Walter Benjamin is the unlikely hero of the French writer and artist Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto.
In his monthly column Archive of Longing, Dustin Illingworth examines recently released books, with a focus on the small presses, the reissues, the esoteric, and the newly translated. Read an excerpt of the book discussed below, Uncertain Manifesto, here.
Is collage a fantasy of wholeness or a revolt against its possibility? Walter Benjamin, eclectic aesthete, commodity historian, theorist of shards, often wrote in fragmentary forms—most notably the Denkbild or “thought-image”—in order to forgo the possibility of finished work, which he considered the death mask of conception. The representative figure of modernity for Benjamin was the ragpicker, who “early in the morning, bad tempered and a tad tipsy, spears remnants of discourse and fragments of language with his stick and throws them, grumbling, into his cart.” A century on, this once-emergent persona has become commonplace. In 2019, we are all unwitting collagists of culture, collectors of bytes and blurbs, list makers, GIF gawkers, anxious improvisers, curators of ever smaller forms in whose composite we detect something like a self-portrait. Our literature reflects this recombinant impulse: see the rise of fragmentary fiction; the blocky, asterisk-divided essay; autofiction’s itemized subjectivity; the staccato cadence of the Extremely Online novel. It would seem a kind of paternity has been established: we are all of us the ragpicker’s children.
Walter Benjamin is the unlikely hero of the French writer and artist Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto, the first of whose eight volumes has recently been published by New York Review Books. A hybrid work of text and image, it reconstitutes intellectual history—Benjamin’s especially, but also Samuel Beckett’s and the Dutch painter Bram van Velde’s—into oblique memoir. “As a child, maybe ten years old, I dreamt of a book mixing words and pictures,” Pajak writes in the book’s preface, “snippets of adventure, random memories, maxims, ghosts, forgotten heroes, trees, the raging sea.” Set beneath large and starkly beautiful black-and-white drawings of fields, crowds, seascapes, corpses, palms, and shadowed alleys, Pajak’s Manifesto blends personal memory with history, biography, memoir, travel writing, and aphoristic fiction. The resultant narrative register—spectral, echoic, image rich, materially preoccupied—suggests the improbably varied source material of the self.
Uncertainty is an attractive literary quality, and “uncertain manifesto” is a reasonable description of the greatest novels: To the Lighthouse, say, or Moby-Dick. These books comprise extraordinary declarations—but of what exactly? We can and do discover significant themes—time, death, failure, family, love, revenge, art making, solitude—without ever feeling that we’ve laid the work bare. This is to be desired in art: that it outpace the terms of its own interpretation. Pajak is attuned to this ambiguity, an opaque quality that lends the drift of his pages a satisfying blur, like landscapes seen from a train. He begins by pointing us in a particular direction: “The evocation of erased History and of the war of time,” he writes, “such is the theme, expressed in disjointed fashion, of the Manifesto.” But his desire to reclaim the past extends well beyond the diagnostic motivations of the historian. There is something autobiographical in this search, as if his true parents were not, as we are told, a Polish infantryman and a student at the Sorbonne, but rather the theories, objects, paintings, novels, islands, and historical ephemera that so fascinate him. He seems to have sprung up, fully formed, from something old and inanimate, a changeling from the ruins.
Totality is the specter of Pajak’s scattered Manifesto, though one suspects he rejects completion not out of aversion but rather out of thwarted desire. His topics are unstable, often decaying rapidly, as if lingering too long on one might cause the truth of another to expire. After a brief biographical sketch, for instance, we leap directly into “In Praise of Misunderstanding,” a pictorial essay exploring Beckett and Van Velde’s brotherhood of austerity. What did a hopeless Irish writer see in this cracked Dutch mirror? A fellow exile, void walker, laconic stylist, stygian mystic. “I don’t like talking. I don’t like people talking to me. Painting is silence,” Van Velde once said, sounding like nothing so much as a gaunt Beckettian protagonist. (In a memorable turn of phrase, Beckett wrote that Van Velde’s paintings made “a very distinctive noise, that of a door slamming far away.”) Pajak traces the contours of their correspondence with quotes, anecdotes, art history, and an informal, sure-handed criticism. We discover that Beckett, poet of the unsaid and the unsayable, found his equal in Van Velde, who said, “I paint the impossibility of painting.” Pajak warms amid such paradox.
In “There Is Only Sky,” we are first introduced to Walter Benjamin, the owlish presence at the heart of the Manifesto: “Of medium height, corpulent, Benjamin was an ordinary man in a dark suit with chubby cheeks, hair cut en brosse and graying at the temples, and a black mustache that concealed the fleshy lips of a ‘sensitive Epicurean.’ ” He is a writer whose profundity is often uncomfortably close to inscrutability. Pajak invests the legendary abstraction with flesh and blood, strong legs (if weak lungs), even a libido. We find in these chapters a closeted sensualist, smoker of hashish, prodigious walker, and canny grifter, a mobile theorist now dissecting ennui’s effect on storytelling aboard the freighter Catania, now exploring the Ibizan countryside with Gauguin’s taciturn grandson. (More marvelous trivia: the local children nicknamed Benjamin “El Miserable.”) The Ibiza cathedral clock, which bore the inscription Ultima multis—“the last day for many”—would profoundly affect Benjamin. Even as catastrophe approached, he chose to stay in the Old World. “If the enemy is victorious, not even the dead will be safe,” he wrote. The Ibizan Benjamin lingers in the mind after finishing the Manifesto, tramping through carob and almond trees, scribbling in notebooks, the white glare of sunlight on spectacles. This is a fuller, rounder image of Benjamin than we are used to: an appetite marbled with intellect, and not the other way around.
When writing about himself, Pajak is far cagier, even elusive. “You have to speak on the basis of nothing, of the poorest of words,” he admits. “You have to light a fire with damp wood.” In “The Wind of Things,” he describes the pleasures of deserted mountain hotels: the bored waiters, the rich foods, the post-season chill. Suddenly we find ourselves underground where a beautiful blonde woman is pissing on a subway bench, and then, just as quickly, we’re near the sea, “the waves like gleaming fingers,” and Pajak comes close to revealing his true intentions: “I decide to get down seriously to work on my ‘manifesto,’ to write and draw as the mood takes me. And to read, or rather reread enormities, contemporary or not. Read, and live. And share a little of what I read, of what I live, and why, and how.” The scattered images, scenes, and unattributed quotes, the digressive strangeness, the bits of biography and fiction: they are the individual shards that once constituted a mirror, Pajak’s own.
“Will I come back someday as a yellow blade of grass on the endless prairie?” Pajak asks on the Manifesto’s final page. It is a fittingly isolate image: not the meadow or the field but the individual blade, already yellowing with time. The whole is scorned for the particular. This respect for the individual—be it person, artwork, or object—is inherent to his critique of modernity. In Benjamin’s immortal ragpicker, Pajak’s passion was anticipated: “But the rags, the refuse—I do not wish to inventory these, but allow them to come into their own in the only way possible: by making use of them.”
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California.