Essay--Walter Benjamin, Walker Percy, etc.--Marianna SchefferThe
Loss of the Essay (1993)
Graham Good points out in his monograph, The Observing Self that
the essay occupies an anomalous position in the Anglo-American
academic world. As the characteristic writing genre of the
intelligent amateur, the essay assumes a shared body of knowledge
between writer and reader, that of the well-educated non-specialist
in the arts and sciences. It does not resemble a scientific treatise
or a scholarly article, the two privileged forms of academic
discourse; the authority of the essay derives from the person of the
author and his or her representation of ideas, not from the
specialized knowledge of the "expert." Essays deal with abstract
ideas, employ imagery, and often take unusual forms. Essai, the
French word, connotes tentativeness and experimentation as well;
unfortunately this understanding of the genre has gotten lost in
Good's extended definition of the essay has become necessary,
because American academics and educators have forgotten what an
essay is. Here is a perfect example from the current Advocate, the
newsletter of the National Educational Association, in which a
Approaches to Computer Writing Classrooms: Learning from Practical
Experience, edited by Linda Myers, contains essays on the design of
computer laboratories and classrooms for writing courses.
Under any definition of the essay which includes this sort of
writing, it would be possible to include how-to articles on home
Students in freshman writing courses profess to understand and enjoy
"non-fiction," by which they mean, logically ordered aggregates of
factual information, and I suspect many of their teachers are of the
same mind. "Facts" give authority to writing. Get the facts straight
and you've got a good piece of writing. Organize them according to a
given format and you get a good grade.
There are exceptions to these very generalized remarks, of course.
Walker Percy's brilliant and forceful essay, "The Loss of the
Creature," is much admired and taught in freshman writing courses.
In this essay Percy excoriates the kind of pre-packaged education
which has become the norm today. No doubt Percy's training as a
medical doctor and his prescriptive tone make his work acceptable.
Unfortunately, students have a lot of difficulty understanding this
piece (a confusion shared by many of their instructors) and their
writing on this essay does not reflect the assimilation of Percy's
ideas. Rather, students mistake Percy's metaphors for factual
content and imagine that the essay has some truth in it that they
are expected to agree with. They do not even attempt to imitate
Percy's style. Students do better with personal narratives such as
Ray Carver's "My Father" or Alice Walker's "In Search of Our
Mother's Gardens," both of which pieces organize their material in a
simple chronological way and with no confusion about the subject of
the narrative, who identifies himself or herself with "I" and "my."
Freshman students generally write good enough essays modeled on
these works. The other work they like to turn out is the
well-organized five-paragraph banality, full of platitudes and
truisms, which says nothing and goes nowhere. Logically enough, at a
very early date in their academic careers, students decide that
writing divides itself into two types: personal, informal stuff,
which you can't use beyond that first-person narrative you wrote as
a freshman, and "real" academic writing, where you carefully expunge
any suggestion of a point of view and aim for "objectivity."
Instructors in all the humanistic disciplines, with the exception of
literature, expect a kind of writing, based on rational-scientific
models, wherein one uses esoteric language and backs up every
assertion with a footnote. Ironically enough, the authorities cited
often expressed themselves in essay form, a most notable example
being Sigmund Freud. Only literary essays remain as a legitimate
form of essay writing in the academy and even there only in
undergraduate literature courses, although even in this case
"authority" derives from close reading of a canonical text.
Walter Benjamin, the great essayist of the Frankfurt school, had,
mostly for the above reasons, suffered an eclipse of his reputation
in America by comparison especially to Erik Fromm and Herbert
Marcuse. ( In recent years, he’s caught on again because his
explanations of subjects such as fin-de-siecle Paris, the media,
machine technology, seem so applicable to life today.) Although the
essay was the form in which both Fromm and Marcuse expressed their
ideas, we think of them as, respectively, a psychologist and a
Marxist political philosopher and therefore find it easier to accept
them into our body of academic knowledge. The prestige derived from
incorporation into one of the departments within the fragmented
academic world of today assures the continuation of at least those
aspects of thought which the Frankfurt school embodies. Benjamin is
much more problematic as a writer and harder to write about. What
department does he belong in? He seems like a Marxist sometimes, but
he's always talking about mysteries, and apparently, he's religious
as well. His metaphors don't stay fixed in one's mind, and
furthermore, it's difficult to understand what they refer to. Is he
a religious materialist? Would we encounter him in a political
science course? A theology course? A linguistics course? A
literature course? Most likely, a philosophy course. But would he be
considered a good, systematic thinker? Like Kant or even Plato? Here
is a man who upholds the right to be wrong and who says that
authority rests in the writer, not the reader, that the authority of
the author's words is paramount. Can we trust undergraduates with
such inflammatory statements? Not only that, but we have to read
what Benjamin actually said. We cannot get by with a summation of
his ideas, as we can with Plato and Kant. You can talk about the
cave and the categorical imperative without going back into the
original work. Those ideas have been around for centuries and are
well-digested. But Benjamin won't let us get away with such
mediocrity. His meaning divulges itself only very slowly over many
close readings of his work. And we can never be sure we have grasped
what Benjamin meant us to. Or if that was even his goal. He
problematizes thinking and ideas and gives us no set answers, a
strategy which makes for good reading and writing which can be
admired and enjoyed, not in a hermetic way but the assertion of the
value of humanity's unique ability to externalize thinking through
language, a celebration of the Word itself.
