reviewed by Richard Deming
Rain Taxi, Spring 2006
Kafka, in discussing Georg Trakl’s suicide during World War I, said of the poet, “He had too much imagination. So he could not endure the war, which rose above all from a monstrous lack of imagination.” One could make the same claim about Walter Benjamin, who in 1940, believing he was about to be apprehended by the Nazis and interned in a concentration camp, took his own life. Beyond question, Benjamin was possessed of inordinate intellect and imagination and his work stands at the nexus of philosophy, critical theory, theology, and literature. His oeuvre amounts to a staggering productivity that often defies generic distinctions, a fact which has both helped and hurt its reception since his death. Such accomplishments are all the more admirable because he produced so much despite frequently negotiating bouts of severe depression, with no fixed professional position and living hand to mouth. Thus, Benjamin’s life was constantly at the edge of crisis, physically, emotionally, and historically.
Given its brief, tragic intensity, this thinker’s life is ripe for opera—and one, called Shadowtime, now exists, with a libretto by poet Charles Bernstein and music by Brian Ferneyhough. Fortunately, the libretto may also be read on its own terms. Present are all the ludic disruptions characteristic of Bernstein’s work, and his attention to wordplay is as strong and surprising as ever—from transliterations to anagrammatic rearrangements of Benjamin’s name (e.g. “I’m a lent barn Jew” (71)) to puns and paronomasias. But what is also present in the sequence is a kind of emotional intensity that isn’t always present in Bernstein’s poems. The poet’s commitment, by turns political and philosophical and guided by a subtle and consistent intelligence, marks his essays and critical work, but his poetry, in working against conventions of lyric subjectivity to undercut the claims the lyric might make on authority, can often obscure the mechanisms and markers for discerning Bernstein’s investment in his own poems.In Shadowtime, however, Bernstein’s unsentimental yet passionate investment in Benjamin acutely raises the stakes of these poems.
Set on the evening of his last day alive, Shadowtime’s Benjamin is visited by phantoms (from Hölderlin to Groucho Marx) and phantasmagoria and he himself transforms into various voices and personae. This destabilized dramatic figure (and isn’t the “I” always such?) works so well for Bernstein perhaps because the historical Benjamin provides an a priori cohesion for Shadowtime’s explorations, which offer neither a mimetic portrait nor cohesive narrative. Rather than elegy, Shadowtime is an evocation. From the sequence’s affective register, it becomes clear that Bernstein cares about his subject deeply, and the work belies surprising vulnerability and even intimacy; Bernstein’s genius is to reconfigure that intimacy as a measure of one’s relationship to language. Although one might suppose Benjamin’s investment in historical materialism to be what draws Bernstein to him, it is the spiritual register of Benjamin’s work that shapes and marks Shadowtime and makes it a masterwork. Gerhard Scholem, closer to Benjamin than almost anyone else, said of his friend, “There was about him an element of purity and absoluteness, a devotion to the spiritual like that of a scribe cast out into another world, who has set off in search of his scripture.” It is this restlessness, this desire to commit to the world, neither blindly nor unreservedly but intensely, that Bernstein evokes in Shadowtime. As such, perhaps this collection reveals not only new ways of reading Benjamin, but new ways to re-read Bernstein’s own body of work, his own restless, ethical inquiry.
Although Bernstein has long been at work on Shadowtime, it is poignant that it appears amidst another war that arises from a monstrous lack of imagination. Always sensitive to poetry’s social function within its contemporary moment, Bernstein is no doubt conscious of how this timing provides the sequence a tacit political register. Sadly, Benjamin’s Jetztzeit (literally, “Nowtime”) seems nearest as a reality during war, as present brutality blurs with all prior wars and violence. As Bernstein’s Benjamin-as-played-by-Hölderlin tells us, half in warning and half in consolation, “What is alive / Can be perceived / Only by means / Of what is not. / The dead speak / But only the living/ Hear them” (58).