photograph of Henry Miller by Brassai.
Below is an excerpt from Brassai’s book called Henry Miller: The Paris Years. It is a conversation between the 2 friends about the role of an artist.
“During one of our talks I happened to reproach Miller for his
long-windedness, his repetitiveness, his wandering digressions, which
could sometimes seem a thousand miles away from the subject under
treatment. Smiling his quiet mandarin smile, he replied that his chaos
was completely deliberate, that what he was looking for was neither
logic nor order, but something like the overflow of the Mississippi—
impetuously rolling down toward the sea, picking up and sweeping away
everything in its path, its muddy waves carrying a million odds and
ends: uprooted trees, furniture, cadavers. Writing meant being carried
away by the current, and he wanted the reader, too, to be taken, to be
swept up and then drowned in the torrential onrush of his prose. As he
writes in Tropic of Cancer, “I… love everything that flows: rivers,
sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences.” “When I begin to
write,” he would tell me, “I feel like a breakwater has collapsed. Why
would I want to stop the onslaught?” I would reply that I conceived
the role of the artist somewhat differently. Rather than giving in to
the torrent, the artist should channel it, endowing the formless with
form. Imperturbably, Henry would reply, “I have no absolutely no
ambition to become an ‘artist,’ such as you conceive him. I couldn’t
give a damn about art! I am but a man and I want to express myself
completely and without constraints. Once and for all! I do not believe
I am a writer. Nor do I have any ambition to write well or to have a
pretty style…All I know is that there is a force in me that must
express itself. So I stammer, I grope, I look for any and all means
possible and imaginable… You see, my dear Brassai, I am very far
from being what you might call a ‘litterateur,’ and especially one of
the French variety, enamored of logic, clarity, proportion, strict
adherence to form. It may be that my works are not literary. Call them
whatever you like! I couldn’t care less!”
“I don’t want to progress, I want to regress. Yes, regress, become
more stupid with every day, as stupid as the plants and animals. To
get rid, once and for all, of the effects of five thousand years of
history, gods, religions, books, ‘great men’ … If I had the power,
I would do away with schools, museums, I would burn all the libraries.
I would even do away with history, that maker of war. So you would do
away with all civilization, all culture? Why not do exactly that? You
cling to your idols: Goethe, Nietzsche, etc. I have mine too, a whole
pantheon of them, but I would offer them all up to the conflagration,
every single one of them… What have I gained from the enlargement
of my knowledge, the enrichment of my culture. Nothing. I’ve lost
more. Do you know why I called my first book Tropic of Cancer? It was
because to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the
endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically,
to start completely over from scratch…Yes, from scratch, no question
about it, for better or for worse… What I want is to halt
evolution, to go backward down the path we have taken, to go back to
the world before childhood, to regress, regress, regress, further and
further, until we get to the place we have only lately left behind,
where culture and civilization do not figure… It is time that we
start to think, to feel, to see the universe in a way that is
uncultivated, primitive — but this is also without doubt the most
difficult thing in the world to do.”
If ever you’re really bored check out the text below from a far too long paper I wrote called “The Space of History: Looking at the Landscape in Struth & Sebald. It was for a course I took on W.G. Sebald at Yale. I compared themes in Sebald’s novel Austerlitz with that of German photographer Thomas Struth.
If we look at an image titled South LaSalle Street (Chicago Board of Trade), Chicago 1992, by the German photographer Thomas Struth, we see what appears to be a typical form from the artist’s opus. Positioned in the dead center of the street, a vantage point the artist took for a vast series of street scenes made over several decades, we see two structures with pillared facades adjacent to each other, both guarded by a row of parked cars. Framed by these two buildings, the Chicago Board of Trade sits paramount in the center of the street. There is not a soul in sight, yet beyond the walls of this edifice, open outcry trading takes place, thus shaping the rise and fall of our world markets. In fact, established in 1848, the Chicago Board of Trade is the world’s oldest futures and options exchange. As your eyes navigate through the black & white picture everything is doubled, as though one half of the image is looking into a mirror. Even the light spills with a soft equity and the faint shadows casted on the twin buildings guide your eyes to the highlighted glass windows in the middle, which leads invariably to the picture’s centerpiece, the clock.
