In his introductory essay to Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 entitled “Hope in the Past,” Peter Szondi argues that, in his belief that the past held the secret of the future, Benjamin became a schlemiel of sorts. To illustrate, Szondi cites one of the passages in which Benjamin remembers his childhood experience of a party, when the rooms of his home were filled with “something…impalpable, slippery, and ready at any instant to strangle those around whom it played.” Commenting on this passage, Szondi says that Benjamin’s metaphors bring together “the present and the future, the premonitions of the child and the knowledge of the grown man.” As I have pointed out many times, often in relation to Walter Benjamin, a schlemiel is half-man/half-child; the schlemiel passes between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. What Szondi adds to my reflections on Benjamin is the claim that in going back to the past, in becoming a child, Benjamin was able to bring together the “present and the future.” In other words, by becoming a child – and recording these reflections – Benjamin was not simply trying to understand himself; rather, he was trying to relate to his future and, to be sure, a messianic future shared by all.
Szondi suggests that Benjamin is close to Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire on this note because, in his search for “time past,” he is looking for the “disappearance of time.” I would add, however, that this is not simply a search. Drawing on Gershom Scholem’s reading of the Apocalyptic and Utopian elements of “The Messianic Idea,” I would argue that Benjamin was looking for something that would “smash” history (as Scholem puts it) and expose him to something free of time. For Scholem, what is free of time is…anarchic freedom.
And what better figure for freedom is there than a Butterfly?
Butterflies wander freely around space. They move from thing to thing and aren’t touched by time or history. To be sure, Benjamin was without a doubt familiar with Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Phares” (“Beacons”). The poem begins by invoking a symbolist kind of garden. And in each stanza, Baudelaire evokes several great artists such as Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrant, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix:
Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,
Where the quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,
Where life’s affluence writhes in eddying abandon.
Like air in the air, or water on streams.
The stanza on Watteau invokes butterflies:
Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul
Flutters like a butterfly, lost in the brilliance
Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool,
Clear decors enclosing the changes in the dance.
Watteau, in this stanza, is associated with the carnival where “many a distinguished soul flutters like a butterfly, lost in brilliance.” Besides acrobats, jugglers, and side show performers, we often find the clown. And one of Watteau’s most famous series of paintings takes Commedia del Arte as their subject. One of the most famous of these, is his painting of Pierrot. What I find so interesting about this painting is that the subject – a man-child – is separated from the others. And his body, dress, and gaze are off. Baudelaire, no doubt, was aware of this work, and wrote about it in his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life.”
What I find of interest is the fact that – for Baudelaire – people become like butterflies around this comic figure, lose their sense of time, and wander through space. With this in mind, I read Walter Benjamin’s reflection on Butterflies, hoping to find what Szondi calls “omens of the future in the past” by way of becoming childlike (and, to some extent, like a clown).
Benjamin’s reflection on butterflies, in The Berlin Childhood around 1900, is entitled “Butterfly Hunt.” Benjamin starts off his reflection by remembering “the beginnings of his butterfly collection.” He goes on to provide a detailed description of some of these butterflies. Following this, Benjamin remembers his movements which, to be sure, merge the present and the past and provide an opening on to the future. And the main crux of these reflections points back to his own activity: to capture that which is fleeting from the past in the present so that it can be a sign for the future. The butterflies take on the figure of this ephemera and, in a way, mark something almost “pre” and “post” historic”:
They would flutter toward a blossom, hover over it. My butterfly net upraised, I stood waiting only for the spell that the flowers seemed to cast on the pair of wings to have finished its work, when all of a sudden the delicate body would glide off sideways with a gentle buffeting of the air, to cast its shadow – motionless as before – over another flower, which just as suddenly it would leave without touching. (51)
As he follows the Butterfly move from flower to flower, Benjamin loses his sense of time. He experiences freedom…a kind of experience that is like that of a dandy (moving from thing to thing and from space to space effortlessly). But, as this happens, it seems he has forgotten to capture it. But then he remembers his task to “capture” the butterfly and feels “as if” the Butterfly has made a “fool of me through its hesitations, vacillations, and delays.” In response, Benjamin becomes a hunter by virtue of losing his identity as a man. He becomes-a-butterfly in order to capture the butterfly. But this is not a simple act of hunting a butterfly; as Benjamin describes it, this act of becoming breaches the limits of the human:
Between us, now, the old law of the hunt took hold: the more I strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal – the more butterfly-like I became in my heart and soul – the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence. (51)
What follows this capture, more or less, is a recording of how Benjamin became a “man” who had subdued his prey and gained new knowledge: “His lust for blood had diminished and his confidence was grown all the greater”(52).
Instead of seeing this as the narrative of his movement toward maturity, I would like to suggest that Benjamin took the moment of following the butterfly and becoming the butterfly – while fearing that he may not come back to humanity – as the messianic moment in the text. In this moment, Benjamin frees himself of the human while, at the same time, reflecting on it. He has, in a sense, captured this moment of oscillation between the human and the non-human which, as Giorgio Agamben has argued in The Open (and elsewhere), has messianic resonance.
That said, how does this all connect to the fool, the butterfly, Watteau, and Baudelaire’s poem? I would like to suggest that Benjamin was aware of Baudelaire’s “butterfly’ and understood how it was likened to the people who were amused at the circus. These people get lost in what they say and move from thing to thing. Of the things that fascinate them most, we find the clown or man-child. What he does is similar to what Benjamin does, he reflects back to them their deepest desire which is a desire to be free of Time and history.
Although Scholem associated this messianic moment with smashing history, Benjamin (at least during one point of his reflections) believed that, in becoming-a-butterfly (by becoming a child), one could, for a brief moment, gracefully touch upon this messianic moment. However, as Benjamin notes, it also paved the way for his manhood. The risk of capturing the butterfly is that, as Benjamin notes, a “price” must be paid. For him, the price of knowledge and manhood is the experience of timelessness and the sense that, in becoming a messianic butterfly, one may not come back to humanity.
When we watch the fool or schlemiel lose himself (as Sholem Aleichem’s Motl does with nature, Singer’s Gimpel with trust, etc) do we also experience that moment which is suspended between childhood and adulthood as well as between the human and the inhuman? Is our “post-historical” hope (our future) locked up in this “pre-historic” past?