Élan Reisner


ISSUE 41 | INFAMY | JUN 2014

[The moon] is the true family friend...
    —Johann Peter Hebel, The Treasure Chest

Well before the Apollo missions, whose most important achievement was not the conquest of the moon but the revelation of the earth, human beings have discovered the truth of their terrestrial existence by moonlight. This may come as a surprise, since the traditional figure for truth as well as for being is the moon’s counterpart, the sun. Indeed, as a metonym for the obscurity of the night and putative cause of the vagaries of women, the moon has come down to us as the principle of lunacy—of confusion about what is and what is not.

Yet it is perhaps for the same reason that an encounter with the moon, a “moon landing” of sorts, seems to be a necessary moment in the experience of being. Walter Benjamin recounts such an encounter in one of the episodes collected in Berlin Childhood around 1900. Before turning to the text itself, it is worth attending to Benjamin’s brief remarks about the circumstances and motive that occasioned the Berlin Childhood’s composition, as they offer a preview of the themes that will be explored in “The Moon”:

In 1932, when I was abroad, it began to be clear to me that I would soon have to bid a long, perhaps lasting fare well to the city of my birth.

Several times in my inner life, I had already experienced the process of inoculation as something salutary. In this situation, too, I resolved to follow suit, and I deliberately called to mind those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood.

Berlin Childhood is the record of a self-administered psychiatric regimen. Benjamin’s hope was that exposing himself to controlled doses of homesickness would enable him to survive in the toxic atmosphere of exile. (He died in 1940.) Yet as Benjamin clearly saw, it belongs to the nature of inoculation that the chance of immunization carries a risk of overdose. (It is said that his death was a suicide by poison.) Benjamin explains that he therefore attempted to limit the malignancy of his pathogenic reminiscences by focusing on their “necessary social” rather than “contingent biographical” significance:

The feeling of longing was permitted to gain mastery over my spirit just as little as a vaccine over a healthy body. I sought to limit its effect through insight into the irretrievability—not the contingent biographical but the necessary social irretrievability—of the past.

The images collected in Berlin Childhood are not autobiographical representations but sociocultural artifacts. (The childhood is Berlin’s; it belongs to Berlin as an essential moment in the city’s history.) By focusing on the “necessary social irretrievability” of the content of his childhood memories, Benjamin sought to transfigure the source of his grief into a potential object of sociocultural criticism, and thereby gain, at the risk of his life, a share in the special kind of survival reserved, in his view, for works of art. He continues:

This has meant that certain biographical features, which stand out more readily in the continuity of experience than in its depths, altogether recede in the present undertaking. And with them go the physiognomies—those of my family and comrades alike. On the other hand, I have made an effort to get hold of the images in which the experience of the big city is precipitated in a child of the middle class.

I believe it possible that a fate expressly theirs is held in reserve for such images. No customary forms await them yet, like those that, over the course of centuries, and in obedience to a feeling for nature, answer to remembrances of a childhood spent in the country. But, then, the images of my metropolitan childhood perhaps are capable, at their core, of preforming later historical experience. I hope they will at least suggest how thoroughly the person spoken of here would later dispense with the security allotted his childhood.

An "image" has no formal precedent, and therefore "preforms" the future. In comparison with commonplace pictures of a rustic childhood, Benjamin’s images are bound to remain, for the time being, unintelligible. Yet since the forms of possible experience are forged by historical artifacts, Benjamin’s images carry the seeds of their own eventual intelligibility. Benjamin awaits the day when the world of his childhood, the social reality of the bourgeoisie in Berlin around 1900, will regain its experiential immediacy—and future readers will experience in his homesickness an illumination of their own tragic dramas.

Albrecht Dürer, “Die Jungfrau auf der Mondsichel” (c. 1510)

The themes that characterize the genesis of Berlin Childhood also appear in many of its “images.” “The Moon,” for instance, depicts an experience that closely mirrors Benjamin’s psychiatric drama of exile and memory. The text begins with a cosmological reflection, in which the moon first appears as an agent of alienation:

The light that flows down from the moon does not bear upon the scene of our daily existence. The horizon it deceptively illuminates seems to belong to a counter-earth or an additional-earth. It is not the earth which the moon follows as its satellite, but rather one transformed into a satellite of the moon.

