the extempore monument


“It sounds a peculiarly Romantic theme—a man's genius goes into notes and extempores and sketches towards some classical monument, which in the end turns out to be superfluous.” – Eric Rhodes

This is from a review of a rather obscure work by Humphrey Jennings, a British filmmaker, one of the co-founders of Mass Observation, and poet: Pandaemonium: 1660-1886 The coming of the Machine as seen by contemporary observers. It was written, as it were, in the thirties, at the same time that Benjamin was collecting his notes for the Passages work. Although Jennings didn’t, I think, know Benjamin, they were both moved by a strong Marxist impulse to understand the formation of class structure under capitalism by creating a vast citational structure – bringing, as it were, the production of the imagination, its collective factory of images, connections, and types, to the surface.
I think Rhodes is right that this is a very romantic theme: in fact, one could think of it as a conjunction of Novalis’s notion of the ultimate Encyclopedia with the Marxist notion of a witness that would probe, to the very depths, the history of obscure. But the paradox in both cases is that the witness has to come from sources, and those sources were, inevitably, literate and emplaced in the structures of literature in the broadest sense – natural philosophy, the newspapers, poetry, medicine, etc. The romantic impulse is to find, at some moment, the perfect conjunction of the immediate and the mediate: a private language that can be publicly understood. But the bingo of all the old Marxist boys lies, forever, around the next book.
In the preface he intended to write for the book he never completed (like the Passages work, Pandaemonium was always in process), Jennings wrote:
“In this book I present the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution. Neither the political history, nor the mechanical history, nor the social history nor the economic history, but the imaginative history.

I say 'present', not describe or analyse, because the Imagination is a function of man whose traces are more delicate to handle than the facts and events and ideas of which history is usually constructed. This function I believe is found active in the areas of the arts, of poetry and of religion – but is not necessarily confined to them or present in all their manifestations. I prefer not to try to define its hmits at the moment but to leave the reader to agree or not with the evidence which I shall place before him. I present it by means of what I call Images.”

This was one of the lovelier dreams of Modernism. Jennings, even, takes an image from Apollinaire that is cognate to Benjamin’s idea of the angel of history flying backwards: In a radio broadcast, he “spoke of Apollinaire who said that the poet must stand with his back to the future because he was unable to see it: it was in the past that he would discover who he was and how he had come to be.”

One day someone – me – should dig around the roots of Benjamin’s image of the angel of history flying backwards. An essay on the lines of Carlo Ginzburg’s investigation of the roots of the image of atrocity at a distance, summed up in the story of the Chinese mandarin in Balzac. For these roots are not dead, oh son (or daughter) of man.

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