It seems that the reader of Benjamin needs to use some faculty of
understanding that is more than the words and sentences on the page.
This is the hardest kind of reading to do, much harder than skimming
and scanning, or "strip-mining" a factual article of its details.
His ideas do not take shape in the mind as logical arguments but
rather as mutable images. Benjamin's essay, The Task of the
Translator, takes as its very subject matter the expression of
thought through language and for this reason stands as one of the
most problematic of his works.
Immediately, a barrier arises. as I, the reader, begin my
perambulations through this essay. I am reading The Task of the
Translator in translation. It seems that Benjamin has set up a
confusion by stating that "consideration of the receiver" of a work
of art is "never fruitful." (69). What can he possibly mean by that?
My impulse is to respond, "That's just wrong." But obviously he has
something in mind that's going to take a while to explain, so I'll
have to suspend my judgment for the moment. I hypothesize that he
means that the receiver does not exist in the creative moment, as a
provisional interpretation of his meaning. Or perhaps he means only
that it's a waste of time to "consider" the reader, that the work of
art in itself takes precedence. Knowing Benjamin's work as I do, I'm
sure I'll have to abandon these ideas as oversimplifications, but
they will do for now. But it also occurs to me that I'm reading a
translation about translation. I run to the library to get the
original essay, Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers in German.
This is better. The original reads, "Rücksicht auf den Aufnehmenden"
is never "fruchtbar."(11). It's fair to say that the translator here
has done the best he could, but the original is much more forceful
and clear. The confusion is not Benjamin's but the translator's (and
mine) although this is a word-for-word translation. So this very
work and its translation provide an excellent testing ground for
some of the ideas in the very essay translated. Benjamin warns
against literal translation, citing Hölderlin's translations of the
Greek classics. (17) There's a fine line here between bringing
something new into a language via translation through literal
translation or preserving the forms of one's own language. The
problem here as I see it is with the word, "Rücksicht," which
connotes "looking back" as well as consideration. Benjamin's complex
thought would then seem to be that you do not imagine the act of
"aufnehmen" before it has taken place. Confusion in the reader's
mind arises, because the translator has chosen only one connotation
of the word. Meaning has a more fragile connection to a work in
translation than it does in the original, as Benjamin warns, it
"droht geradenwegs ins Unverständliche zu führen." (17) (It’s always
threatening to turn totally incomprehensible.) A similar analysis of
"receiver" vs. "Aufnehmenden" could be made. The use of "fruitful,"
a somewhat uncommon though legitimate word to use in this context,
and a word with biblical connotations, seems better to follow
Benjamin's dictum that translation needs to stretch language while
remaining comprehensible. And what about the very title of this
piece? Isn't "task" a rather banal word, implying unpleasant
drudgery rather than brainwork? It entirely lacks the resonance of
"Aufgabe" which connotes writing, "taking up" some sort of mission
in an active way, also having a morphological relationship to
"Hingabe" a "sacrifice" of oneself to the work at hand. "Aufgabe"
pours out all kinds of meaning that the dry word "task" does not
The point of this digression is to show that certain matters are
best suited to the essayistic treatment. It would be possible to
write pages and pages of this sort of analysis of Benjamin's short
essay and still have more to say. Neither the essay nor the partial
analysis above break new ground on the subject of translation but
rather attempt to understand a process which everyone knows as a
problem of translation and show that there are problems in this
world that have no solutions. If we want to learn about the thinking
of those who do not write in our language, we must resort to
translations, which will always be deficient. The translator
occupies a more fortunate position than we (Aufnehmer, receivers) do
with respect to the original. He or she has mastered both languages
and can mediate between them.
Benjamin asserts that it is in the area between languages we find
the Idea (or Ideal) in its purity. Like a poet, the translator deals
with ineffability, the pre-language form of the idea, and brings it
to earth again in translation; she envisions an ideal language which
will capture the essence of meaning. We hope to understand the gist
of the idea in a translated essay; in poetry we hope to recapture
some of the majesty of the original.
