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IDEAS: Benjamin’s Lost Diagram

In ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ (1932) Benjamin describes a lost diagram:

“I was struck by the idea of drawing a diagram of my life, and I knew at the same moment exactly how it was to be done. With a very simple question I interrogated my past life, and the answers were inscribed, as if of their own accord, on a sheet of paper that I had with me. A year or two later, when I lost this sheet, I was inconsolable. I have never since been able to restore it as it arose before me then, resembling a series of family trees. Now, however, reconstructing its outline in thought without directly reproducing it, I should, rather, speak of a labyrinth. I am not concerned here with what is installed in the chamber at its enigmatic centre, ego or fate, but all the more with the many entrances leading to the interior. These entrances I call primal acquaintances; each of them is a graphic symbol of my acquaintance with a person whom I met, not through other people, but through neighbourhood, family relationships, school comradeship, mistaken identity, companionship on travels, or other such hardly numerous- situations. So many primal relationships, so many entrances to the maze. But since most of them—at least those that remain in our memory—for their part open up new acquaintances, relations to new people, after some time they branch off these corridors (the male may be drawn to the right, female to the left). Whatever cross connections are finally established between these systems also depends on the inter-twinements of our path through life.” Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, 1932, in One-Way Street: And Other Writings, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: Verso, pp. 293–346

It’s a fascinating idea, the urge to capture a single, unifying diagram of life. A sheet of paper able to map, connect, find order, meaning even in life’s motivations, misdirections, multiplicity, u-turns, blind alleys, emotional maelstroms and calm waters. What on earth might such a diagram look like? What on earth did Benjamin’s diagram look like? Do the surviving diagrams (see above) from Benjamin’s notebooks provide some clue? Perhaps 80+ years later, almost without our being aware of it, such diagrams are more common than we think. Aren’t our personal blogs or the fever of social media, subconscious/conscious beginnings of a virtual ‘diagram of life’.

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