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Humanities 2015, 4(1), 149-180; doi:10.3390/h4010149

In Search of Lost Community: The Literary Image between “Proust” and “Baudelaire” in Walter Benjamin’s Modernization Lament

Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB T6G 2E5, Canada
Academic Editor: Krzysztof Ziarek
Received: 9 October 2014 / Revised: 24 November 2014 / Accepted: 26 January 2015 / Published: 6 February 2015
(This article belongs to the Special Issue New Encounters between Literature and Philosophy)
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Abstract

This essay takes up the encounter between philosophy and literature through a reconsideration of Walter Benjamin’s remarks from “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” about Henri Bergson’s Matière et mémoire as an attempt “[t]owering above” other ventures into Lebensphilosophie to “lay hold of the ‘true’ experience, as opposed to the kind that manifests itself in the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses”. Despite his initial affirmation of Bergson’s understanding of experience as connected with tradition, Benjamin criticizes the philosopher’s account for sidestepping “the alienating, blinding experience of the age of large-scale industrialism” in reaction to which, as Benjamin insists, Bergson’s philosophy of memory developed. Yet even as Bergson shuts out the historical import of modernization, according to Benjamin, he also spotlights a “complementary” visual experience “in the form of its spontaneous afterimage”. Benjamin subsequently defines Bergson’s philosophy as “an attempt to specify this afterimage and fix it as a permanent record”, an endeavor that inadvertently “furnishes a clue to the experience which presented itself undistorted to Baudelaire’s eyes, in the figure of his reader”. If the literary critic might be viewed here as weighing in on a long-running antagonism between philosophy and literature, then his assessment is resolute: by praising the self-conscious historicity of Baudelaire’s lyric, Benjamin declares that poetry succeeds where Lebensphilosophie fails. Notably, Baudelaire is not the only figure to upstage “ahistorical” Bergson, since Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud facilitate this victory. To contextualize the second section of “Motifs”, where Benjamin discusses the novelist’s “immanent critique of Bergson” this essay offers a reading of “On the Image of Proust” as a propadeutic to Benjamin’s privileging of “Baudelaire” over “Bergson” in the first section of “Motifs” to broach the destinies of diminished perception before he turns to Freud in the third section. Drawing upon Freud’s thermodynamic model of a selective and protective perceptual-conscious system from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Benjamin explains how perception calcifies in adapting to industrialism. Notably, however, his “energetics” does not remain bound by closed-system economic premises insofar as he conceives Baudelaire’s correspondances as an antidote to reification and modernization fatigue. The resulting configuration emerges against the backdrop of a lament about the decline of tradition-infused, long-term experience [Erfahrung] that accompanies the rise of isolated experience [Erlebnis]. In tracking Benjamin’s seemingly melancholic emplotment of the literary image between “Proust” and “Baudelaire”, the essay ultimately focuses on how he amplifies its sociohistorical potential to attest to the dehiscence of tradition as a community-sustaining force. View Full-Text
Keywords: walter benjamin; henri bergson; charles baudelaire; marcel proust; sigmund freud; literary image; modernization lament; longing for community; energetics walter benjamin; henri bergson; charles baudelaire; marcel proust; sigmund freud; literary image; modernization lament; longing for community; energetics
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (CC BY 4.0).

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Ball, K. In Search of Lost Community: The Literary Image between “Proust” and “Baudelaire” in Walter Benjamin’s Modernization Lament. Humanities 2015, 4, 149-180.

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