It becomes clear through this examination of a translated work about
translation that even a good translation always loses meaning and
spirit. It can only be "das Echo des Originals." (16) If it takes me
so long simply to discuss the title and the first sentence of Die
Aufgabe des Übersetzers, it gives some idea of the time and trouble
and mental effort that go into translating. This is no trivial
Benjamin presents the idea of the analogue, which he opposes to
word-by-word representations of texts. (12) This approach makes
excellent sense, because it suggests a commonality among languages,
a function or purpose that can be carried over from one set of
lexica and syntax to another. Benjamin postulates a universal will
to expression in language . The elements, words, sentences,
paragraphs, are the surface manifestations of this will. In this way
of looking at language, Benjamin anticipates Noam Chomsky's
transformational grammar. However, unlike Chomsky, Benjamin refers
us back to the Old Testament and the opening words of Genesis,
perhaps the most translated of all texts.
To make his point clear, Benjamin does not use metaphors from
science but rather from nature. He does this to show that language,
like life, needs no explanation. That is, life characterizes itself
through expression, not purpose. Language is the characteristic
human expression; in the beginning was the Word. But the Word has
precedence; it came first. That's why he says, "So dürfte von einem
unvergeßlichen Leben oder Augenblick gesprochen werden, auch wenn
alle Menschen sie vergessen hätten." ( I won’t even attempt a
translation!)(10) His strong religious faith cannot be overlooked
here. He finds the authority of God sufficient to explain the origin
of language and of life. Nothing gets lost.
Analogously, the original does not need the translation, any more
than God needs Man. And like Man as opposed to God, the translation
has a lesser but nonetheless legitimate meaning. Benjamin does not
mention the Tower of Babel, but the irony of God's children unable
to understand one another does not escape his attention. Thus, in
this sense, translation is an ironic gesture. The translation
threatens to fall to pieces, producing gibberish. Or it can take on
another meaning and become false to its original. It seeks the
purity of language but never finds it. What translation can do is
expand the reach of language by bringing new material into it. In
this way it extends meaning and helps us to escape the limitations
on thought that the mother tongue sets us.
Benjamin has the right to be wrong, as he says.So is he wrong about
translation? If all authority derives from the Word, do we have the
right to translate it? This seemingly simple-minded question has
been the basis of strife between Catholics and Protestants for
centuries. Luther defied the Fathers; he translated the Bible and
founded Protestantism. In this act, he split the old world of
Catholic unity, so paradoxically he increased divisiveness and
contributed to the eventual horrors of the 30 Years' War, through
making the Word understandable to Germans. Benjamin would find
Luther's flaw in this, that he forgot that in translation, "Ihr
Wesentliches ist nicht Mitteilung, nicht Aussage." (11). Had Luther
been less the activist and pragmatist and more the artist, he would
have translated the Bible in a different way, with regard for the
many voices within it, the work of many different authors, spanning
centuries. Instead he made a polemic out of the Bible by providing
it with his own unifying voice.
Clearly, Benjamin's essay rests on certain assumptions about his
readership. He does not waste time explaining where his ideas come
from. He does not use citations and footnotes. He does not write for
everyone. Does this mean that the essay has become a refined art
accessible only to the highly educated? Here is another real-world
problem. What better form of writing is there, really, for the
talented amateur, the person who is not a specialist but who wants
to write about ideas? Can college writing instructors revive the art
of the essay among undergraduates? Not unless instructors themselves
take the essay seriously as an art form as important and worthy of
explication as poetry. The difficulties of an essay like "The Task
of the Translator" become clear as the reader struggles to make
sense of Benjamin's argument, which is not laid out in a clear and
accessible way. Benjamin instead reproduces the struggle with ideas
in his prose so that we too are thrown into the effort. Ideas of
efficiency in education militate against the essay. If it's hard to
understand and doesn't say anything new, what's the point of it?
After all, doesn't he just take us back to the eternal verities? One
could say the same of poetry, and many, as a matter of fact, have.
This overly pragmatic approach to learning cripples undergraduate
education as desperate professors pander to the mediocre tastes and
lazy minds of their students instead of encouraging them to think
and write with conviction.
Bartholomae, David and Petrosky, Anthony, eds. Ways of Reading: an
Anthology for Writers. N.Y: St. Martin's Press, l987.
Benjamin, Walter. "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers." In Walter Benjamin:
Gesammelte Schriften, IV .I, Band 10. Frankfurt a. M: Suhrkamp
Verlag, l972, pp. 11-21.
------"The Task of the Translator." In Illuminations. NY: Shocken
Books, 1969, pp 69-82.
Bensmaïa, Réda. The Barthes Effect: the Essay as Reflective Text.
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Derrida, Jacques. "'Eating Well,' or the Calculation of the
Subject." pp. 96-119.
Good, Graham. The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay. London &
N.Y: Routledge, 1988.
Percy, Walker. "The Loss of the Creature." In Ways of Reading: an
Anthology for Writers. N.Y: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Witte, Bernd. Der Intellektuelle als Kritiker: Unters. zu seinem
Frühwerk. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1976.
© Marianna Scheffer 2001