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Entries in ellen copperfield (35)

Wednesday
Jan222014

In Which Walter Benjamin Made Childhood Look Easy

A Genius of Dwelling

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Walter Benjamin's father Emil was something of a dilettante. His major focus was the Berlin villa he purchased for his wife Pauline and their growing family. It was basically the house in The Royal Tenenbaums with nothing rotten or outdated; the culture it recalled had long since vanished from the earth.

At a very tender age Walter Benjamin was ensconced in a custom of indoor and outdoor living. If there was something to take lessons in - butterfly hunting or ice skating, for example  he joined with all the aplomb he could muster. Each room of his father's house held a different sort of emotion, and could be inhabited completely or discarded with the closing of a door.

1902Emil's favorite place to be was on the telephone  this way a part of himself could be elsewhere, and a part with his family at all times. The self Emil Benjamin sent out, angry and forceful, was often different from the one they got back. His moustache was ranked either excellent or nonpareil depending on the humidity or time of day.

In a new biography from Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Benjamin's younger days are given a reverent kind of attention as though they're depicting a young man either recovering from or developing a psychosis. In reality, Emil's disturbing utopia was all the more perplexing because it anticipated the complete destruction of the German residence, which perished during the war.


Walter's mother Pauline was thirteen years his father's junior. She called Walter "Mr. Clumsy" because he never lived up to her idea of decorum.

His brother and sister were both separated from Walter by age, Eiland reports, so that they each experienced life as an only child. When Walter was finally divested of his private tutors and send to class with other pupils, it may not surprise you to learn that he did not fit in whatsoever. He was sick so often that other arrangements had to be made; it was good to get those illnesses out in the open air.

In a country boarding school called Haubinda, Benjamin found a love of learning that separated him from all else  nothing was closer to him than that pedagogy. Upon his graduation from high school, his father gave him a trip as a gift. The family had already traveled around Europe at their leisure, this was Walter's first trip to Italy on his own, the first where he determined the direction and purpose: Como, Milan, Verona, Vicenza, Padua. Among the masters he never cowered.

This temporary elation passed, a miasma of longing mixed with a desire to survive persisted. At University Benjamin found himself again outside the times, and eventually he returned to the villa to live at home while he pursued his studies. He had one friend of any import, a painter/novelist named Philip, and he steered clear of everyone else.

University, Eiland and Jennings say, was Benjamin's first introduction to his Judaism. Really, it was only his first introduction to Zionism, because although the Benjamin family was entirely secular, the boy's upbringing was hardly divorced from some bare essentials of the European Jewish experience. He now fancied himself the quintessential Jew, and all of his friends were similarly disposed financially and ethnically.

Unsuccessful liasions with women would depress him, but their troubles never superseded his intellectual ones, and indeed possessed far simpler remedies.

His friend Charlotte Wolff wrote of the man he became:

He had not the male bearing of his generation. And there were disturbing features about him which did not fit with the rest of his personality. The rosy apple-cheeks of a child, the black curly hair and fine brow were appealing, but there was sometimes a cynical glint in his eyes. His thick, sensuous lips, badly hidden by a moustache, were also an unexpected feature, not fitting with the rest. His posture and gestures were 'uptight' and lacked spontaneity, except when he spoke of things he was involved in or of people he loved.

He held, always, a part of himself back from those closest to him. Even his first amorous relationships with women never mention his body or theirs, as if he were describing two minds touching at the brainstem. All of Walter's friends felt this dissonance in their relationships with him: from the time he left home, he was far closer to ideas than people.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the life of Jules Verne. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Rough Darlin'" - Fox and the Bird (mp3)

"When I Was Young" - Fox and the Bird (mp3)

The Best of Ellen Copperfield on This Recording

Dorothea Lange's Failed Marriage

Sex Life Of Marlon Brando

Lifetime of Threats and Insults

The Onset Of The Western Canon

Entitled To Madonna's Opinion

Barbra Streisand Grows Up In Flatbush

A Sneaking Suspicion of Literature

Anjelica Huston Falls Off The Horse

Prefer To Be Simone de Beauvoir

The Marriage of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra

Elongated Childhood of Jorge Luis Borges

Jokes At The Expense Of Tom Hanks

Which One Is The Gay?

Wednesday
Nov132013

In Which We Eliminate Our Fantasies From View


The Bullet

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Jules Verne was pleased he resembled his sister. "How I'd have loved to be a woman!" he famously crowed. The writer's bisexual proclivities consumed him. Sex with women had its many pleasures; sex with men was more of an incidental directive. Consumed with one fling or another, he left off the writing of the second and third volume of his history of human exploration to a ghostwriter.

By the age of 60 Verne was no less productive than ever, but the toll his behavior took on his wife Honorine was extensive. She wept at his controlling and domineering treatment of her. In fall of 1876, Verne complained to a friend that "life in Paris with my wife, such as you know it, is impossible." The worst thing he ever did was get married, from his point of view.

with his wife Honorine Morel

Verne still wrote every morning from five to eleven, like clockwork. He had lost whatever ingenuity he possessed by then, and replaced it with a commonplace commercialism. The ideas were there, some of them, but the connections stayed unbound.

Brothels had occupied his attention since he was a young man. Yet it only hinted at a very disturbed sexual pathology; once in a letter he expressed his jealousy of a wet nurse. Such topics were not even off-limits in correspondence with his mother. Frustration was either the symptom or the cause. Before Verne met his wife, he struggled to attract one, whining that, "The lover of a married woman saves on two servants and a maid."

Sexual symbolism constantly plagued his novels as well. Few other bad writers had been read so widely, and the public was about fed up with the spewing geysers and tumescent erections in a decidedly female Earth by this time. No one took him seriously as an artist, but his paint-by-numbers adventures continued to sell decently even after his editor and publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel died.

