PROJECTS N1 How to be a good witness
  N2 Networks of surrender

Excerpts from a Travel Diary

Andrew Benjamin


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

It wasn't that the train was late. It was rather that the train to Köln had been cancelled. The only way of getting there from Paris was to take the train to Amsterdam, change at Brussels, where there would be another train to Köln. What gave all this plausibility, captured it within reason, was that the train lines were always there. While one train may have been cancelled the tracks were continuous and therefore there could indeed be another train. What was interesting however was the way that the lines intersected with time and possibility. While the tracks had a fixed presence – moreover, they enabled movement between fixed places – such facts only made sense in relation to what they allowed. Though equally, what they disallow. The allowing and the disallowing, the routing then the rerouting of trains, of time frames and voyages themselves, indicates as much movement's possibility as it does its being thwarted. While it is always possible to account for the cancellation of certain trains in terms of refused travel, it is far more appropriate to begin to understand them in terms of the forced and the enforced; present as forms of allowing and thwarting. (Of having been thwarted?) Such an account reinforces the fact that what is actually in play is the potentiality for movement that can be lived out; 'allowing' has to be lived out. Indeed, if it is possible to give an account of travel that was not simply description or simple acts of reflection – reflections that gradually become oblivious to the place where they seem to be – then it would have to be located in the interplay between different senses of potentiality and their intrusion (intrusions having both negative and positive qualities) into the bodily. The sensation of travel is not just the effect of movement on the body. The travelling body is only subject to time to the extent that structures of allowing are operative.

Was there any point in giving descriptions? The movement of the train felt effortless. Moments of slowing and even the occasional stop between stations offered varied fields of white. The latter are of little interest. They allow the eye to rest. What is remarkable however is the way that the delicately arranged – apparently delicately, of course! – clumps of snow are held by the branches of trees. Trees without leaves such that the clumps of snow take on the quality of oddly shaped and utterly incongruous forms of fruit. The branches of the fir trees held the snow. The needles combining to give it rest. As though they were in some way woven together to create a surface holding the snow. The branches drooped. One could say that this occurred under the weight of the snow and yet such a description would be as much accurate as the opposite. There is something so intriguing about acts of description. It has something to do with capturing the fact that what has to be described is a range of possibilities and also that which continues to be given within differing descriptions. ('Description' has only ever been about writing: 'décrire', 'beschreiben' - all indicate that to describe is an act that takes place with and within writing. However, it is not just writing. Description occurs in the movement of writing. That movement is more or less accurate, more or less elegant, etc.)

Having just read Herta Müller's extraordinary Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (And having re-read Conrad's The Secret Agent just before) it is clear that the former is a novel whose intensity and thus whose realism lies in its demonstrating (demonstration as a performative!) that it is only poetic language that has a relation to the truth and therefore to whatever it is that is 'real'. Her novel therefore enacts a resistance to realism, if realism takes on the guise of a form of description that attempts to provide precision where the precise and the unitary would have an envisaged complementarity. This complementarity rather than approaching the real only ever distances it. Lives are orchestrated. Occurring without discernible goals. Continuity would be an odd goal. What project there is, is limited to escape. Even here – in the novel – that to which the escape would be effected cannot be described. It is the place without place. It hovers on the edge of description. That hovering is, of course, the description. What 'is' demands the language that she uses. Conrad's concern, while radically different is the evocation of the mysterious, the elusive of that which while clear in terms of the language used for within the act of creativity, what is created, is from start always enigmatic. Again, it the enigma that is true. Maybe realism – the real – is a fantasy!

Am still looking for ways to write.


Thursday, 9 December 2010

Over the years have often wondered what type of writing this diary is. In part it is a conversation. Know that it is perused and plundered in order that false starts can become something else. The false starts are often no more than jotted lines. Though sometimes they are no more than lines without apparent end! Words trailing into each other becoming a jumble of letters. Letters which at times were no more than marks. – are either abandoned or retained. Once retained – and what is kept may be only a sentence, often redeployed within a very different context – the use of these 'moments' ('words', 'lines', 'sentences') would give the diary the status of a sketch book. Writing, in this instance, becomes a form of drawing. (Indeed, am trying to write about drawing at the moment). Keep reworking the relationship between the Raphael's drawing of St. Catherine and the final painting (National Gallery, London). What is the relationship? On one level it concerns how her body is positioned in relation to the wheel. That is not however merely a matter of placement. The placing of one with the other – body, wheel – also demands that the presence of her hands be rethought. Perhaps these drawings are the workings of placement.



