of this natural life, which flows into the body and in it differentiates itself. So also the mind, just like the sexuality in origin, is something natural, and in the process appears as a physical one.

The quality of a life depends on the extent to which the living succeeds in expressing nature physically.  In the perfect deterioration of corporeality, as experienced by the present Western World, the last means of its renewal remains the pain that comes from nature, which can no longer be grasped in life and roars over the body in wild streams. Nature itself is totality, and the movement down into the unfathomable of total vitality is destiny. The movement up from this unfathomable is art. But because total vitality in art has its only conciliatory effect, every other form of expression must lead to annihilation. The portrayal of the total vitality in life causes fate to end in madness.

The portrayal of the total vitality in life causes fate to culminate in madness. That is because all living reactivity is bound to differentiation, of which the body is the primary instrumentality. This differentiation is critical. The body is an instrument for differentiating the vital reactions, and it is only at the same time detectable when the mind is healthy. All mental activity can be localized in a rarified manner just as the old anthroposophy did, for instance as we find in the analogy of the body with the macrocosm. One of the most significant instances of  the rarified body in sensation.  The zone of sensations shows most clearly the variability to which it is subjected as a function of nature. If nature changes, the bodily sensations change.

The body is also a moral instrument. It is created to fulfill the commandments. After it was established at the creation. Even its sensations denote how far they deprive the body of its duty or its ability to act on its convictions.

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