In the opening pages of Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, we find ourselves in Antwerp Central Station looking up at the “mighty clock, the dominating feature of the buffet,” which not only oversees all of the comings and goings of travellers, but also “reigns supreme” above a grand display of symbolic imagery and exquisitely detailed architecture. The protagonist, Austerlitz, observes that even in a splendid station such as this, with so much to take in, like the enormous dome meant to evoke the Pantheon in Rome, the station itself “a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade,” it is the clock that sits above the “only baroque element in the entire ensemble,” thus governing the space and activities of all those within it. The clock torments the two characters in Sebald’s novel as they sit in the restaurant near the station’s waiting room:
During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an
endless length of time went by before another minute had passed,
and how alarming seemed the movement of that hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-‐sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one’s heart almost stopped. (p 8)
One may have the exact same response when discovering that the hands on the clock in Struth’s photograph rest precisely at twelve o’clock on the dot, at once becoming another perfect line in unison with the others in the picture, which brings the viewer to a halt when realizing how Time also reigns supreme throughout Struth’s work. While the freezing of time is the very nature of photography itself, Struth has doubly stopped time, not only by making the picture when the clock struck twelve, but by what he has pointed the camera at throughout his life as a photographer; symbolic structures of commerce, politics, religion, and bastions of art, which span the centuries and the globe in an attempt to apprehend the past and future. Likewise, Sebald brings to mind the structure of the Antwerp railway station as Austerlitz explains to the narrator how the architect of the station, Delacenserie, was “uniting past and future” by basing the station on the Pantheon in Rome. While Sebald uses the observations and historical knowledge of his character on the structures surrounding him in order to conjure up the clash of the past and present, Struth achieves this by sequencing his photographs, not by their original project oriented context, but by his own conceptual design, so that when we turn the page in his retrospective book Thomas Struth 1977-‐2002, to the picture preceding South LaSalle Street (Chicago Board of Trade), Chicago 1992, with its ominous clock forever fixed in time, we are confronted by the large-‐scale color photograph Pantheon, Rome 1990. By bringing to mind the Pantheon both Struth and Sebald have gone as far back as possible in the history of symbolic architecture to face us with the past.
Meanwhile, on the page following the clock image is an even larger-scale color photograph of Notre Dame in Paris. By placing the 1930’s art deco style building of the Chicago Board of Trade in between images of the Pantheon in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris, Struth has bridged a span of thousands of years and two continents in order to make some kind of sense out of the physical world we construct, out of the emblems of progress of different periods and in effect he has synchronized time by ordering these images. Similarly, Austerlitz explains to his companion that time did not “truly reign supreme” until railway clocks were synchronized, that “It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.” The work of both Struth and Sebald attempts to narrow this vast space through their respective mediums, not only the “space separating us from each other,” but also the space that separates us from the blurred sweep of history.
As I labored through Struth’s books, including Strassen, which consists of mostly black & white city scenes looking down the middle of unpeopled streets, I discovered that the clock picture was the only image out of sixty eight similarly made photographs that had no trace of sky whatsoever in the frame, and that the clock became the stand in for the horizon we expect to see in a landscape picture, reminding us that the physical world we inhabit is a relentless confine of time. However, while recognizing time as an irrevocable fact, Austerlitz questions its extremities:
It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. And is not human life in many parts of the earth
governed to this day less by time than by weather, and thus by
an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity,
does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-‐changing forms, and evolves in no one knows what direction? (p 100)
It is very curious that Sebald uses weather as that which can transcend time. This unquantifiable weather pattern that defies the rules of time and moves unpredictably toward no particular route, this storm, as it were, is what Walter Benjamin writes “what we call progress.” Austerlitz then explains that besides the dead and dying, which are outside time, those who have undergone “a certain degree of personal misfortune” may very well be “cut off from the past and the future.” Here Austerlitz is slyly speaking about himself. Having been cut off from his lineage and desperately trying to connect to his past, he deems clocks ridiculous and avoids current events in the hope,
…that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-‐existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them. (p 101)
In addition to being an allegory for photography itself, and a key reason that Sebald includes photographs throughout his books, the above passage summonses Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” yet again, which Sebald cites in his closing remarks from his lecture Air, War & Literature. Benjamin’s “angel of history,” whose;
face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin)
It seems Austerlitz himself is the angel of history. As Benjamin’s angel’s face is turned to the past, Austerlitz has turned back to try to go behind time to find his past. There, he finds that all points of time exist concurrently; likewise the angel of history sees “one single catastrophe” happening in front of him at once. Ultimately it is the storm of progress that plunges Austerlitz into the future no matter how firmly he resists. This is precisely what W.G. Sebald has done over and over again throughout all of his works by facing the past and blurring the lines of time and place through his characters, landscape and writing techniques.
