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  • Portrait of Melancholy (Benjamin, Warburg, Panofsky)
  • Beatrice Hanssen

Although Walter Benjamin’s face was always turned towards the future, he never quite could relinquish the image of the past. Amidst phrases and aphorisms that captured the hurriedness of modernity’s present, that assessed the shock impact of modernity’s turn to technology, one finds in his work encrypted kernels of insight that threaten to withdraw forever, to recede, to become irrecoverably lost, unless one is attentive to the flash of meaning they emit. These are images of incomparable beauty, laden with melancholic valor, as they memorialize tradition and past experiences. Amidst pronouncements that precisely register the numbing, anaesthetic effects of film and its de-humanizing disassembly of the real—from amidst such pronouncements emerge nostalgic glimpses of the past that speak of hands, and eyes, and mind, all coordinated organically, all synchronized, as Benjamin’s reflections on the artisanal storyteller would put it. 1 One such image, barely visible as it punctuates a discussion of technology, concerns the photographic portrait. Drawing the last contours of the human portrait and transforming it into a site of melancholic loss, Benjamin writes in his technology essay: “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.” 2


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Figure 1.

Copyright Theodor W. Adorno Archiv, Frankfurt am Main.

Tellingly, the portraits of Walter Benjamin that have come down to us—from the hands of such renowned photographers as Gisèle [End Page 991] Freund and Germaine Krull, or lesser known ones, such as Charlotte Joël [fig. 1]—invariably attest to just such a “melancholic, incomparable beauty.” For they present the stills—hardly snapshots—of one of Weimar’s last German-Jewish intellectuals, whose loss, when contemplated with hindsight, they incontestably mourn. More than simple memento mori, these portraits uncannily double the object they seek to represent. Mourning the loss of one of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals and critics, these pictures depict a brooding, gloomy Benjamin, born under the sign of Saturn, whose languid pose and language of gestures—that is, downward gaze, chin leaning on a clenched fist—seem to quote from an ancient pictorial archive of mourning and melancholia. 3 Bidding the beholder to adopt the pose of an age-old face reader, they invite one to glean Benjamin’s temperament, no less than his fate, from the lines that define his mimetic image. Against better insight, and in full knowledge of the fated dialectic that accompanied such natural arts, their beholder seems lured into drawing on the enigmatic techniques of physiognomy, the hermeneutical practice of reading facial features as natural signs, popularized by Charles Le Brun and Lavater—an art Benjamin much respected, as he did astrology, graphology, and chiromancy. 4 To be classified, then, somewhere between mise en abyme, or a picture-within-a-picture, and dialectical image, these sober portraits fixate gestures of melancholy, appropriately attesting to a century, now waning, now at a close, that was marked by trauma, historic catastrophe, and loss.

The reflections that follow will use Benjamin’s portrait as a “picture for meditation”—to appropriate a phrase of Gershom Scholem’s—that is, as an image that allows one to ponder the relations between modernity and melancholy, as well as Benjamin’s pivotal position in a century that was ruled by visual culture, by pictorial and archival concerns. Yet, they will not pursue the perhaps more common, familiar path that aligns Benjamin’s most publically known persona with the essays on technology and film—essays said to foreshadow recent postmodern definitions of the twentieth century as an age of the virtual simulacrum. Recognizing the importance of his path-breaking work on technology, these reflections nonetheless propose to take a somewhat lesser-traveled road, one that follows Benjamin into the hidden recesses of his scholarship, where his thought threatens to become arcane, at...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 991-1013
Launched on MUSE
1999-12-01
Open Access
No
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