Walter Benjamin’s Notes On Various Topics, Proximity And Distance, Part 4

Translated by Rachel Thomas.  Edited by Carl Raschke.

The following is the fourth 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, the third one 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.

Pleasure and Pain

The physical differences between pleasure and pain are expressed metaphysically.  Two of these physical differences are elementary and irreducible.   Regarded from the standpoint of pleasure, it is their lightning-like and uniform character that distinguishes them from pain.  But it is their chronic and varied nature that distinguishes them from pleasure as well.  The sense of taste, the lowest among them, lends the semblance of a positive sensation to the expression of all sensual enjoyment.

The language of pain is quite different. In the words pain, woe, agony, suffering is everywhere and most clearly expressed.  Similarly, in the range of linguistic signifiers for the term  “pleasure” only in the word “bliss” implied.  In pain, once we have stripped away all the metaphors,  the emotional is inextricably bound up with the sensual.

This may have something to do with the fact that the feelings of pain are capable of variability to a degree far greater than those of genuine pleasure.  They are not merely gradual or variable. Certainly there is a connection between this unbroken validity of the feeling of pain for the entirety of one’s humanity and one’s capacity for endurance. And this endurance, in turn, explains the metaphysical distinction between these two feelings, corresponding precisely to and offering an account of those physical differences. For only the uninterrupted feeling of pain, whether we are considering it from either a physical or metaphysical angle of vision, can be treated in a thematic manner.

Human beings are the most perfect instrument for inflicting pain.  Only in human suffering does pain find its purest manifestation.  Only in human life does it freely flow. The pain associated with all bodily human feelings is, as it were, a navigable stream of never-ending water, debouching into the sea. Pleasure proves to be a dead end. Pleasure is merely a sign from another world, not a connection between the worlds, as is  pain. Therefore, pleasure at the organic level is intermittent, while pain can prove permanent.

With respect to this relationship between pleasure and pain, we can observe that the source of the greatest pain is immaterial for the person experiencing it.  However, the cause of the greatest pleasure is very important. Even the most pointless pain can be framed in the highest religious terms.  But pleasure itself is incapable of refinement, and has all its nobility of the occasion on which it occurs.

Proximity and Distance

These are two relationships that may be decisive in the formation and life of the body, along with other special relationships – for example, up and down, left and right.  But these relationships are especially significant in the life of eros and sexuality. The erotic impulse is ignited from a distance.  On the other hand, sexuality requires proximity.. The investigations into the dream of [Ludwig] Klages could be compared from a distance.

Proximity is even more unintelligible than the effect of distance in physical connections. The phenomena associated with it may have been discarded and outclassed millennia ago.  Furthermore, there is a specific relationship between stupidity and proximity.  Stupidity arises from too close a contemplation of ideas (the cow in front of the new gate). But just this too close (mindless) contemplation of ideas is the origin of continuous (not intermittent) beauty. Thus the relationship between stupidity and beauty.

Klages: From the dream consciousness Ztschr. for Pathopsychology III Bd 4 Heft 1919 (s. there further).  Spirit and Soul German Psychology Vol. I Vol. 5 u Bd II Vol. 6.  On the nature of consciousness (J.A. Barth).  Man and Earth (Georg Müller).  From Cosmogonic Eros (Georg Müller)

Proximity and Distance (continued)

The less someone is caught in the bonds of fate, the less he is in tutelage to his neighbor, whether by circumstances or through the intermediation of other people. Rather, such a free man has his proximity entirely to himself;  it is he who determines it. The inherent certainty of one’s fateful life, on the other hand, comes to him from afar. He does not act with “consideration” for what is coming, as if he is caught up in it.  But with “circumspection” concerning distant influences to which he submits. Therefore, inquiring of the stars, even allegorically understood, is more profound than pondering the actual nexus of cause and effect.

For the distant that determines human life should be nature itself, and the more undivided, the pure it is, the more influential it happens to be. Even though it may frighten the neurotic with its most minute manifestations, as if the demons themselves were directing the stars, it impresses the pious with its deepest harmonies – and only by means of these harmonies. These harmonies can be discerned not in one’s actions, but in one’s lives, which can have the appearance of fatefulness. And it is here, not in the realm of action, that freedom can be found.  It is the very power of these harmonies which releases the living from the fatefulness of specific events occurring in nature, and allows them to be guided by nature as a whole.