There is an element of drawing that allows it to be different. Whatever qualities drawing has they would seem to be elusive. They are useful (and thus of interest?) to they extent that they are not used. What is used is not the drawing itself. Indeed, its use may occur at the precise moment at which the configuration that is the drawing has been abandoned. (This will be equally true for the diary.) Drawings and diaries are sites in which what is registered is that which is of use only in its being abandoned. And yet there are exhibitions of drawings. Exhibitions of that which in having been abandoned work to indicate that the final work cannot be accounted for in terms of an inexorable and teleological development. Only by overcoming an insistence on finality and completion can the abandoned acquire qualities in their own right.

And the sky brighter
no longer just light,
it was colour
light making colour.
Even the wind ruffled leaves
turned within colour's light.


Friday, 10 December 2010

Goethe Haus. Weimar.

What was it that was strange? In part it had already begun the day before in Jena. While a continual resistance to biography ought to be retained – a resistance that allows for genuine criticism to be written – there was something about encountering what would always appear as the reality of lives or a life having been lived that introduced other questions. The Romatik Haus in Jena – a house in which Hölderlin, Novalis, Hegel and Schelling (clearly amongst others) had met and talked had an impact that was unexpected. That there would be an impact was obvious. The impact however was a type of enforced melancholia and thus an elusive sense of loss. Having devoted so many years to the explications – perhaps the celebratory explication – of their work, indeed having just given a lecture on Hegel's Aesthetics the day before, to be standing, now, in front of this house, knowing, also that Hegel had lived in what would have countered as next door, instilled a feeling of the minor. The minor is not a sense of failure. The minor remains a form of positioning. Of having been positioned. Of knowing that whatever recognition there is going to be, it only ever comes from the outside. It would be a recognition – in either its happening or non-happening – without reciprocity.

The Goethe Haus compounded the feeling of the day before. In part this is due to the singularity of Goethe. Also, for the visitor, there is the growing understanding that while an international figure – a figure to whom lives are devoted (such is scholarship!) - Goethe is equally a national figure. No matter how complex a recognition this is for the outsider, its truth is inescapable. Between the two there must be a genuine tension. While within the Haus there is the usual display of furniture, writing desk, the growing division between public and private, and then between male and female, master and servant, there were two objects that exercised a particular hold. As always that hold has a form that is more fantasmatic than simply historical. Perhaps, this is the way with historical houses. Rather than just record history they must allow the imagination space. Not only was there that armchair – with, presumably, the original coverings – in which he died, there is also the mirror in his study. While the armchair gave rise to a range of questions – perhaps even one as basic as wondering about the possible retained presence of perspiration, or even a hair trapped in the chair's folds - it was the mirror that had exerted that most remarkable hold. Standing outside the entrance to Goethe's study and in looking to the far wall, looking past the desk with the quill still ready, one's face is reflected in the mirror hung on it. The mirror – and questions of originality need to be left to one side – presents a faded image. Perhaps its tain has begun to lose its capacity to allow for reflection. Nonetheless, there is an image. A faded face looks back. The face has not been aged by the mirror. The image seems older precisely because it lacks clarity. As though it is an old photo of one's face. What cannot be shaken is the thought that both Goethe and Napoleon must have looked into this mirror. The list proliferates. Such a thought would be pointless if the mirror appeared ageless and the quality revealed no more than the self looking in. The fading of the image draws one's presence from the obviousness of the present into another domain. For a moment it is as though there is a glimpse into the past. What the mirror shows of course is that the past continues to glimpse into the present. We have to catch its eye.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Travelling from Jena to Berlin brings with it the reminder that this is a voyage through a place which continues to be transformed from East Germany to Germany. A transformation that is partial and which changes from one town or region to another.

The rain seems to be incessant. Even when it actually stops its effect on the now melting snow – water upon water – provides an overall sense of endlessness. Damp and cold work together. Berlin, of course, continues to be rebuilt. It is as though building sites are part of the fabric. It is always difficult to begin in Berlin. Each beginning is arbitrary. To privilege Schinkel over Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a gesture no more appropriate than the reverse. Both however are woven into the fabric and are, as a result, part of the fabric. (Urbanism has at least a double weave?) If that is true then neither can be excised. Both must form part of Berlin. Part of the 'there' that it is. Easy going evocations of place – of the 'there' where we humans dwell and in dwelling have created our histories – must be undone. There isn't a unified conception of place. Places are where one group has displaced another, where rites that involve the denial of autonomy occurs, where animals are trapped and killed – animals too have a sense of place. To deny that place is a site of contestation, displacement, subjection, etc., – and their continual renegotiation – is to have forgotten history (or to have rendered history banal) or to have reduced place to site of myth. Mythic presence naturalises subjection and displacement.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

And the wind turned corners
no escape as the building's edge
becoming the turning point,
exposing, ruining shelter's possibility

Could a mind be cast back?
Through time – through staged concerns.
Raging and enraged.


