Monday, September 10, 2007

Thinking, reading, acceding: For AKMA

Over the weekend I saw Everything is Illuminated. It's as if someone took Walter Benjamin's figure of the collector (from "Unpacking my library") and built a story around it, a narrative of erasure and re-collection. There's a moment in it when - this may contain spoilers - the last surviving native of Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian village wiped by Nazis from the face of the earth in 1942 - receives three visitors; Elijah Wood, playing the USian grandson of a villager; Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello playing his feckless tour guide; and Boris Leskin, playing Hutz's grandfather who founded the tour company, which "specializes" in offering tours of Ukraine to wealthy USian Jewish families. Leskin's character is hilariously blunt. He despises his Jewish clientele, is devoted to his insane dog and claims to be blind, though he continues to drive. He's a survivor who yet seems shell-shocked, moving in a world that is somehow shaped and rigged by a preceding moment in time that is completely unavailable to him.

The woman survivor also turns out to be a collector. Both she and Wood, for seemingly different reasons, are, like the figure of Benjamin's essay, cut off from the realm of experience. Since she began collecting, it seems, she has never traveled, never been visited, never had any mode of commercial or social intercourse. It is 2005 but she doesn't know that World War II ever ended.

During their brief encounter, the old man asks the woman her name. In reply, the woman pulls out a photograph of a man holding three books. She animatedly describes how this man, Baruch, checked more books out of the village library than anyone else. He'd sit before the library each day thinking about them. "He could not even read," she says, adding, "they said he was insane."

The story smites the old man. "Leave us," he commands his companions. A short while later a buried moment rises up within him, bearing truth that recalibrates his entire existence in a shock of recognition and recollection.

For some reason the scene strongly reminds me of a moment in The Prelude:

And once. . . 'twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood propp'd against a Wall; upon his Chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the Man and who he was.

My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seem'd
To me that in this Label was a type,
Or emblem, of the utmost that we know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And on the shape of the unmoving Man,
His fixed face, and sightless eyes, I look'd
As if admonish'd from another world.

I'm also reminded of AKMA's thinking about reading and interpretation. His approach derives from a larger historical imagination than most scholars, who assume actual reading began with their generation or not long before, can accede to. He sees the differences among readers of sacred texts not as necessarily destructive of the power of those texts. Rather, that power is manifest in the lives, the total lived world, of the readers. Even those who cannot read, but remember to think, to bear witness, not to some ideocrafted message, but to something our powers of intellect have possibly all but effaced.

Warm birthday greetings to the man and blogger upon reaching his first half century. May the next half be even better, and the third half simply divine.

& thanks to Jeneane for the heads up.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


9/11/2007 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks phil -

9/11/2007 11:00 AM  

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