Friday, December 19, 2008

At a Turtle's Pace

As I continue to dawdle through Walter Benjamin's essays, I am often struck at some details. In fact, as Benjamin reads, he writes. He reads for details, the obscure, buried detail the perspective from which brings new light upon the rest of the writing, or the world. To read this way, to see this way--which for Benjamin is the same, since he was one of the foremost proponents, if not the catalyst, for reading the world as a text--one must dawdle. Not necessarily with a great deal of concentration, although that is sometimes required, but more like someone walking, browsing without urgency. It is not skimming, for that suggests that one is in a hurry. Just as Benjamin read the world as a text, he strolls through texts. It is only appropriate that one of his footnotes best captures this attitude:

A pedestrian knew how to display his nonchalance provocatively on certain occasions. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flaneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had ahd their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularized the watchword "Down with dawdling!," carried the day. (Walter Benjamin, "One Some Motifs in Baudelaire," n. 6)

Benjamin is the literary flaneur, or the image of one in a world that no longer produced them. And it is the dawdling flaneur who best represents the art of reading, at a turtle's pace. It is the turtle who sets the pace of the world, in the ideal world that could not survive in the reality of industrialization, but only in an image, a displacement--the book.

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