Notes for Rosso Fiorentino Project.

Have finally got to see the 1516/18 Portrait of the Young Man. (In the Gemäldegalerie) Rather than blocks of colour – colours that identify and are integral to the processes of individuation (at it most emphatic is the Volterra Despositioni)– here there is direct relationship between colour and perspective. The setting sun provides the way into perspective. The depth is essential in order that his body be dominant – what is at work here is quite different to the Bronzino portrait that is hung along side it. In the Bronzino colour is simple and undisturbed. The application of paint within that work has created a luminous surface. (The link to Pontormo and even Franciabigio lies in the way, firstly that colour is present, and thus, secondly the nature of the surface being presented.) Rosso is always doing something different!

Above his head the colour of the sky is initially darker than the hat. However, once the sky becomes the hat's background, it is slightly lighter. In all however there is an interplay of black and blue (blacks and blues). They set off the face. His dark tunic, once again picking up the colour of the hat and the sky behind the hat, is interrupted at the neck by the presence of a white shirt. While on one level all this obvious – no more than description!! – what has to be recognised is that the colours produce the face. They allow it to emerge. There is therefore an economy at work; an economy of colours within which – from which? – the static face emerges. In other words, there isn't just a background and therefore mere perspective. In the distance – though providing the distance – there is the setting sun, itself created by the gradual lightening of blue until the sky has become a reddish white by the time the line of the hills and the sky meet. The bluish hills create the space in which a city (town?) is located. This is to be found on the left as one looks at the painting. On the right is a path across a hill – the path and the hill are much closer – again an effect created by the clarity of the tress and their braches set against he sky. On the path a man appears to be beating a donkey. The animal is being 'encouraged' to negotiate the path.

In Rosso's 'Portrait' the young man is looking to one side. He looks past the viewer. None of this is remarkable. And yet, what cannot be ignored here is the way that his hands are simply placed in front of his body. His right thumb inside the tunic. His left hand on the top of his leg. It is not as though they evince a sense of simple relaxation. It is much more that they allow his gaze to dominate. His looking out – looking at? or is it simple reflection? – looking without an object actually being looked at constructs looking as an activity. Here, however, it is indifferent to bodily presence. He is indifferent. The viewer of the painting however is not. The presence of the young man dominates. To look in is to see a bodily presence which, if only for the moment that is the portrait, appears indifferent to the process of seeing; his seeing. Hence, there is a double quality. The self-conception of the one looking out – the young man – is radically different to the self that is seen when a viewer looks at this portrait of this young man.


Monday, 13 December 2010

Another day opens. A good night's writing last night. The Rosso project advances. Equally, however, keep returning to the question of the work of art. (The accompanying project.) . Seem to write around and around the same point. Sometimes think that what ever progress looks liken it remains a mystery. Need to find a way of distinguishing between the projects. Must avoid the problems caused by examples. Arguments cannot be carried by examples!

Keep returning to the question of place. Even though this is the last day in Berlin, though it is precisely because of that, there is a type of restlessness endures. Keep thinking that to be content or to feel a sense of belonging to any place is to have abandoned the imagination and stilled the forces that places have. Forces that cannot be overcome but which become complex sites of engagement. Moholy-Nagy is supposed to have said to Eisenstein: "Fur einen Künstler es nicht so etwas wie sein Land." What if one is not an artist? Perhaps the force of the position really comes to the fore when the idea of the artist is replaced by the work of the imagination. Such that what is involved is the thought that holding to a unified or simplistic sense of place is a betrayal of the imagination. It is not that the imagination demands rootlessness. Rather, the complexity of any site makes a sense of belonging more complex than forms of identification would allow. Even in the attempt to make a place one's own – or to assert a form of ownership or belonging – necessitates either the displacement of others; or a form of silence in relation to their having been displaced; or the naturalization of modes of behaviour that discriminate.

Having to go back – that is the only way to describe it. Returning to the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin. If nothing else reinforces the necessity to understand the city as the site of conflicts then it is this building. Conflicts having become violent and in which cosmopolitanism was effaced in the name of an opposition, a created thus utterly spurious opposition between the nation and its enemy (citizens having become the enemy). Its presence as work of architecture manages to engage with the inescapable fact that its contents are predicated upon destruction. Through the building schoolchildren are led and lessons are given. Spaces have been created in which children can be taught. What the lessons are – thus what the lesson is – have to remain as open questions. What is it that an experience of this building yields? Perhaps all that remains is this question without answer. All the building can ever do is allow for questions to continue to be posed.

And now the tedium of travel. The flight from Berlin is cancelled. The best that can be done is get a flight to Dusseldorf where there would seem to be a flight to London and then to Melbourne. On arrival in Dusseldorf the only news that it is clear is that the flight to London has been cancelled.