Walter Benjamin’s Techniques for Writers and Critics – Writing tips

Walter Benjamin


The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

  1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
  3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
  4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
  5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
  7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
  9. Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
  10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
  11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
  12. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

The Critic’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

  1. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
  2. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
  3. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
  4. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.
  5. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.
  6. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Holderlin and Kleist, Beethoven and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault.
  7. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.
  8. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.
  9. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studies the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.
  10. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.
  11. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the art©work is the shining sword in the battle of the minds.
  12. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.
  13. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

The  above was taken from One-Way Street under a section titled “Post No Bills” in his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, found in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings.

Thank you to and Maria Popova for the writing tips and inspiration and putting me on to this mine of wonderful ideas.

It has finally arrived. 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.

Compared to a normal-sized book
40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. Compared to a normal-sized book

The two month wait has finally come to an end, bringing joy and dread in equal measure. Joy that I have forty years of a comic strip to read, enjoy and savour and dread that I have to start writing, researching and coming up with interesting ideas. It’s a monster of a book, as can be seen when compared to a normal-sized paperback, and it’ s just as heavy, not something you can easily slip into your pocket. A wheelbarrow might come in handy. So now the research and writing can begin in earnest for a collection of critical essays on Doonesbury to be published by Manchester University Press (MUP) later on in the year.

Chronicling America since 1968 and undoubtedly the great American novel, Doonesbury is ideally situated to explore themes, such as democracy and economic influence. As the voice of the dwindling American left, Doonesbury has continually provided hard-hitting commentaries on pertinent issues, causing controversy on a number of occasions, however, one of the central issues, the article will argue, is the relation between democracy and the impact of economic consideration on democratic decision making. It is this relation that needs thoroughly thinking through in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of democracy, considering Derrida’s argument that we have never had democracy: democracy is always ‘to come’. The recent storyline concerning Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, the private equity firm, highlights the fundamental differences in intention, creating profit at the expense of others as opposed to the intention towards working for the benefit of the American public.

Negotiating Derrida’s understanding of the gift and differance, the article will trace the fundamental issues of economic consideration in relation to democratic reasoning. It will then consider Derrida’s understanding of absolute risk, where the only way to act ethically and responsibly is to put one’s self in jeopardy, with the difference being more than what Trudeau defines as ‘class warfare’; it is central to violence in general. Outlining Derrida’s engagement with Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of ethics and his delineating of tout autre est tout autre (every other is every (bit) other) will lead to an understanding of democracy as necessitating an opening to the other as absolutely other, a venture into absolute risk and potentially destroying oneself in order to do what is responsible and ethical. This idea is opposed to Bain Capital’s thirst for profit at the expense of jobs and the livelihood of thousands of Americans.

Tracing this theme throughout Doonesbury will allow a deeper exploration of the relation between profit and responsible decision-making to inform other themes at a fundamental level. Derrida’s messianic without messanism has been  argued by Fletcher and Bradley (2010) as, ‘the last – and perhaps even the best – means of keeping open a relation to an absolute, unforeseeable future in the face of every political, theological or economic attempt to foreclose upon that future.’ The role of private equity firms and considerations of monetary gain, it will be argued, limit future outcomes and prevent alternative methods of approach and it is only by questioning these themes that a responsible way forward may be forged.

So now it’s a matter of writing it.