Final paper assignment option 1: (1,000 words / 4-5 double-spaced pages) Benjamin and Proust’s autobiography as critical writing Benjamin’s literary and cultural criticism was profoundly influenced by his reading of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past / In Search of Lost Time (written 1909-22), which he translated into German, and about which he wrote in various of his essays, including “The Image of Proust” (1929). Proust’s work involved retrospective autobiography, concerned with making the past present. Proust was influenced by Bergson’s philosophical work Matter and Memory (1896-1910), which, through the category of the “image,” attempts to overcome the “dualism” between idealism and materialism, “soul” or “mind” and “body,” etc., in previous accounts of perception, presence, temporality, memory and consciousness, specifically resulting from, e.g., Kant’s logical-analytical distinction between “empirical” (present) and “transcendental” (enduring) categories of subjectivity and consciousness. Bergson attempted to overcome strict distinctions between perception and memory, present and past, in order to provide a more adequate and profound phenomenology of experience in time, and thus ground, on a revised basis, actualities of “metaphysical” categories of consciousness. Some of Benjamin’s earliest critical writings, such as “Experience” (1913) and “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy” (1918), address problems in the form of experience given by the past through tradition, which resulted, for Benjamin, in an inexorable destruction of “meaning” in experience: as he put it, maturity resulted in the essential lesson that “life is meaningless.” In “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” Benjamin struggles with the problematic legacy of Enlightenment rationalism’s attempt to free its self-understanding from mystifying metaphysical presuppositions and with Kant’s critical attempt to reestablish the possibility for metaphysical experience after the destruction of theological meaning. For Benjamin, a philosophy adequate to the demands of the present (of his own time) would need revised categories of experience and meaning for rational apprehension in consciousness. In “On Transience” (1915) and “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud analyzes “melancholia” (what would be called “depression” today) as an inability to mourn originating in denial and repression of feelings of ambivalence (hate, as well as love) towards a lost object of affection. Such denial is a trap for the melancholic for it involves a defensive “regression” to a state of “narcissistic identification” with the object, blocking authentic relation to another’s difference — including difference from one’s earlier self, before loss. In loss, such difference becomes too painful for the melancholic to bear, so, attempting to master his own threatening feelings, he retreats into an apparently emotionally simplified, childish state. Freud understands psychical processes as being structured by an unconscious system of thoughts and feelings in which categories of past and present have no meaning: images, feelings and thoughts have a certain character of timelessness for the unconscious psyche. However, for Freud, for one to move on after devastating loss, to proceed from and overcome the narcissistic regression of melancholia, to live authentically through the complex of one’s own feelings and attain a realistic sense of self, would mean facing denied and repressed feelings (of ambivalence) and experiencing and processing them properly in light of lived development and present realities. This means consciously apprehending the unconscious. Benjamin’s “A Berlin Chronicle” (1933) is written self-consciously in a Proustian retrospective manner, and it attempts to articulate a critical reconsideration of his own youthful intentions and development in light of formative childhood experience. Following Proust, Benjamin attempts to bring the past into powerful relation with the present through a “spatial” presentation of memory images. In a short paper (4-5 double-spaced pages, or ~1,000-words), provide a reading and interpretation of Benjamin’s “A Berlin Chronicle,” attempting to address (some of) the following questions and problems: — Why did Benjamin write “A Berlin Chronicle[/Childhood]?” What is the critical meaning of Benjamin’s account of childhood and youth? Why did Benjamin write “A Berlin Chronicle” in the manner he did? — What is Benjamin’s understanding of Proust’s (writing’s) — and his own — melancholic character? — What might be Benjamin’s reasons for presenting a critique of the culture and society of his own time in the form of retrospective-autobiographical writing, making the past present? — Why does Benjamin think that the re-appropriation of past experience, making the past present, is of critical importance for opening present and future possibilities? Why is Proust’s writing thus important?
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