The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination.
My intent when I decided to triangulate my blog was to seek behind the quotes I had lovingly copied. I knew more about Walter Benjamin than the others, so I thought it would be easy to find the context of profane illuminations.
Of course dear reader that is not what happened. We are now , I think, four years on , and many inter-library loans, ad hoc visits to the National Library , clandestine google searches, seances, and invocations of flaneurism in the streets of my town, have not produced the body.
I don’t know where the quote comes from, I don’t know where i found it, and I don’t even know if it totally, utterly, is from Walter.
I suspect it is though. He wandered around 1930s continental Europe dropping aphorisms out of his pockets in a way which was both generous, and careless. And he spent a fair bit of time in Marseilles getting stoned. This is where I looked first.
Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly , Benjamin is not very interesting on drugs (in either sense). The writing in Hashish in Marseilles, is, like ‘Did you ever think how far away the sky is..’ or , how I spent an hour trying to change channels on the tv via the keypad on someones mobile phone. For example,’ under hashish we are enraptured prose beings in the highest power’.
While stoned, Benjamin , like many others has seen things in a different way. Unlike others , he has usefully realised that there isn’t much further to go in that direction.
Benjamin’s overturnings are attempts to recover the human endeavour that is reified in the form of the Thing . In this case – illumination seen as a transformatory viewing of the world, but not through the historic form of organised religion, so therefore , profane.
Profane is an antonym of sacred. It has also acquired the useful synonyms of unholy and irreverent. So Benjamin has set up an oxymoron. Possibly . Or something that is hard to think of- a kind of eternal dialectic. But, yet, not hard to feel – music , for example is an obvious possibility of profane illumination ( unless we accept its origin as sacred and everything following being a debasement of that. But to do so is also to accept that the religious experience is at the centre of being human, and all other experience is somehow lacking – which I,of course, don’t).
We can experience Things as illuminations – as storied, overdetermined artefacts of lost dreams and buried labour as Benjamin’s collections and catalogues are. But there are surely too many of them to deal with. Benjamin produced aphorisms , short essays, and never finished The Arcades Project. It got swept away in the river of things.
The context in which a profane illumination can occur, must also be in contrast to a sublime one. It must be unexpected, personal, possibly ( hopefully ) shared. The experience that led to my story The Faces is one for me. That happened thirty years ago now, and told me something about the world and who I was within it.
I began looking for profane illuminations in nature . There are some pictures of them on the blog. My idea vaguely was that confrontation with the overlooked, ephemeral and indifferent environment around us might supply a focus for reorientation. But I realise that they will not be illuminations to anyone else. They are actually about my experiences, and about the wish and struggle to share these.
The mythogeographer , Phil Smith, uses the phrase To See Whats Really There in his work . This comprises various disorientation or immersion techniques to reimagine the mundane . These can be profane illuminations.
Recently, psychogeographing, I’ve looked at the epitaph on a bench in the Royal Mile, artificial plants on cafe tables, the dark straight track down Lovers Lane, and felt changed. It has been possible to share these moments with others. Not necessarily in the ‘Look, look at that!’ moment, but in the sense of the Being There as part of the scene, like the guys on the bench.
Benjamin is loved for something affective in his writing, which seems to link the past and the future, via a provisional present which may be there , but we can’t quite see. He has this notion of the dialectical image, which at one level is contradictory , at another is phantasmagorical , yet somehow suggestive of an unstable and provisional arrangement which acts as a nexus for a number of conversation
Benjamin sees language as the natural expression of dialectical images*. His language – full of aphorism and oxymoron. I think they can in turn act as harbingers ( another favourite Benjamin word) of profane illuminations. And that is what we are about here.
* the new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world in which that dream which we name the past, refers to in truth (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p339)