But one is guided as a sleeper. And the perfect man alone is guided in those dreams from which he does not awaken in life. For the more perfect man is, the deeper, the steadier is this sleep, and the more allied one is with the primordial ground of his being. Thus, a sleep that dreams is not easily wakened by the noises that are within the realm of proximity and through the voices of our fellow beings in the waking world, in which the surf can be seen crashing and the sound of the wind is heard.

This ocean of ​​sleep, lodged in the depths of human nature, has its tides at night.  Every night of slumber washes clean a beach, from which it retreats at the moment of waking. What remains after these dreams, no matter how beautifully formed they might be, are the dead that are cast up from these depths. The living are saved from this fate.  They are secure on the ship of the waking life, while the fish become silent prey in the nets of artists.

Thus  the sea a symbol of human nature. As sleep – in a deeper, transgressive sense – it carries the life-ship with its current, steered by the wind and the stars, from afar, as slumber, in the true sense, rises at night like the flood against the beach of life where sleep leaves its dreams behind.

Proximity [and distance] are by the way no less decisive for the dream than for the erotic. But in a weakened, deteriorated way. The essence of this difference could still be discovered. In itself the extreme nearness certainly takes place in the dream; – and maybe! – but also the remotest distance?

As far as the problem of dream reality is concerned, the determination of the relation of the dream world to the world of waking namely, of the real world, is to be strictly distinguished from the investigation of its relation to the true world. In the “true world” there is no longer any dream or waking as such.  These terms may at most be merely symbols of how things are represented. For in the world of truth, the world of perception has lost its reality. Yes, perhaps the world of truth is not in any way a world denoted by of any type of consciousness.

That is to say, that the problem of the relationship between dream and waking should not theorized as “epistemological” but “perceptual.  Perceptions, however, cannot be true or false, only meaningful or meaningless. The system for the range of possible meaningfulness is the nature of humanity. The problem here is thus what in the nature of humanity supplies meaning content to the dream perception, what is derived from the waking perception.  For “knowledge” and “dream content” are both meaningful in exactly the same way, namely as representations.

In particular, the usual question of the superiority of one of these modes of representation is pointless, given the greater wealth of criteria against which it is measured in relation to perception, insofar as it should be shown 1) that there is awareness of truth at all 2) that it is characterized by such a measure incorporating a relative plurality of criteria. In reality: 1) any kind of comparison is pointless when it comes to “truth-theoretical” investigations 2) for consciousness per se only the relation to life, not to the truth, is what ultimately matters. And in relation to life, neither of the two types of consciousness is “true,” but there is only a difference in the “meaning” each one carries with it.

Perfect balance between proximity and distance, the near and the, far in the perfect love. “Come flown and banished”.  Dante puts Beatrice under the stars. But the stars in Beatrice could be close to him. For in the beloved the powers of distance seem close to the man. In this way, closeness and distance are the poles in the life of Eros.  Therefore, presence and separation in love are decisive.  The spell is the magic of proximity.

Eros is the binding force in nature, whose powers are unbound wherever it does not rule. “Diotima?’ ‘He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.’ ‘And what,’ I said, ‘is his power?’ ‘He interprets,’ she replied, ‘between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all prophecy and incantation, find their way.  For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on.” (Plato, Symposium, 202-3).

But the type and the primordial phenomenon of the bond, however, which can be found in every special bond, is that of proximity and distance. It is therefore above all others the original work of Eros.

A special relationship of proximity and distance is between the sexes. For the man, the forces of distance should be the determining one, while the forces of proximity are the determinants. Yearning is a becoming-determined. What is the force out of which the man determines his closeness? She has been lost. The movement of longing is flight. What is the spellbound movement that determines closeness? The spell and flight are united in the dream type of low flying above the earth.

Nietzsche’s life is typical of the distant destiny that is the fate of the highest among the finished men. As a result of this failure of the exorcising force, they are unable to “keep away”. And everything that comes close to you is unbound. Therefore, closeness has become the realm of unboundedness, as it is terribly apparent in the immediate vicinity of the spouses in sexuality, and has been experienced by Strindberg. But the undamaged Eros has even in the proximate a binding, captivating power.

“The Forsaken” by Karl Kraus, a counterpart to Goethe’s “Blessed Longing”. Here the movement of the flapping of wings  and the flight, there the spellbound stagnation of feeling. Goethe’s poem, powerful, never-ending movement, exposing Kraus’s poem tremendously, and keeping it in the middle stanza, that separates the first and the last as the abyss of mystery. Thus, the abyss is the original fact that is experienced in every intimate erotic proximity.

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