Benjamin’s “angel of history” is also a pertinent guide for looking at Thomas Struth’s entire body of work. Looking at his retrospective book we find ourselves sifting through the centuries from the ancient churches of Europe and Forbidden City in Beijing, to the modern advertisements in Times Square and the rush of pedestrians through Shibuya in Tokyo. Struth presents us with the most illustrious constructs known to man, like the Pantheon and Notre Dame, as well as the mundane dwellings so many of us inhabit, like the cluttered quarters of Naples or the high-‐rise projects in Chicago. And, perhaps he merges the past and present most vividly in his museum photographs, where he captures the general publicintermingling with great works of art from throughout the centuries. But, Struth spans the globe and the traces of history in the landscape intentionally to try to get us to look at the world as the “angel of history” looks at it, not as a chain of events, but one single occurrence, one wave of progress.
In Maria Morris Hambourg and Douglas Eklund’s essay “The Space of History,” which is one of countless texts written on Struth’s work and is included in Thomas Struth 1977-‐2002 (not to be confused with his more recent retrospective Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-‐2010) the two go back to Struth’s coming of age as an artist to give us insight as to how his work would unfold. Sure enough, they discovered that as a student at Dusseldorf, just after he had switched from painting to photography, Struth read Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History” (1940) and chose to write about it for his qualifying exam. Hambourg and Eklund explain that Benjamin’s “angel of history” constituted in Struth a “critical engagement with the past.” They point to Benjamin as a necessary guideline for Struth saying “Benjamin described the individual’s ethical responsibility to the voices buried in history: one could cast lines out to points in the past that would unlock the potential of the present.”
Shortly after immersing himself with Benjamin, Struth went to New York to photograph in 1978 on a scholarship granted to him by his painting teacher Gerhard Richter and his photography teacher and major influence Bernd Becher. In New York Struth continued to make pictures in the streets void of any people, which negotiated the space of structural forms and the differences between them with force and clarity. Looking at Dey Street, New York 1978, Hambourg and Eklund write;
the solemn facade of a nineteenth-‐century Federal-‐style building runs parallel to a grimy, sign -‐ splattered assortment of bars, coffee shops, and a sad -‐ sack loan office; a streamlined, faceless corporate tower ascends into the ether at their vanishing point – three eras boxing in the empty space of a depopulated street.
The corporate tower Hambourg and Eklund mention here is of course one of the twin towers. Considering Struth’s musings on Benjamin’s “angel of history,” it is somewhat haunting to imagine him seeing this scene in 1978, shortly after the construction of The World Trade Center had been completed, and understanding its significance and how it related to the structures around it, and that in fact it was a part of the storm of progress. After the image of the Pantheon, the clock in Chicago and Notre Dame, we arrive at this picture in Struth’s book with the eerie realization that together each of these structures are symbolic to the time and place in which they were conceived, and that the three preceding edifices, all much older, have outlasted this one.
When the Twin Towers opened in 1973 they were the tallest buildings on the face of the earth. As Austerlitz explains to his comrade such buildings “show us how, unlike birds, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds.” (p18) Considering Sebald and Struth shared this awareness of Benjamin’s “angel of history,” it is feasible to imagine Struth taking in the scene before him on Dey Street, with one of the towers of The World Trade Center sitting dead center at the end of the street, just like the Chicago Board of Trade, and sharing the thought of Austerlitz when it comes to immense structures:
…no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a
vast edifice. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast a shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins. (p19)
This is precisely the gaze Struth wants his viewers to bring to his work. Not merely to the photograph of the tower and the knowledge of its demise that we bring to it, but to look at all of the images as one moment co-‐existing.
Consequently, it is tempting to look at a photograph from the same series titled Crosby Street, New York (Soho) 1978 with our present day perspective. On this picture Hambourg and Eklund write:
Piled high with muck and debris, the foreground has been cleared by passing cars to reveal the pattern of cobblestones underneath, as if layers of the past have been unearthed at an urban dig. The picture’s hook is the brand new Cadillac parked among the ruins – a confident, shiny dreamboat that accentuates the neo-‐realist, European atmosphere of decaying grandeur surrounding it.
