Walter Benjamin and Ars Combinatoria

by Ralph Dumain

“The imagination reaches only that which is just beyond the grasp of human capability. No more.”

– Dambudzo Marechera, The Black Insider

Serendipity works in mysterious ways: a Google search on some subject brought me to this article in Spanish (via a blog that reproduced it):

La Enciclopedia Mágica de Walter Benjamin”, Por María Negroni, Para La Nacion - Nueva York, 2009

I came across this arresting sentence:

Los grandes poetas ejercen su ars combinatoria en un mundo que vendrá después de ellos.

. . . which in English reads:

The great poets exert their ars combinatoria in a world that will come after them.

The ars combinatoria has an historical meaning; juxtaposed to Walter Benjamin, I had to look up the reference, which presumably is Benjamin's One Way Street, specifically the section entitled “Manorially Furnished Ten-Room Apartment.” I made a web page out of the German original and the published English translation:

“Hochherrschaftlich Möblierte Zehnzimmerwohnung” /“Manorially Furnished Ten-Room Apartment”

The meaning and translation of this sentence should be carefully examined:

Denn ohne Ausnahme kombinieren die großen Dichter in einer Welt, die nach ihnen kommt, wie die Pariser Straßen von Baudelaires Gedichten erst nach neunzehnhundert und auch die Menschen Dostojewskis nicht früher da waren.

Edmund Jephcott translates this passage thus:

For without exception the great writers perform their combinations in a world that comes after them, just as the Paris streets of Baudelaire’s poems, as well as Dostoevsky’s characters, only existed after 1900.

The English translation is fairly clear except for the key highlighted phrase, which is not only unclear, but which suggests something different from “combine” in a passive sense, as in “integrated into” or “combined with”. I do not know the intended meaning. It also seems that ars combinatoria is not a concept to be found in the German original—unfortunately, since it is so suggestive. But the possible Spanish mistranslation gave me something to think about.

So I proceeded to read One Way Street. I followed up with Chapter 7, “Benjamin Reading the Rencontre of Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution by Margaret Cohen.

Learning about Benjamin’s complex relationship to surrealism, and particularly, his critique of surrealism, opened up a new angle of vision for me, with triangulations by which to comparatively coordinate Benjamin, surrealism, Georg Lukács, and Jorge Luis Borges, and, even if not implied in Benjamin's text, the ars combinatoria.

Borges & ars combinatoria

The first paragraph of Negroni already lays down the question of the arbitrariness of taxonomic approaches to reality, from the Encyclopédie to Borges, but also suggesting that no list is entirely unmotivated:

La tecno-arcadia del Capitán Nemo y la Enciclopedia de Diderot y D´Alembert se parecen. Ambas son microcosmos en los cuales el código alfabético, la taxonomía o la nomenclatura permiten reemplazar el caos de la historia con un simulacro de orden. Toda colección, podría decirse, está hecha de especímenes embalsamados, reliquias que han sido puestas a salvo del continente referencial de la enunciación y la recepción, en un interior terco y voluptuoso. De ahí su coherencia, tan secreta como férrea. No existen las listas arbitrarias, ni siquiera las de Borges. Cualquier lista es una forma ordenada del arte o del juego, una lealtad exclusiva a los tiempos privados del sujeto.

Note the reference to Borges; in English:

There are no arbitrary lists, even those of Borges.

Though no specific reference to Borges is given, my immediate association is with Borges' essay on John Wilkins:

'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins' (originally 'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins' ) by Jorge Luis Borges
    Translated by Lilia Graciela Vázquez
    Translated by Will Fitzgerald
    Spanish original & English translation

 . . . which (mock-)suggests the arbitrariness of universal taxonomy that lies at the basis of the philosophical languages of Wilkins' era, related to the ars combinatoria as expressed by Leibniz in that era. For more on Leibniz (also a proponent of the philosophical language project) and the history of the ars combinatoria, and on philosophical languages see:

Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

The two major historical incarnations of the ars combinatoria are represented by the medieval theologian Ramón Llull, who thought his ars magna could logically prove the tenets of the Catholic faith, and Leibniz, a pioneer of symbolic logic, who, while also engaged in theological proofs, was more broadly interested in metaphysical, scientific, logical, and mathematical concerns. Naturally, schemata such as those of Wilkins could be criticized on every level, from the taxonomic approach to the natural universe (and in relation to the limited scientific knowledge of the time) to the dimensions of moral, psychological, cultural, and social concepts, and of course, theological matters. But the cultural universe in toto is of such a peculiarly complexly textured nature, how could one render that in terms of such taxonomies, when even those areas in which conceptual or logical clarity is posited the project proved to be unworkable? And what creativity or novelty could ultimately be generated by universalizing the ars combinatoria as the master approach to analyzing the world, especially in consideration of the full cultural universe we inhabit?

This brings us to even more revealing work of Borges, which draws us into the cultural universe. See my analysis of Borges’ brilliant fiction of Pierre Menard:

On “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges

. . . and of:

On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions

Here we find literary examples which fictionally portray the creative sterility of a sensibility which is merely mechanically combinatorial. Borges is brilliant in his fictional illustrations. I also raise the question in my essay on Menard of the relation of Borges to surrealism, with its obsession—harking back to Lautréamont—with startling juxtapositions. See also the reference to René Magritte, who sought out deeper resonances in his juxtapositions.

