- Decompositions:Inheriting Trash with Walter Benjamin and Bruno Schulz
Methode dieser Arbeit: literarische Montage. Ich habe nichts zu sagen. Nur zu zeigen. Ich werde nichts Wertvolles entwenden und mir keine geistvollen Formulierungen aneignen. Aber die Lumpen, den Abfall: die will ich nicht inventarisieren sondern sie auf die einzig mögliche Weise zu ihrem Rechte kommen lassen: sie verwenden.1
The Demiurge was in love with reliable, superb, and complicated materials—we give priority to trash.2
Rubble heaps whispering of forgotten experiences, strange collections, advertisements more luminous than the most sophisticated paintings: at times, the world of Walter Benjamin and that of the Polish modernist Bruno Schulz seem not only to touch, but to intertwine.3 In [End Page 763] these instances, their differences briefly disintegrate to invite us into an enchanted, eerie space between literature and philosophy where mannequins and automata hold court. Much like the narrator's apartment in Schulz's first collection, Cinnamon Shops, this is a liminal and limitless place, overflowing with dusty, enigmatic objects. In Benjamin, there are old butterfly cases, their contents damaged and fragmentary, obsolete stamps on brittle envelopes, and uncanny mechanical dolls, eternally repeating the same, paroxysmal movements; Schulz's literary gaze, meanwhile, lingers with delight on instances of rotting, taxidermied birds, strangely animated molding wallpaper, and piles of trash that surely contain the most wonderful horrors. Both writers display a profound intellectual fascination with these seemingly marginal things, turning them over endlessly with the incandescent curiosity of children.
The playful nature of these explorations does not, however, limit their theoretical significance. Rather, it forms the basis for a radical reassessment of established patterns of thought. Turning to neglected objects with thorough, almost haptic attention releases their critical potential, challenging the unquestioned hegemony of the new and the central.4 For Benjamin, this method is of the highest philosophical importance, as it facilitates a necessary explosion of the myth of [End Page 764] historical continuity. Considered with enough care, every piece of debris has a story to tell, or rather, an image to show, each of which poses a material challenge to the dominant cultural narrative.5 It is the task of the historical materialist to attend to these fragments, to place them into poetic constellations with one another, and so to release the ephemeral, but revolutionary, charge that they may contain.
Schulz's enchantment with refuse, in contrast, establishes it as an aesthetic category rooted in a modernist fascination with the grotesque. At the same time, its quasi-organic proliferation cannot be limited to any one function. Trash affects every theoretical aspect of Schulz's texts: it plays a crucial role in ontological deliberations, accounts for the dangerous allure of modern commodity culture, and even inserts itself into theological meditations. Most interestingly, however, trash has been read as a metapoetic category, directly mirroring Schulz's own literary style, which germinates "like a beautiful rash, a fantastic coating, a colorful, oneiric mold" (nlv; ZN 42). Aporetic, deeply ambiguous, and, most of all, overabundant with words, Schulz's texts themselves reflect the qualities of tandeta, the untranslatable Polish term that refers to objects with which Benjamin would have been equally fascinated: junk, clutter, and scraps.6 [End Page 765]
These leftovers constitute a crucial component of the idiosyncratic inheritance with which we are faced each time we read Benjamin and Schulz. Perhaps appropriately, such an inheritance has a contentious relationship to tradition; while there is no question that both writers are the heirs of rich philosophical, aesthetic, and theological legacies, their own modes of inheritance frequently forgo that which has been passed on in favor of that which has been passed by. Their strategic appreciation of trash proposes an altogether different valuation of the past, as their writings entrust us with the demanding task of receiving an untraditional heritage rendered precariously fragile by its marginality. This form of inheritance is a Hinterlassenschaft in the truest sense of the word: things that have been left behind, casualties of the relentless trickle of time. As a word, Hinterlassenschaft is hauntingly passive, suggesting the aftermath of a calamity marked by a sudden departure, be it literal or metaphorical. The term evokes mere...