It gave me no end of pleasure, a frisson of pleasure, to have come, many years ago, upon the fact that my grandfather, born on July 15, 1892, shared a birth day with Walter Benjamin. Gramps born in Winnipeg, Walter Benjamin in Berlin. An astrological throughline for certain, and with it a genuine sense of pride—a link with my fine grandfather, who wouldn’t have known about the Frankfurt School but would have been proud to say he graduated at the top of his class in grade 12, attending school in a small town in southern Manitoba. I’m thinking of a tie more substantial than basing a future on the alignment of planets and stars; Benjamin is a constant source, guide and companion in my reading.
Alexander Kluge, celebrated German filmmaker and writer, was born in 1932 in Halberstadt some 175 kilometres from Berlin, and he writes in his recent book, Temple of the Scapegoat (A New Directions Paperback Original, 2018), about his connection to Walter Benjamin. His telling, unlike mine, which is temporal, is augmented by geographic proximity. I’m making assumptions about the author and the patterns that guide his lively production on the basis of the contents page of this book, for starters. The very brief preface written by Kluge sets up, in his tangential style, opera’s integral role in his life, which is how his capacious practice is expressed. His grandmother’s brother (his great-uncle) owned a brewery in Smyrna, which city was under attack by Turkish commanders intent on burning and destroying it. At night, however, its commanders attended the city’s opera house, where, Kluge tells us, captivated by the beauty of a swelling Bellini opera, they neglected to give the order to burn down the rest of the city. Distracted, ennobled or enervated by art, they failed to act badly, and, as Kluge wrote, “Herbert Hausdorf’s property and life were saved by opera’s power to distract even barbarians.” This concludes the preface. The contents page is set in four sections and each of these sections includes between 5 and 32 subsections, with the net effect—highly stimulating, informative, bewildering and enticingly fragmented—like a long, rich evening at a dinner table at which you hope always to be a guest.
It is under the heading “Walter Benjamin Comes to Halberstadt” that Kluge draws his connection to Benjamin, who was on a train from Berlin to Frankfurt, or at least on that line, and which train had an incapacitating but not life-threatening accident. Unnerved, Benjamin left and climbed aboard the next train, which took him to Halberstadt, where he spent the night and where he attended the opera at which Kluge’s parents were also present. Dates of contiguity are mentioned. Kluge cites his own imminent birth two months later, and the fact that his father, a local physician, and Benjamin, shared a birth year as well as the space of the opera house and the same late-night pub after the performance.
No words or ideas were exchanged, but Kluge, in the way that he moves through and among disciplinary spaces and across time and between history, fact and fiction, constructs a possible exchange between the two men in the amicable democracy of the pissoir, finding themselves in agreement about the opera director’s treatment, or, rather, misreading, of the character of Cho-Cho- San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, who would have been acting inconsistently in killing her son, both men concluding that the director was guilty of exaggeration. A meeting of minds, not unfounded, through the agency of Kluge’s imagination. I nudge Kluge here for authentic ties—mine or his, but let’s not be silly.
It was my sense, in reading this book—Kluge’s life guide to the life that is opera—that metaphor, even thin as a shadow, isn’t needed, and the book is filled with lines that read as aphorisms entirely applicable in this world. For the audience, omniscient narrator that it is, silence is difficult. Caught up in the intense drama of what they are hearing and seeing and know will unfold, they long, like children, Kluge says, to call out to the performers: beware, be alert to what can come next. Here is one of Kluge’s asides or aphoristic summations for the performance of La Juive, for example, written by Jacques Frontal Halevy and performed first in Paris in 1835: “Doom, a very thin garment. Salvation, nearly naked on stage.” And then he has a conversation with Marcel Proust, who has a cogent opinion on the relationship of opera and audience. Yesterday, it must have happened, that the costumes and sets for this opera are lost and the opera is taken out of repertoire for a period but closely remembered, nonetheless, by Proust, who in Temple of the Scapegoat is present with Kluge, who reports on Proust’s comments made during the intermission, saying what Proust conveyed to him: “That in the opera house it is not the production but the consumption—i.e., the spectators’ passive enjoyment—that is the ‘overarching element’: the finding of happiness.” Seamlessly, and moving along with Kluge, we are aware, as we read, of the apprehension the audience feels as the action in La Juive plays out before them and they are helpless to intervene, and then we are party to the observations Proust makes during the intermission of a performance he remembers (of course he remembers; this is Proust), and then Kluge on opera, of course, which offers distraction or salvation or the possibility of a different future, or the bravado of pressing on, for instance, in light of the growing recognition by high-up officials that Allied fliers were bombing major German cities every night and therefore staging Tosca was necessary anyway and should be shown to an audience largely required to attend as commanded, as a show of faith, who then spent hours below, in the cellars of the opera house. “Mass death,” Kluge wrote, “relativizes emotions; indeed every feeling must first burrow its way out from the reality of the air raids as from a heap of rubble, and only then can it scale the pinnacles of art.”
