A Note on Smallness, Memory & Comedy in Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood” and Stuart Ross’s “Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew”


At the outset of Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin suggests that something out of his past was calling to him and that he had decided to surrender himself to it.  His memory has a narcotic affect.  But it is teaching him something.  Peter Szondi argues that, for Benjamin, the “search for time past is the disappearance of time as such.”  If that is so, the narcotic and educational affect of the past on Benjamin was a kind of exposure to what he, elsewhere, calls “now-time.”   Benjamin’s words suggest that this endeavor of venturing into the past, however, might be fraught with danger and even sickness:

Several times in my inner life, I had already experienced the process of inoculation as something salutary.  In this situation, too, I resolved to follow suit, and I deliberately called to mind those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood.    My assumption was that the feeling of longing would no more gain mastery over my spirt than a vaccine does over a healthy body.  I sought to limit its effect through insight into the irretrievability…of the past.  (37)

But as we read through his book of memory, we see that Benjamin, in remembering, is overtaken.  He becomes small.  He enters into what I have, elsewhere, called the “comedy of scale.”  In this becoming, the world becomes animated and all little things speak to the little person.  And in this advent, everything seems new and unique.  Each thing he sees – in his smallness – has a new story to tell.  The world around the little one is an open book with no beginning, middle, or end.  This is what draws Benjamin into his past.  A kind of yearning for smallness is evident in these lines:

The book lay on the table that was much too high. While reading, I could cover my ears.  Hadn’t I already listened to stories in silence like this? Not told by my father, of course.  But sometimes in winter, when I stood by the window in the warm little room, the snowstorm outside told me stories no less mutely.  What it told, to be sure, I could never quite grasp, for always something new and unremittingly dense was breaking through the familiar.  Hardly had a I allied myself, as intimately as possible, to one band of snowflakes, than I realized they had been obliged to yield me up to another which had suddenly entered their midst.  But now the moment had come to follow, in the flurry of letters, the stories that had eluded me at the window.  (59)

I have recently come across a writer who shares this sensibility.  His name is Stuart Ross.  The first book I came across is Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew.  Nearly every page is captivated with smallness.  But this smallness touches on – from the outset – a trauma.

The book starts with a chapter entitled “The Dream.”  In the opening scene, the narrator recalls a moment when his mother – who has lost many family members to the Holocaust and is, herself, a refuge of that world – fired a bullet at a Nazi who lives in Canada.  There is a plot of vengeance in this novel – to be sure – but the child’s world doesn’t dwell in it so much as around it.  The child dwells in small things.  Even the memory of the shooting is small, comical, as it were.  It is caught up in slow moments and in the poetry of detail:

To its surprise, the bullet sailed out of the gun my mother clutched unsteadily in both hands, and a moment later the big man’s yellow hard hat leapt from his thick head, into the air….We gazed up at the hard hat, then down at the man, then back up at the hard hat. From behind the plate-glass window of the hardware store, a stubby guy with a withered left arm and bushy black eyebrows gazed with us.  A pencil poked out from behind his ear. I wondered if he was the same guy with a pencil behind his ear from when I was a kid.

My mother slowly lowered her hands, chewing her bottom lip, as if she were thinking really hard.  Then she carefully placed the gun in the paper Dominion grocery bag by her feet, among the cartons of milk, the bananas, the celery, the cornflakes, the little boxes of powdered Jello-O, the packet of farfel, the length of Chicago 59 salami, and the kosher steaks wrapped in a leaking brown paper.  We had Worcestershire sauce in the fridge at home.  (2)

The dead man – like the narrator – seems to be dreaming:  “His eyes were gently shut, a trickle of black blood leaking neatly from his blue temple.  He lay motionless there, in front of the hardware store in Bathurst Manor Plaza, dreaming of a white, white world”(3).  These lines remind me of Paul Celan’s invocation of snow throughout his book Schneepart (Snowpart) in terms of a world of little things that speak a muted kind of language.  The child’s vision, his memory, is comical because the death is displaced by little things that he sees around him.  Smallness predominates and displaces all moral affect.  It slows everything down.  And as Ross’s narrator points out, it is the child’s proximity to the mother that offers a kind of shelter from the world even if she shoots someone.  Nothing seems real, even the death.  But it does seem new.     There is something at once comic and tragic about all this.  The narrator’s schlemiel character is based on this displacement into smallness.


…to be continued



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