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Unfolding

In his essay written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kafka’s death, Walter Benjamin introduces a distinction between two different conceptions of unfolding:

The word “unfolding” [Entfalten] has a double meaning. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper. This second kind of “unfolding” is really appropriate to the parable; it is the reader’s pleasure to smooth it out so that he has the meaning on the palm of his hand. Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom.1,2

In the first form of unfolding, the bud, an object that appears simply constituted, is revealed to contain complexities and capacities for life. In the second form of unfolding, the paper boat, an object that appears complex in constitution, is reduced to the two-dimensional and inert. The first is an organic process that the object of unfolding itself performs; the second is a mechanical process to which the object of unfolding is subjected. The first embodies the self-determination of the object and results in plurality and differentiation; the second is structured by relations of authority (here, the didactic power that the adult wields over the child) and can only result in singularity.

The aim of this essay is two-fold: first, to seek ways that certain, initially lapidary-seeming passages in Benjamin’s work may be seen to unfold in the manner of the bud that unfolds [End Page 775] into blossom; and, second, to demonstrate a consistent if subterranean meditation in Benjamin’s work on unfolding—of buds, but primarily of seeds. Paying attention to this meditation will result in a re-evaluation of Benjamin’s thoughts on the relationship between the organic and the technological in the modern world and on the gendered role of the historian and critic.3

Water, Death, Pyramid, Seed

Section VII of Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” reads as follows:

Leskov was grounded in the classics. The first storyteller of the Greeks was Herodotus. In the fourteenth chapter of the third book of his Histories there is a story from which much can be learned. It deals with Psammenitus. After the Egyptian king Psammenitus had been vanquished and captured by the Persian king Cambyses, Cambyses was bent on humbling his prisoner. He ordered that Psammenitus be placed on the road that the Persian triumphal procession was to take. And he further arranged that the prisoner should see his daughter pass by as a maid going to the well with her pitcher. While all the Egyptians were lamenting and bewailing this spectacle, Psammennitus stood alone and mute and motionless, his eyes fixed on the ground; and when presently he saw his son, who was being taken along in the procession to be executed, he likewise remained unmoved. But when he subsequently recognized one of his servants, an old, impoverished man, in the ranks of the prisoners, he beat his fists against his head and gave all the deepest signs of mourning. This tale shows what true storytelling is. The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its energy and is capable of releasing it even after a long time [nach langer Zeit der Entfaltung fähig]. Accordingly, Montaigne referred to this Egyptian king and asked himself why he mourned only when he caught sight of his servant. Montaigne answers: “Since he was already over-full of grief, it took only the smallest increase for it to burst through its dams.” Thus, Montaigne. But one could also say: The king is not moved by the fate of those of royal blood, for it is his own fate. Or: We are moved by much on the stage that does not move us in real life; for the...

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