THR Web Features   /   June 2, 2020

The Uniqueness of the Here and Now

There are instances in which time wasted undergoes a magical metamorphosis into art.

Cecile McWilliams

( Walter Benjamin and Patti Smith.)

All great art has a secret: patience. This patience is often a result of fevers and excused absences, red cheeks and hot foreheads. In other words: sickness. The solitude of sickness is not a waste of time but rather a compression of it, a bundle the size of a pill bottle. Only by unscrewing the top and examining the virus inside do we discover what effects patience and chemistry have had on creativity. There are instances in which time wasted undergoes a magical metamorphosis. The result—art—is on the market, new and improved, there for the world to consume. But again, patience is a must. And sickness demands it. 

Cue Walter Benjamin. A persistent sickness confined him to his mattress when he was a boy. In Berlin Childhood Around 1900, he gives us a window into the world of his bedroom infirmary. He governed worlds beneath a fortress of sheets—his fingers were the citizens of an imaginary colony, one replete with incipient ideologies and conditions unexplored. He was the artist, guiding the movement of his subjects as they informed him to do so, as they wanted to bloom. He was sick and he was finding genius.

Outside the dome of linen, but inside his bedroom, Benjamin’s hands cast shadows on walls. His movements mirrored his impulses, instincts which spawned dogs that barked back at him the prophecies of tomorrow, wolves that howled into a distant future. Transforming light and dark into ideas and forms, he unleashed the creatures of his most ambitious dreams. Shadow puppets embodied theories of history. Appendage playmates explored the intricacies of communism. The ironic cost of these intellectual breakthroughs was something he wore as a badge of honor: 173 hours of absence from school. 

What happened in that absence from the classroom? Where were his eyes if not presiding over pencils moving like graphite soldiers over a desk? They were free. Benjamin had an army of his own in his solitary confinement. An army of ideas that would march into future essays and books. Medicine and rest were his subsistence. Freedom of thought his escape. No chalkboard dictated his thoughts. While his peers swung on monkey bars, he had a playground of his own. It was isolated but it was limitless. Decades later, reminiscence transformed this juvenile freedom into ideas that echoed throughout the twentieth century.

Later, in 1946, in a South Jersey bedroom, Patti Smith, down with scarlet fever, was listening. She stared at the ceiling, the light above her seductive like the fever’s namesake. Her imagination held stories, much to the entertainment of an audience of siblings, that eventually expanded into a massive cult following. She followed her wandering mind into foreign places, made familiar by her efforts to understand. Her surroundings allotted her no other view besides the landscape of her thoughts. And that is when art became indispensable, incapable of replication. It was as if her stillness offered an ode to Benjamin, whose famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” praised the uniqueness of each “here and now.” Across time, two artists silently connected in a shared experience: feeling more or less like shit. And intellectually thriving.

When Smith’s only wooers were walls and windows, she told time to take a break. Because idleness was her only vice, she made it a virtue. She asked time to wait with her. Its revelation was the grip of fingertips around ballpoint pens, the whisper of cash inside the purse of an anonymous angel that paid for her bus fare to New York. It was the explosion of hours fizzing like a shaken soda can. Lonely daydreams became amplified lyrics. People have the power, they said. 

Her message continues buzzing in the ears of listeners young and old. Her iconic reputation was the result of hours in isolation. Benjamin similarly realized the value of time spent alone. Freedom of thought was his only guaranteed freedom. With it he transformed a mundane landscape—the view of his feet at the foot of his bed—into astounding ideas. They are so unique because they had to be, because he had no playmates to dictate his thoughts. Sickness, which stripped him of certain physical liberties and social pleasures, taught him true independence. The inevitable individuality that accompanied solitude made his work timeless. It became the exact object of his praise. 

Benjamin clung to freedom of thought when the viewfinder yielded to the movie screen. With his pen he defended his childhood conscience, the specialty of his seclusion, from the threats of modernization. Like teachers that gave lessons and left no time for questions, film frustrated Benjamin. The surrender of attentive power that the cinema demanded caused a stir in his morale, which was so dependently constructed upon the liberty that patience provided. His mind that analyzed dreams and dealt revelations inherited its magical abilities from hours spent in quilted reality. Seclusion made freedom of thought, our only guaranteed freedom, absolutely vital. When film, a public and prescribed experience, characterized by shock reactions and swift transition, cannonballed into popular culture, Benjamin’s ideologies sat waterlogged and quaking. He defended quiet. He defended solitude and the specialty of each passing moment in essays that still beat blockbusters. 

For contemplative philosopher and rock star alike, isolation was a drawing board. Benjamin was the architect, sketching floorplans that would govern the way his readers move through museums, vote. Smith silently traced her thoughts and waited for her moment to scribble it on living room walls. The appropriateness of this moment would depend on what felt right, what she knew would shake people up in the audience with her latest interpretation of “Gloria” and down on their couches with a copy of Just Kids in hand. From dancing to rock n’ roll roars to dissecting academic essays, traces of sickness and patience characterize the authenticity we worship.  

Sickness often subsides with time but the memory of it does not. It demands its reintroduction like a shy child newly infused with confidence. New art replaces the lost time and it is impossible to ignore. We hear it in Smith’s haunting bellow, we see it in her braids that need not the commandeering grasp of a hair tie. We read it in Benjamin’s brilliance, in his study of things that make us go whoa and think about why we think things. We meet the source of another’s predilections. 

The drawing board for predilections like these has been uncovered for our restless hands to explore. That drawing board is called corona, and it is a devil. It may be taking lives, but it is giving us time. Let’s do our part—stay home, wait—and use it.