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Recalling The Past: The Intimate Objects Of Childhood

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
May 28, 2012

Jeffrey Lewis is the author of Berlin Cantata.

Some authors have snob appeal.

Like many people, I long wanted to read, or at least be able to say that I had read, Walter Benjamin, widely acclaimed as one of the geniuses of 20th century literature. But I was daunted by the fact that his most celebrated work, The Arcades Project, is difficult, long and surrounded by dense clouds of academia, mystifying would-be readers in Europe and America.

I became un-daunted, and un-snobbed, when I discovered his Berlin Childhood around 1900.

It’s short — no more than 130 pages. Its prose is as direct as it is beautiful and precise; and it is about a subject so intimate and universal that I immediately felt welcomed into it.

In fact, I felt embraced by it, almost as if it were my own childhood. The book consists of 46 very short chapters, each organized around something — a sewing box, a new telephone in the house, a carousel, the otter in the zoo — to which in Benjamin’s childhood whole universes of emotions, associations, bits of lore, and a child’s understandings and misunderstand-ings, adhered.

In the mid-1930s, when he wrote the book, Benjamin was a man on the run from the Nazis, a man in exile, knowing he would probably never see Berlin again. He wrote, as he said, to inoculate himself against a debilitating homesickness.

Benjamin’s was a middle class, city childhood, and so finely is it observed that I found myself not only recalling events from my own upbringing, but inhabiting those memories, becoming for a few minutes a child again. Take the thimble from his mother’s sewing box. “Held up to the light,” he writes, “it glowed at the end of its shadowy hollow, where our index finger was at home. For we loved to seize the little diadem, which in secret could crown us.”

Just as his mother’s thimble turned Benjamin into a prince, I could immediately recall the power window buttons in my father’s car, with their chrome efficiency turning me into a mighty engineer, grandly commanding the windows to leap up and down. I learned from Benjamin how to remember my own childhood, and how to see that it as still a part of me. Benjamin, on the run for his life, took his past along with him. It was how he could triumph over nostalgia.

Berlin Childhood around 1900 is perhaps an even more important book today than when it was written. It’s possible now to live in a kind of exile from our childhoods. The ever-multiplying ubiquity of photographs and film tempts us more than ever to believe that the images on our screens and in our albums are full and accurate evocations of what we were.

I see a photo of myself when I was 9 and conclude that I always frowned and always wore a plaid shirt and there was nothing invisible about me. I forget to truly remember. I neglect it. I have this photograph instead.

And so both my past and my present are diminished. What a loss. But what a gain, to read Benjamin’s short book. You must read this.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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