Opera isn’t merely an interjected distraction or an entertainment, so the political is also essential and persistent, and Kluge moves through wars and eras and movements where the reading has a dailiness and Gauls and Nazis take their turn in the news. What Kluge identified as a kind of bacterial fever rose in the late 1930s and continued through World War II; referring to it as a NEW OPERATICITY, leaning perhaps to the hysterical, where it was picked up for engagement and inspiration by Adolf Hitler, seeing it instead as heralding a NEW SERIOSITY; calling on the plots of opera mixed with stirring orchestral scores that would be art at its efficacious best. (Kluge’s use of uppercase type throughout the book is like a voice raised sufficient so that you don’t miss what is key.) Kluge wrote, “The emotional comparative of those years unfolds as follows: suffer misfortune—allow yourself to be profoundly stirred by art—develop such an ardor that total commitment, the commitment of your life, is worthwhile—set off for the front.”
There is a taut section in Temple of the Scapegoat titled “Lament for the Death of the Improbable.” It speaks of Beethoven’s Fidelio. The singer playing Leonore will rescue her husband, Florestan, from his captivity. Kluge cryptically, as though sotto voce, says about her, as she prepares to put on a breastplate for the dangerous task ahead, “A soul like a fist.” Does he mean “intractable” and therefore unable to swerve from the inevitable conclusion? In language fitting the current period, he says she dresses like a man, but with no plan other than to get into the action. “She is seeking a field of employment for the task of liberation,” he writes. She deceives those who trust her, and he describes her actions as instrumentalizing the androgynous power of the attraction her costume has provided. Showing some distaste for her lack of genuine engagement and what appears to be her opportunism, he tells us that it is luck that brings her to the decisive moment, that is, in fact, a short and deadly standoff. The warden holds a pistol to Florestan’s temple; she holds a pistol to the person of the warden. It’s a draw—“equilibrium” is how Kluge describes it but it can’t hold. Two shots are fired at the same time. He writes, “So only the idea of the good survives, the fame of the helpmeet who wanted to liberate her consort at any price, even at the price of her life and his,” concluding, “A lament for the Power of the Probable.” What’s left is weeping and grieving.
What caught my attention here is not, I’m confessing, the lament but Kluge’s noticing, after the two shots ring out, that it is only the idea of the good that survives, and I’m brought to a graduate seminar in March 2008 at the University of Guelph. It is the philosopher Arthur Danto who is speaking and he is in Guelph to deliver the second in an annual series of lectures sponsored by the philanthropist Dasha Shenkman. His response to a question about representation brings him to what he calls his “theory of action.” He says it is intention that plays a causal role in the movement of a body, which creates the world to fit a representation. A definition of action was of interest to him and from here he takes us to Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, according to Danto, asks, if, from the fact that I raise my arm, I subtract the fact that my arm goes up, what’s left over? Danto added at this point the aside that Wittgenstein’s was a beautiful, almost Zen-like question. He says he thinks what Wittgenstein wanted to say was “nothing is left over,” that raising your arm and your arm going up are the same thing.
But there is a difference, Arthur Danto asserts, and the question is to fill in and solve what that would be. Is it a response to a representation that causes the action? To illustrate further Danto recounted an exhibition he saw at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964, which, for him, changed everything. This was the first exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and what Danto described as “other grocery boxes,” and he recognized, he told the seminar, that it was this work that opened art up for philosophy as it had never been before, because here you had a problem that was like Wittgenstein’s question about raising an arm. With the work at the Stable Gallery came the possibility that if, from the fact that the object is a work of art, you subtract the object, what is left over? Arthur Danto continued, saying, you can almost say, if you can find a question of that form, you’ve found the philosophical heart of the question. And that had never been found in the whole history of art—that form of that question. That if, from the fact that that object is a work of art, you subtract the fact that it’s an object, what is left over? And a perfectly reasonable answer would be nothing is left over; the thing just is the object. And I see here Kluge’s “only the idea of the good survives,” and what is that?
Kluge speaks about his daughter, who is also a filmmaker, very different from him but sharing a refusal to engage a dramatic plot. The suspense that’s generated from escalating conflict isn’t of interest; it’s watching she enjoys. The quotidian, the banal and the everyday are what holds Kluge’s attention, he tells us, and about her work he says, “People seek each other’s proximity, but then they separate. Nothing happens, and we watch.” It’s like Wittengenstein and Danto—what’s there if you subtract from the art object, the object? But Kluge’s daughter, Sophie, asserts that something does happen, and it’s this the camera sees, and then we do. In the absence, the space where the spectator, equipped with their individual imagination, makes some thing. ❚