Sunday, November 15, 2009

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

It's about ten years too late to comment on Larry McMurtry's recollection of the past from the present of old age called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. The title is not an off rhyme, but it is awkward and forced. It struck me as too clever when I first saw it at the time of its publication. I resisted reading it then, but I just now finished it. I'm glad I finally relented and read it. It was good.

Did I want I to read McMurtry on Benjamin after I read Hannah Arendt, Richard Wolin, Terry Eagleton, Martin Jay, and others who know much of Benjamin? Of course I did! Here's a Texan like myself--but one who has also participated in remaking the myth of Texas--speaking of a writer from the height of German Weimar culture. It was a height that ultimately ended in tragedy for Benjamin--as well as for 6 million other Jews--as the Nazi "final solution" was pursued to its unspeakable limit. I thought a Texan writer on this subject would perhaps place this horror in a context I could grasp. After all, he chose to write on the subject, and I thought perhaps McMurtry was wiser than me. He's not wiser (as if he ever claimed to be), but the book does not fail on account of this. In fact, it succeeds in indirectly showing Benjamin's genius by performing what the great critic spoke of in others and exhibited in his own works.

McMurtry doesn't deal with Benjamin as I thought he would. He doesn't deal with the weariness of a Benjamin at the end of what he saw as a dying culture and hoping for some sort of messianic renewal. He doesn't do this because he can't relate to it. In fact, McMurtry mainly references one essay "The Storyteller" from Illuminations, and says that much else of Benjamin, while containing gems, is not as good. I happen to agree with this assessment. I read Illuminations and Reflections, as well as all these other secondary writers, to help me understand why Benjamin was considered to be so great, but in the end I didn't get it. Reading Benjamin himself didn't quite live up to the reputation--let alone the external literary exegesis--of him.

Benjamin's writings are an exercise of extreme compaction that exhibit an idiosyncratic and internal reading of a German (and European) culture that was exemplified by Goethe (the true Weimar). All this is told from the perspective of an assimilated German Jew in the 1920s. This is something that is not easily translated to 21st century Texas. Texas is still new, in spite of the immense changes wrought from the immense hardship, struggle and violence of 150 years or so. The old ways of Texas are gone. They exist as myth in film, television and song. Nonetheless, Texas--with its space (land and sky) is still expanding to this day. It hasn't yet met it's point of implosion, even if it is unclear where it is presently heading. In this book McMurtry exhibits the same acute sensitivity to the subtlety of cultural change as did Benjamin. Furthermore, he demonstrates in action Benjamin's conviction of the importance of storytellers.

The virtue of McMurtry's book is that he gets the difference between Benjamin and his own (our current) situation. In spite of this, he is able to draw important insights which provide the basis for the reflections on his own personal past in north Texas--with his pioneer grandparents, his cowboy father, and his turn toward the love of reading and books. He knows that Texas is nothing like the old and late culture of which Benjamin writes, but Benjamin and Texas (at the Dairy Queen) provide for him a threshold for ruminations about the American West (of course). All this is very good as I've always liked McMurtry in this mode.

In this book--what amounts to an extended essay--McMurtry speaks of his love for books--reading, writing , and collecting them. Walter Benjamin has a piece called "Unpacking My Library" which would have been a perfect counterpoint for this book, and I'm sure McMurtry--even though he doesn't mention it--had it in the back of his mind throughout. McMurtry speaks of his herding, scouting, and fencing for books whether new, used, rare, obscure, or ready at hand. For him this activity was a passion that became something of second career. It was something which he would have done whether he made money or not (and as he says most who engage in this pursuit do not make money). He couldn't help himself as he traveled to bookstores across the country--let alone world.

He says he acquired a taste for reading at a young age when his uncle gave him some kids reader books. He claims that when he was young his reading was in tension with the demands of being a cowboy, but he easily sided with reading. However, later in life the reading came to be in tension with his occupation as a writer. He admits to a preference for reading, but he is luckily quite prolific (and his prolixity has given him the additional time to read). The writing has also provided the funds for him to collect, buy, research, and hunt for books. In collecting books it was rarities, oddities, specialties to be sure, but he speaks of buying Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury at the drugstore as a youth (mainly for the woman's cleavage on the cover), as well as buying Signet Classics and Modern Library editions too when he was a poor graduate student. In McMurtrty's telling, collecting and writing and reading are themselves all themes in tension in his life.

So McMurtry is a man with many sides, but to top it off he tells the harrowing story of his heart bypass surgery where afterwards he couldn't read or care for books for a couple of years. He says he is a new person. This became another tension in his life--the two persons before and after surgery.

I enjoyed these parts the most, but he also has much to say regarding his family, Texas, ranching, television, modern supermarkets, the fate of the family dinner, etc.

If I had more time I'd speak more profoundly on this book, but this will have to do for now.