The Voice on the Other Side of the Line: Walter Benjamin, The Telephone, and the Schlemiel


My parents used to take my brother and I to New York City at least once a month. (Since both of my parents were born and raised there, and because they wanted to visit family and leave the Adirondacks for the city, this was an imperative.)  We used to go to museums a lot.  Although my parents preferred to go to MOMA or the MET, my brother and I liked the Museum of Natural History.  And if we ever went to the MET, we would spend a lot of time in the Egyptian exhibits.  There was something so intriguing about the way the exhibit was laid out.  The walls, the coffins, the animal worship, the hyeroglypics, were astonishing.  Being so intrigued with the mysteries of the past, I had little interest in Modern Art.  But my mother, a BFA, wouldn’t let that bother her.  More important than seeing art was doing art.  She would often paint, draw, and work clay with me.  To be sure, some of my most memorable childhood moments were when I was doing art with my mother.   She prompted me to taste, touch, hear, and feel things in nuanced ways that are still with me today.  But as I grew older and became a teenager, all of my artistic experiences took a backseat.

But this all changed when I left my hometown for university.  When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to better understand the artistic experiences I had as a child.  But instead of taking an interest in realism or classical art, I took an intense interest in Modern Art.  I found something reminiscent of my childhood experiences of art in some modern artists.  I can still remember the astonishment I had when I saw, for the first time, paintings by Cy Twombly, Paul Klee, Arshile Gorky, and Phillip Guston.  What struck me about their work was the fact that they would paint and draw “as if” they were children.  Around their work, I would feel like a child.  And when I went to art school in Manhattan, I spend a lot of time working in this manner.  I have journals full of drawings that are very childlike.  And, looking back at what I wrote, I can see that I was constantly fascinated with memories of childhood and dreams of childhood.  Certain moments, smells, sights, feelings, or gestures stuck out in my mind and I would explore them.  And in this, I felt like a schlemiel, a man-child who – in my case – lost touch with adulthood while he/she tapped into allusive memories, gestures or feelings from childhood.   In many ways, I felt that Twombly, Klee, Gorky, and Guston were all schlemiels – artistic schlemiels – they were, so to speak, caught up with voices on the other side of the line (voices that spoke to them from out of their childish relationships with things).

While my artwork drew a lot of inspiration from the work of the above-mentioned painters, the thinker whose approach to childhood caught my eye was none other than Walter Benjamin.  When I first read Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (Berliner Kinderheit um Nunzehnhundert), I was astonished by how he would mime the child and his/her experiences of things.

I recently decided to reread the book, and was hoping to find things I had never found before.  And, to my joy, I stumbled across several things that were very appealing to me. For now I’ll only mention one: a section entitled “Telephone.”

Benjamin’s description of his childhood relation to the telephone (a device of social communication) is mystical and may very well constitute what he, elsewhere, called a “profane illumination” or what Richard Wolin, in his book Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, calls “redemptive criticism.” According to Wolin, this criticism (which could also take the form of a memoir like Berlin Childhood) saves the moment from “the ever threatening forces of social amnesia to which humanity over the ages has become inured”(45).  Wolin says the goal of this activity is “remembrance.”

Benjamin starts off his meditation on the telephone with this very notion:

Whether because of the structure of the apparatus or because of the structure of memory, it is certain that the noises of the first telephone conversations echo differently in my ear from those of today. (48)

In other words, the call – as he remembers it – is different from what he hears today.   And what interests him most about those calls are the “noises” on the line: “They were nocturnal noises.  No muse announces them.”  Benjamin, alluding to mysticism, notes that these noises “precede every true birth.”

The schlemiel aspect of all this comes out in Benjamin’s description of his relationship to the phone.  To begin with, he calls the phone his “twin brother” and looks to it for hope.  The phone, unlike himself, “rises above the humiliations of its early years.”  It is “like a legendary hero once exposed to die in a mountain gorge.”  And unlike other technologies that are moved into the back room, the phone is prominent; it stays in the front.  Benjamin, in this scenario, is not the hero; and instead of standing in the front, he stands in the back.

But the phone is more than just a hero.  It is messianic: “Now, when everything depended on its call, the strident voice (of the phone) it had acquired in exile was grown softer.”  The ringing of the phone is a portent of things to come but this ringing is also an alarm of sorts that sets family members on edge and against each other.  It is an “alarm signal” that “menaced” his family and “the historical era that underwrote and enveloped the siesta”(49).

The most interesting observations of the phone come through his father’s specific relation to it.  He  noticed, on the one hand, the “threats and curses” uttered by his father at operators; and, on the other hand, he noticed his father’s “real orgies” which came when he “cranked the handle” or when doing this he totally forgot himself:

His hand, on these occasions, was a dervish overcome by frenzy.  My heart would pound.

In these moments, Benjamin is terrified by his father.  He imagines that his father will yell at someone after getting worked up by the phone: in other words, the phone has a redemptive function and a daemonic one, too.  To be sure, after describing his father’s relation to the phone, he says the phone, when it wrung, “served to multiply the terrors of the Berlin household.”

In response to all of this violence put forth by the phone and through the phone, Benjamin notes that he had managed to “master his senses with great effort.”  In this state, he musters the strength to attack the phone.  His description denotes his counter-violence to the phone’s ringing:

I tore off the two receivers, which were heavy as dumbbells, thrust my head between them, and was inexorably delivered over to the voice that now sounded.  There was noting to allay the violence with which it now pierced me. (50)

Since he says he was “inexorably delivered over to the voice that now sounded” – a voice that is violent and pierces him – one would be amiss not to notice how his moment resonates high in the religious frequency.

At this moment, he becomes “powerless.” His “consciousness of time” as well as his “firm resolve” and “duty” are “obliterated.”  Benjamin goes so far as to liken himself to a “medium” who obeys “a voice beyond the grave.”  But what was the content of the call?  It doesn’t matter.  For, at this moment of “profane illumination,” Benjamin, in affect, is showing us how, by way of the phone, he became a schlemiel.

He was so enthralled with his childhood experience of the phone that he forgot where he was and what he was doing vis-à-vis reality.  And his act of heroism, when he attacks the phone, discloses itself as a flop since, in the end, he becomes totally powerless to the voice at the other end.

What I love most about this passage, is that Benjamin is not simply engaging in “remembrance.”  He is also reliving the process he went through in relation to the phone and I would suggest that it evinces a pattern we see throughout his memoir (and in One Way Street) where Benjamin looks into how, in his childhood, his relationship with things often evinced some form of failure or disconnection.  And by disconnection, I mean disconnection from reality.  All of these comes out of an intimate experience of how things, such as the telephone, affect who we are and how we are.  He isn’t simply interested in analyzing this like a sociologist; rather, he is interested in how he experiences things.  He realizes that the only way he can experience these things is through an “immanent criticism” that is offered by way of the thing itself; here, the telephone.  But what we find, time and time again, is that in his relationship to things he often loses control of himself and his world.  He can’t stand up to the phone, but when he does, he becomes subject to the voice – a voice that comes from the dead (the inhuman); that is, from things.

I think Cy Twombly, Paul Klee, and the other artists I mentioned above were also fascinated with this childish relation to things because, in this relation, they found something more intimate than any discovery they had ever made.  However, in doing this, these artists become children and schlemiels.  And this requires a kind of passivity and receptivity that may make them all subject to the voice on the other side of line.


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