Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC
A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hötel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose. When they came to the hostess’s desk just outside the bar, the young woman recited their family name and the time of the reservation. She looked at her wristwatch to show that they were exactly on time. The hostess smiled and then the young woman added, “A corner table, private but with a view of the dining room. I don’t want to wake her.”
My reach is going to far exceed my grasp (R>G) on this one. I kept encountering Easter eggs – you know, those little surprise asides that stand out if you’re in on the joke, and otherwise pass unnoticed. Considering the ones I found, I’m thinking there must be dozens more that I just wasn’t equipped to see. I’d love to know about them. Or I can just keep taking moocs on philosophy and literature and art and see what happens.
And yes, there will be spoilers. But it’s ok, it’s the sort of story that isn’t in the reading, but in the finding, and the connecting, and I haven’t exhausted those avenues.
The basic plot is a little strange, but not complicated. A couple with a baby carriage come in to an elegant restaurant for dinner; the waiter notices the carriage contains not a baby, but a doll; the husband appears to overhear him telling this to a coworker; the couple leaves, with the mother tearing the doll apart as they go, scattering its limbs in the restaurant. The restaurant crew comments.
This in itself raises some questions beyond, who brings a baby to an elegant restaurant? She’s fairly disappointed with how dinner goes – minor details keep annoying her – but there’s no real explanation for her storming out. At one point she’s rocking and almost-nursing the doll; then she’s tearing it apart. What happened? Is it possible they didn’t know it was a doll until the husband overheard the waiter’s remarks, he told the wife, and she was enraged at being fooled? Or at being found out?
However, all of this needs to be considered in the larger context. The story bears the name of a Walter Benjamin essay on art, a reference I probably would have missed had I not just completed the Design Theory mooc just mentioned in my previous post. Given that the doll is a mechanical reproduction of a baby, this can’t be a casual coincidence.
As I said, I’m reaching a bit beyond my grasp here (R>G#1), but as I understand it, Benjamin’s essay sees a difference between art, and the reproduction of art (and what is a baby if not a work of art, and what is a doll if not a reproduction of a baby), in that the aura of the original, the contact with the artist, is lost in the reproduction, reversing the concentration that contact with art brings into the distraction that immersion in reproductions bring:
Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves. Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.
~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
If that feels like a stretch, don’t forget the essay and the story share the title, and by the way, the story specifically mentions Benjamin through the thoughts of the waiter:
The waiter had recognized the professor, had a few months before attended one of his lectures on the theory and practice of translation, a field in which he was an eminent authority—the man who some people said was the next Walter Benjamin in that he frequently discussed literary translation not in terms of what it got right but, more importantly, what it got wrong: the misreading or misinterpretation that led, strangely, to greater fidelity to living art and the possibilities for interpretation that implies.
This talk of misinterpretation, of fidelity to living art, seems to me to be somehow relevant to the events of the plot, but I can’t pin it down.
Benjamin’s essay is very concerned with film as a medium. And by the way, there’s at least one film reference in the story: “The couple sat together in silence, picking over their second course. The waiter arrived with a bottle of Chablis, that green-eyed goddess, uncorked the bottle in front of them….” In Marathon Man, there’s a similar scene at Lutèce, with the line “The great Chablis of the world are almost always green-eyed” just before Dustin Hoffman’s brother, an undercover spy, reveals Elsa’s suspected Nazi past to Hoffman (whose character is, guess what, a historian). No, I didn’t have this off the top of my head, but the “green-eyed” reference was so confusing – was it a typo, should have been grey-eyed? – I did some googling (R>G#2) and found the line.
At the risk of wearing out this trope (or is it just obsessive pursuit?) let me connect Benjamin and film and Nazis a little more closely (R>G#3) via the last paragraph of his essay:
Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.
~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
As far as the aestheticizing of politics, calling Leni Riefenstahl (his essay was published in 1936, three years after her first propaganda film), the marches, the rallies, and oh god, Wallace couldn’t have predicted that I’d be reading this in a time when we have a reality-TV star as President, while half of America is reading the juicy political tell-all released at midnight the other night to a buying frenzy usually associated with Harry Potter or teenage vampire novels. As for communism politicizing art: isn’t all art inherently political, whether it strives to be or not?