Like a spotlight, moonlight only functions when the stage is dark. The scene it reveals is uncannily different from that which appears when the houselights are up. The moonlit stage appears to belong to another “house,” an alter-earth that doubles the original as its complement or supplement within a planetary system that is no longer “solar.” In the moonlight the earth is a satellite of the planet moon, a member of the lunar system.

Yet the earth’s alienation is also a homecoming. Benjamin’s reflection culminates with a series of figures that navigate the Biblical cosmogony: “The earth’s broad bosom, whose breath was time, stirs no longer; at last the creation has returned home, and may once again don the widow’s veil that the day had torn off.” The earth dies in the moonlight, but her death frees creation to mourn a loss whose remembrance the earth’s life—time—had obstructed. In the Book of Genesis, the advent of light precedes and (on some interpretations) makes possible the inception of time. There is no time “until” light is separated from darkness; the alternation of day and night is time itself. Moonlight has no place in this diurnal temporality. Its appearance asphyxiates, de-creates the earth, restoring creation to the “moment before” the inception of time—to the very beginning, when “God created the heavens and the earth.” Yet creation returns home to an empty house, for even in the moment of its genesis the earth was “without form, and void” (Buber and Rosenzweig translate the rhyme תהו ובהו with Irrsal und Wirrsal). Shielded from the violence of the day and guided by a gentile archaic light, creation can resume the work of mourning for a loss before time. The moonlight illuminates the veil that indicates the absence at the origin of creation.

In a certain way, the trajectory of Benjamin’s cosmological reflection doubles the movement he ascribed to Berlin Childhood as a whole. The experience of the loss of home (the earth, Berlin) finds redemption through a form of memory that reaches beyond time (the commemoration of God’s creative absence, the critical “preformation” of future historical experience). One could even interpret the moon as a figure for the critical eye that Benjamin casts on the content of his memories, a gaze that arrests its objects—Adorno called it Benjamin’s “Medusa-gaze”—and so displaces them from “everyday” temporality. This interpretation finds support in the subsequent passages of “The Moon.” After the moonlight awakes the young Benjamin and exiles him from bed (“I was effectively unhoused, for my room seemed willing to accommodate no one besides the moon”), it draws his attention to a series of ordinarily inconspicuous use-objects that in the lunar glow appear to take on human features. It is as though the moonlight reveals in an exaggerated fashion the workings of Marx’s commodity fetishism, where instead of perceiving the social relations between human beings, one only sees the economic relations between things. Like the mature Benjamin’s critical gaze, the moonlight reveals the hidden “social” dimension of the artifacts it shines upon.

This doubling between the demystifying moonlight and Benjamin’s critical gaze provides “The Moon”’s climax with its dramatic force. Climbing out of bed, Benjamin rejoices to hear “a sign of life—be it only the echo of my own” from the objects rattling on his washstand. An intimation of critical self-consciousness lurks in this thought, anticipating the mature Benjamin’s retrospective vision. Yet instead of encountering himself in his social and historical necessity, the young Benjamin ultimately finds himself face to face with his cosmic and biographical contingency. Overcome with déjà vu and paranoid about the possibility of meeting his terrestrial alter-ego, Benjamin climbs back into bed and falls asleep while waiting for the moon to set. He awakes in a familiar darkness, in which

… it appeared that nothing more remained of the world than a single, stubborn question. It was: Why is there anything at all in the world, why the world? With amazement, I realized that nothing in it could compel me to think the world. Its nonbeing would have struck me as not a whit more problematic than its being, which seemed to wink at nonbeing. The oceans and its continents had little advantage over my washstand set while the moon still shone. Of my own existence, nothing was left but the dregs of its abandonment.