Its hard to imagine that Struth could have understood at the time that this brand new “dreamboat” parked among the ruins of what was then an old manufacturing district, was a sign of things to come. However, by looking back decades later and sequencing his work with the knowledge of what this block would become, must be the exact reason he chose it as the very first picture in the entire book. If we were to stand today in the spot where Struth stood to make this picture over 30 years ago, an exercise Sebald asks us to do repeatedly when looking at a scene or a work of art, we would see the complete opposite of the stranded street Struth captured. For one, today’s rush of traffic would make it impossible to set up a tripod for Struth’s 8x10 view camera, with all the steady focus and precision that camera requires. For this intersection is now surely one of the most densely populated in all of New York City. A picture of this exact scene today would include Starbucks, the MoMa Design store, the swanky restaurant Balthazar, tables of street vendors, the din of slowly moving traffic and the frenzy of pedestrian commuters, shoppers and tourists from all over the globe. These few blocks, which in the not so distant past were a no man’s land, are now an acquiescent pedestrian mall, rendering the moment of the photograph a different kind of ruin, one that has been liquidated by the storm of progress. By beginning the series with a place that awaits this whirlwind to come, Struth sets up a fitting motif for what follows with his photographs; a convergence of the past and present in the every day spaces we inhabit. He adopted a uniform method of photographing from his mentors Bernd and Hilla Becher in order to show the homogenization of the modern world with a cool and distant eye. We see this again with images of Chicago and Shanghai, where Struth depicts older buildings that look microscopic and are waiting to be cleared for newer high-‐rises, so that we feel similarly to Austerlitz as he sits in the waiting room at a train station in London
wondering whether it was a ruin or a building in the process of construction that I had entered. Both ideas were right in a way at the time, since the new station was literally rising from the ruins of the old Liverpool Street. (p136)
This becomes the backdrop for what triggers in Austerlitz “scraps of memory beginning to drift through the outlying regions of my mind.” And when we look at the desolate Crosby Street, New York (Soho) 1978 we are asked, not to see it as a mere document, but to consider the transient nature of our current spatial landscape, one quite different from the one depicted in the picture, in order to see the past and present contemporaneously.
Austerlitz would have been Struth’s greatest observer. In Terezin he looks at the empty streets and asks the questions we might ask looking at Struth’s streets, who lives there if anyone and what do they do? It is interesting that in these pages Sebald uses more photographs than anywhere else in the book, one of which looks like an amateur version of a Struth, looking down the empty street. (p189) As Austerlitz walks the streets looking at the doors of the buildings, the items on display in the shop windows and the lack of any people anywhere, an uncanny stillness encompasses the scene like the experience of looking at photography itself, and thus why Sebald includes pictures with his texts.
Again, Austerlitz would have seen all of the layers of Struth’s photographs, bringing his knowledge of architecture and history to every significant edifice he encounters, so much so that he is haunted by his awareness that such structures contain the blood of history that most of us walking among them are oblivious of. This is never more apparent then when Austerlitz is in the Liverpool Street Station in London. Entering this underworld he sees;
The ballast between the tracks, the cracked sleepers, the brick
walls with their stone bases, the cornices and panes of the tall windows, the wooden kiosks for the ticket inspectors, and the towering cast-‐iron columns with their palmate capitals were
all covered in a greasy black layer formed, over the course of
a century, by coke dust and soot, steam, sulfur, and diesel oil. (p128)
As he sits in the station examining the scene which torments him, yet in which he chooses to spend several hours at the end of his nightly walks, he sees the coming and going of people in waves “disembarking from the trains or boarding them, coming together, moving apart, and being held up at barriers and bottlenecks like water against a weir.” Whether coming or going, whether being built or destroyed, Austerlitz sees the activity of the modern world as if he were outside of it. The frenzy of such activity, both the activity of the station and of his mind seeing the layers of history entombed there, cause him “a kind of heartache, caused by the vortex of past time.” (p129) While we know that train stations haunted Sebald himself, the most forbidding description of any structure in the novel doesn’t come from Austerlitz, but from the narrator, who we tend to call Sebald.
After their conversation at the Antwerp Station, where Austerlitz expressed the horror of mass structures and mentioned Breendonk, the narrator finds himselfgetting off the train at Mechelen to see the fortress. Breendonk was a Belgian fortification surrendered to the Germans and turned into a penal camp and has been preserved as a national memorial and museum of the Belgian Resistance. As Sebald walks around the monstrous embankment he sees something that exceeds comprehension and feels “unable to connect it with anything shaped by human civilization, or even with the silent relics of our prehistory and early history.” He sees the fort at a “monolithic, monstrous incarnation of ugliness and blind violence,” and could not “despite its now evident rational structure, recognize anything designed by the human mind but saw it, rather, as the anatomical blueprint for some alien and crab-‐like creature.” He goes on to describe the horror he imagines those held captive there must have endured.