Friday, February 12, 2016

Benjamin’s Note-taking

I have written before on Benjamin’s view of card indexes. He himself preferred the “notebook method.” Even though he characterized his writing as "verzettelte Schreiberei,” that is, disjointed scribbling or scrappy paperwork, he preferred not to use scraps. He owned many small notebooks, and he developed a certain mythology around them. Thus he wrote about one notebook:
"I carry the blue book with me everywhere and speak of nothing else. And I am not the only one—other people too beam with pleasure when they see it. I have discovered that it has the same colours as a certain pretty Chinese porcelain: its blue glaze is in the leather, its white in the paper and its green in the stitching. Others compare it to shoes from Turkistan. I am sure there is nothing else of this kind as pretty in the whole of Paris, it is also quite modern and Parisian." (GB III, 273)
He also spoke of “homeless thoughts,” by which he seemed to mean thoughts that were not recorded in a notebook.

Benjamin always seems to have kept several notebooks at the same time. In them, he recorded diary entries, travel description, wrote down ideas, epigraphs, drafts, letters, a catalogue of interesting books, and literary compositions. He also kept a catalogue of all the books he ever read (in their entirety).

Susan Sontag comments in On Photography (75:) on Hannah Arendt’s "magisterial essay on Benjamin,” and reports that for Benjamin ’nothing was more characteristic … in the thirties than the little notebooks with black covers which he always carried with him and in which he tirelessly entered in the form of quotations what daily living and reading netted him in the way of 'pearls' and 'coral'. On occasion he read from them aloud, showed them around like items from a choice and precious collection."

Sontag also claims that Benjamin’s taste for quotation (and for the juxtaposition of incongruous passages is characteristic of his surrealism or his surrealist taste. Whether or not that is true, he certainly took note-taking seriously. Thesis 5 in “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses” reads “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”[1] The entries were indispensable to his method of literary assemblage (literarische Montage). They constitute collections, and “‘what is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility…”[2]

Thesis 4 is also interesting in this contest, for it claims that we should “avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.”[3] This extended to the notebooks and their paper. Thus we find in his correspondence that he really liked a "sizeable notebook with flexible parchment binding,” and that using it “has produced in [him] a shameful weakness for this extremely thin, transparent, yet excellent stationary, which I am unfortunately unable to find here" (Correspondence, p. 345).




1. Seven of his notebooks still seem to be extant.
2. It might be interesting to compare Benjamin’s use of notebooks to that of Adorno.
3. If this reminds of Roland Barthes' almost obsessive relation to his writing instruments, this is probably no accident.

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