Benjamin was, by the way, part of the Frankfurt School, philosophical descendents of Hegel and Kant, a bunch of early 20th Century Marxists (including My Favorite Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno) hanging around in Germany when Jewish Marxists could still hang around in Germany and breathe at the same time; he tried to escape in 1940, got as far as France, and killed himself when it became apparent he would not make it into Spain.
But wait, there’s more: throughout, the mother is several times referenced in ways that bring to mind the Homeric depiction of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom:
….it was her eyes that one was irresistibly drawn to with their finely reticulated gray irises and luminous, overlarge pupils….
These musings occupied the waiter while he waited to go back into the dining room, to wheel in the dessert cart, to offer the gray-eyed goddess what was in his power to offer her. The gray-eyed goddess, ‘the trim-coifed goddess—
That’s the clearest reference to Athena this side of the 8th century BCE, especially the phrasing of that last sentence, the double-descriptor so common in Homeric poetry intended for oral recitation. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was buddy to both Achilles and Odysseus in their respective epics. But what does Athena have to do with any of this?
Consider another excerpt from the story:
The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t…. For her, the important distinction was that the optioned got to live in the historical moment, and hence live real lives, while those not optioned were consigned to live at the end of history, like orphans stranded at the end of a dirt road. The hostess had remained in the second group far longer than she’d expected, and she was in the process of adjusting herself to that fact.
That also tweaked my antennae (R>G#4) due to the “Architectural Imagination” mooc
from last spring, which used some theory from Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. Let me paraphrase and conflate some notes from the mooc lectures by Prof. Hayes: In the symbolic period, WeltGeist (world spirit) is outside the object (typified by Architecture of mud, stone, wood) looking in, and the object is pointing to it; In the classical period (typified by Greek and Roman sculpture), the WeltGeist shows forth from within the object; In the romantic period (post-Roman, typified by music and art), the WeltGeist has almost left the object. At the end of the Romantic period, the WeltGeist escapes the physical, and moves into thought (philosophy, theology) and no longer needs Art. Which may be why nobody likes modern art or music. But as this is a historical process, it can only be observed when it’s over, when it’s too late.
And it just so happens, Hegel (with whom I wrestled mightily this past summer in yet another mooc, “The Great War and Modern Philosophy”) had some ideas about Athena, though he used her Roman name Minerva:
Philosophy always arrives too late. As the thought of the world, it only makes its appearance after actuality has finished its process of development and is over. …Only in the maturation of actuality does the ideal appear to confront the real. Then the ideal reconstructs this world for itself in the form of an intellectual realm, comprehending in its substance. When philosophy paints its grey on grey then the form of life has grown old, and this grey on grey is not capable of rejuvenating it, merely of understanding it. The owl of Minerva only begins its flight when the twilight falls.
~~ G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), “Preface”
Nothing is as it seems. The baby in the pram is actually a doll. The hostess is actually a screenwriter (this is Paris, not Hollywood, where everyone’s a screenwriter). The waiter’s a philosopher. The restaurant seems empty except for the couple. The most un-Athena-like character in history is framed as Athena. What’s going on? Is it some kind of deconstruction of reality, a jumbling of images?
The narration is what some writers call head-hopping – third person through various characters as the story progresses – so it seems there’s a disembodied narrator – the WeltGeist, Philosophy, Art freed from material form? – floating outside of it all. Maybe that’s a working theory (R>G#5): the narrator/WeltGeist follows the progression outlined by Hegel, moving from outside looking in (the initial entry into the restaurant), to inside looking out (in the mother’s head), to being freed (the doll-dismemberment) to ending with philosophy and thought via the hostess and waiter. That doesn’t quite track, but it’s the best I can do.
[Addendum 1/14/18: I’ve been thinking about this story for the past week, and I have a new working theory: The key is in how the waiter, representing Art as it matures into Philosophy and absorbs the partaker, and the hostess, representing the reproduced Art that distracts the partaker, react differently to the scenario they’ve just witnessed. He is “forever changed by his encounter”, though he isn’t sure exactly how, like Paul on the road to Damascus; she sees the event as a screenplay, to be reproduced as a movie.]
I sure wish some philosophy professor would do a mooc, a lecture, a podcast, a Medium article, whatever, on this story; if I could find so many Easter eggs, imagine what someone who actually knows what they’re talking about could do with it.