After visiting the Pope in Rome for over an hour, Verne was approached by his nephew Gaston in front of his Paris home. The boy shot at him, aiming for Verne's penis and hitting him in the ankle. Rumors circulated to the effect that the would-be assassin had been the author's biological son. Verne was buried with the bullet still lodged there in 1905.


After the attempted murder, morphine became the better part of Jules Verne's life. He decided to run for political office and won a position as a city councillor in his hometown of Amiens. His local views revolved largely around the importance of preservation; on a macro level he despised both socialism and capitalism for their absolutionist qualities.

His one trip to America revolved around a six-week stay in the New York metropolitan area. He and his companions had no English, or suitable translators. There was something about the wildness of the place that amazed him, but after that elation had dissipated he was left only with the loss that follows. "Members of English speaking races make good heroes," he recalled, "because of their coolness and go-ahead qualities." Provisionally he added, "Americans are undoubtedly the most practical, but they surely lack taste."

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the director Luis Buñuel. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

The Best of Ellen Copperfield on This Recording

Dorothea Lange's Failed Marriage

Sex Life Of Marlon Brando

Lifetime of Threats and Insults

The Onset Of The Western Canon

Entitled To Madonna's Opinion

Barbra Streisand Grows Up In Flatbush

A Sneaking Suspicion of Literature

Anjelica Huston Falls Off The Horse

Prefer To Be Simone de Beauvoir

The Marriage of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra

Elongated Childhood of Jorge Luis Borges

Jokes At The Expense Of Tom Hanks

Which One Is The Gay?

"Holy War" - The Moth & The Flame (mp3)

Thursday
Jun202013

In Which We Commence A Lifetime Of Threats And Insults

Water, The Dam

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

When it came time to collaborate on their first film, Luis Buñuel and Dali had a script within a week. "Our only rule was simple," wrote Buñuel. "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted."

So began "a lifetime of threats and insults." In the near term, however, Buñuel felt he could not ask his mother for any more money, so put his aspirations in the cinema on hold. To get the funding for his next project, Buñuel took a meeting with a potential backer, Charles de Noailles. At the de Noailles mansion, Buñuel heard Charles say, "Our proposal is that you make a twenty-minute film. You'll have complete freedom to do whatever you want. There is only one condition. We have an agreement with Stravinsky to write the music for it."

"Sorry," Buñuel replied, "but can you imagine me collaborating with someone who's always falling to his knees and beating his breast?"

swimming at the Chaplin home

Shortly thereafter Buñuel was hired by MGM. He loved America; the first thing he did in Los Angeles was buy a car, a gun and a camera. Every weekend he went to Charlie Chaplin's house to swim or play tennis. He did have a fantasy of going to the Polynesian islands, but thoughts of further travel in the world were far off. It made no difference where he was.

"One of the more unpleasant situations in life," writes Buñuel, several times but in this specific instance, saying, "is to be pursued by someone you don't like. It's happened to me more than once, and it's very uncomfortable; I've always preferred loving to being loved." Buñuel was expert at detecting when someone was falling for him, and according to his memoir My Last Sigh, written in his old age, this happened quite often.

Then there was also the sense that the love Buñuel was able to detect in his admirers wasn't quite as passionate as some others. He became captivated by all kinds of love, fixating on couples who committed suicide even when there was no familial obstacle to their union. It is like looking at a car accident and being envious you could not fly that fast.

Buñuel was a devout atheist. He felt that a hypothetical God wasn't very interested in a single human being: "Since I reject the idea of a divine watchmaker, then I must consent to live in a kind of shadowy confusion that leaves my moral freedom intact." For this reason and others, Picasso never appealed to Buñuel, who spoke of wanting to blow Guernica up.

When he was young he had been interested in intimacy with both boys and girls, but a chaste kind of knowing that pushed sex to the background as an impossibility. Once consummated, the object of Buñuel's affection no longer held the same sway. He learned this early.

In My Last Sigh he writes,

When we were young, love seemed powerful enough to transform our lives. Sexual desire went hand in hand with feelings of intimacy, of conquest, and of sharing, which raised us above mundane concerns and made us feel capable of great thing. Today, if I can believe what people say, love is like faith. It's acquired a certain tendency to disappear, at least in some circles. Many people seem to consider it a historical phenomenon, a kind of cultural illusion. It's studied and analyzed and, wherever possible, cured.

Buñuel was given the job of screening Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will in America. He was overwhelmed by the technical acumen he witnessed. When he showed it to Chaplin, Charlie fell off his chair laughing.

It seemed like everyone was in New York: his old friend Dali, Saint-Exupéry, Levi-Strauss, Leonora Carrington. Some he fell out with, others became closer in his new home. Dali was a phony and a fraud, yet Buñuel retained a certain sympathy for his lost friend. He did not write back to his old collaborator for the next 35 years. When Dali suggested a sequel to Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel cabled back a spanish proverb, Agua pasada no rueda molino, or, Once the water's gone over the dam, the mill won't run anymore.

This is the thing to say to someone who is lost to you.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about Dorothea Lange. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

The Best of Ellen Copperfield on This Recording

Dorothea Lange's Failed Marriage

Sex Life Of Marlon Brando

The Onset Of The Western Canon

Entitled To Madonna's Opinion

Barbra Streisand Grows Up In Flatbush

A Sneaking Suspicion of Literature

Anjelica Huston Falls Off The Horse

Prefer To Be Simone de Beauvoir

The Marriage of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra

Elongated Childhood of Jorge Luis Borges

Jokes At The Expense Of Tom Hanks

Which One Is The Gay?

"Once" - Tunng (mp3)

"The Village" - Tunng (mp3)

The fifth album from Tunng is entitled Turbines, and it was released on June 18th from Full Time Hobby.