As we return to Benjamin, we can pose the question, exploiting the perspectives cited, including that of Borges: what insight can we gain into the historicity of such combinations and juxtapositions of objects in the cultural universe, and what anticipations of the future?

Borges himself, in his dreamlike ironic literary-philosophical relationship to reality, could never approach the concerns of historical materialism that would touch Benjamin. Borges imaginatively lived in a permanent philosophical inversion of reality. I attempt to analyze his approach in my essay:

Borges Ironizing Idealism: I Dream Too Much

Now with this behind us, we can return to Benjamin's relation to surrealism.

Benjamin’s critique of surrealism

Cohen's book summarizes this in an inspiring way. Of interest is Benjamin's goal of attaining insight into the historical and social meaning of objects, of reconstructing their unarticulated stories, of building upon them conceptually. While the initiators of historical materialism might not have had someone like Benjamin in mind, he seeks in some fashion to contribute to the history of the artifacts of human civilization in this spirit. Surrealism, however, in its absolutization of the unconscious, of automatism, of startling juxtapositions, of obsessive foregrounding of collections of objects, freezes the phenomena it gathers in a state of immediacy, in which no historical or conceptual depth can be fathomed.

Benjamin was obsessed with collections and thus with the possible ways of grouping objects and teasing out their historical meaning and covert relationships. But one sees here how a merely combinatorial approach without some deeper approach informing the appropriation of the collocation of objects could in itself not generate novelty or creative insight in the realm of culture and society. Borges intimates the same without having any social or historical analysis to offer, mired in a perpetual state of idealistic metaphysical anxiety. We see in Benjamin a peculiar ars combinatoria on a level beyond what had been previously conceived.

Hence, Negroni, whether mistranslating, paraphrasing or supplying her own interpretation, said something really interesting:

The great poets exert their ars combinatoria in a world that will come after them.

“Manorially Furnished Ten-Room Apartment” purports to relate the overplushed interiors of 19th century bourgeois homes to the menace threatening from without, as perceptible in Poe as the inventor of the detective story. Benjamin suggests that Dostoevsky and Baudelaire already discerned the contours of a world that would succeed them. I do not understand Benjamin's meaning nor do I have the background sufficient to evaluate his assertions, but their very positing adds to the imaginative repertoire in which we could include the ars combinatoria, Alfred Jarry’s ’Pataphysics, surrealism, and Borges, and climb to a vantage point superior to them all.

Benjamin and Lukács

Lukács' well-known opposition to literary modernism is associated with the notion that the avant-garde reproduces the fragmentation and mystification of decaying bourgeois society and cannot reproduce an intelligible picture of the social totality in the way that the best of bourgeois European literature did. Lukács was a product of an earlier time and was imprisoned (metaphorically speaking and more) his entire life in Eastern Europe. His social landscape was far too limited to expand his perspective, which excludes both the necessarily fragmented gropings into the future and the bulk of imaginative literature. Suppose that the totality can now only be approached not through the medium of art but only by way of the retrospective analysis of art. We have a whole 20th century to analyze now, even as we in our current daily situation decline into ever more absurd fragmentation and decadence. Actually, the valid aspect of Lukács' criticism applies now more than it did when he was writing, for both our realism and our fantasy (which have collapsed into one another) saturates us with the phenomenal dimension of our experience while hiding its essence more subtly than ever. The coherence behind apparent incoherence (and vice versa) can be brought out by the sophisticated tools of analysis now at our disposal, but one would be hard put to do justice to it via realistic literature, as vitally important as that would continue to be. (actually, the best of science fiction, the work of Samuel R. Delany, for example, might do a better job, or did, since we are now living a debased form of science fiction, and imagination of anything beyond our current state has dried up.)

Benjamin was a navigator among the fragments, and sought to add to them the dimension that Lukács postulated for art. I am not in a position to judge his achievement, but Benjamin's juxtaposition to surrealism is at least instructive of the extent of what has to be synthesized. The 1920s were pivotal in the ongoing cultural revolutions of the 20th century. Intellectually, we have to live retrospectively, even as we drown in the immediacy of social decay, summing up everything we have learned from human history as we tread water before succumbing to exhaustion or summoning a new surge of strength. Hopefully, our capacity for pattern recognition will prove to be neither mechanical nor arbitrary.

First draft, 23 November 2011

“Hochherrschaftlich Möblierte Zehnzimmerwohnung” /
“Manorially Furnished Ten-Room Apartment”

Walter Benjamin on Monadology

“Unpacking my Library”: Walter Benjamin’s Magic Encyclopedia

Walter Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht's Lao Tzu

On “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges
by Ralph Dumain

On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions
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Definition of ’Pataphysics by Alfred Jarry

Gaston Bachelard on Surrationalism & a Revolution of Reason

For Rene Menil, Caribbean Surrealist-Philosopher
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Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy
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Inside 'The Black Insider', Or, War and Literature: The Writing of Dambudzo Marechera
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Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Hermann Hesse, Esperanto, Klera Utopio, Universala Lingvo / Intellectual Utopia, Universal Language

Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography

Black Music & the American Surrealists: A Bibliography

Exotica, Curiosa, Crankery, Hoaxes, Cultural & Intellectual Arcana: Selected Web Guide & Bibliography


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On the Concept of History
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Walter Benjamin Essay Collection

Chapter 7, “Benjamin Reading the Rencontre
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To Articulate the Past Historically”: Walter Benjamin on Literature and History
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